Conjuring Up the Warrens
In 2013, Hollywood came abuzz with The Conjuring, a movie telling the supposedly-true story of a poltergeist the terrorized a Rhode Island family in the early 1970s. In 2016, its sequel followed: The Conjuring 2, about another alleged poltergeist case, this one a very famous case from England called the Enfield Poltergeist. The movies were tied together by the main characters, the true-life couple Ed and Lorraine Warren, who made their career as authors writing about the many hauntings they claim to have investigated, referring to themselves as The New England Society For Psychic Research. But audiences may love to learn that even more terrifying than the movies was the gulf between the Hollywood version of what happened and the reality of this enigmatic couple, who, as it turns out, are probably the most fictional part of the series.
It happened over a period of two years from 1977 to 1979 in Enfield, a borough in north London. Peggy Harper was the divorced mother of the four Hodgson children aged 7 to 13. Janet Hodgson, 11, was the center of the events, and her sister Margaret, 13, was involved in some as well. Janet's reports of moving furniture, loud knocks, and thrown objects prompted Ms. Harper to call the police. They advised her to tell the media, and when local newspapers printed an account, she was contacted by the Society for Psychical Research, or SPR.
Based in London, the SPR was a century-old association of believers and investigators in the paranormal. SPR investigators spent two years with the family, documenting the events. The principals were Guy Playfair, an author and longtime hardcore believer in the supernatural, and Maurice Grosse, who had become interested in the SPR following the death of his teenage daughter in a road accident only one year earlier. Many other SPR investigators also spent time at the house, but most of them came away unimpressed, as it seemed fairly obvious that Janet was simply throwing small objects or knocking on things when nobody was looking. SPR investigators even found a magazine article that had been torn out and kept, about some claimed poltergeist disruptions centered around a boy named Matthew Manning. Manning's disturbances had started with a disappearing teapot, and Janet's did too.
But Playfair and Grosse were never dissuaded, even while acknowledging that Janet was undoubtedly responsible for at least some of the disturbances. Once, when Janet and her mother confessed that Janet was responsible for everything to a reporter, Playfair and Grosse actually persuaded her to retract it.
Janet reported being violently thrown from her bed. Playfair and Grosse set up cameras and took pictures, widely available on the Internet, of Janet simply jumping on and from her bed. Efforts to ascribe a paranormal explanation are almost embarrassing.
Raspy words were spoken by an unseen entity they called The Voice. Janet explained that The Voice would only speak when alone in a room with her or Margaret, and even then only if the door was closed. Despite this evident giveaway, and despite Playfair and Grosse catching Janet's lips "barely moving" on camera, they maintained their belief.
Objects were found in the wrong room or in unusual places. Playfair and Grosse considered these moves to have been impossible, but skeptical authors examining their reports consistently found no reason that Janet or Margaret could not have moved these things themselves in advance.
In summary, the true Enfield Poltergeist case was a sad collection of children's pranks, and not even elaborate ones. The biggest mystery is why Playfair and Grosse seemed almost insistent upon being credulously duped. But a closer look reveals a likely answer to this question.
There's one very troubling aspect to this case that is seldom mentioned. Three years before the disturbances began, Peggy Harper divorced her husband and retained custody of their four children. It was reported that the situation between the children and the father's new partner was a bad one. I brought this case up to a family psychologist, and here is what she said she'd expect to see:
Then I revealed to her the specifics of the case: the throwing things and creating the poltergeist situation, and most importantly, Janet's confirming Playfair and Grosse's belief in ghosts, in exchange for the positive attention she received from them.
Sounds like she hit the nail pretty squarely on the head. Most of the other SPR investigators were critical of Grosse's relationship with Janet. Grosse's own daughter who had died had been named Janet too, and there were other things they had in common, and he was intensely interested in the ability of the dead to communicate from beyond the grave. The reason Playfair and Grosse spent two full years with the family was largely driven by Grosse's desire to reconnect with his daughter, which meshed perfectly with Janet's need for attention from a parental figure. It was a classical co-dependency.
I am going to talk more about the case, but it's important to remember that at its core, this is not a story of paranormal events so incredible we can hardly believe them; it's a story of a teenager who needed love and attention, and found a desperate way to obtain them. Keep young Janet in your thoughts as we talk about the rest of what happened.
Ed and Lorraine Warren were, by that time, known by reputation to most psychic investigators. One day in 1978, Grosse received a letter from Lorraine, encouraging them to consider that the Enfield case was one of demonic possession, and offering to help. On June 6, the Warrens suddenly appeared at the house, uninvited and unannounced. They interviewed the family while on the telephone to the United States, claiming that it was a live broadcast. Lorraine held a sort of seance. Ed Warren tried to persuade Playfair that money could be made from this case by writing books and selling movie rights; and then the Warrens left.
A lot of authors, both skeptics and paranormalists, have written about their experiences with the Warrens, and their reports are all similar. Most were generally positive or neutral about Lorraine, finding her to be quiet and sincere. Ed was another matter. Virtually everyone who met him speaks of a dislikable thug. He's described as blustering, aggressive, and prone to threats of violence at the drop of a hat. Ed was an Ernest Borgnine type, a rough blue collar former Navy man. Far from his portrayal in The Conjuring films, Ed never spoke of helping anyone, but only of ways to flip this particular ghost story into a quick profit. The Warrens' visit to Enfield was vintage Ed: they sailed in uninvited, crashed the party, spent a very short time, then went on their way to conceive of books and ways to make money. They did exactly the same thing with The Amityville Horror and other famous ghost stories that became books or movies. While Lorraine seems to have genuinely considered herself a medium, Ed portrayed himself as a demonologist, an expert on all things pertaining to demons. But like other aspects of his personality, he was more about appearances than substance. Listen to this clip of Blake Smith on the MonsterTalk podcast; this is Ed Warren answering a question about a book in the Warrens' "Occult Museum" in their home's basement:
The Warrens did return to the house one more time, for a three day visit in August 1979 after Playfair and Grosse had finally finished their investigation. The Warrens spent the time collecting their own tape recordings of The Voice and taking photographs of a number of objects that had "mysteriously" moved. Media in hand, they left again, this time for good.
Fast forward to the present day. The Conjuring 2 was released, bizarrely portraying the Warrens as the main characters and lead investigators, eager to help this family plagued by horrifying apparitions and events that had nothing to do with the real case. Playfair was omitted completely, and Grosse was depicted only in a secondary backup role, as a well-meaning but useless amateur.
It's no surprise that filmmakers took wild liberties with a story to make a more exciting film, and it's a bit exasperating that the grubbing Warrens were depicted as such virtuous and dedicated professionals. But it's truly sad that the entire case was, at its core, an exploitation of traumatized children who were reaching out for help in the only way they knew how. Playfair and Grosse were too obsessed with their preferred ghost explanation to see it; the Warrens certainly couldn't have cared less; and the filmmakers chose a horror genre. There are real humans at the core of so many stories like this one, and missed opportunities to learn and help and do some real good. If you know a child in a similar situation who seems to want your attention, remember the Enfield Poltergeist and think up a better way to reinforce that child's importance.
Janet and her siblings eventually all did grow up healthy and happy. She still sticks to her story but, understandably, avoids talking about it.
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