More than 200 hours of audio tapes provide the best “evidence” for the Enfield poltergeist there is.
Screams and bangs; interviews with those who said they had just experienced the supernatural; the voice of a 72-year-old man purportedly coming out of an 11-year-old girl called Janet.
They form the basis of a four-part docuseries exploring a phenomenon that gripped the north London suburb of Enfield – and the rest of the country – in the 1970s.
Not that director Jerry Rothwell is setting out to prove or disprove any theories with The Enfield Poltergeist. He wants to keep audiences in the space between knowing and not knowing, he told Sky News.
“It’s about how do we know what’s real and what might be beyond our perceptions, beyond our senses?”
Set in a reconstruction of the semi-detached council house where the Hodgson family was seemingly plagued by the paranormal for 18 months, the series weaves together audio recordings with contemporary interviews and photos from the time.
Paranormal investigator Maurice Grosse from the Society for Psychical Research was sent to investigate, spending months at the family home between 1977 and 1979. The audio he recorded there is central to the series. As well as interviewing people, he would leave the tape running for long periods.
“What you get out is a sense of the context of family life that’s going on. Sometimes you’ll hear a noise, a scream, a bang or a rap and people’s response to it,” Rothwell said.
But the origin of those noises is “incredibly ambiguous”.
“I don’t think there’s many incidents where we see the paranormal cause of something, what we see is the effects of this on people.
“If we see a kettle fall over, we catch it in the last inches of its flight rather than see how it started – which I think is consistent with people’s experience of the paranormal.”
Witnessing the unexplainable
Former Daily Mirror photographer Graham Morris was one of the first people at the Enfield home after the Hodgsons’ neighbours called the newspaper about the strange events.
“Up to 18 months I spent on and off in that house and saw so, so much happen, from the first night being hit by that Lego brick,” he told Sky News.
He said as soon as 11-year-old Janet entered the house, loose objects such as marbles and Lego pieces started to “whiz around the room” – with one of them hitting him above the eye and leaving a lump that lasted days.
From his vantage point through the camera lens, he could see nobody had thrown it, he said.
It was “unexplainable” he said – but he knew it was “true”.
“So, so much happened. It would have been impossible for the girls or any member of the family to have done it. It’s just too much. It was constant, it was relentless.”
One of Mr Morris’s photos was used by the paranormal investigators as evidence of the supernatural; they said it showed Janet levitating.
The image of Janet “flying across the room” was taken in the dark, with Mr Morris operating the camera remotely from downstairs, primed to press the button at any noise.
“They [the paranormal investigators] are the experts. If they want to say she’s levitating, fine.
“I was there as a photographer. I’m not there to say what’s happening – I’ve got my own theories – but as a pure layman, I just left it to the experts.”
So as one of the few witnesses still alive, what is Mr Morris’ theory?
“I don’t believe in ghosts, I don’t believe that’s what it was.
“I believe that there was something that as yet we don’t know about, some sort of force that was centered on Janet.”
Janet was trying to relate to her family, who “for various reasons, weren’t that communicative”, he said.
“She must have found it so, so frustrating that for some reason this energy is being let off and things are happening – kinetic energy, so things are moving.”
Interviewing the Hodgson sisters
In the new Apple TV documentary, merging recreation with reality went as far as the set, which featured items from the Hodgson family home including pots and pans, a stack of Jackie magazines – and even some Lego.
They were provided by the Hodgson sisters, Janet and Margaret, who were 11 and 13 when the strange happenings started.
Both are interviewed in the series. Rothwell said he wanted to put them back at the heart of the story.
“For me, it is primarily their story and it was absolutely crucial to involve them in that because I think otherwise… you are making them public property without much control.
“These events at the time were very traumatic and have in many ways shaped the direction of their lives.
“Firstly, because of the events themselves, but also because of people’s fascination with those events and the ways in which that fascination, you know, fixes who they are.”
Marrying past and present
Actors in the series also lip sync the recordings from the audio tapes – a skill that was easier for the younger TikTok generation to master than the older cast members, Rothwell said.
“You’re taking away one of the tools that an actor has in their armoury, which is how they deliver a line.”
A lot of the actors said the key was “finding the way the person breathed – and as soon as you got that, you could lip sync”.
The tapes also became something of a director in their own right, Rothwell said.
“The more we listened to the tapes, the more you’d realise about what it was telling you about things that were going on in the room.
“We’d be shooting a scene and we suddenly realised there’s no way that person can be in that position, they have to be over there.”
The Enfield poltergeist has sometimes taken on something of a life of its own. It was front-page news in the 1970s – not always portrayed in ways the Hodgson family agreed with – and has spawned multiple documentaries as well as inspiring The Conjuring 2.
What is sometimes forgotten in retellings – and what Rothwell wanted to get back to – is that this is a real family, and their story.
“It was important to honour people’s experience,” he said. “You know, people are absolutely saying they have had these experiences, they’ve seen this, they’ve heard this – and I wasn’t there, so who am I to argue with it?
“This is essentially a working-class family with few resources who are beset by middle-class ghost hunters or physicists or academics, and whose house sort of came out of their control.”
The Enfield Poltergeist is available on Apple TV+ from 27 October.