Enfield in London is not a place where Hollywood has ever sought much inspiration. Cradle of Amy Winehouse, site of the world’s first ATM, home of the mighty Enfield Town FC it may be — but to an outsider, its endless semi-detached housing and end-of-history retail outlets would appear to harbour few surprises.
The Enfield-born travel writer Norman Lewis once cited this blankness as a sort of anti-inspiration: “It filled me with a desire to seek out pastures new as soon as possible, to make for somewhere else that was as else as it could be.”
Frances O’Connor, Madison Wolfe and Lauren Esposito in The Conjuring 2. AP
“Enfield,” he realised when the first cinema arrived in the town, “was nothing.”
But 40 years ago, there was the Enfield Case, one of Britain’s most notorious paranormal incidents, to remind us that sometimes, something does come from nothing.
It involved the Hodgson family between 1977 and 1978. According to reports, furniture flew across rooms. Children levitated. Demonic voices emanated from 11-year-old Janet Hodgson — the paranormal investigator, Maurice Grosse, collected 180 hours of recordings over a year.
Vera Farmiga, O’Connor, Simon McBurney and Patrick Wilson in The Conjuring 2. AP
“The makers of several box-office hits acknowledge a debt to my case in Enfield,” he boasted to the BBC many years later.
Last year, Sky Living produced The Enfield Haunting, a drably creepy drama on the case, with Timothy Spall as Grosse. And now the never-quite-explained goings on are the subject of The Conjuring 2: The Enfield Case — a big-budget creepfest that director James Wan hopes will “restore respect to studio horror”.
The first Conjuring film followed paranormal investigators Ed and Lorraine Warren (Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga) as they exorcised a haunted doll named Annabelle in Harrisville, Rhode Island. The Warrens were a real couple — Ed has passed to another realm, but Lorraine, now in her 90s, found the film to be pretty accurate.
The Enfield case began in August 1977. Single mother Peggy Hodgson lived in a cramped council house on Green Street in Ponders End — the poorest part of the borough — with her four children: Margaret (then 13), Janet (11), Johnny (10) and Billy (7). Towards the end of the summer holidays, Janet and Johnny — who shared a room — complained to their mother that they felt scared; there was an unnameable presence in the room. Peggy told them off for messing about. But the next night, Janet’s bed began to shake. And a chest of drawers slid across the room. And then Peggy saw it, too.
“She was dumbfounded, really,” the adult Janet recalled for writer Will Storr in 2015. “She pushed it back and it started to move again. She tried to push it back again and it wouldn’t move. So she said: ‘Right, we’ll go downstairs.’ We was very nervy. There was a funny atmosphere in the house. And then the knocking started.” (Storr wrote about the case in his book, Will Storr Versus the Supernatural, and says it’s the only one that still haunts him: “I can only think, ‘Oh yes, Enfield. That was weird.’”).
Janet and Johnny complained to their mother that they felt scared; there was an unnameable presence in the room The precise order of events is disputed, but Storr’s account suggests Peggy then called the police. WPC Carolyn Heeps arrived and claims to have seen a chair move. But she told the family there wasn’t much she could do. (Had she not seen The Exorcist?) Meanwhile, a neighbour, Vic Nottingham, did what any good neighbour would do and called the tabloids.
Daily Mirror reporter Douglas Bence was playing dominos with the night news editor, Tom Merrin.
“Vic Nottingham rang three or four times and Tom fobbed him off,” Bence recalls. “But eventually I said: ‘Look, we’ve nothing to do. Let’s go and look.’” He drove to Enfield with photographer Graham Norris.
“First impressions are always important as a reporter,” Bence says. “My first feeling when I went into that house was to feel desperately sorry for this family. It was a very poor household: single mother, four children, youngest boy with learning difficulties, signs of deprivation.”
The two girls were upset and politely explained what had happened over tea. But Bence and Norris found the accounts a little vague to hang a story on, so they said their goodbyes and headed out.
Just as they were leaving, Nottingham ran to the car and told them to come back — it was happening again. “We went back inside. The girls were screaming, the boys were screaming, it was absolutely chaos. This was a small terraced house, so the space was cramped. There were nine people in the room, the family, the neighbours, and us. You couldn’t put your hand on your heart and say you saw anything. But there were objects flying. Graham was hit with a Lego brick. I think he’s still got the scar to prove it.”
The story became a sensation, drawing in experts (and sceptics) from around the world. Most of the main players have now passed away, including Peggy Hodgson, Gross and neighbour Nottingham. Janet and Margaret, now in their 50s, admit to hoaxing some of the happenings — including the demonic voices.
There’s a BBC Scotland interview in which the two girls are asked: “How does it feel to be haunted by a poltergeist?” Janet replies: “It’s not haunting,” and Margaret interrupts: “Shut up.” But they still maintain that they only made up a small number of the happenings.
And, arguably, the most credible witnesses, Bence and Norris, stand by their accounts. “News reporters are a pretty hard, cynical bunch in general — and I had a reputation of being a sceptic,” says Bence. “And Graham is a man of huge integrity.”
He maintains it was impossible for the girls to have faked it in such a crowded room. “I do believe that there are forces and energies on the planet that aren’t explained by science,” he says. “I don’t believe in ghosts, if that’s what you mean. And, of course, the human brain has enormous power to invent things.”
Surely the screaming would have served as a distraction? “There was not motive for them to do that. They didn’t make any money out of this. They weren’t that kind of family. And the effect on them was marked.”
As for the Warrens, they really did come from the US to Enfield in 1978, a little after the case had died down. (“I was never involved in that — they banged on the door a year later and got whatever they wanted,” says Bence, dismissively). They were true believers. “Now, you couldn’t record the dangerous, threatening atmosphere inside that little house,” the late Ed Warren recounted. “But you could film the levitations, teleportations,and dematerialisations of people and objects that were happening there — not to mention the many hundreds of hours of tape recordings made of these spirit voices speaking out loud in the rooms.”
In Wan’s film, the Warrens arrive to save the poor unfortunate English people from their demon. At one point, Ed even does an Elvis impression to cheer them up. Enfield has a Hollywood moment at last.
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The Conjuring 2 releases in the UAE on July 21.