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Sunday 24 July 2016

The Enfield Haunting

First shown on subscription TV last year, the mini-series The Enfield Haunting was repeated on free TV a few weeks ago. Unfortunately it always seemed to be scheduled at awkward times, so I got fed up waiting and splurged £6.99 on the DVD. I’m really glad I did – it’s by far the best fortean-themed “based on real-life events” dramatization I’ve seen to date.

The usual problem with this genre is that the events in question are either 100% anecdotal or else utterly banal. That’s certainly not true here, where the case – more commonly referred to as “the Enfield poltergeist” – was exhaustively documented by means of photographs, audio recordings and multiple eyewitness testimony. Taking place in a north London council house in 1977-78, it was essentially a working-class version of The Exorcist, focused around a highly strung schoolgirl, her divorced mother and her three siblings.

I don’t know a huge amount about the case, but as far as I can tell the dramatized version sticks to the facts pretty faithfully. The characters are all based on real people, and the general sequence of events – including the bringing-in of psychic investigators and the intense interest of the tabloid media – is also true to life. No doubt events have been streamlined to some extent to make a more coherent story, and the main characters have been embellished to make them more interesting. However, the basic motivations of the two investigators – the eagerly credulous Maurice Grosse, who’s desperately looking for evidence of life-after-death, and the more cynical Guy Lyon Playfair, who just wants material for a new book – probably aren’t too wide of the mark.

The production is very British in its focus on acting and dialogue, as opposed to the traditional Hollywood reliance on screaming and special effects. The pivotal character of Maurice Grosse is played by Timothy Spall, who I became a fan of when I saw him in Mr Turner last year. Not that I imagine for a moment that the real JMW Turner was anything like as weird and interesting as Spall’s portrayal of him – and I’m sure the same is true of the late Maurice Grosse!

The Enfield Haunting also differs from more traditional horror movies in maintaining a fortean ambiguity as to what is actually going on. While some of the events do seem to be genuinely paranormal, others appear to be deliberate attention-seeking, and still others may be the involuntary result of emotional or behavioural problems, like a kind of super-Tourette syndrome. Or maybe it’s a mixture of all three. Having dug out some old Fortean Times articles – I found one by David Sutton from 2003 (FT166:39), one by Guy Lyon Playfair from 2007 (FT229:58-59) and one by Alan Murdie from 2012 (FT 288:18-19) – that seems to be pretty much the consensus about the real Enfield poltergeist, too.

With its setting in the late 1970s, The Enfield Haunting is a potentially perfect piece of retro-forteana. However, while I didn’t notice any actual anachronisms, I didn’t get a really strong sense of a “period drama” set four decades in the past either. I was worried this was an indication of just how behind the times I am (I mean, 1977 really does seem like yesterday sometimes) – but in one of the DVD extras the producers explain that they made a deliberate decision to understate the seventies setting, because it would have been a distraction from the serious story they wanted to tell.

As far as I can recall, this is the first time I’ve seen an on-screen actor portraying someone I’ve seen in real life. Matthew Macfadyen’s performance as Guy Lyon Playfair is a great foil to Timothy Spall’s Maurice Grosse – although I’m sure the real-life Playfair was never as snottily pretentious as Macfadyen plays him! Anyway, I saw the real Guy Lyon Playfair speaking at a paranormal conference in Bath a few years ago. Unfortunately it was too dark to take a decent photo while he was speaking, although I got a better shot of him as he was returning to his seat afterwards:


Kid said...

And what's your own view about poltergeists in general, Andrew? Total pants or not to be readily dismissed? The world (well, okay, me) awaits your verdict.

Andrew May said...

I don't really know enough to say. In the article by Guy Lyon Playfair that I read, he suggests that it may be an involuntary psychological condition somewhat like Tourette Syndrome. Although that wasn't mentioned explicitly in the TV series, it was clearly hinted at (e.g. the girl spouting obscenities in a deep masculine voice).

Anonymous said...

Is that meant to be the actual house in question on the cover of the DVD box - because it looks a bit upmarket for a council house. Andrew, if the girl was spouting obscenities in a deep masculine voice that suggests they were implying demonic possession rather than a poltergeist, doesn't it ? The scariest thing I ever heard on the subject of possession was a Radio 4 programme a few years ago where several people were claiming to be in fear of being possessed - at the end of the programme the presenter phoned up one of those people, a young woman, to check up on her. He rang her number and the phone was picked up on the other end but nobody answered - the presenter said hello, is anyone there several times and then there was a low, growling noise before the phone went dead. All through the programme my attitude had been ridicule but I must admit that last bit made the hairs on the back of my neck stand up !!!

Andrew May said...

Thanks Colin, that's an interesting anecdote.i had a comment on Facebook from someone who used to live in Enfield. He said he worked out which house it was, and I was nothing like the one on the cover of the DVD. Nevertheless it's clear from watching the film that the latter is indeed a council house - I think the cover image makes it look bigger and posher than it is. Equally if you had seen the film you would know the girl is not possessed by a demon but the poltergeist - a former resident of the house - is speaking through her. That is also what is reputed to have happened in the real case.

Anonymous said...

Ah, I see - I thought poltergeists only threw things around and caused mayhem but I didn't know they could possess anybody.