From Eva Wiseman

Where have all the ghosts gone?

Eva Wiseman
A generation ago the nation was spooked by the Enfield Poltergeist and its tales of flying furniture and a haunted young girl… But what is scaring us now?

Hodgson family and enfield poltergeist
Hodgson family and enfield poltergeist
Fright night: the Hodgson children were at the centre of the Enfield hauntings at their home in Geen Street. ‘It’s a story about the suburbs as a site of creativity and darkness, and adolescent sexuality with nowhere to go,’ says Eva Wiseman.
In 1977, a chest of drawers slid across a room and began the best story I’ve ever heard. The Enfield Poltergeist, and the single-parent family it “haunted” for more than a year, is one of few such cases to remain unsolved – nobody has yet explained how 11-year-old Janet Hodgson flew across the room, or how the fireplace was wrenched from her bedroom wall, or how, when in trances, she spoke in the voice of the old man, Bill, who had died there years earlier. I’ve been obsessed with the Enfield Poltergeist since I was Janet’s age, so I’m excited about Sky’s reimagining and next year’s film. The story is rich with my chosen subjects: the suburbs as a site of creativity and darkness, teenage girls, and adolescent sexuality with nowhere to go, like a wasp in a glass.

There’s no such thing as ghosts, but people swear they’ve seen them. So it’s far more interesting to ask not: “Do poltergeists exist?” but instead: “What does a poltergeist stand for?”, especially when the answer is usually sex. Sex, banging on the walls and moving the bed and sending pubescent girls into fits on the carpet. “I felt used,” Janet told Channel 4, “by a force that nobody understands.”

Psychoanalysts have long been interested in the paranormal, in the idea that these experiences – the sighting of ghosts, the breaking of glasses – are projections of repressed or difficult memories. The haunted person is being haunted by her own thoughts. And if she sees a cupboard slamming in an empty room, she may not believe it was her hand that slammed it. The Enfield police officer who saw an armchair move, “unassisted, 4ft across the floor”, and the investigator Maurice Grosse who picked up marbles after they flew at him to find they were hot… were they caught in a collective hysteria? Were they lying, or scared, or confused? People see what they’re primed to see. Children abandoned by their father might seek the attention of men (like these investigators), and continue a “haunting” to keep them around.

Perhaps this makes me the worst journalist ever, but in a story about a child who thinks she’s seen a ghost it’s these detective details – sleep paralysis, vocal tricks – that I find the least interesting. I don’t want to listen to facts if facts mean pissing on wonder. The thing that I return to is the idea of a girl in turmoil. And where one person might cut herself or another get into fights outside the off-licence, this one bottled her emotions up until she flew across a room.

Teenagers are not having an easier time today. Their bodies still change too fast to keep up with, and their feelings, too. Many are bullied like Janet and her 14-year-old sister were, and live in homes like the Hodgsons’ (where in 1977 it was unusual for a woman to be bringing up four children alone). But one thing has changed. Where have all the poltergeists gone? Surely young people aren’t so at ease in their puberty, so comfortable in their sexuality and identity that they no longer repress their emotions to the extent that they believe they see ghosts. What’s the modern equivalent of an invisible spirit that breaks things with an unknown strength? Could it be catfishing, using false online identities for deception, bruising the furniture of every relationship? Is that where the ghosts are today, in the WiFi? Is that what’s making my streaming go funny?

Except there is something pure and effective in using your suppressed desires to move a whole double bed rather than to make a stranger on Facebook believe you look like Kate Upton. Real-life ghost stories offer the opportunity for a unique kind of unsureness. We know “science”, and we know “hoaxes”, but still there is something in many of us that yearns for the possibility that ghosts exist. Not as sheet-like apparitions – as unexplainable visions, mischievous movement, expressions of our guilt or frustration. As our very own special effects. Consider this column a ouija board. Summoning back our ghosts.

Email Eva at Follow Eva on Twitter @EvaWiseman


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