Saturday, May 01, 2021

Religious And Occultic Aspects Of The Enfield Poltergeist

In a conversation in 1978, Margaret Hodgson told Guy Playfair that she'd seen an apparition in the context of using a Ouija board a few years earlier, apparently in 1974, and that she'd recently seen the same apparition in the context of the Enfield case. See the relevant section of my post here for more about what Margaret and her sister reported regarding their use of a Ouija board leading up to what's typically considered the poltergeist's onset in August of 1977. Margaret's experience in 1974 could be identified as the start of the poltergeist instead, depending on what standards you apply. And both the use of a Ouija board leading up to late August of 1977 and the girls' impression that their Ouija board use was connected to the poltergeist make it relevant to an evaluation of the case. But it doesn't get discussed much.

There are many other aspects of the case that are of an occultic or religious nature that have likewise been neglected. More research needs to be done on the subject, but I want to provide an overview of what I know at this point. Some of what I'll be citing comes from Maurice Grosse and Guy Playfair's Enfield tapes. I'll make reference to them by using "MG" to designate a tape from Grosse's collection and "GP" to designate one from Playfair's. MG32A is Grosse's tape 32A, GP41B is Playfair's 41B, etc.

I don't know much about the religious history of the Hodgsons. Peggy told Ed Warren, in August of 1979, that she had a Methodist background. But she described herself as "not terribly religious", though she did believe in life after death and some other religious concepts (MG1A, 32:12). She commented in 1978 that "I'm not a strong churchgoer" (GP95B, 8:26). She used to go to a church at the top of the road, but had difficulty making friends there (MG67A, 34:38). Her brother, John Burcombe, referred to himself as "not too religious" (MG1A, 30:44), though he later believed in the supernatural because of the poltergeist (31:06). It seems that the Hodgson children were more religious and open to the supernatural than their mother and uncle.

I've referred to the girls' use of a Ouija board. In a discussion with Charles Moses in January of 1978, Margaret and Janet were asked by Moses about their education. The discussion became focused on physical education (gymnastics, etc.), but Janet took the initiative to mention that her favorite class was "RK, religious knowledge" (MG67A, 22:00). Moses asks what she studies in that class, and she responds, "About Jesus, how he made the world and that, and he made it in six days and that." Margaret comments on her belief in Jesus and how she used to wear a cross, which she lost late in the previous year. Janet also refers to believing in Jesus. Playfair mentioned that while Janet went through her nightmare and trance episodes earlier in the case, she sometimes expressed religious sentiments that he thinks she got from her religious knowledge class (GP39B, 36:28). On her birthday the previous year, a neighbor had given her a book about Jesus, which she refers to on one of the tapes (MG20Ai, 11:34). When Matthew Manning visited on December 17 of 1977 (see the photograph of his visit here), Margaret or Janet commented on how he looks like Jesus (GP26A, 23:03).

I mentioned that Janet was given a book about Jesus by one of the Hodgsons' neighbors. After one of the children referred to how Matthew Manning looks like Jesus, Peggy Nottingham made a comment about having a picture of Jesus in her house. But there wasn't much expression of religiosity that I'm aware of among the Hodgsons' neighbors. You only get occasional glimpses, like the examples I just mentioned.

In Melvyn Willin's notes on Grosse and Playfair's tapes, he refers to how tape MG85A is "badly corrupted" and can't be digitized. He provides a description of the contents of the tape, however. He refers to how Grosse commented on the tape, in April of 1978, that the Hodgson family (apparently the family as a whole) "has become more interested in religion". Janet seems to have been the most religious member of the family, but even her interest in religion may not have gone back far. When discussing the religious knowledge class she took in school, which she referred to liking, she commented on how it had started in September of 1977. And her comments on religion are of an introductory nature, sometimes involving misconceptions.

I don't think you could make much of an argument for a religious motivation behind faking the case or being honestly mistaken about the allegedly paranormal events (e.g., explaining them as hallucinations that were religiously motivated). It seems that there was more influence in the other direction. The poltergeist led to more religiosity.

In addition to turning to neighbors, relatives, the police, and other people for help, the Hodgsons consulted religious authorities to some extent, though not until after going to other sources. In a September 11, 1977 report for BBC Radio, Rosalind Morris mentioned that two clergymen had been to the house and blessed it, but that no exorcism had yet been done (GP36B, 8:50). Peggy Hodgson goes into more depth about the subject in a conversation with Grosse (MG2B, 22:42). She refers to how a vicar and another church official recommended that she redecorate the house, and she refers to how they thought she should "change her way of life". She acknowledges that the house did have a depressing look to it, a lack of color, and she refers to how she did some redecorating. Apparently, neither the blessing of the house nor the redecorating made any difference with the poltergeist. She and Grosse both seem contemptuous of how the clergymen handled the situation.

Grosse was an adherent of Judaism. I don't think Playfair was affiliated with any organized religion.

Near the beginning of the case, on September 10 of 1977, Grosse was on a radio program with Peggy Hodgson and Peggy Nottingham. During that program, he commented that none of the Hodgsons had been involved in activities like using a Ouija board (GP35A, 1:30). He said that he asked the Hodgson children "very closely" about the subject and that "nobody" has been "dabbling" in such things. It wasn't until the next year that Margaret would tell Playfair that she had used a Ouija board years earlier and, in that context, saw an apparition that she also saw in the context of the poltergeist. My impression is that the poltergeist apparition didn't occur until 1978. So, Margaret may not have connected her Ouija board use to the poltergeist until that point in time. Or she may have not wanted to mention it to Grosse in 1977 because she was concerned about getting blamed for starting the poltergeist. It's also possible that she did mention it to Grosse, but that he dismissed it as irrelevant, perhaps because her Ouija board use had happened so long ago. Whatever the case, it's noteworthy that Grosse did ask the Hodgsons about issues like the use of a Ouija board early on and that they told him they hadn't been involved in such activities or he dismissed as insignificant whatever they admitted to being involved with.

The host of the program asked Grosse what he'd recommend to anybody experiencing something like a poltergeist (19:19). One of his recommendations was to contact a priest or an equivalent, and he goes on to refer to how "I have nothing against exorcism. It certainly has worked, appears to have worked, in the past in certain cases, and there's no reason why it shouldn't act in the future. One mustn't be dogmatic about who can cure what or calm what situation down, you see." Playfair was willing to try some types of exorcism (GP39B, 28:19). However, both of them generally took a negative view toward exorcism in the Enfield case. I'll briefly discuss some of the reasons.

Playfair's comments just cited came after Hans Bender took the initiative to recommend trying exorcism, which surprised Playfair. But Bender, like Playfair, added some qualifiers. Bender refers to Roman Catholic exorcism as "disastrous", something that's psychologically harmful and "creates demons", and Playfair seems to have a similar view of Catholic exorcism. Elsewhere, he says that he opposes traditional Catholic exorcism "mainly because it doesn't work" (GP43B, 17:11). Go here to listen to his comments on exorcism and some related issues in a 1978 documentary on the Enfield case.

As the documentary just linked explains, Playfair, Grosse, and Peggy Hodgson didn't believe that there was any demon involved who needed to be exorcised. In addition to Rosalind Morris and Playfair's comments in the clip linked above, go here to listen to Grosse's comments in the same documentary. Peggy's reasoning on the subject is addressed to some extent on the tapes. At a 1978 symposium, Playfair explained that he and Grosse offered to bring in an exorcist, but that Peggy was concerned that any spirit exorcised might come back later, and she wanted to get to the bottom of the case, by finding out why the poltergeist started, rather than trying to end it prematurely (MG83A, 28:48). Playfair explains elsewhere that Peggy was "very afraid" of Ouija boards and didn't want anything to do with exorcism (GP39B, 7:15), which seems to imply that fear was involved to some extent. She apparently found exorcism disturbing. She also commented that she didn't think it would work (GP95B, 6:42). And the BBC's Stewart Lamont, who had been a clergyman, told Peggy that he didn't think exorcism was the right approach to take in the Enfield case (GP96B, 16:50).

Another factor that should be kept in mind, though it's a lesser one, is the influence of Ed and Lorraine Warren. See the article just linked for further details. Since they were such advocates of a demonic view of the case, and Peggy, Grosse, and Playfair had so many problems with how the Warrens conducted themselves in the context of Enfield, it's likely that the involvement of the Warrens provided additional motivation for Peggy, Grosse, and Playfair to avoid approaching the case as the Warrens did. In an interview with Will Storr shortly before Grosse's death, he took a highly dismissive approach toward bringing demonology into paranormal research (Will Storr Vs. The Supernatural [New York, New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 2006], 132, 134). I suspect he was largely reacting to the Warrens.

Mediums were involved in the case several times, primarily at Playfair's initiative. They occasionally brought about a reduction of the poltergeist's activities, but none of them stopped the poltergeist altogether. It was highly active during much of 1979, after the last medium (Dono Gmelig-Meyling) visited in October of 1978, and there were reports of ongoing activity until shortly after Peggy Hodgson's death in 2003.

The poltergeist often expressed anti-religious sentiments. In response to a question asking why it doesn't leave the house and go on to heaven, the poltergeist responds, "I don't believe in that….I'm not a heaven man." (MG40A, 19:16) (You can listen to the exchange involving those comments here.) Peggy said that the voice called her a "religious old bag" when she read a prayer Playfair gave her, and it apparently made noises in response to the prayer (MG55B, 11:08). It expressed a dislike of prayer on other occasions as well (MG87B, 23:41). It would often call people "a Jewish rabbi" as an insult. In one exchange, after being asked by John Burcombe what it thinks of God, it responded that "I think he was a kind man….He was a good friend." (MG44A, 20:06) Despite the positive comments about God, the poltergeist refers to him in the past tense, as if he's dead. It could be that it's wryly speaking of God positively while couching those positive comments in dismissive terms. The surrounding context of this particular occasion suggests that the poltergeist held a negative view of religion and Christianity specifically at this point in time, as it did in general. For example, just after the poltergeist's comments about God quoted above, this exchange occurred:

Paul Burcombe: What would you do if a vicar came to this house and told you to go away? What would your, what would your action be?

Poltergeist: I would ignore him.

Paul Burcombe: Now, if you know you're religious, right, I suppose you know God's twelve disciples. Could you name them for me, please?

Poltergeist: I'm not religious. I only believe in God.

Paul Burcombe: If you believe in God, you should, if you believe in God, right, you should believe in God's twelve disciples.

Poltergeist: Well, I don't.

Paul Burcombe: Excuse me. I couldn't, I couldn't hear that. Could you say it again, please?

Poltergeist: [screaming] Well, I don't.

Paul Burcombe: You trying to scare me?

Poltergeist: No, you little fucking [unintelligible].


Its anti-religiosity is a contrast to Janet's positive view of religion and Christianity in particular. And the combination of speaking positively about God while referring to him as if he's dead and being so negative and angry about religion is highly unusual and doesn't seem to be the sort of thing a twelve-year-old girl would think of faking. It's also noteworthy that the poltergeist kept calling Grosse and others "rabbi" after Janet was aware that they weren't rabbis, and she even corrected the poltergeist on the issue herself. I don't recall her ever exhibiting anything close to the sort of hostility the poltergeist had toward Judaism and rabbis in particular. For more about the poltergeist's personality and the traits of the poltergeist voice specifically, see here. I think my view that the poltergeist was a deceased human with a malfunctioning mind makes good sense of its differences from Janet, despite its sometimes drawing information from her mind and expressing her sentiments in some ways (often in a distorted form), and it makes good sense of why the poltergeist comes across as so confusing and angry in its exchanges with the Burcombes mentioned above. But whatever view you hold of the poltergeist, even if you think it was entirely faked, its anti-religiosity and the highly unusual nature of some of its comments on religious matters are some of the factors that any hypothesis has to take into account.

The occasion when the poltergeist had the exchanges with the Burcombes referred to above was the night of December 13, 1977. It was the only time Richard Grosse, Maurice's son, visited. During a radio program in 2018, he commented that the poltergeist's voice that night couldn't be traced to anybody in the room and couldn't be explained by ventriloquism. Listen from 24:57 to 25:45 here. The voice also exhibited other apparently paranormal characteristics that night. See this segment of a documentary in which Richard Grosse discusses an example involving telepathy. You can go here to read a report Grosse wrote about his visit that night, in which he discusses a variety of incidents that he considered paranormal or a good candidate for something paranormal. So, the religious comments from the poltergeist that night were made in a context in which there's some evidence that the voice manifestations were of a paranormal nature.


  1. Jason, I'm curious as to what your ultimate goal is with these series of posts on this subject. Is it simply academic interest (and yes the paranormal is quite interesting) or is there some sort of overarching desire to convince others that the phenomena described are real and supernatural? Maybe you've discussed this elsewhere, but I'm simply curious.

    These are all very interesting posts BTW.

    All philosophy and Biblical scholarship aside, it is hard to be a naturalist or materialist when confronting these sorts of events.

    1. Here are some comments I wrote on the subject in a thread last year. I also addressed it to some extent in a few tributes I wrote to some of the people involved in the case: Peggy Hodgson, Maurice Grosse, Guy Playfair, John Burcombe. There's a lot of relevant material in each of those posts, but I put a quote (or more than one) at the end of each post that summarizes much of the significance of each individual and his involvement in the case. So, you can get an idea of some of what motivated me to write those tribute posts, and some of what motivates me to study the case, by scrolling to the end of each tribute post and reading the closing quotation(s).

      Thanks for the encouragement!

  2. What do you think of the Aneliese Michel (aks Emily Rose) case? Theres not nearly as much documentation in the way of audio/video, but the case is very troubling nonetheless.