Straw Ghosts

Nicholas Humphrey

  • This house is haunted: An Investigation of the Enfield Poltergeist by Guy Lyon Playfair
    Souvenir, 288 pp, £6.95, June 1980, ISBN 0 285 62443 1
  • Science and the Supernatural by John Taylor
    Temple Smith, 180 pp, £7.50, June 1980, ISBN 0 85117 191 5

When I was an undergraduate at Cambridge I used sometimes to have tea with the philosopher C.D. Broad, and we would talk about ghosts. Professor Broad lived in Newton’s rooms in Trinity, and his favourite spot for talking and for tea was an armchair placed beside the window where in 1665 Newton caught a beam of sunlight in the prism he had bought at Stourbridge fair and spread it like a rainbow on the floor. Seated in this chair one afternoon Broad told me of his fears that the spirit world in the mid-20th century was losing all its colour. Not that spirits as such had finally gone to rest – new reports of hauntings, poltergeists and so on reached him every day – but it seemed that these modern spirits no longer cut the dash they used to do. Their activities were becoming – dare he say it? – increasingly vulgar. Only the previous day he had heard of a poltergeist which was shifting caravans around a holiday camp near Great Yarmouth. If this trend continued, Banquo would soon be advertising tartans on the television and Hamlet’s father taking coach-parties round Elsinore. The old philosopher’s face fell as he contemplated the disagreeable prospect, and I understood only too well why he had concluded his celebrated Lectures on Psychical Research: ‘For my own part I should be more annoyed than surprised if I should find myself in some sense persisting immediately after the death of my present body.’ I do hope he is not now passing his post-mortem retirement in the great caravan site in the sky.

But the evidence, in so far as it continues to reach us from the other side, is not encouraging. In fact – if evidence it is – Mr Playfair’s account of the goings-on in an Enfield council house in 1977 suggests that the decline in standards which Broad detected twenty years ago has now become a rout. This is not a book for sensitive souls, nor is it a book about them.

The objection is not to the premises as such. Wood Lane. Enfield, Middlesex is probably a perfectly respectable locality. The fact that the ghost is not the owner-occupier, regrettable as it may be, is nothing new; and if a ghost chooses io be semi-detached, then that – as any student of structuralism will realise has a certain logical consistency to it. But with ghosts as with people, it is not where you are but what you are which matters: and what the Enfield poltergeist is, is distinctly not nice.

Ghosts have of course a reputation for being horrible (even most horrible at times), but they have surely never before been so manifestly uncultivated, pettyfogging or cheap. In the old days a ghost might be expected to give itself a proper introduction – ‘I am the ghost of Christmas past’ – but now in December 1977 the Enfield ghost shouts through the wall: ‘I come from Durants Park, I am 72 years old ... Shut the fucking door ... I want some jazz music, now go and get me some, else I’ll go barmy.’ In the old days spiritual graffiti-writing was an art – ‘Mene, mene, tekel, upharsin’ written in letters of fire on the wall of the banqueting chamber – but now in Enfield the poltergeist, having laid out a row of potted cactuses on the kitchen floor, writes ‘I am Fred’ in black sticky-tape on the bathroom door. In the old days if an offended spirit meddled with the cutlery it would pick out a dagger and wave it before the glazed eyes of the Thane of Cawdor, but now it takes a tea-spoon from the dresser and bends it before the camera of a reporter from the Daily Mirror.

Still, if there is one thing a philosopher ought to be it is philosophic. And Broad was generous besides. Had he lived to hear of the Enfield poltergeist, I do not suppose it would have entered his head to regard bad manners on the part of a ghost as evidence of bad faith (or even of bad observation) on the part of the ghost – hunter. But here he and I part company. For, in the matter of ghosts, I have always subscribed to what may be called the Argument from Lack of Design. The argument simply stated is this: if it’s ugly, formless or trivial it’s probably fake.

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