Sky’s latest drama is a three-part dramatisation of the infamous London haunting of the 70s. A story of a family seemingly troubled by a poltergeist. A mother and four children confused and frightened by what they are going through, courted by the press, and supported by paranormal investigators, yet surrounded with suspicion and doubt–particularly aimed at Janet–one of the children at the centre of the occurrences.
It’s also a story quite personal to me, as sitting on a shelf in my office is a book. ‘Ghosts’. A book from 80s. A book that belonged to my late dad. One that I would pore over with him, marveling at mysteries with him. Probably a book that made me believe in ghosts as a kid and into my weirdo teenage years. Before my enlightened 20s and I became the cynical Steve that I am now. Although I’m not the believer I once was, this book, and with a dash of Hammer horror, was an inspiration for my love of supernatural chills and my horror writing–and in its pages are several chapters on the Enfield haunting. The pictures are gaudy 70s–colours and styles I recognise from photographs of me as a baby with my mum and dad. The Enfield haunting wasn’t haunted mansions and castles, wasn’t tales passed down through history–it was in a regular looking house, and it was (when I was a kid) just a decade behind me. It made this story the most ‘real’ and frightening of the stories I read in that book, and one that has stayed with me and undoubtedly influenced my novel ‘Harvest’.
The Enfield haunting also inspired another influence upon me. The absolutely traumatising (you had to be a kid at the time) airing of ‘Ghostwatch’ a BBC docudrama. Back when docudramas didn’t exist. Which is an investigation into a haunting that goes very very wrong. So wrong it couldn’t go any wronger. To appreciate it, have a few drinks, and sit your kids down with you–oh and like so many who missed the introduction of this docudrama as a drama, don’t tell the kids it’s not real. Then you’ll see what impact this drama–and the story of the Enfield haunting can have. Urban horror, in the banality of its locations, can be so much more relateable than the fantastically removed Gothic horror.
Sky’s drama is a dunk into the 70s. It looks just the part for all its fashion horror. It’s a reminder of when baths were shared, 10p was something to be treasured, a comic was a treat, and ‘Some Mothers Do ‘Ave ‘Em’ was a nation’s darling. I f*cking hated that show.
Wide-eyed cheeky Janet, the child seemingly at the centre of the haunting, comes across as a girl both frightened by her experiences but rewarded by the attention that this middle-child attracts. Attention that draws her into an adult world in parallel with her older sister who has just received ‘the curse’ of dawning womanhood, as both a victim and curious experiencer of something that fascinates–and frightens those around her. Enter Maurice Gross, a member of the Society of Psychical Research (SPR), keen to understand what is going on whilst he and his wife struggle with the loss of their teenage daughter only a year previously–a daughter called Janet.
The first episode sets an even unhurried pace that balances character with paranormal activity. The show brings Maurice and Janet together through the haunting, only for the SPR to recognise the attention the case is getting in the national press and send in the ‘dashing’ Guy Playfair as a more credible investigator than the amateur Maurice. As the story unfolds Guy and Maurice are pitted against each other–Maurice, convinced that Janet is haunted, Guy suspecting Janet is playing them as fools, and Maurice overly invested in the haunting and the paranormal world where his dead daughter could still exist.
This is a very British horror, not just in its heavy sense of time and place in Britain’s stone’s throw past (okay, maybe a bit more distance than that considering it happened the year I was born…) but also in its conservative approach to the horror. This isn’t a balls out ‘American Horror Story’ rollercoaster of chills, it’s a character piece where the paranormal punctuates the plot in measured set-pieces. It’s engaging, yes–I watched the first part and found that the other two parts were available on demand and I could’ve watched them back to back.
But scary? Well, I’d just watched ‘Mama’ that day, so it was a marked tonal shift. So, no. Surprisingly though, it didn’t matter. It was an enjoyable story of a trouble child and troubled father drawn together through the paranormal. Curiously, for me, the depictions of the haunting detracted from the plot. None of the occurrences had the intended impact through the shows laid back direction, and I would have preferred those moments to be more ambiguous in nature–to build the story more around whether this was the work of children playing the grown-ups, or something more sinister hiding behind the skepticism of the adults.
The show was weakened in trying to create a more definite haunting, drawing something of the Hollywood ghost story into its make-up–that is a ghost story with a lead spiritual antagonist to hang its threat upon like ‘Insidious’ or ‘Poltergeist 2’, and the offering of closure to Maurice. Regardless of your position of believer or skeptic the story of the Enfield poltergeist endures because of its ambiguity, because of its unknowable, ‘unsolved’ nature and for me, Sky’s ‘Enfield Haunting’ was enjoyable and watchable for everything but the haunting, for the relationship of its leads and how the haunting affected them personally was the real story of the Enfield haunting.
Learn about the case, wonder at what was happening, then give this drama a go, but don’t let it detract from the mystery of what actually happened in that house. Especially before the Enfield haunting gets the Hollywood treatment, which, if it doesn’t deliver the considered approach of Sky’s drama it’ll certainly have the chills that this drama lacked.