When the Lights Went Out – Revenge of the Black Monk

If a ghostly monk can bite a sandwich, what’s stopping you from giving it a damn good thrashing?

There’s a new ‘true life’ haunting movie coming out next month, and this one is British.

Interestingly in this case the director has a connection to the ‘real’ story (Wiki’s version here). Inexplicably, he’s advanced the period setting by nearly a decade, presumably to hook the story onto another real life event; the energy crisis of 1973/4 (hence the title). Ironically, this draws attention to one alternate explanation for the lights going out during the ‘real’ haunting – power cuts and electrical problems happened before said shortage, and they still happen today. Even this may be redundant when we consider another explanation; that somebody might simply have been turning switches off;

‘The lights would go out, and when they looked in the cupboard under the stairs the main switch would be turned off. On one occasion, Mrs. Pritchard carefully taped it in the “on” position with insulating tape; half an hour later, the lights were off  again, and tape had simply vanished.’
-‘Poltergeist!’, 1981, p.130

Wooooooo! Ahem. Anyway, Holden is the son of a one of the contributing figures in the story, Mrs Rene Holden:

‘Another neighbour, Rene Holden (who was a bit psychic), was in the Pritchards’ sitting room when the lights went out. In the faint glow of the streetlamp that came through the curtains she saw the lower half of a figure dressed in a long black garment.’
-‘Beyond the Occult’, 1988 p.237

‘A bit psychic’? Isn’t that like being ‘a bit pregnant’? The other major incidents involving Holden’s mother were the apparently spiritual theft of a fur coat, and the mysterious throwing of a plate of sandwiches around a room before a ghostly yet physical bite was taken out of one of them. All of this being under cover of another bout of another selective power failure. The latter is a rare instance of potential physical evidence of the paranormal that could have been tested, bearing as it did the impressions of apparently ‘enormous teeth’. Instead however, Holden kept the sandwich herself and somehow allowed it to deteriorate into ‘crumbs’ after only a few days. So we are told by author Colin Wilson, who has produced the closest thing we have to a written primary source for all this; his book ‘Poltergeist!’ (along with his other books like ‘Beyond the Occult’, referenced above). Though the director of the movie has drawn from family oral history for his version of the story, Wilson’s book was written closer to the time when the events in question happened, so might better reflect personal testimony. Then again, maybe not. In any case, his book was still published a good decade on from the ‘hauntings’, in 1981. Wilson himself was not involved or even present at the time, so far as I can determine. This, along with Holden’s film, is by its nature actually a secondary source and of limited usefulness in getting to the bottom of events. As Wilson relates, ‘no trained investigator came on the scene while the disturbances were at their height.’ So we don’t have any evidence from parapsychologists or even the pseudoscientific investigations of the average ‘ghost club’ to go on. Nor even any newspaper reports (that I could find). Just anecdote; although in this case it isn’t just family tradition, as visitors are also claimed to have experienced supposedly supernatural shenanigans (which of course doesn’t mean that they were). The film director claims that the police witnessed the ‘ghost’, and local MP Geoff Lofthouse writes of his personal experiences in his autobiography:

‘I suppose it would be about 1965, and I was in a Council meeting with Violet Pritchard, when I started ribbing her about the stories that were going around that her son’s house up on East Drive was haunted. Violet had great charm, but also great directness. She looked me in the eyes and said: “Well Geoff, if that’s what you think, you had better come up with me.” So after the Council meeting I picked up Sarah, and we went up to Joe Pritchard’s. Just as we entered, Violet said: “This will wipe the smile off your face.” The stories of the poltergeist had been going the rounds for a few months then. Sarah had heard them, but neither of us took them very seriously; after all, Chequerfield estate was not some haunted house in the South of London or a ruined tower up in the Yorkshire Dales, it was newly built council housing on what had been agricultural land. In we went and sat down. We had been there about twenty minutes when suddenly there was a banging on the wall, at this sound the dog, who was sitting right in front of me, stood up stock still and the hairs on his body rose up in the air. It only stood a second before darting through the door. Joe Pritchard said “It’s here again,” and to prove that it was, two candlesticks rose up and were thrown through the air. One second they were standing on a sideboard, or it may have been a shelf, and the next they had gone up into the air and broken the chandelier. This was enough for Sarah. Without any ado she dashed out of the house. I was just following her when politeness caused me to stop at the bottom of the stairs to say: “Excuse me but I have to go.” And I did, I went rapidly at the point when a number of blankets were thrown down at us.

In most things I am a bit sceptical, but when it comes to the stories of the Pontefract poltergeist I am a true believer. Taps were turning themselves on, and a whole range of activity was taking place, and this in a family of everyday Pontefract people. I decided that Violet Pritchard should be my Deputy Mayor because of all the people I have met in my life as a politician, I regard few politicians with such warmness as Violet Pritchard. When I say that she was a kind and simple soul, I do not mean to be disrespectful in any way.’
-’A Very Miner MP’, 1986, p.69

Very disconcerting at the time, no doubt, but so can fiction be. There are any number of explanations for what Lofthouse relates that don’t require the existence of ghosts – something that should require some pretty extraordinary evidence to accept. This lack of empirical evidence is a perennial problem with hauntings and similar experiences, in that all available evidence is anecdotal, mediated through a third party, and not recorded until years after the fact.

Wilson, too, is not a parapsychologist. is well-known in paranormalist and Fortean circles, having written a string of ‘factual’ books and bought into a wide range of ‘phenomena’ from illusionist Uri Geller (‘The Geller Phenomenon’) to the lost city of Atlantis. He’s also an author of true crime books and fiction.

Sightings like Holden’s led to the ghost being identified as that of a local historical figure, the ‘Black Monk’. Amusingly, this turned out to be a load of nonsense, and so Wilson, having himself debunked this hypothesis (p.146-7 of ‘Poltergeist!’), rationalised the whole thing away as the ghost choosing to look like the monk based upon overheard family conversations. Alternatively, the sightings were hallucinations, delusions, confabulation, or something else entirely. But it seems that it’s easier to just make the facts fit the story on the presupposition that what the family experienced was something paranormal.

So what really went on here? We’ll probably never know, but other cases from the Fox sisters to the Enfield poltergeist suggest that these ‘ghosts’ are linked to a very real phenomenon; that of growing up. The paranormalists express this in terms of supernatural manifestations fuelled by the available ‘energy’ of puberty, but a more realistic interpretation would be that they are the result of childish attention-seeking, acting out, and/or teenage angst. The title of the new film becomes highly relevant here. All of the major physical manifestations (sandwich hurling included) took place ‘When the Lights Went Out’, giving a great deal of room for real, live, human beings to get involved, just as in physical mediumship. Whatever the case, the film looks likely to provide an interesting dramatisation of a real life experience of a ‘haunting’ – but through no fault of the makers, it isn’t evidence of the paranormal. Doubtless the true life marketing will convince many that it is.

Scientific American on the Fox Sisters

I’m afraid you haven’t got long to peruse it, but there’s all sorts of great stuff in the Scientific American archive, available from 1845 – 1909 for free until the end of the month. Here’s a snippet from 1848 (Vol.5, 8th Dec, transcribed below) on the infamous Fox Sisters (though not naming them). It’s more cynical than sceptical, but you have to love the Victorian turn of phrase, and they do have a point about the lack of falsifiable information that mediums produce:

‘There has been quite an excitement in Rochester, N.Y., about mysterious sounds heard by visitors in the presence of three bespirited young ladies. Committees of ladies and gentlemen  have been appointed to try and find out the cause,  but all  in vain.  The  ladies’committee divested the  be-spirited damsels of their clothing to find out whether that something or  other,  we suppose, was not concealed underneath,  but the  sounds were heard just  as well. They were placed on feather beds  and all  sorts  of  non-electric conductors, but the sounds were heard just the same – thus proving,  no doubt, that there is no relationship between spirits and magnetic current. The sounds reported to be heard, are certain raps on the floor or wall, and these raps have been formed into a kind of alphabet,  to repeat certain names, &c. (queer, this, very). We perceive by the names of some of the gentlemen on the committees, that they are men of high standing in Rochester, and some we know personally. It will all turn out to be a piece of nonsense,  because the raps and all that has been done, is stuff – nothing sensible or of utility. All ghost stories are made up of just such miserable fiddle-faddle – and we all know that the swallowing of pins, mounting the air on broomsticks, &c., constitute the amount of witch learning.’