The Wivenhoe Poltergeist

Transcribing headstones at Greensted.

Transcribing headstones at Greensted.

What I’m about to write has nothing to do with genealogy, although it’s something that happened to me and a friend of mine in Wivenhoe, so it’s vaguely relevant. Of course, spending time in churchyards and cemeteries, amongst the relics of the past, does rather open you up to the sometimes-restless existence of the dead. Also, it’s Hallowe’en, which seems like as appropriate a time as any to write this, and news that Guy Lyon Playfair’s book This House is Haunted, about the Enfield poltergeist case, is being dramatised, has brought back memories which I cannot quite forget. But don’t blame me if it gives you nightmares.

This happened in the mid-1990s. My friend Alice (not her real name) lived down the road from me, and we spent lots of time going in and out of each other’s houses. We were teenagers, not old enough to go down the pub, and too old to hang about with our parents. We’d known each other for absolutely years, and our families went back some way too – her mum’s family were very “Wivna”, and in fact, my grandma taught her grandma at Sunday School.

Around this time, Alice’s parents’ marriage was on the skids, so there was a lot of emotional turmoil in the house. Add to that the stresses of “being a teenager”, and the fact that poltergeists are drawn to or emanate from (who knows) pubescent girls, and you have a recipe for strange goings-on.

I couldn’t tell you exactly what happened first; however, I remember there being a strong, unpleasant smell in Alice’s bedroom. It was hard to define – I remember thinking it smelt of tar and oranges, but that wasn’t exactly it. Being a teenager, it was blamed on poor hygiene by the grown-ups, even though Alice was scrupulously clean. Her grandma insisted on turning out the bedroom and scrubbing it from top to bottom, and still the smell persisted – so we decided it was maybe a bird that had fallen down the chimney and was rotting behind the sealed-off fireplace.

Then there were the noises. When I stayed over at Alice’s, we shared her bedroom,1)We slept in two separate divans, so when I later saw photos of the Enfield case, you can imagine the shiver that went through me and we would be woken by colossal bangs and crashes going on in the loft overhead. We initially thought it was the heating,2)We had seen, only a few years before, BBC’s Hallowe’en 1992 mockumentary Ghostwatch – someone saying “it’s only the pipes” will never not be terrifying. but it wasn’t on, so then we thought it might be her dad, legendary for losing his temper. But why would he go up into the loft (it had been converted, so he would’ve had to let himself into the back of the loft where the water-reservoir was) and stamp about in there? Why was he pushing heavy furniture about? And how could he when everything in that bit of the loft was very tightly packed?

And then… we realised that he’d actually left the house half an hour before.

The loft conversion, which was used as a study, was quite creepy itself, not helped by Alice’s mum leaving her dressmaker’s dummy just at the top of the stairs. There was no blind on the loft’s Velux window, so a midnight trip to the loo during a full-moon was absolutely terrifying, until you remembered it was the dummy you could see, silvered in the moonlight. But sitting up there, playing Patience on the PC… you never felt you were by yourself. You were always hearing footsteps on the stairs, or thinking someone had just come into the room behind you. But you turned… and you were, apparently, alone.

One afternoon, I walked passed the door to Alice’s parents’ bedroom, and quickly looked inside, because I had called her name, and thought she was in there (probably looting her mum’s make-up). The door was open, and there she was. At least… I thought so. She was standing by the window, looking outside at the back garden. But she was grey-white and transparent. And then she answered me – from the front bedroom. I kept this to myself. Had I seen a ghost? I was too scared to acknowledge it, because talking about what I’d seen would only have made it seem real, and I preferred to think I’d imagined it.

It wasn’t the first time I thought I’d seen things that shouldn’t – couldn’t – be there in that house. I would often wake in the middle of the night, clammy with fear, convinced there was someone standing beside my bed.3)This could well have been sleep paralysis, which is perfectly natural, but very frightening when it happens. And to confess to that, as well as the ghost by the window, was more than my nerves could bear.

I got a phone call one day from Alice, asking me to come down to her house right away; she sounded like she was about to burst into nervous laughter. Not quite knowing what I’d encounter when I arrived, I found Alice in the lounge with her parents, her dad making “woo-ooo-oooh!” ghost noises, and her mum decrying it all as nonsense. Alice, it transpired, had seen a ghost too, and she described it exactly as I had seen it myself.

She had been getting ready for school, and felt someone tap her on the shoulder. She looked around, thinking it was her mum, but she in fact saw herself – but grey, and slightly transparent. Alice had lost her identical twin at birth: it would seem, then, that the ghost she – and in fact, I – had seen, was that of her sister.

Alice’s mum knew a psychic (as you do…) who came to the house, and she said she thought it was Alice’s twin as well – that she was making herself known so that her sister would know she was watching over her.

I don’t think anyone saw the ghost again, but, whether Alice’s twin or not, it still made its presence felt. One day, we were messing about with a microphone on a hifi (I won’t tell you what we were recording – we were puerile young ladies!), when it suddenly refused to work properly – it turned itself on and off, switched modes, just did lots of very odd things that it never usually did. It even seemed to respond to voice commands – “On!” “Off!” “Louder!” – was whoever – whatever – was in that house, trying to communicate?

Alice’s mum still wasn’t entirely convinced – that is, until the day she heard a scraping noise across the kitchen floor. She looked around and saw the cat’s bowl moving by itself across the lino, then it levitated slowly into the air, hovered – then turned upside down and crashed to the ground, exactly as if it was being manipulated by an invisible hand.

Another time, I was visiting, and we heard a sponge-bag full of make-up slide along the surface it was on, then crash to the floor. Now, with the sponge-bag, we may be dealing with something as prosaic as boring old gravity, but emotions were at a pitch, and after all the spooky occurrences, Alice, myself and her mother ran screaming from the house into the garden.

After her parents finally went their separate ways, Alice still visited the house because her father lived there. All trace of the smell, the violent noises in the loft, apparitions, electrical interference and things randomly – impossibly – moving about, had finished. But even so, when I walk back past that house even today, I cannot avoid remembering what happened there, and when I look up at its windows, I almost expect to see the face of the ghost, who so exactly resembled Alice.

(This is true – everything. But what was it, exactly? A ghost? Phenomena caused by a household under emotional strain? Maybe both? When people say “Do you believe in ghosts?” it’s more to the point that I could tell you of the many experiences I have had of things that are unexplained… and this is one of them. Whether a ghost or not, I couldn’t say).

Footnotes   [ + ]

1. We slept in two separate divans, so when I later saw photos of the Enfield case, you can imagine the shiver that went through me
2. We had seen, only a few years before, BBC’s Hallowe’en 1992 mockumentary Ghostwatch – someone saying “it’s only the pipes” will never not be terrifying.
3. This could well have been sleep paralysis, which is perfectly natural, but very frightening when it happens.