For Real is an occasional series about scary or horrific culture that presents itself as non-fiction. This might include the paranormal as well as true crime and odd occurrences. The rest of the series can be found here.
Ghosts are real, regardless of whether or not they exist.
Back in the 19th Century, an Austrian philosopher by the name of Alexius Meinong argued that objects can be both real and non-existent. At first glance, this might seem like a paradox as saying that something is real is often just another way of saying that it exists. One reason why we might want to treat ‘real’ and ‘existent’ as different properties is that it allows us to ascribe properties to things that definitely do not exist. For example, Sherlock Holmes does not exist but it would be false to say that his assistant was Gordon Ramsay.
What Meinong’s theory does is loosen the bond between truth and existence. Sherlock Holmes may not exist but he’s real enough that you can say things about him that are both true and false. The same is true of ghosts: Ghosts are real, regardless of whether or not they happen to exist.
What makes a ghost real is not so much its existence as its position in a body of lore. That body of lore can be situated in a book of ghost stories, a religious text, a board outside a country pub, or in the collective beliefs and memories of a family. The Battersea Poltergeist is a podcast devoted to exploring how belief in a poltergeist came to completely dominate the life of one particular working-class family and the ghost hunter who became obsessed with them.
I first became aware of Danny Robins back in 2017 when he was presenting a podcast called Haunted. While Haunted never really caught on, it engaged with the paranormal by taking the well-worn believer vs. sceptic framing device and burying it in the background of each episode. The podcast itself focused on witness statements and took them entirely at face value but it would also present reasons for scepticism. That way, those not inclined to believe had ample opportunities for scepticism but those who either believed or didn’t care could lose themselves in the stories. In other words, it presented the ghosts as real even if they did not necessarily happen to exist.
The Battersea Poltergeist uses the same methods as Haunted but, rather than having each episode explore a different member of the public’s experiences with ghosts, it devotes an entire series to one haunting; a haunting that made national news back in the 1950s.
The story revolves around the experiences of the Hitchings family. Back in the mid-1950s, the Hitchings lived on a terraced street in Battersea. One night, the whole family were forced from their beds by banging so loud that it woke not only them but also several of their neighbours. This banging continued for several months, bringing the family a good deal of media attention as well as assistance from a psychic investigator by the name of Harold ‘Chib’ Chibbett.
The Battersea Poltergeist shifts back and forth between fictional and non-fictional registers. On the non-fictional side, we have Robins providing commentary on the ins-and-outs of the case as well as some good-natured discussion between Evelyn Hollow and Ciaran O’Keefe of Most Haunted fame. While the pair do scrutinise and discuss the various claims made throughout the story, they never debate each other directly. They are not there to answer questions so much as to provide a set of lenses through which to examine elements of the story. It works surprisingly well.
On the fictional side, we have a very well-realised dramatization of the events at Eland road in Battersea. These recreations treat the story as completely real and that sense of reality is buttressed not only by the excellent sound effects but also by the quality of the writing and acting.
The Battersea Poltergeist does take some liberties with the story. For starters, there is little mention of the fact that there were reports of poltergeist activity dating from decades prior to the Hitchings moving into the house. Also interesting is the way that while the recreations present the haunting as real, they use casting and voice performance to frame the narrative in very specific ways.
For example, Robins’ presents Shirley Hitchings as a sharply cynical teenager while the psychic investigator is played as a desperate and maudlin old man. Thus, without these theories being articulated, we are primed for the possibility that Shirley might be the smartest person in the room while the ghost hunter is seeing only what he wants to believe. This dynamic pays off towards the end of the podcast when a terminally-ill Chib turns up at Shirley’s wedding and it turns out that while Shirley had happily skipped away from the haunting, Chib had spent years returning to the house in an effort to re-establish contact.
Part of what makes The Battersea Poltergeist so compelling is the way that the story and the nature of the contact changes over time. For example, the early episodes of the podcast are very much devoted to the mechanics of the banging and the possibility that this might have been faked as in the Enfield Haunting. Robins handles this question with real panache as there’s a lovely scene in which a pair of journalists turn up and whisk Shirley away to their offices where they strip her naked and examine her. This utterly horrific moment is presented in a manner that is so utterly straight-faced that it jerks you straight out of the truth/falsity dichotomy and repositions the entire story as an examination of issues surrounding consent and the bodily autonomy of young women. This re-positioning of the story recalls the way in which the little girl in The Exorcist is subjected to a battery of invasive medical procedures that are far more horrific than anything born of the confrontation between priest and demon. Why was the truth of Shirley’s claims so important? Who stood to benefit from her being stripped naked in an office? The same question surrounding who controls the story and whether Shirley actually had the power to step away from her own story is also raised in a neat little aside about a medium with ties to a spiritual church trying to use Shirley as a way of making money and raising their profile.
Having gone quite a long way down the path of treating Shirley as a victim, Robins reverses the power dynamic when, several months after the main force of the media storm has died down, Shirley and Chib find a way to communicate with their resident poltergeist. Again, Robins does incredible work here as the story-telling is nothing short of beautiful: It starts with Chib and Shirley teaching their ghost to knock and soon they are able to decipher entire words passed to them from what Chib believes to be the other side. Right from the start, the messages seem almost nonsensical as talk about long-dead actors morphs into claims that the poltergeist might be the ghost of the French Dauphin. At this point, things go completely off the rails as the ghost starts requesting signed photos from handsome actors and issuing terrible warnings about the actor’s imminent demise. At first this just seems weird but Chib takes it entirely at face value and starts trying to confirm facts about the Dauphin’s life. For every mistake or falsehood, there is a truth and each truth serves only to reinforce Chib’s convictions even to the point where the ghost starts making weird demands on Shirley’s behalf including allowing her to quit her part-time job and requesting that the family empty their bank accounts in order to dress Shirley like a lady of the court.
To say that The Battersea Poltergeist exists, is to say that one can say true and false things about him. What makes those claims true or false are the lives of the Hitchings family and the people they interact with. To speak of the Battersea Poltergeist is to speak of a lonely desperate man who wants to believe in life after death and how he forged a connection with a clever teenaged girl who worked out a means of getting attention in an over-full house only for those demands to widen out into the more mundane and precise demands that one might expect of a rapidly-maturing young woman: She wants contact with her TV crush, she wants nicer clothes, she doesn’t want to have to work. These were all real demands, they were just expressed in an unusual manner. The ghost is real, it’s just that when we talk about the ghost we are actually talking about a network of relationships and power dynamics; Weird quirks of character and family members that lose the ability to speak to each other.
The enduring problem with scepticism as an approach to the paranormal is that it takes all of this psycho-social complexity and reduces it down to an uninteresting binary. On one level, it is absolutely correct to say that ghosts do not exist but the fact that they don’t exist in no way prevents them from being real.