A Spectre is haunting England – The Spectre of Catholicism
Britain is a profoundly haunted place. It’s not just that this island has seen continuous habitation since at least the last Ice Age, it’s also that the British isles have seen so many waves of immigration, invasion, and colonisation that every town and every place seems to have a history of violence and replacement. Wherever you look and wherever you go, you are confronted by traces of other people, other cultures, and the futures they once sought to build.
Ghost stories have always been popular in Britain. Every stately home and rural pub carries the legend of a sorrowful woman or a villainous sadist whose hatred left him too angry to rest in peace. While every culture has its own form of ghost stories, British ghost stories are as close as the British get to an acknowledgement of the violence and despair that continues to shape these isles. Britons don’t like talking about the savagery of Empire, the shoot-to-kill policies, and all of the troops wielding death in their name, but the enduring popularity of ghost stories suggests a willingness to believe that any house and any garden might be sat atop a pile of bones.
Though increasingly obscured by the pop-cultural popularity of the Enfield Haunting, the Haunting of Borley Rectory remains a canonical haunting and a hugely influential piece of psychical research.
Now burned down, Borley Rectory was a gothic-style mansion built to house the rector of the parish of Borley in Essex some way North West of Colchester. Almost from the start, the house gathered rumours of hauntings including ghostly footsteps, spectral nuns, and a phantom carriage complete with undead horses and a headless coachman. Given how endemic hauntings can be in the British countryside, it is hardly surprising that the legend stuck around but it wasn’t until the third rector arrived that people outside the village started to take notice.
Upon moving into the rectory, the rector’s wife is said to have discovered the skull of a young woman. The discovery of the skull was soon followed by an escalating series of unexplained events culminating in a sighting of the phantom carriage. This prompted the rector to reach out to the Daily Mirror in the hope of being put into contact with the Society for Psychical Research. The Mirror sent a reporter as well as the psychical researcher Harry Price.
There have been a number of attempts to build film and TV series around Harry Price but none of them have quite managed to capture the man’s unique combination of desperate credulity, hard-headed scepticism and ruthless cynicism.
Price first made it into the papers by claiming to have made an important discovery in the field of telegraphy whereas in reality, all that he had done was conducted an experiment and produced a press release that was well-written enough to attract the attention of a few journalists. From there, Price went on to write for local newspapers, particularly about a variety of archaeological discoveries that have since been revealed to be fraudulent. Price was also a skilled amateur magician but despite knowing both how to fake things and how to manipulate the press, Price chose to launch himself into the public consciousness by using his skills to debunk a number of well-respected psychics such as the spirit photographer William Hope and the psychic medium Jan Guzyk.
Fictional depictions of Price have tended to present him as either a poacher-turned-gamekeeper or an opportunist but Price’s capacity for fraud sits quite comfortably besides his hatred of other frauds once you understand the role that scepticism plays in paranormal discourse.
No psychic, medium, or ghost-hunter will admit to an uncomplicated belief in the existence of ghosts as admitting to an uncritical belief in ghosts is tantamount to admitting to the world-view of an idiot, a child, or an uneducated sot. Rather than admitting to uncritical superstition, people who believe in the existence in the paranormal tend to go to great lengths demonstrating that their beliefs are the product of not just serious research, but also rigorous scepticism. This scepticism can take many forms including genuflecting to the idea of scientific rigour, emphasising the use of mechanical devices that ‘objectively’ detect mysterious phenomena, and stressing that you are not like those other
Price was no author, his writing style is journalistic and so the descriptions of hauntings this book contains can be rather dry. The Most Haunted House in England is not a book you read in order to scare yourself, this is a book you read to learn about ghost-hunting as its performance of hard-headed scepticism is an absolute delight.
The book begins with a slow, deliberate crawl around the rectory and its rumoured haunting. Price digs out old reports, speaks to people in the village and tries to establish that the house was haunted not just for a long time, but also in quite a coherent manner. Indeed, the hauntings do seem to cluster around the figure of a nun passing through the back garden and a ghostly carriage driving down the lane. Based on these sighting and local folklore, Price cobbles together a story about a nun and a monk falling in love and planning to elope only for them to be captured and walled up while the driver of the carriage was summarily decapitated.
There’s quite an amusing back and forth at one point as Price’s initial reports about the haunting resulted in some very high-minded people writing letters to the Times. People challenge Price about the horse and carriage on the grounds that carriages did not exist in the medieval period and Price cheerily concedes the point. People then challenge Price on the idea of monastic orders walling people up as punishment to which Price airily replies this kind of thing happened all the time in Antiquity so who’s to say that it didn’t happen in pre-reformation England?
Having had his gothic mystery slapped down in the press, Price limits himself to reports of less evocative hauntings. There’s talk of a séance, there’s talk of a load of spooky footsteps and knockings, but the nun remains conspicuous by her absence. This more ‘scientific’ approach to the description of hauntings is where the book really shines as The Most Haunted House in England is filled not only with gorgeous 1920s photography, but also detailed internal plans and lists of unexplained phenomena recorded in the house. There are also copies of the NDA that people were required to sign before visiting the house as well as the ‘Blue Book’ guide for how to conduct paranormal research. The floorplans and descriptions of the house are absolutely glorious and make the entire book feel more like a low-key Call of Cthulhu adventure than a traditional ghost story.
When the rector and his wife decamp after deciding that the rectory is too big, too cold, and too devoid of amenities to be comfortable, Price rents the house for a year in the hope of performing a more in-depth study. He puts an advert in the paper looking for unpaid volunteers and gets inundated with applicants from which he selects a handful. These amateur investigators then take turns spending time in the house, recording everything they see and hear. The book includes all of their reports as well as more detailed testimonies from people who spent more time in the house. Somewhat unsurprisingly, these longer reports are far more resonant than the somewhat dry factual accounts. What makes them jump off the page is the way that they take strange occurrences and pass them through the filter of pre-existing beliefs resulting in stories that, almost unintentionally, add a lot to the Borley lore. For example, while stories of headless coachmen and ghostly nuns may have drawn Price to Borley but neither of these ghosts manifest themselves to any of Price’s team. This being said, one of the longer testimonials comes from a Catholic Monk who talks about doors locking and only unlocking themselves when placed in contact with a religious relic. There are also stories of ghosts being prayed over and while Price doesn’t exactly embrace the project’s emergent Catholic realism, he does allow it to start shaping the narrative as there’s a lengthy séance in which there’s talk of people being buried in the garden and returning as ghosts in the hope that their remains will be discovered and re-buried in consecrated ground.
While I was charmed by the book’s attempt to rigorously document a serious paranormal investigation, I’m not sure that Harry Price actually added very much to the legend of Borley. In some ways, I don’t think the stories surrounding Borley Rectory ever managed to move beyond the powerful mental image of a nun walking through an English country garden. In order to understand the power of that image, you really need to understand the role that Catholicism plays in British culture.
Britain is not a Catholic country. It has not been a Catholic country since Henry VIII and the dissolution of the monasteries. We still have Catholic people, Catholic Churches, and Catholic Cardinals still sit in our House of Lords but most of Catholicism’s cultural signifiers were stripped from this country first by the dissolution of the monasteries and then by the puritanism that followed the Civil War and Britain’s brief time without a royal head of state. Unlike other European countries such as France, Italy, or Ireland, priests and nuns are rarely seen on the streets of Britain and so having your house be haunted by a nun takes something already quite strange and makes it even weirder.
This second layer of weirdness comes from the fact that a lot of British history is taught in a way that presents Catholicism as a kind of antagonist on Britain’s path to national self-fulfilment. To grow up in this country is to hear endless stories of Henry VIII cutting ties with Rome and Elizabeth I defeating the Spanish Armada as a way of making that schism a permanent political reality. When we celebrate Bonfire night we are celebrating the failure of a Catholic plot to destroy the houses of parliament. We burn the traitor in effigy as an annual reminder of what might have been.
This understanding of how Britain came to be Britain swims in and out of focus with the passage of time, the only areas of British cultural discourse where it remains in the foreground are in discussions of Scottish and Irish Sectarianism. However, while Catholicism’s role as long-term cultural bogeyman may wax and wane, the narrative of Britain becoming Britain by resisting Catholic domination is so strong and so pervasive that you can see traces of it not only in the way that Britain talks about World War II but also in the way that it talks about Brexit. Obviously, Nazi Germany was no more Catholic than the European Union but Britain trains its children to distrust the idea of European cultural domination and that need for Britain to define itself against some shadowy European supra-national entity is arguably the foundational myth of British nationalism. This is why the image of a Nun walking through an English country garden remains powerful; it carries an emotional charge not dissimilar to an image of Nazi flags flying over Buckingham palace.
It’s not just that these images are incongruous; it’s a form of incongruity that is powerful because it originates from an alternate timeline that is very close to our own. Anyone educated in Britain is drilled on how easily Britain could have fallen either to the Spanish Armada or the Nazi forces on the French coast and that sense of alterity born of a near historical miss has real power to unsettle. Our education system raises us to fear certain kinds of alternative presents and any reminder of those other timelines unleashes an emotional charge. It’s like surviving a nasty car crash and feeling a chill run down your spine every time you pass that spot.
Reading The Most Haunted House in England, I am fascinated by the way that Price keeps returning to that image of a nun in an English country garden. He may perform scepticism with real panache and stress the objective nature of his observations but at the end of the day, the true power of Borley Rectory lies in its ability to invoke images of a very different England.