FR: The Witch Farm

For Real is an occasional series about scary, horrific, and unsettling stuff 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.

Early in 2021, the BBC launched a series of podcasts written and presented by someone called Danny Robins. At that point, Robins was already a playwright and he had helmed a series of episodic podcasts called Haunted. Though well-produced and centred on the UK, Haunted was not all that different to any of the hundreds of paranormal podcasts that remain scattered across the internet: You had an attempt at re-creation, you had interviews with people who may or may not be disturbed, and you have the familiar paranormal framing device of pretending the whole thing is some kind of open-minded scientific investigation whereas in fact it’s just an excuse to tell ghost stories. Haunted was not a huge success but Robins’ connections and the series production values were enough to turn some heads at the BBC and so Radio 4 commissioned what would wind up becoming a bit of a break-through hit in so far as lots of the people who listened to The Battersea Poltergeist would not otherwise listen to a podcast with paranormal themes.

 In hindsight, it is pretty obvious why The Battersea Poltergeist became a global success: The production values were superb, the dramatizations included serious acting talent, and Robins himself was an engaging active host who pushed the series relentlessly on social media. However, over and above the formal successes of The Battersea Poltergeist, I think the series real success lays in the way that it reached beyond the merely paranormal to the psychological forces at work within the family. To this day, I frequently think of the way that the girl who was once at the centre of the hauntings seemed to just ‘grow out’ of ghosts and went on to live a normal life while the professional ghost-hunter spent years returning and returning to the house in the hope of re-establishing contact with what was manifestly nothing more than a pre-teen girl’s need for attention. I actually wrote something about The Battersea Poltergeist last year and my feelings about the series have only grown warmer with the passage of time.

Robins launched another podcast named Uncanny for Halloween 2021. It returned to the episodic structure of Haunted and failed to re-capture that broader audience. To be honest, I listened to the first few episodes and rapidly lost interest as the format of dramatic re-creation, interviews, discussion, and frequent online calls to action seemed to overwhelm the content and served to compress each story down to the point where everything felt really insubstantial and rushed. I also found the constant musical stings and Robins’ attempts to drive audience engagement quite irritating.

For Halloween 2022, Robins has ditched the stand-alone episode format of Haunted and Uncanny in favour of the more sustained examination of a single case that worked so well on The Battersea Poltergeist. However, despite again boasting some real acting talent and showing signs of evolving the formula, I don’t think that Robins’ The Witch Farm is anywhere near as fun or as thought-provoking as The Battersea Poltergeist. It all feels a bit too… well… glib for my liking.

The Witch Farm is based on the reported real-life haunting of a farm in the Breccon Beacons named Heol Fanog. Heol Fanog is already well-known in paranormal circles though it’s usually referred to as “Hellfire Farm”.

In fact, Channel 4 produced an episode of a TV series called True Horror about the haunting back in 2018 and there is also a book about by Mark Chadbourn called Testimony and while Chadbourn does not appear on the podcast, Robins does credit him for the work done on the case.

The story starts with Bill and Liz Rich moving to the Breccon Beacons in the late 1980s along with Bill’s teenaged son from an earlier marriage. The first sign that something wasn’t right with the house were absurdly high electricity bills that appeared to have no physical cause. The couple then began hearing strange noises including ghostly foot-steps and then their animals started getting aggressive before dropping dead. Again, there appeared to be no physical cause for the strange occurrences.

While The Witch Farm is a sustained examination of a single haunting, Robins decided to break up the story into a series of episodes corresponding to different waves of phenomena that were then explained in different ways by the variety of psychics, priests, exorcists, druids, and dowsers who were all brought in by the Rich family to deal with their problems.

This is where the format begins to break down as each episode features a dramatization and some witness interviews before opening the latest features up for discussion with two experts who are respectively a believer and a sceptic. The problem with the episodic format and the decision to treat each new ‘event’ or ‘explanation’ in isolation is that it focuses on the most recent set of paranormal claims. The decision to examine each new occurrence through a reductive ‘true’ or ‘false’ dichotomy means that we lose sight of both the bigger picture and human elements such as the family dynamics and individual characters that came across so well and so clearly in The Battersea Poltergeist.

The decision to always focus on the most recent set of claims also serves to make the believer appear like a complete imbecile as the reductive nature of the ‘true’ or ‘false’ dichotomy means that the believer is forced to accept every paranormal theory at face value. As a result, Heol Fanog appears to be haunted, and on a set of ley lines, and the site of a witch’s coven, and the subject of a curse, and a site of demonic possession. All of these things are treated as not only fair enough, but also equally true despite the fact that they cannot all be true at the same time.

Well aware that he cannot simply sit there and be dismissive, the sceptic does describe a series of psychological phenomena that could account for various aspects of the haunting but even here, there’s a real resistance to engage with the story in any real detail. The only time anyone actually tries to engage with the substance of the claims is when one of Bill Rich’s old teachers talks about how it’s possible to hallucinate as a result of having too much contact with paint and we know that Bill was not only a professional artist but that he spent his time at Heol Fanog working obsessively in a small studio.

I was fascinated by the story of Heol Fanog because, if you squint at the narrative and read between the lines, you get a really compelling story about a professional artist who moved to a remote rural location only for a recession to cause all of his business to dry up. This lack of income, combined with the farm’s disastrous electrics, served to undermine his mental health which, when combined with the effects of spending all day in a studio working with toxic paints and brush-cleaning chemicals accelerated first the collapse of Rich’s mental health and then his descent into the alcoholism.

There’s real pathos in the way that the couple keep hurling money at transparently crooked psychics but it’s also really interesting that nobody seemed willing to provide Bill with the kind of help he manifestly needed. This sadness is only amplified further by the fact that Bill’s widow is still claiming that the house was haunted despite Bill appearing to have had a kind of nervous breakdown brought on by the isolation, the money problems, the alcohol, and the fumes from the paint. I must admit that my sympathy for the couple went away the second they took the advice of a sinister psychic and decided to place the blame for the haunting on Bill’s teenaged son who is forced to go and live in a boarding house despite the fact that the hauntings continue even after he leaves.

As I’ve written before, the interesting thing about ghosts is not the question of their physical reality but the context in which they exist. In this case, the context is the collapse of one man’s mental health and a couple’s absolute refusal to deal with it like adults. Mental health services in the UK are currently stretched to breaking point but this was all taking place in the late 1980s when it would have been just as easy to be seen by a psychiatrist as it was by the procession of psychics and cranks that were ineffectually paraded through the halls of Heol Fanog.

For me, it’s at this level that the format of The Witch Farm really becomes intolerable. What the Rich family endured in the Breccon beacons is not so much frightening as terribly sad. You have a family torn apart at the command of a crooked psychic and two people hurling money at cranks when mental health services would have been available for free on the NHS. I get the impression that Robins refused to draw any real conclusions out of respect for Bill’s surviving family but this type of situation is precisely why psychics have such a terrible reputation: This was a family that needed help but instead they gave their money to a succession of exorcists who did nothing to solve the problem. The fact that so much human misery is glossed over or reduced down to a simple opposition between #teamsceptic and #teambeliever is grotesque, as is Robins’ incessant social media hustling and Ollie Plimsoles-style forced upbeat jollity.

There’s a really great story here about human nature and the way that engaging fantasies rush in to fill the space vacated by unpalatable truths but fuck me… there must be a more humane and dignified way of confronting these kinds of issues.

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