The Battersea Poltergeist and the Power of ‘I Don’t Know’

When out shopping, I often get stopped by security guards. Not because I’m a notorious criminal (though I wouldn’t tell you if I was), but because they want to tell me about the latest weird things that have happened to staff in the haunted shopping centre near me. Once, a guard was showing me CCTV footage on his phone of a cage of stock seemingly rolling through a warehouse in its own and I was seen by someone I worked with who told my boss I had been caught shoplifting. Awkward…

As someone who researches and investigates reports of ghostly goings on, something that I came to understand many, many years ago is that everybody knows a real-life ghost story. It either happened to them or it happened to somebody they know. In fact, over the years, I have been told so many stories both by people who personally witnessed something strange in the past, as well as by those who were told a story by someone who trusted them. Yet, these stories are a drop in the ocean of untold stories.

“I used to work with this fella who…”, “when she was younger, my sister saw…”, “the people in the office I used to work in…”

It’s important to remember that when it comes to retellings of stories it’s often difficult to pick out the facts from the misremembered fictions. After all, when we recall information from a memory, we often accidentally embellish it, or remember it in a way someone else described it as happening. Goodness knows that many of the stories I have of weird things I’ve witnessed while on a case are remembered happening differently by other people. For example, it once felt as though somebody had pulled the sleeve of my shirt, trying to get my attention during a ghost investigation and when I turned around there was nobody standing near me. However, someone else who was present that night remembers that another team member was standing near me, but they had a camcorder in one hand and a tripod in the other hand which is how we knew they hadn’t pulled on my sleeve.

Knowing how eye-witness testimony isn’t always reliable (and not for automatically nefarious reasons) I’ve found it very interesting recently to listen to people discussing their ideas about the case of The Battersea Poltergeist.  The podcast (hosted by Danny Robins) explores the true case of an apparent 12-year-long haunting of a family’s house in Battersea. The docudrama is based on the retelling of the haunting by Shirley Hitchings who was 15-years-old when the activity began and found herself as the unwanted focus of attention. You can (and should) listen here.

At a time when, thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic, we are reminded on a regular basis of our own mortality, it doesn’t surprise me that people with even only a passing interest in the paranormal have found themselves gripped by this story involving an ordinary, working-class family who they can probably relate to in one way or another. In fact, the Battersea Poltergeist podcast has been recommended to me relentlessly by fellow ghost researchers, friends, family, neighbours, colleagues (who often don’t know I do spooky stuff in my spare time) and even friends of friends. However, recommendations were not required because if you listened to the podcast and emailed in with your thoughts or suggestions, the chances are that you received an email back from someone called Hayley. That would be yours truly.

There have been so many emails sent to the Battersea Poltergeist team and although Danny tries to answer as many as possible, there’s only so many hours in a day. For those not familiar with who I am let me roll out the usual intro to new visitors of my blog; I’m a paranormal researcher who isn’t quite convinced the paranormal exists. I specialise in ghostly phenomena (sometimes dabble in lake monsters and the occasional UFO) and I use a scientific methodology to try and solve spooky mysteries. Hi!

Being asked to read and answer listener emails for the Battersea Poltergeist podcast has been a very interesting experience. It has reinforced for me four important facts about dealing with paranormal eye-witnesses as a paranormal researcher:

  1. so many people have had strange experiences and only a small percentage of people are willing to talk openly about them. There have been some truly incredible ‘it happened to me’ emails sent into the team that have likely been kept secret for so long.
  2. When it comes to researching the paranormal, it’s important to remember the flaws of eye-witness testimony as I mentioned above, but it’s also important to listen to people’s stories too, because how can we hope to keep learning about how and why people witness paranormal phenomena if we’re not willing to listen in the first place?
  3. This is why it’s also important to encourage people to feel confident in coming forward to share their experiences without the fear of ridicule.
  4. There’s power to be found in saying “I don’t know”. It can be tempting to try and find an explanation for everything. The flaws of eye-witness testimony should also be considered when basing a conclusion on that testimony.

So many people also emailed into the show with their theories about what was going on in that house in Battersea and although there were some great suggestions and tips, there were lots of accusations too. Although some things are more likely than others to be the cause for phenomena reported (i.e. it’s more likely there was human involvement than supernatural involvement) based solely on eye-witness testimony, we’ll never know for certain, and that’s okay.

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