The writer Kate Summerscale has an enviable nose for events, once briefly notorious, that are still singular and disturbing, and often riven with ambiguities. She sweeps out forgotten, often violent corners of our domestic history, revealing how collective fears sometimes coalesce around specific incidents and how in retrospect these events are representative of wider patterns of behaviour. She has looked at infanticide, child murderers and divorce on the grounds of sexual fantasy. Her new book jumps into the mid-20th century, dealing with the case of a poltergeist haunting.
In 1938, Alma Fielding, a 34-year-old housewife from the south London suburb of Thornton Heath, apparently became possessed by a violent spirit. It started one evening when Alma was in bed afflicted by kidney pain while her builder husband, Les, was suffering from tooth problems next to her. After seeing a six-finger handprint appear on the mirror, the couple were attacked by a flying eiderdown, felt a dank wind blowing and saw a glass spontaneously shatter. In the weeks and months that followed, the Fieldings, their teenage son, Don, and their lodger, George, were terrorised by what seemed wildly malevolent paranormal forces. Sunday Pictorial reporters sent to investigate were met with flying eggs, teacups breaking in midair and a brass fender thumping down a staircase.
This rude spectral activity was a far cry from the moaning and chain-clanking traditionally associated with hauntings. It had a distinctly modern flavour. Poltergeists were all the rage in the 1930s, and they were particularly active in the new suburbs. Summerscale quotes J B Priestley’s 1933 description of the interwar urban sprawl that came with motorcars and mod cons: ‘This is the England of arterial and by-pass roads, of filling stations and factories that look like exhibition buildings, of giant cinemas and dance-halls and cafés, bungalows with tiny garages, cocktail bars, Woolworths, motor-coaches, wireless, hiking, factory girls looking like actresses, greyhound racing and dirt tracks, swimming pools, and everything given away for cigarette coupons.’ This was the world of the Fieldings. Alma’s poltergeist was the type who went shoplifting on a day trip to Bognor.
Summerscale’s great coup is to have unearthed the notes on Alma’s case of the celebrated Hungarian psychic investigator Nandor Fodor, as well as his personal diary. Fodor spent months subjecting Alma’s experiences to rigorous (if eccentric) tests on behalf of the International Institute for Psychical Research. His job was to find her a fraud, but of course it was far more in his interest (and in the interest of the institute) to find in Alma’s experiences genuine evidence of the supernatural. Summerscale is interesting on the growth of spiritualism in this period. It started with the loss of religious faith in the 19th century and peaked in the late 1930s, a period of dislocating social change and mass bereavement following one war, with another seemingly imminent. ‘All over Britain’, she writes, ‘domestic furniture seemed to be bristling into life.’ There were certainly some mightily odd examples of wilful kinetic forces apparently unleashed. There was Gef, the famous talking mongoose on the Isle of Man, for example, as well as a woman who could make her body grow flowers and a Hungarian named Lajos Pap who could conjure live insects, snakes and birds from the air in a sealed room. But it’s the credulity of their audiences that is most surprising. It took a surprisingly long time to notice, for example, that the flower medium’s blooms looked exactly like the ones available at the florist’s. And why did most mediums insist that trances take place in the dark?
Fodor’s obsession with Alma’s case, as revealed by his notes, has a creepily physical quality. Before her appearances at the International Institute for Psychical Research, she had to be undressed and examined in almost every orifice. Summerscale describes the genteel probing involved in this process, noting, for example, the suspicion that Alma was hiding trinkets in her vagina and shooting them out via some kind of muscular spasm. The prosaic seems comfortably at home with the paranormal here: Fodor’s minutes include the observation that even in the heat of paranormal frenzy, participants always ‘broke for tea’. Fodor acknowledged that elements of Alma’s haunting were fraudulent (her accounts of astral projection were cooked up with her lodger), but he wouldn’t believe she was wholly a charlatan. After all, professional magicians brought in to watch Alma apparently snatch shards of ancient pottery from thin air were completely convinced by her. Fodor moved from believing her to be possessed to believing her to be subject to forces unleashed by repressed trauma, possibly sexual. The haunting went from being a source of wonder to a case of sickness.
By any measure, Alma’s story is a strange and perplexing one. Summerscale’s account remains almost suffocatingly close to Fodor’s, but in the last pages of the book, the story’s perspective is suddenly skewed revealingly when she interviews Alma’s surviving acquaintances. The tale ends, in fact, in a damp squib of cosy suburban bathos. Her grandson Barry remembers her only as a sly, smelly old woman who told improbable stories about the glory days of her notoriety. In the Fieldings’ retirement bungalow in Branscombe, she held seances, replete with eerie tinkles: one participant remembers seeing a bell with a Woolworths’ label still on it hidden up her sleeve. Even Don, her son, who in Fodor’s account was so traumatised by poltergeist activity, was recalled by Barry as making only a vague mention of once being chased by a flying back-scrubbing brush.
Summerscale revisits these strange events with her customary wide research and in lucid and unadorned prose. Like Fodor, she is reluctant to come to any conclusions as to what the haunting of Alma Fielding was all about, but she draws a convincing and compelling portrait of a moment of mass anxiety in which so deep was the longing to believe that anything could become believable.