The Violent Haunting That Rattled an English Suburb
Kate Summerscale on Ghost Hunter Nandor Fodor
At his office in South Kensington on Monday, February 21, 1938, Nandor Fodor opened a letter from an East End clergyman of his acquaintance. The Reverend Francis Nicolle wanted to alert him to a poltergeist attack in the suburb of Thornton Heath, just south of London, which had been the subject of a report in that weekend’s Sunday Pictorial.
“I wonder whether you have seen it?” wrote Nicolle. “Unfortunately the actual address is not given.” The minister thought that the haunting sounded even more remarkable than a similar case in east London that he had helped Fodor to investigate that month.
Fodor, a Jewish-Hungarian journalist, had for four years been chief ghost hunter at the International Institute for Psychical Research. He loved his job, which required him to investigate and verify weird events, but the spiritualist press had recently turned against him. The bestselling weekly Psychic News accused him of being cynical about the supernatural and unkind to mediums, charges that were so damaging to his reputation as a psychical researcher—and his future in England—that in January he had sued for libel. He was now desperate to prove his sincerity and his aptitude: he needed to find a ghost.
Fodor obtained a copy of the latest Pictorial. The paper had run the poltergeist story next to a giant cut-out photograph of Adolf Hitler, who was poised to invade Austria, so that the news of the haunting seemed to issue from the Führer’s shouting mouth. “‘GHOST’ WRECKS HOME,” ran the headline, “FAMILY TERRORISED.”
According to the Pictorial’s report, the disturbance emanated from Alma Fielding, a 34-year-old housewife who lived in Thornton Heath, in the borough of Croydon, with her husband, their son and a lodger. A week earlier, on Sunday, February 13th, Alma had been seized by a pain in her pelvis while she was visiting friends in the neighborhood. She hurried home, trembling and burning, and took herself to bed. Having suffered from kidney complaints since she was a girl, she had a stock of antibacterial medicine to fight infection and sedatives to help her sleep. She dosed herself with both. As she shivered and sweated in her bedroom, a strong wind swept across south-east England, driving sheets of rain, sleet and snow through the streets of Croydon at 80 miles an hour.
Alma was laid up for days. In the middle of the week, she was joined in bed by her husband, Leslie, who usually worked as a builder and decorator. His gums were bleeding heavily, his teeth having been pulled so that he could be fitted with dentures. Through Wednesday, Thursday and Friday, reported the Sunday Pictorial, Les and Alma lay together, his mouth leaking blood, her abdomen pulsing with pain, a bright frost lining the trees and walls outside their twin windows. The storms died down, but the air remained wintry and sharp. Alma noticed a peculiar, six-digit handprint on the mirror above the bedroom fireplace. Perhaps her fever or the drugs were inducing hallucinations.
Towards midnight on Friday, Alma and Les were trying to sleep when they heard something shatter nearby. Alma turned on her bedside lamp. She and Les saw the shards of a broken tumbler on the floor and then, suddenly, another glass flew past and splintered against the wall. They waited, terrified. The room fell quiet.
“Put the light out,” said Les. “Let’s see what happens.”
When Alma turned off her lamp a dank wind moved through the room, lifting the eiderdown so that it swam up at them and fell over their faces.
“Switch on the light,” said Les. “Quickly.”
Alma tried to turn on the lamp, but nothing happened. Nor did the light come on when Les reached over and pressed the switch himself. Alma shouted for help. Their 16-year-old son, Donald, crossed the landing from his bedroom, but as he opened the door he had to duck to dodge a flying pot of face cream. George, the lodger, edged in after him, and was hit by two coins—a shilling and a penny. The pair of them drew back, and Don hurried downstairs to fetch matches. When he returned he struck a match and made his way by its flame to the lamp at his mother’s bedside. The bulb had vanished from the socket. It was found, unbroken and still hot to the touch, on a chair on the other side of the room.
Everyone was shaken, but after half an hour things seemed to have calmed down. At about twenty to one Don and George went to their beds. They all eventually fell asleep.
The next morning Alma was feeling well enough to go downstairs, but an egg smashed when she was in the kitchen; a saucer snapped. She didn’t know what to do—a ghost hardly seemed a matter for the police—so she placed a call to the offices of the Sunday Pictorial. The newspaper was running a series on the supernatural and had invited readers to write in with their experiences.
“Come to my house,” Alma implored the Pictorial’s news desk. “There are things going on here I cannot explain.”
The Sunday Pic, as it was known to its readers, despatched two reporters to Thornton Heath. As Alma opened the front door to the Pictorial men that afternoon, they saw an egg fly down the corridor to land a yard from their feet. As she led them to the kitchen, a pink china dog rattled to the floor and a sharp-bladed tin opener cut through the air at head height.
In the front parlor, a teacup and saucer lifted out of Alma’s hands as she sat with her guests, the saucer spinning and splintering as if shot in mid-air. She screamed as a second saucer exploded in her fingers and sliced into her thumb. While the gash was being bandaged, the reporters heard smashing in the kitchen: a wine glass had apparently escaped a locked cabinet and shattered on the floor. They saw an egg whirl in through the living-room door to crack against the sideboard. A giant chunk of coal rose from the grate, sailed across the room, inches from the head of one of the reporters, and smacked into the wall. The house seemed to be under siege from itself.
Les, Don, and George were at home but, as far as the Pictorial men could tell, none of them was responsible for the phenomena: the objects were propelled by an unseen force. A crowd had gathered in the street outside. Among the bystanders, the reporters found a palm reader who went by the name of Professor Morisone (otherwise Mr. Morrison), and invited him in to the house. The clairvoyant advised Alma that she was a very strong “carrier” of ectoplasm, the floating filmy substance with which some mediums materialized spirits. He said that the tumult in her home was a message of warning, and that her son was in danger.The ghosts of Britain, meanwhile, were livelier than ever.
The Pictorial published its piece the next morning, under the slogan: “This is the most curious front page story we have ever printed.” In an ordinary terrace in Thornton Heath, it declared, “some malevolent, ghostly force is working miracles. Poltergeist… That’s what the scientists call it. The Spiritualists? They say it’s all caused by a mischievous earth-bound spirit.”
On an inside page, the paper ran a photograph of Alma, Don and George—“the occupants of the house of fear”—gazing warily at a large lump of coal.
Fodor was gripped by the Pictorial’s story. He hoped that this poltergeist would provide him with the proof of the supernatural that he needed. It might also help him to develop his more daring ideas about the occult. The word “poltergeist,” from the German for “noisy spirit,” had been popularized in Britain in the 1920s, but no one knew what poltergeists really were: hoaxes by the living; hauntings by the dead; spontaneous discharges of electrical energy. Fodor, having read the work of Sigmund Freud, wondered if they might be kinetic forces unleashed by the unconscious mind. He noticed that the Thornton Heath poltergeist centered on one woman. It had sparked into life in the bedroom, and seemed at first to direct its violence at the men of the house.
Fodor knew that he must act quickly. The International Institute was one of several psychical research bodies in London, and other ghost hunters would be sure to take an interest in this haunting. Poltergeist attacks were in any case usually short-lived, sometimes lasting for only a few days. He composed a letter to the Sunday Pictorial’s new editor, the 24-year-old wunderkind Hugh Cudlipp, asking if he could “come in” on the case. Would Cudlipp be good enough to give him the haunted family’s address in Thornton Heath? Reminding Cudlipp that he had already submitted several articles about uncanny events to the Pictorial, Fodor promised to report back on anything that he found.
Like everyone in Britain, Fodor was also following the political news with disquiet. The Pictorial reported that the prime minister, Neville Chamberlain, had called an emergency Cabinet meeting to address the threat posed by the Italian dictator Benito Mussolini; and that Adolf Hitler had massed 80,000 troops on the Austrian border, ready to invade. That Sunday, Hitler made a defiant three-hour speech in which he demanded the return of German land surrendered in the Treaty of Versailles.
Britain was braced for war. Twenty-five million gas masks had been manufactured by late February, schools were being commandeered for air-raid training, and trial blackouts were being staged throughout the land. The town of Jarrow in north-eastern England was seized with panic when an oxygen works went up in flames that month, reported the Pictorial. As exploding metal canisters shot across the River Tyne, the residents fled their homes in terror, convinced that enemy planes were bombing the munitions factories.
“It was an amazing scene,” said the paper. “Cripples, frantic women pushing prams, aged people, all scantily dressed, massed in a terrified throng.” Several war veterans collapsed, apparently with symptoms of shell shock.
“Ordinary chaps that I meet everywhere,” says the narrator of George Orwell’s Coming Up For Air, “chaps that I run across in pubs, bus drivers, and traveling salesmen for hardware firms, have a feeling that the world’s gone wrong. They can feel things cracking and collapsing under their feet.” They have a “kind of prophetic feeling,” he says, “that war’s just around the corner and that war’s the end of all things.”
For many, the dread was sharpened with flashbacks—“mental pictures of the shellbursts and the mud.” If the first world war of the century had been devastating, the next was expected to be apocalyptic.
The ghosts of Britain, meanwhile, were livelier than ever. Almost a thousand people had written to the Pictorial in February to describe their encounters with wraiths and revenants, while other papers reported on a spirit vandalizing a house in Stornoway, in the Outer Hebrides, and on a white-draped figure seen gliding through the Hawker aircraft factory in Kingston upon Thames.
The nation’s phantoms were distractions from anxiety, expressions of anxiety, symptoms of a nervous age. Fodor had been in Britain for less than a decade, but as a ghost hunter he had already become intimate with his new country’s fantasies and fears.
Excerpted from The Haunting of Alma Fielding: A True Ghost Story. Used with the permission of the publisher, Penguin Press, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House, LLC. Copyright © 2021 by Kate Summerscale.