By: Rebecca Booth
Set in 1974, When the Lights Went Out (2012) centres on 13-year-old Sally Maynard (Tasha Connor) as she moves to a new house in Yorkshire, England with her parents. It’s not long before she discovers that she’s sharing the space with two supernatural entities. One appears to be the ghost of a young girl, and the other is a malevolent entity. The latter’s attacks are focused on Sally, deepening the ridge between the teenager and her disbelieving parents, who think she is telling stories for attention. The assaults become increasingly violent and are witnessed by the Maynards and acquaintances, forcing Sally’s parents to finally seek help from a local priest. It’s soon apparent that even he can’t help the family.
The film takes as its influence Colin Wilson’s 1981 book Poltergeist!: A Study in Destructive Haunting, which documents the alleged poltergeist activity experienced by the Pritchard family at 30 East Drive, Pontefract, West Yorkshire between 1966 and 1969. Before this period, Pontefract was famous for its Pomfrey cakes, a black sweet made from the liquorice grown in the Yorkshire town. Among paranormal enthusiasts, the town is now synonymous with something far sinister: the Black Monk of Pontefract.
The Pritchard family claimed to terrorized by an entity they initially referred to as “Mr. Nobody” and later “Fred”. In addition to strange noises, objects were thrown around the house, including a large grandmother clock falling down the stairs. Dust appeared to fall from mid-air and puddles of water appeared on the floor with no apparent source. 15-year-old Philip Pritchard was believed to be the centre of the activity in 1966 but this focus was transferred to Diane (then aged 14) during the second period of assault, which started suddenly after two uneventful years and lasted from late-1968 to mid-1969. Diane was said to have been pinned by furniture heavy enough to crush her, though she was fortunately and strangely unharmed. She claimed to have fallen asleep in her room several times, only to find herself on her bedroom floor with her mattress on top of her. The most alarming incident, witnessed by the Pritchards, occurred when Diane was dragged upstairs by an unseen entity. This traumatic event left marks on Diane’s throat and prohibited her from entering the house years later, when the director and writer of When the Lights Went Out, Pat Holden, returned to the site with her for research purposes. In 1969, the family was advised to hang bulbs of garlic around the house, and shortly after doing so the haunting ceased—or did it? Activity has been reported in the adjoining house to the property in the years since, and neighbours claim to have seen a dark figure lurking in the area. 30 East Drive itself has become a site for paranormal enthusiasts, with an abundance of activity and photographic evidence collected in recent years—more on this later.
Unlike its famous cousins in Amityville, Long Island (the site of the murders and subsequent alleged haunting that inspired Jay Anson’s book, The Amityville Horror in 1977, and Stuart Rosenberg’s film adaptation in 1979), Enfield, England (home of the poltergeist documented in Guy Lyon Playfair’s book This House is Haunted (1980) and most recently explored in James Wan’s The Conjuring 2 (2016)), and Culver City, California (where Doris Bithers claimed to have been violently and sexually attacked by a demonic force as documented in Frank De Felitta’s 1978 book, The Entity, and Sidney J. Furie’s 1982 cinematic retelling), this case was not originally investigated or documented by professionals. Though the haunting stirred up local excitement—as well as police officers, local politicians and clergy claiming to have witnessed the phenomenon, the house was on a bus route and drivers would acknowledge its reputation to enthralled passengers—it remained contained within the aging pages of local newspapers until it was happened upon by a researcher interested in the history of the Cluniac monks in the region.
The Cluniac Order was basically the first attempt at monastic reform in the 11th century. To ensure that the formerly independent priories were protected from societal politics, such as participation in the Feudal system, an institutional network was created so that affiliated monasteries reported directly to the Cluny Abbey. One of these houses was established in Pontefract.
Paranormal investigator Tom Cuniff attested that the land on which the house is situated was the site of historical civil battles, suggesting that residual energy as a result of the volume of violent deaths may explain the haunting. On top of this, the Cluniac monastery hanged a monk in the 15th century for the rape and murder of a young girl in the village. The gallows at which this punishment was executed, Cuniff argued, was in the immediate vicinity of the house itself. Though this claim has been widely disputed, apparitions witnessed by the Pritchards, as well as their family and friends, refer to the manifestation of a dark, hooded figure in the house. Coupled with Cuniff’s research, the descriptions support his argument that the malevolent entity in 30 East Drive was the spirit of the hanged monk:
One morning, Mrs. Mountain [who lived in the adjoining property] was at her kitchen sink when she felt someone standing behind her. She had heard no one come in, and assumed that it was her nephew, who had sneaked in to make her jump. She said something like “Oh, give over,” and looked around. She found herself looking at a tall figure dressed in a black monk’s habit, with a cowl over the head. Its position prevented her from seeing the face. She told me that it looked quite solid, and that—oddly enough—she felt no fear, only curiosity. Then it vanished.
The legend of the Black Monk of Pontefract was born. However, this description does not sit well with the agreed definition of the poltergeist. In the forthcoming anthology from House of Leaves Publishing, Scared Sacred: Idolatry, Religion and Worship in the Horror Film, Erin Thompson’s chapter, “The Last Temptation: Demonic Warfare and Supernatural Sacrifice,” focuses on the pattern of supernatural disturbance, possession, and affirmation of faith in The Amityville Horror (1979) and the cinematic dramatization of the events at 30 East Drive, When the Lights Went Out (2012). In her chapter, Thompson describes poltergeist activity as follows:
A notoriously difficult-to-define phenomenon, a poltergeist is most often described as “an unusual form of energy produced most often by a young person,” though “ghosts or demon possession” may function as the root cause (Clarkson, 2011, p. 11). While documented poltergeist attacks have a relatively short duration of approximately one week to three months, instances of poltergeist activity may stem from extreme stress, and include but are not limited to unexplained knocking, electrical outages, pockets of cold temperatures, and unfamiliar voices (Clarkson, 2011, p. 11). Typically, the perception of the poltergeist is of a playful trickster—the entity or energy doesn’t seek to actively harm an individual, but merely create loud attention in an almost childlike fashion. As the manifestation of energy is thought to stem from the presence of a distressed youngster, this perception of a loud but harmless entity persists in dramatic interpretations of alleged cases within popular culture.
As stated above, Wilson’s book documents the Pritchards’ encounters with Fred as taking place between August 1966 and mid-1969. This timeline included a period of just over two years in which the phenomenon disappeared completely, which exceeds the accepted duration of poltergeist activity among researchers. Another discrepancy, Thompson continues, is that the dominant theory in psychical research holds that poltergeist activity stems from psychokinesis, and is generated by a human source:
Commonly, poltergeist manifestations are attributed to a hoax instance or the possibility of psychokinetic abilities, also known as PK; PK is thought to be a component of zero-point energy, a theory that states gravity and inertia may be manipulated to propel objects (Clarkson, 2011, pp. 79-81). An individual capable of causing the poltergeist phenomenon is known as an agent, and is typically “an adolescent of above-average intelligence with a low tolerance for frustration, repressing feelings of aggression and hostility… In many, if not most cases there seems to be a buildup of stress, fear, frustration, or anger in a household and/or in the poltergeist agent” (Clarkson, 2011, pp. 82-83). As such, author Michael Clarkson refers to PK as a type of fight-or-flight response called the “emergency fear system,” which displays physical manifestations such as pupil dilation, increased air supply, and heightened concentration—all of which could pave the way for psychokinetic response (2001, pp. 86-87). Clarkson offers that poltergeist phenomena may be relieved via the passage of time, psychotherapy, or the addressing of any stressors that could aggravate the potential agent of such disturbance.
The fact that both Pritchard children each appeared to be the focus of the phenomenon during the two periods of activity again doesn’t support an argument for psychokinetic ability. If the events at 30 East Drive were not a hoax, what was the Black Monk of Pontefract? Pat Holden incorporated both the legend of the Black Monk, the spirit of the Cluniac monk’s alleged victim, and the possibility of psychokinesis into his film. This was due to the fact that Pat Holden was entrenched in the local legend from an early age. He not only grew up in Pontefract, but his mother Rene was the sister-in-law of Jean Pritchard’s sister. Rene Holden was spiritually drawn to the supernatural, regularly performing psychic readings for friends and family. She was a regular attendee at the Pritchard house throughout the haunting, which is recorded in Wilson’s book, and recounted her experiences to her son. Pat Holden has thus woven a supernatural tale that pays tribute to this personal history via a supernatural, social and character study. In her chapter, Thompson highlights the socio-economic elements at play in the film, and its comparative study, The Amityville Horror, in terms of their relationship to the hauntings: “the Lutz and Maynard families seek to better their socio-economic status by moving into homes previously unattainable” (2019). Ultimately, it is this materialistic need that sets both families on the path to their encounter with evil, and their redemption via the rejection of their worldly desires to save their lives, and souls. In each film, Thompson argues, the families:
must surrender something they desperately want, which holds a common theme: a home and security. Access to a better life via a house leaves the characters in a state of vulnerability, which makes them more susceptible to social isolation and stress. These factors wear them down, which allows for the entity to step in. At first, the entity makes noises and causes mischief, but the progresses into a more controlling presence—one that demands not only attention, but physical ownership of its desired target. The target then must make the decision to either allow the invasion or turn reject the evil in favor of God, often at the price of the physical home they desire. It is the surrender to God that gives them the strength to drive out the evil, even if that driving action results in the loss of their desired wish.
Whatever walks in the actual house, doesn’t walk alone. Bil Bungay, who produced the film, bought 30 East Drive as part of the promotional campaign—making for a very special premiere:
After completing the movie, I was looking for original ways of promoting When The Lights Went Out when I discovered that the actual house, where all these incredible events allegedly happened, was for sale — and it was… er, cheap — so I bought it! This resulted in the coolest red carpet movie premier ever, where two competition winners walked the tiny red carpet down the garden path into Number 30 East Drive to watch the movie about that actual house.
Bungay now rents the house to members of the public with an interest in the paranormal. The official website for the venture details the history of the property, the alleged events that took place, and the compelling evidence visitors have captured during their time at the house. Even if one does not hold sway with the haunting, some of the photographs—which the website states have been expertly analyzed and do not appear to have been tampered with—are chilling.
Interested in learning more about the paranormal hauntings of Pontefract and the Pritchard family? Be sure to check out Scared Sacred: Idolatry, Religion and Worship in the Horror Film edited by Rebecca Booth (author of the forthcoming The Devil Rides Out [Devil’s Advocates]) and Erin Thompson ([formerly Miskell] owner and editor of The Backseat Driver Reviews), which is due for release in August 2019. First edition copies can be pre-ordered via House of Leaves Publishing.