The Teignmouth Poltergeist: reconsidered and repossessed

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Here at WASD we recently ran a short piece on the Teignmouth poltergeist, a story that was featured in the 2001 London Weekend Television ‘documentary’ ‘Britain’s Most Terrifying Ghost Stories’. These, according to the makers, were “true ghost stories. An examination of the most compelling evidence on ghosts and hauntings in the UK.”

This disturbing film states that at some time in the undefined past the Teignmouth site was used by a satanic cult which sacrificed children. A more recent occupant went mad, cats had been ritually killed, and the house was infested by the spirits of malevolent supernatural beings. Although it takes itself very seriously and presents the incidents as fact, we mentioned that the narrative includes a few clues about alternative explanations of events that took place between 1988 and 1993. We were asked to explain these hints in a bit more detail, so here goes.

First, have a look at the original film:

Note how Fiona seems to have given the house its own human personality right from the beginning: “the house seemed to be crying for help”; there was “something strange” about the house; she “felt that Hawthorn Cottage was turning against her”.

Fiona was clearly a believer in the supernatural – she calls a medium and an exorcist rather than an electrician when the microwave malfunctioned. And Fiona isn’t alone in her convictions: 39% of us believe that a house can be haunted by some kind of supernatural being; 34% believe that ghosts exist; 31% believe that they have seen, or felt, a ghost. It’s also interesting that women are 10% more likely than men to believe in ghosts, and 17% more likely to believe in life after death.

Throughout the supposed haunting Fiona was under stress over money – “despite the financial burden” – and in 1995 she lost the house to the banks. Her mother had been ill and had recently passed away, her son had left home, and she was “living in isolation”. Notably she seemed open to interpreting casual comments as deeply significant. For example, the elderly neighbour had reported “funny goings on… really naughty”, but that doesn’t seem like a description of something evil or deeply threatening. The remark that the previous owner had “gone mad” may well have planted a seed.
Intriguingly Fiona states that when she was left alone the situation was “ten times worse” and the ghosts “came back since I got married. They can’t tolerate you being happy”.

Many of the visitations came at night when Fiona was in bed. She mentions a few times that she had difficulties sleeping: “When I couldn’t sleep”; “I couldn’t get off the bed”; “… for 6 or 7 months I didn’t sleep”. Such sleep deprivation can lead to apparent consciousness while dreaming and an inability to move. This is often accompanied by an overwhelming sense of fear and dread, breathing is difficult, with a feeling of choking or pressure on the chest, while seeing ghosts or mysterious black figures on or near the bed is common. Such sleep paralysis strikes an estimated 6% of us at least once in our lives.

The most disturbing part of the affair was the idea that child sacrifice had taken place as part of satanic rituals. For years this seems to have been accepted as fact and discussed. New husband Viv comments “When I heard about the sacrifices” and in 1993 John the exorcist announces that there was a “serious problem in his house”; there had been children “sacrificed to the cult they belonged to”.

So could there have been human sacrifices in Teignmouth? It depends how far back we go. Human remains have been found at the foundations of structures from the Neolithic to the Roman era, with injuries that suggest their being foundation sacrifices. Also, according to Roman sources, the Celts engaged in human sacrifice though more recent scholarship has found little archaeological evidence. Though human sacrifice was also recorded among Germanic peoples, none of this can be described as being a ‘Black Magic’ ritual, however. Also, such an appalling act of child murder would surely have remained in the memories of local people or in the historical record.

What we do know is that in the 1980s satanic ritual abuse was the subject of a moral panic that originated in the United States and which spread to Britain. There were allegations involving physical and sexual abuse during occult rituals though every aspect of these stories was controversial, including the testimonials of alleged victims. The initial publicity came via the book ‘Michelle Remembers’ in 1980 and professionals, religious groups and talk shows uncritically spread the stories which culminated in criminal trials. But it was eventually realised that the reports had no validity. There was no widespread conspiracy of satanists, the abuse and supposed sacrifices of children just didn’t happen.

What seems to have triggered Fiona’s whole satanic theory was the discovery of the buried and “mutilated” cats. We are never told why Fiona decided the cats had been mutilated or sacrificed. People keep cats as pets, they die and are often buried in the garden. Would these cats have been in such a state of preservation if they had been buried long before the house was built in 1914?

During the 1980s, however, there was a myth that satanic cults were sacrificing black cats. This led to some U.S. animal shelters to halt black-cat adoptions during October in the run-up to Halloween. Admittedly, in Devon cats were concerned with witchcraft but these were used not to promote witchcraft but as a defence against it. Cats were sealed into the walls of houses as protection and still turn up in seventeenth century houses.

While we can’t dismiss the experiences of Fiona and her fellow participants in the Teignmouth poltergeist saga, we can suggest that popular culture may have influenced the telling of the tale. We’re not saying that their experiences were consciously fabricated – genuine people do see things that science cannot explain. Yet, alongside the circumstances that have already been mentioned, there is another possible influence. Movies can suggest things to believe in and even visualise. For example, in 1933 the movie ‘King Kong’ was released. In the following twelve months sightings of the Loch Ness monster rocketed. And though the 1973 movie ‘The Exorcist’ gave us the script for possessions, we may need to look at a more recent movie for a closer parallel.

In 1982 the movie Poltergeist was released. The story focuses on a family who live in a house haunted by ghosts. The film features misbehaving electrical devices, buried pets, a focus on children, a spiritual medium saying things like “I’ve never seen anything like it”, and ghosts from an improperly relocated cemetery. A theme, used in many movies since, has the house apparently cleansed but the entity making a second, more violent, appearance.

You could argue that this is all a coincidence and, of course, we’ll never know. So whether you believe in the Teignmouth haunting or not, it’s all over and now – to quote Tangina the Medium from ‘Poltergeist’ (1982) – “This house is clean”. Let’s close with the original trailer:

(Author)

Kevin Dixon went to Audley Park – now Torquay Academy – and South Devon College when it was at Torre. After studying at Birmingham City University, he returned home because there’s nowhere else quite like Torquay. He then became involved in community and adult education, completed a PhD, and started writing about the weird and unknown side of town. He now Chairs Healthwatch Torbay and is involved in health and social care in the Bay.