Things that go bump in the night . . .how chilling but also how thrilling! Spooky. Moody. Gothic autumns. Stone gargoyles; stoic sentinels of foreboding places. Dried amber leaves skipping down the solitude of an old street.
The idea of a haunted house dates back quite a ways, but “ghost-hunting”— that Helsingian like pursuit of portals “through the veil”— is quite recent. It dates only to the 1930s, to the investigations into the haunting of Borley Rectory near Sudbury in Essex, England.
It was an ugly house, Borley Rectory; an ugly, Poe-esque tower with pinnacle. Ugly Victorian brick, all the layout of a barracks and set within a dank wood off a quiet lane. It was an odd house, Borley Rectory, and so too were the Bulls, the family that built and lived there since the 1860s.
The position of rector here had been the living of the Bull family since the house had been built (1863). The Bulls were kin to the gentry ’round. The head Bull was both squire and spiritual guide to the locals.
The country rectory had an interesting history of odd events. There was the story that the garden was haunted by the ghost of a lady, perhaps a nun who had been cursed to the grounds for eternity for violating her vows. Three of the Bull girls were said to have seen the dreaded spectre of the nun in the garden. The Bulls controlled the area until Harry Bull, another odd Bull, passed over in 1927.
During their time the odd rumors remained around the little hamlet of Borley. It was a country rectory, of course. Not much around it but the gate cottage, the church across the lane and the cemetery. Some fields and farms. But everybody had to pass the wooded rectory coming and going to the few shops and homes. It was worthy of comment, of course, that one of the large dining room windows had been bricked up. No one knew why.
The stories escalated in 1928 with the new rector. Rev. Guy Smith and his wife moved into the rectory in October. He was the first to be rector here who was not related to the Bulls. The Smiths were the first to report an invisible dog padding about the corridors, a dragging invisible footstep, servant bells ringing, keys shooting from their locks, and various unexplained creaks and groans. They hadn’t seen the “nun” apparition walking about the gardens, but Mrs. Smith may have seen the legendry coach and two. Such an odd Victorian carriage was said to pass by and pull up. The passengers, dressed in the Victorian period, were said to step out only to vanish. One night she heard the front gate swing open. She looked out. It was dark, but she saw the twin lamps of a coach. Then they snipped out.
On a more tangible and ghoulish note, Mrs. Smith thought it decidedly odd, to say the least, to find a woman’s skull in a cupboard when they were moving in. Another odd event was a disembodied voice. Though they lived alone in the large rectory, one day while near the stairs Rector Smith heard a woman’s voice moan, “Don’t Carlos, don’t.” Carlos — foreign name and therefore sounds sinister. It was quite frequent that he heard “sibilant whisperings.”
At other times they would find windows open or closed and couldn’t explain how it happened. The locals knew. “It were the old ghosts.”
Soon after this, the ramshackle old rectory would gain national attention. It began rather innocently. The Smiths sent a letter to the Daily Mirror, asking to be put in touch with the respected Society for Psychical Research in London. Instead, in true newspaper fashion the Daily Mirror sent a reporter and a noted conjurer and debunker, Harry Price, to look into it.
Over the next 18 years, off and on, Borley Rectory occupied Price’s attention. He believed the ghosts and the hauntings were real. With his help the rectory became known as “the most haunted house in England,” which became the title of Price’s first book on the subject. It was an enormous bestseller in 1940.
There is much to Borley Rectory. But it takes a little context to understand just why the kernel of truth is significant here, both to true haunted house research and to exposing the slipshod. Let’s continue on:
In true haunted house thriller tales, the Smiths didn’t last long. They moved out on July 14, 1929. The house remained vacant. Nobody would take it. Rector Smith lived elsewhere and continued his duties at Borley Church. He insisted it was the fact the house was simply too decayed to live in.
Things continued to happen at the rectory. During the time the house was empty, a window was found to have been opened from within, though the house was tightly locked. Half of one of the odd fireplaces was placed on the stairs. It seemed true poltergeist effect. A lock had been forced with “supernatural effort.” The main staircase was also covered with lumps of stone, and the few villagers of Borley would see strange lights passing along inside. At the full moon “horrible sounds” were heard emanating from the old austere manor. It seemed a true haunted house.
Next to move in were the Foysters. They were kin of the Bulls. They moved in in October 1930. Violent things happened— Reverend Foyster received a black eye out of nowhere. Rocks showered him. Things appeared and disappeared. Doors locked. Ghost writing occurred on the walls and in little notes addressed to his wife Marianne.
Through the Foyster’s experience, Borley would truly earn its infamous, sinister reputation. Price returned a number of times to study the phenomena. Much that happened was probably inspired by the house’s reputation but contrived by Mrs. Foyster and her paramour as a means to cover their illicit relationship. Whatever the cause, so much bizarre stuff happened that in October 1935 the Foysters finally moved out. The house lay vacant again, and the ultimate owners by this time, Queen Anne’s Bounty, decided to sell it. They offered it first to Harry Price, but he declined. However, he rented it for a year, starting from May 1937 to May 1938.
This is not the place for a detailed study of Price’s year long investigation of Borley Rectory; but suffice it to say here that much that is interesting and dubious came out of Price’s study. Price had advertised for people with various psychic gifts to stay at the rectory. Over that year many odd people, wrapped in the eccentricity of the art deco age, stayed at the old Victorian house of many gables and awaited manifestations. What happened was both dramatic, boring, and at times erudite. It has all become part of the saga of the haunting of Borley Rectory. But there can be no doubt that the end of Borley Rectory is dramatic. The Harry Price website even likens it to the end of a Hammer film plot— a very good analogy!
The rectory was finally sold. A Captain Gregson bought it and in February 1939 he knocked over a gas lamp. The old gabled Victorian manner was engulfed in flames. The “most haunted house in England” remained a brooding, charred shell, its tall brick gables and chimneys swept for years by stormy skies. Much still happened there. Pieces of old bones were found in what had been the cellar. There was a search for a body, a burial within the overgrown tall grass of the decrepit manor, with the desire to restore a disembodied head to its remains. During the war years, the rectory was finally razed.
Even if accepting that Harry Price would prove a charlatan, the story of Borley Rectory is in the round quite true. It was an odd old house with many rumors of strange events, and upon this human mischief and betrayal added its own flavor to a legend. Individuals and groups came and went in attempts to unravel the mystery of the old, abandoned manor.
This sounds almost like a movie. If you think so, you are quite right. Borley Rectory is the basis for the popular literary and film haunted house stories. The first was in 1942. Dorothy Macardle’s The Uninvited gives us a house with a cold, malignant room (the studio) where the evil was resident. The cold, draining feeling when the evil ghost began to feed and materialize were central to The Uninvited. The most famous haunted house story relies heavily on the story of Borley Rectory and on the study produced by the Society for Psychical Research, which released a conservative investigative view on Borley in the 1950s, speaking of odd acoustics and the layout of the large rectory. All this flavor is found in Shirley Jackson’s successful The Haunting of Hill House in which a team headed by Dr. Montague (Dr. Markway in the movie) search for the truth of Hill House, a “sick house.” Among its unexplainable features is a cold spot, one standing before the center of the diseased room— the nursery in this case. In turn, Borley helped inspire The Legend of Hell House (1973), in which a psychic team investigates the haunting reports of the legendary and evil Belasco House.
This in itself is not damaging. It has given us great fiction. But what most ghost hunters don’t know is that there is “Borley Rectory” and there is “Harry Price and Borley Rectory.” Harry Price fabricated many things. The most significant is the “cold spot.” In the case of Borley it was at the top of the stairs before the infamous “Blue Room.”
Sadly, Price’s inventiveness at Borley Rectory has come to inspire real haunted house research. Searching for a cold spot in a supposedly haunted house is one of the mainstays of modern ghost hunting or haunted house investigation. Teams of “paranormal investigators” walk through a house today and test for temperature drops to see where the evil force may reside or where perhaps an electromagnetic answer will finally be uncovered to explained the odd events reported to them. There is even sophisticated theorizing today that it may represent the moment when the ghost is trying to materialize. The rationalization is that the ghost must feed on any energy around, which includes the energy in human beings. The overwhelming sense of cold develops in the area, and even in the person, as the energy of life is being drained. A room may have a cold spot or the entire room may be cold because the entity dwells here.
Yet none of this has any basis in the genre prior to Harry Price’s claims about Borley Rectory in 1940, and the fiction that it quickly inspired. It is one thing to have inspired fiction, but a cold nursery room even finds its place in The Amityville Horror (1977), which was supposed to be a “true story.”
Sadly, the “cold spot” is bunk. Hunting for it and theorizing about it is just a part of the comic strip reality into which many genres debase. But “odd” or “sick” houses exist. We call them haunted, and so they are. But with what? More in future posts.