“The Sudbury Case!” exclaimed Madame Arcati. “Why should you remember it? It was before your time.” The triumphant words of Margaret Rutherford as the eccentric medium in Noel Coward’s Blithe Spirit (1941 play, 1945 movie) represent much. Madame Arcati comes to the realization of how to solve Mr. Condomine’s haunting problem. It was the Sudbury Case all over! She dematerialized old lady Sudbury after her spirit had been entrenched in the chapel for years.
The haunting of Borley Rectory is also before our time, and most know nothing about it and its influence in ghost hunting and “haunted house” attributes thereafter. It was such a rage in Britain in the 1930s that it inspired the very image we have today of haunted houses. Taking their lead from it, novelists such as Dorothy Macardle and Shirley Jackson gave us the towering successes of The Uninvited (1942) and The Haunting of Hill House (1959). And, in truth, Borley Rectory gave us the above statement from Blithe Spirit. The main ghost of Borley was a woman, perhaps a nun or one of the old Waldgrave noblewomen, and Sudbury is the actual town in Suffolk, near which is located the little hamlet of Borley.
There is another influence, equally subtle as the reference Noel Coward used above, that has proved crucial on the image we have of haunted houses. Mediumship. We may giggle at the whole idea of séances today, but they were quite a big thing once, especially after WWI and the tragedies that caused families to seek proof of life after death for their loved ones. Mediums were believed to have special qualities. Contact with the “other side” is largely impossible without them. Through them various forms of contact may arise— automatic writing, voices, raps, knocks, etc.
If Mediums can channel spirit energy or even the actual “surviving personality,” they should be able to tap into spirits residing or haunting a given location. Thus when Borley became such a fulcrum as the haunted house, Mediums were naturally called in to interpret the events. Harry Price too summoned some of them. From his “psychical investigations,” Price already knew that “Physical Mediums” were said to be capable of producing all the effects as seen at Borley— bells ringing, things moving about (poltergeist effect), “apports” and voices.
With Mediums came lots of theorizing on haunted houses. One of them provided an explanation. Why don’t all people experience the “haunting”? The Foysters’ stay at Borely especially inspired the question. Rev. Lionel Foyster experienced nothing. His wife Marianne was the center of it all. The excuse was that Marianne was psychic. Apparently, like Mediumship it takes sensitive people to be in-tune to the haunting around them. But when Mediumship popularity died out (after famous cases were exposed for fraud), the theorizing they had lent to haunted house investigation remained. We were enchanted by the novels that Borley inspired. But like Madame Arcati’s Sudbury Case the exposure of much of the investigative methods on Borley was before our time. We didn’t realize much of the theorizing was woolly, to say the least. Indeed, a “woolly discipline.”
Harry Price may have muddled things with his P.T. Barnum grandstanding, but odd things had happened at Borley before his arrival. The séance crowd may have given us dated interpretations of events, but Borley’s odd events before the arrival of Price require some explaining. Ethel Bull confirmed a couple of odd apparitions during her youth there in the early 1900s. She awoke to see a tall man standing by her bed. He was dressed in dark clothes and wore a tall dark hat. Then he vanished. She also saw the black-draped figure in the garden. The “Nun.” In reality there was nothing to indicate it was a nun. It was merely a black-draped figure. Rev. Smith was unnerved by footsteps in the house. On the first floor landing, near the dreaded “Blue Room,” he was taken aback by people whispering, but he was alone in the house. The voices floated over his head and stopped as soon as he entered the chapel. Standing on this landing on another occasion, he heard a woman moan. The moaning reached a crescendo about as loud as normal speaking, then the voice, centered at the arch to the chapel, said “Don’t, Carlos, don’t . . .” and by the last word it had died out to muttering. Then it was silent. Odd, to say the least. And for an Englishman in 1929, the name “Carlos” was quite exotic. Some passionate Latin was involved! Mrs. Smith, now widowed in 1950, minimized all this in a letter to the editor of a major London newspaper. The SPR talked to her as a result. Though she insisted she did not believe in the haunting they uncovered in contemporary (1930s) letters that she was unsure of the hauntings at Borley and expressed her husband’s thoughts that something evil was genuinely to blame.
Odd things indeed. What is most important about them is that they were before Price’s time at the Rectory. To understand haunted houses today, we must go back to cases “before our time” and before Harry Price made Borley Rectory so famous.