People still mutter about the events that marked out a modest working class home as one of Yorkshire’s haunted houses. Now, in When the Lights Went Out, filmmaker Pat Holden has sought to tell the tale.
Pontefract, Yorkshire, 1966.
In an ordinary house on an ordinary street, young Phillip Pritchard witnesses something decidedly extraordinary. From a few inches below the ceiling of his new home, a semi-detached council house at 30 East Drive, white powder is falling to the floor.
It is late summer but there is an icy nip inside the room. A chest of drawers appears to move without human assistance. And, in the kitchen, puddles of water materialise that have no source even when investigated by the man from the water board. It is the puzzling beginning of something that will eventually become a fixture within modern accounts of the paranormal and be accepted as “the most violent poltergeist haunting in Europe”.
Pontefract, Yorkshire, 2012.
No-one lives at 30 East Drive anymore. Home to the Pritchard family for more than 40 years, it stands empty – an unremarkable, everyday house bordered by overgrown lawns and drooping rhododendron bushes. Yet the strange tales that for decades have been linked to the property have permeated the surrounding streets and passed into local lore.
This is how it happened. After the unusual events of September 1966 the Pritchards – dad Joe, mum Jean, son Phillip and daughter Diane – enjoyed a normal life until 1972 when, quite suddenly, they experienced a succession of frightening episodes.
The three-bedroom house shook to the sound of banging doors, loud knocking and mighty thuds like kettle drums. Sheets were torn from beds. A framed wedding photograph was shattered on the floor, the image torn in two. And in the most shocking incident, Diane was dragged screaming up the staircase by invisible hands that clutched at her neck.
Were that not all.
In a manifestation that continues to provoke debate today, Joe and Jean claimed to have witnessed the black-cowled shape of a monk in their bedroom. For aficionados of the paranormal it provided evidence that the case had gone beyond mere poltergeist activity. This was something else altogether.
There were others who dismissed the entire occurrence as a hoax, initially perpetrated by Phillip and later by the family at large. One incident, in which an aunt’s sheepskin gloves were seen to “conduct” as the terrified woman sang Onward Christian Soldiers, smacked of a teenager’s mischievous mind.
Yet the Pritchards never sought to exploit the goings-on in their home. In fact they learned to live with the entity they nick-named ‘Fred’ and were never driven out. The disturbances made a small impact regionally but hardly anything appeared in the national Press.
And unlike the Lutz family of Amityville Horror fame – which was pre-dated by the Pontefract poltergeist by two years – there was no headline-grabbing flight to safety, no bestselling book, and no film.
In When the Lights Went Out writer/director Pat Holden has returned to a story that has disturbed and captivated him since childhood. Jean Pritchard was his uncle’s sister-in-law and, as a youngster, he lived five minutes’ walk away from a house that, even then, enjoyed an eerie reputation.
“It’s the fulfilment of a lifetime’s ambition, really,” said the 46-year-old commercials director turned movie-maker.
“I grew up with the story. I was born in ’65 and it first happened in ’66 so through my whole childhood – from when I was first old enough to take things in – I’d hear tales of it. My Mum was a regular at their house so it just became normalised. The story was well-known in the local community. You’d get kids at school asking you about it, and neighbours and friends.”
He added: “You think haunted house stories occur in mansions or castles but you never expect it in a little council house. I found it a very intriguing story. The family was very modest, private and down-to-earth. I don’t think it would have occurred to them to publicise it. Also it was very affecting and troubling and they were glad when it went. It was something they were happy to forget.”
When The Lights Went Out goes on general release on Wednesday, September 13.