Entertainment & Arts

When the Lights Went Out revives 1970s ghost story

Tasha Connor in When the Lights Went Out
Image caption Tasha Connor stars as Sally, a young woman who is tormented by the poltergeist

Growing up in West Yorkshire in the early 1970s, Pat Holden would often hear his mum talk about her encounters with an infamous poltergeist. Now a film director, Holden has put those stories onto the big screen.

Rene Holden used to read tea leaves and tarot cards and was known among friends for her psychic abilities. "She was interested in anything spooky or supernatural or weird, basically," her son says.

When Rene's sister-in-law's sister Jean told her about the supernatural happenings in her otherwise unremarkable Pontefract council house, Rene became a regular visitor to watch the supposed paranormal activities.

"It did everything a poltergeist does normally," Pat Holden recalls. "I say normally. Throwing things around, freezing rooms down, creating water puddles and making noises. And he did a lot of unique things as well."

According to a book published in 1981, the visitor had a mischievous sense of humour. It ate the family's sandwiches, leaving giant teeth marks, and smeared door handles with jam.

It even put on gloves belonging to the visiting Aunt Maude and proceeded to "conduct" the family as they sang Onward Christian Soldiers.

One night, Jean Pritchard decided to carry out an experiment into its powers. "They put some eggs in a wooden box and sat on the box," Pat Holden says.

Image caption Gary Lewis plays Father Clifford, a local priest who carries out an exorcism

"And these eggs started flying in from the kitchen into the living room where they were and smashing on the floor. Each time that happened, they looked in the box and there was another egg missing."

The Pontefract poltergeist, also known as the Black Monk, became a cause celebre among poltergeist chasers.

Pat was never allowed to see for himself - he was deemed too young - but instead stayed at home watching Hammer Horror films and spooky TV shows.

Forty years later he has made his name as a film-maker and has returned to the spooky tales of his childhood for his latest film, When the Lights Went Out.

His second-hand family tales are entertaining, but the story cannot really be true. Or can it?

"I'm sceptical myself, but my mum and my auntie were very down to earth, working-class people," Holden says. "They were very ethical and moral and they were quite religious.

"The idea of them making something like this up, I just can't imagine that happening. Also it's not just their word for it - there were so many people who saw it first hand.

"The mayor went round, the police, they had psychic investigators, friends and family - so many people saw it. It makes you think there's a good chance that it must have happened. They can't all be lying."

The goings on are well recorded in paranormal circles, but there is no first-hand evidence and the family do not want to speak to the media now.

Diane, the daughter who was 12 at the time of the first haunting, was at the centre of the most dramatic episode, when she was supposedly dragged upstairs by her neck.

When Holden took Diane back to the house while researching the film, he says she was still too scared to go into the living room.

"I think it really affected her quite deeply at the time. There was never really any physical harm done - the ghost never really hurt them - but it was terrifying."

After a while the Pritchards came to tolerate their supernatural lodger - or as much as you can when something is tipping up plant pots and smearing marmalade and mustard down the stairs.

They even gave it a nickname - Fred - and Mrs Pritchard became more annoyed than scared.

"I think her main woe from the ghost was having to clean up after it," Holden says. "It would turn the house upside down and she'd have to clean it up. She was fiercely houseproud."

Image caption Pat Holden also directed Awaydays, a 2009 film about football hooligans

Whether it was all an elaborate practical joke or something more spooky, Holden has embellished the story to make it fit it into a horror movie template.

He suggests the setting of a semi-detached suburban council house sets it apart from other horror films. Indeed, the result resembles what 1982 film Poltergeist would look like if remade by Mike Leigh.

"It's very much a haunted house story and it's got a lot of those genre conventions in there but it's a unique setting," Holden says.

The house itself has now been bought by the film's producer Bil Bungay. So has the poltergeist been reawakened by the renewed attention?

"There was a reporter went round and she thought she heard something, and apparently there were some guys working there who thought they heard something, so maybe it hasn't gone away," Holden says.

Perhaps Fred is unhappy with the way he has been portrayed or wants a fee? "I wouldn't be surprised. Maybe he's got an agent and he'll be onto us."

When the Lights Went Out is out in the UK on Friday.