I’ll be honest with you. I spent this week writing three reviews for the Games section and 7 hours Sunday helping a friend mood. So this column is extra rushed.
The Smurl Haunting
For over a decade, an unassuming house in West Pittston, PA was haunted by a myriad of ghosts and demons, thrusting Jack and Janet Smurl, along with their children into the spotlight of parapsychology. Although controversial at best, this 100+-year-old duplex spawned both a non-fiction book and made-for-TV film.
The case begins in 1972 after Hurricane Agnes flooded parts of North Eastern Pennsylvania, and forced the Smurl family to move from their home in Wilkes-Barre to West Pittston. The duplex cost the family only $18,000 for both halves of the duplex, and was purchased by Mary and John Smurl, Jack’s parents. Jack and Janet with their two oldest daughters, while Jack’s parents lived in the other half.
Both adult Smurls were brought up in practicing Catholic home and raised with deeply religious values and beliefs that they, in turn, taught to their children. There were no quarrels between generations, and for the first year and a half, the duplex was quiet and unassuming, much like any other suburbanite dwelling.
Suddenly, in 1974, things changed without warning. The first sign that something was amiss came when strange stains appeared on carpeting. Nothing too unusual. Stains happen. Then Jack’s TV burst into flames. This was something a little more alarming, but no reason to assume Evil’s minions decided to take up residence with the Smurl family. Then pipes began to leak, and continued even after repeated soldering. This may say something about the ineptitude of one’s plumping skills, but still nothing that implied a haunting.
It wasn’t until various pieces of wood furniture and bathroom porcelain started to show signs of severe scratching, as if a wild animal had ravaged them, that things started to creep outside the realm of the probable. Finally, in 1975, daughter Dawn began to claim that she was seeing floating people in her bedroom. The Smurls began to put all the incidents together and came up with the ‘obvious’ answer: Ghosts.
By 1977, things had progressed in severity, but nothing harmful. Toilets flushed on their own accord. Invisible feet walked up and down the stairs. Drawers opened and closed when no was around. Radios played even when they were not plugged in. Chairs rocked by themselves. Strange and sour smells began to emanate from odd parts of the house. And Jack began to feel ghostly hands touching his special no-no places. With twins born that year, the Smurls decided enough was enough. Yet no actions were taken until 1985. Eight years later.
In 1985, the hauntings took a disturbing turn with a propensity for violence. The house was always freezing, a common indicator that the undead are present. John and Mary heard loud obscenities uttering from Jack and Janet’s side of the duplex, when both swore they were not arguing.
In February of that year, Janet began to hear a voice in the basement call to her when she was in the basement. A few days later, a being revealed itself to Janet. It was 5’9″ in height and walked through Janet’s kitchens, passing through a wall, and then revealed itself to Mary. The creature was black, had no facial features, and carried an aura of icy coldness.
After directly witnessing this being, the hauntings happened with increasing frequency. On 13 year old Heather’s confirmation, Shannon was crushed, but not killed, by a falling light fixture. Jack began to levitate. Janet was forcefully removed from her husband during sex, as Jack lay paralyzed and gagging from an insidious foul odor. Simon, the family’s German Shepard (who wasn’t blamed for earlier furniture damage) began to shown signs of abuse. The Smurls’ claimed the dog was repeatedly attacked by ghosts, picked up and thrown around like a rag doll. Knocking and scratching noises were heard behind the walls. Dogs were heard running and barking up the stairs (again, no suspicion was cast towards Simon.) Invisible hands tossed Shannon out of bed and pushed her down the stairs.
Although one could look at this and state with firm suspicion that this was a case of covering up animal and child abuse (as only Shannon seemed to be attacked by these spirits), other unexplainable things happened. Invisible snakes were heard. Bedding was shredded, something that again could have been blamed on the dog but wasn’t. Simon must have been inline for Canine Sainthood. Loud footsteps were heard in the attic.
According to the Smurls, neighbors believed their story and received proof of the haunting as well. Loud screams and noises could be heard from the duplex when it was known no one was home. Some neighbors claimed the sprits could be detected in their homes as well.
January 1986 gave the Smurls hope. They were given the names of famous (or infamous, depending on who you speak with) demonologists Ed and Lorraine Warren. Contact ensued, and the Warrens traveled to the Smurls home with Rosemary Frueh in tow as their psychic and nurse.
The Warrens started their investigation by asked various questions ranging from their religious beliefs to how stable their family unit was to even questions about Practicing Satanism, using an Ouija Board (Because Parker Brothers creates gateways to hell, don’t you know), or ever invited supernatural beings into their homes. The demonologists than examined the house and finally stated the bedroom closet was the gateway and crossover point between the two gateways, even though Janet saw one of the creatures walk straight through the kitchen. The Warrens stated four evil spirits lived within the house. Three of the beings were ‘minor’ spirits, but one was a demon. Remember those numbers.
The Warren’s stated hypothesis was that since there was no stated activity of Satanism or problems with the Smurl’s private home life (because would you admit to either?), that the demon had lived in the house for decades. It lay dormant until awakened by emotional energy caused by the elder girls ascent into puberty.
The Warrens then set about trying to making the creatures reveal themselves. To achieve this goal, they used religious music and prayer. The first time, the demon reacted by shaking furniture. The second the creature spelled out, “You filthy bastard. Get out of this house,” although it was not stated how, or where it spelled this out? Demonic Speak n’ Spell? The Smurl’s portable television glowed with a soft white aura. Prayers, holy water and music seemed to be the only cure to evil manifestations, even though the common response by anyone (living or dead) to DC Talk and Creed being played in their house would be, “You Filthy Bastard. Get out of this house.”
The spirits and demons remained and began to seek revenge on the Smurls. Things began to glow. Pounding behind the walls grew louder. Jack And Janet found themselves being slapped, scratched, bitten and tickled by unseen hands. Possessions began to disappear. One time Janet even tried talking to the spirits, asking them to knock once for yes, and twice for no. When Janet asked the creatures if they were there to harm them, she received only one knock.
Then came things that were just plain bizarre, and all from Jack’s end. First he started seeing ghosts of women in Colonial clothing and apparel. Next Jack was raped by a succubus Her eyes were red and gums were green. The Smurls claimed the succubus took the form of an old woman with a young body, although those words in and of themselves create a contradiction.
Then others began receiving stranger hands-on occurrences. Ed Warren was choked (although from what or how was never mentioned) and suffered from the flu. An Incubus then sexually assaulted Janet, even though that claim brings the demon count up to two. Oddest of all, the knocking began the sounds of Pigs squealing, which according to the Warrens, is a sure sign of demonic activity. So don’t buy that bacon double cheeseburger, or you may find yourself the unwitting servant of Satan.
The Smurls then tried direct intervention from the Roman Catholic Church itself. Scranton’s Diocese said official intervention was unlikely. Janet claimed to be talking to a Father O’Leary, but later stated that he didn’t exist and was in fact the demon in disguise. However, the Warrens managed to bring in one Bishop Robert McKenna (who was just a Father at the time.). McKenna was a traditional priest who still clung to the old rituals and ways of the Catholic Church that had long been abandoned and/or changed. The Father performed Latin Mass and tried fifty different exorcisms, but they only infuriated the demon.
And of course, not to be outdone, the creature started up its shenanigans once more. Carin, one of the Smurl children, caught a horrible fever and nearly died. Dawn claimed to be nearly raped by the creature. Janet and Mary received strange slashes and cuts upon their arms. And of course, family morale was at an all time low. Notice however, by this time everyone forgot about those ‘minor spirits.
In what can’t be considered a very wise move on his part, Ed Warren explained the various stages of Demonic activity. They had left the first stage, of angry mischief and entered Oppression. After Oppression came Infestation, then Possession, and finally Death.
McKenna tried another exorcism in the spring of 1986, which actually made the demon stronger. Breaking patterns set by centuries of ‘real demonic cases,’ the Smurl demon managed to come along on a family camping trip and harass them there. Jack claimed that it also came to work with him and taunted him there as well.
Because the church was unwilling to aid them, the Smurl’s turned to their only other option: television. Appearing anonymously on television, the Smurls told there story to the at home public. For some reason this angered the demon. But of course, what hadn’t so far? The demon started levitating Janet and repeatedly threw her again the wall with growing force. As usual with Jack, he alone witnessed another bizarre phenomenon; that of the demon appearing as a were-pig of sorts. He was also raped by it.
Because revealing their haunting worked so well before, the Smurls decided to try again, this time granting an interview to a newspaper, this time revealing their names and location of their home. The media, realizing the potential field day they could have with this wasted no time turning the Smurl home into a tourist attraction. Skeptics, those whose curiosity is piqued by the Occult and general nutcases of all kinds could be found outside the Smurl home, or hoping to enter it.
Many people believed this was a hoax perpetrated by the Smurls. After all, the Smurl’s neighbors now begin to change their view of the family and state as well that the found this ‘haunting’ to be an elaborate hoax. After all, only a few years before, the Lutz family in New York had done the same thing with the “Amityville Horror.” Why couldn’t the success be replicated?
Paul Kurtz, who was the head of an organization called The Committee For The Scientific Investigation Of Claims Of The Paranormal, was one of the most outspoken about the potential for fraud in this case. His organization tried more than once to investigate the Smurl’s home but they were refused entrance each time. Kurtz then proposed putting the family up in a hotel with security guards as a crack team of investigators examined the home. Again, this was turned down. Finally, Kurtz offered free psychological examinations, as they too might provide clues or information on the would-be demonic activity. Again, this too was turned down. Note that the Warrens too expressed that outside aid was not needed. Professional rivalry, or something else?
The Smurls claimed Kurtz’s group had already made up their mind ahead of time that the haunting was a hoax, which really wouldn’t be a shock if they had. The Smurls stated they preferred to be helped by the Warrens and the Church, even though former had only pissed the demons off and the latter didn’t want to get involved. Either the Smurls was masochists at this point, insane to trust those who had only made things worse, or didn’t want their sham exposed.
Kurtz brought up many points in an article he wrote to the Skeptical Inquirer. He firmly believed this was not a haunting, and not just because the Smurl’s had turned his help down. Kurtz believed the Smurls simply did not want their potential movie and book deals squelched by the truth.
Kurtz showed how Dawn Smurl’s testimonies contradicted themselves, and how Mrs. Smurl claimed to have called the police many times about incidents, yet there were no police records of these phone calls. Finally, and most damning was proof that the Smurls had been in talks with Hollywood film companies before they let the story be known to the general public. Someone the Smurls were able to deny any interest in money about all this, because everyone knows how concerned Hollywood is with facts and substance.
The Warrens helped to discredit their own story with a press conference in August 1986. Ed stated that he had proof of the haunting for naysayers. He claimed to have a videotape on a blurry dark image moving around in the house, as well as tape recordings of the demon’s mumblings and other noises. Yet when asked to reveal the tapes, he refused. Ed claimed he gave it to one of the Television Studios already, and could not remember the name. Later he told other reporters the tapes were in the hands of the church. The Catholic Church however stated they had received nothing from the Warrens or Smurls.
In a final desperate act to try and cover up the hoax, Ed said no one would be allowed to stay a night in the Smurl house, as no one believed them when they first reached out to the public. Awful childish attitude towards people you’re trying to help. Ed Warren then said that he was taking over this case totally, and the Smurls would no longer talk to the press. Evidentially, both families knew the jig was up and felt like disappearing rather than going out embarrassed.
But by this time, the diocese was forced into action by the media blitz the Smurls had created. Alphonsus Travold of St. Bonaventure University was dispatched to investigate the house. The Reverend stated he believed the Smurls were sincerely disturbed by events, but that he was unsure if demonic activity was actually the cause of their stress and fatigue.
McKenna tried a third exorcism in the fall of 1986, and it seemed to work. That is, until Jack again had to see some freaky. This time Jack saw a black mass that he thought was trying to possess him. Shortly after, banging noises and horrible smells returned to the house. .
Not surprisingly, the Smurls moved out of West Pittston shortly before the novel version of their story was released in 1988. After a fourth exorcism in 1989, which coincidentally was went book sells had reached all they ever wood, the family was left alone in peace. Funny that. Oh yes, a movie version came out in 1991, and the Smurls made a ‘decent’ profit off of that.
So what was the Haunting? Was it a demon or two, since neither the Smurls nor the Warrens could get that trivial aspect right. Was it an attempt to make quick money off of the Haunted house craze stated in the 70’s by the Lutz’s? Or could it have been something in-between? Jack was either the mastermind behind the entire scheme/haunting as he saw things above and beyond what everyone else in the house encountered, or he was able to infect the family with a kind of mass hysteria as has been shown to happen in other occasions. Whatever the end result, the Smurls made a decent amount of cash from the incident, as did the Warrens, and in the end, doesn’t that spell a happy ending?
Anzalone, Charles. “Claims That House Is Haunted Touch Off Spirited Debate.” Buffalo News (August 27th, 1986).
Collins, Jim. “Alternatives to Occult Events May Explain Smurls’ Claims.” The
Scrantonian-Tribune (November 2nd, 1986).
Curran, Robert. “The Haunted: One Family’s Nightmare.” New York: St. Martin’s Press: 1988.
Guiley, Rosemary Ellen. Encyclopedia of Ghosts and Spirits, The. New York:
Checkmark Books, 2000
Kurtz, Paul. “A Case Study of the West Pittston ‘Haunted’ House.” The Skeptical
Inquirer 11 (winter 1986-1987): 137-46.
Marusak, Joseph. “Scientists Offer Smurls Free Psychiatric Help.” Wilkes-Barre Times Leader (August 19th, 1986).
O’Connor, J. “Confronting the Supernatural at Home and in the Past.” The New York
Times (May 6th, 1991): B-3.
Rotstein, Gary. “Town Is Divided Over ‘Haunted’ Family.” Pittsburg Post-Gazette (August 25th, 1986).
This weekend my big cooking experiment was smoked gouda and horseradish (Only fresh people!) stuff hamburgers on garlic bread. OMG, orgasm in the mouth. Seriously. But you don’t get. Nope. Instead I’m giving you what I’m making later this week. As an appetizer for a stag party anyway.
Shrimp make wonderful appetizers. There’s so many things you can do with them. As we head towards the end of fall my person choice is to give them a bit of sour fruit juice, which really breaks out the non-fishy flavour of shellfish. Then you add some garlic, because of course…there is ALWAYS room for garlic.
As this is not for a full meal, but merely a starter, I suggest serving a beef or lamb dish to compliment this. You’re getting sherry in the starter, and the you have a nice red wine with the meal itself.
Lime Drizzled Shrimp.
12 raw JUMBO shrimp, in their shells
3 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
4 garlic cloves, finely chopped
Splash of Fino sherry
salt and pepper
4 tbsp chopped fresh parsley
1. Grate the rind and squeeze the juice out of two of the limes. Cut the remaining two limes into wedges and put aside for later.
2. To prepare the shrimp, remove the head and legs, leaving the shells and tails intact. Using a sharp knife, make a shallow slit along the underside of each shrimp, then pull out the dark vein and discard. Rinse the shrimp under cold water and dry well on paper towels
3. Heat the olive oil in a large, heavy-bottom skillet, then add the garlic and cook for 30 seconds. Add the shrimp and cook for 5 minutes, stirring from time to time, or until they turn pink and start to curl. Mix in the lime rind, juice, and a splash of sherry to moisten, then stir well together.
4. Transfer the cooked shrimp to a serving dish, season to taste with salt and pepper, and sprinkle with the parsley. Serve piping hot, accompanied by the reserved lime wedges for squeezing over the shrimp.
No time for plugs this week. Sorry gang. I’m just rushed to get this column out by deadline. What can I say? I like my 1.000 batting average and I’m not going to mess it up now. Besides, if you really want more of me, read the Sigma Star Saga review, the Warlords/Centipede/Breakout review, or the Day of Reckoning 2 review. :-P