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CREEPY CORNER: Borley Rectory -- Hoax or Haunting?

Were there ghosts wandering the halls of Borley Rectory? Or just scheming people?
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Publish date:
May 21, 2015
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creepy corner, haunted houses, England, hoaxes, ghost hunting, ghost, paranormal activity

Just saying the name "Borley Rectory" gives me a little chill.

Go ahead, say it out loud, "BORLEY RECTORY." Whisper it like Captain Picard and the effect is even more delicious. The idea of Creepy Corneristas around the world sitting at their desks whispering, "Borley Rectory" (I know you can't resist), warms the cockles of my heart.

No matter how many Black Eyed Kids, Robert the Dolls, or Sadakos I come across, Borley Rectory will always hold a special place in the "Spooky Story Canon" for me.

Ever since I was 10 years old and came across what allegedly happened at Borley Rectory in David C. Knight's "Best True Ghost Stories of the 20th Century" (thank you Creepy Corneristas for helping me find this long-lost book!), it has been THE haunted house story that I compare all haunted house stories to.

It doesn't even really matter to me that Borley's reputation as "the most haunted house in England" has been called, even confirmed as, a hoax. It's still an intriguing story — not just about ghosts, but the about the evolution of a modern ghost story.

Borley Rectory was built in 1863 as the home for Reverend Henry Bull and his family, pastor of Borley Church in rural Essex, England.

The rectory was supposedly built on the site of a 13th century monastery where a monk fell in love with a young nun. As the story goes, the two were discovered when they tried to elope and the monk was hung, while the nun was bricked up alive inside a wall. Though there does not seem to be proof of this particular monastery's existence, legend still held that the grounds were haunted.

While the Reverend Henry Bull was in residence, reports of a ghostly nun walking the grounds, specifically in an area nicknamed the "Nun's Walk" in the garden, were a favorite tale. Aside from the nun, most reports were of a vague, if not of a cliched nature to haunted houses — disembodied footsteps, mysteriously ringing servant bells, dark specters walking the road near the rectory, and strange knockings.

It seems that Reverend Henry Bull and his successor, his son the Reverend Harry Bull, did not make too much of such incidences. Henry Bull even supposedly built "a summer house on the property where they could enjoy after-dinner cigars and watch for the appearance of the phantom nun who walked nearby."

When Harry Bull died in 1927, Reverend Guy Smith and his family moved into the rectory. Unaware of the rectory's reputation, the Smiths were more horrified by the state of the rectory: "...with 23 rooms, connected by 3 staircases on the two main floors, with considerable cellerage in the basement, and storage room in the roof. There was no central heating, no gas, or electricity , or main water. The water supply was a well in the yard. The house [was] cold, draughty and depressing." The rectory was also overrun with rats.

And while the Smiths were not plagued by spirits, they were plagued by the public's obsession with the "ghosts" of Borley Rectory. Fearful that the rectory's reputation would turn people away from Borley Church, the Smiths wrote to the Daily Mirror asking for help in disproving the hauntings (the Smiths never truly believed that the rectory was haunted).

Harry Price answered the Smith's request.

A journalist and "paranormal expert," Harry Price had a growing reputation for being a paranormal investigator. His investigation of Borley Rectory, and his resulting books, shot Price to supernatural superstardom. He is still considered by many to be the father of paranormal research. Well, popular paranormal research.

While Harry Price made great contributions to debunking hauntings and spiritualists, (all those Ghost Bros shows owe him a hearty fist bump), I think James Randi, co-founder of the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry, most aptly describes Price, as "a strange mixture of fact and fraud." (Of course, Randi himself is no stranger to controversy.)

Anyway, as soon Price appeared at Borley, the phenomena seemed to escalate. Objects were thrown, heavy "draggin-footsteps" were heard in "an unoccupied room," a strange light was seen moving past some upper windows, and in one instance a glass of wine turned into ink.

While the public thrilled at hearing Price's account of the Borley haunting, the Smiths remained unhappy, if not skeptical. Mrs. Smith later said to the Committee of the Society for Physical Research, who investigated the haunting as well as Price's involvement, that strange incidents only seemed to occur when Price was present. She knew he was "an expert conjurer."

The Smiths left Borley Rectory after only nine months — unable to take the public obsession with their "haunted house." In 1930, the Reverend Lionel Foyster, his wife Marianne, and his daughter Adelaide moved into the rectory. This is when things got weirder.

By this time, Price was quite involved with the Borley haunting. Whether Price influenced (or deceived) the Foysters, the Foysters played into Price's fascination with the rectory, or it was a combination of the two, it's hard to say.

Upon the Foyster's inhabitance, the activity in house apparently ramped up, according to Price's book, "The Most Haunted House in England." "Poltergeist" activity increased, with much of the activity focusing on Marianne. Supposedly slapped, thrown out of bed, nearly suffocated, and the target of flying objects, Marianne drew both accusations of fraud, as well as feelings of sympathy.

Perhaps the most famous phenomena that occurred while the Foysters lived at Borley were the scrawled messages that appeared on the walls of the house. In a shaky hand, the messages read, "Marianne please help get" and "Marianne light mass prayers."

Though before her death Marianne claimed that much of the ghostly goings on at Borley were completely explainable, and even perpetrated by members of the family or Price himself, she does say that she cannot explain the source of the initial messages. Subsequent responses and scribblings were her doing, she says, but the first pleas remain a mystery.

According to Lionel Foysters' journals, the activity continued until the Foysters left the rectory in 1935. In 1937, Harry Price rented the rectory, which had sat empty since the Foysters departure, for one year in order to conduct an investigation.

With a team of about 48 investigators, Price lived in the rectory and went about documenting the haunting as well as creating a "do-it-yourself" guide on paranormal investigation.

During his time at the rectory, seances and spirit communication became a vital part of his investigation. Price claimed to make a "breakthrough" when he contacted the spirit of a woman called "Marie Lairre," a french nun who had come to Essex when she married a man whose family owned a house on the property. Her husband eventually killed her and buried her in the cellar, so said Price and his investigators.

In March of 1938, another spirit allegedly told Price that the rectory would burn down that very night, and that Marie Lairre's remains would be found. The rectory did not burn down that night, but exactly 11 months later, after Price had vacated, the rectory burned down under the ownership of Captain W.H. Gregson. (Gregson had a history of living in houses that "mysteriously" burned down.)

Upon investigation, what appeared to be the bones of young women were discovered in what would have been the rectory's cellar.

Even with the rectory nothing but a charred skeleton, people kept coming to investigate the haunted house. Claims were made that the figure of a woman could be seen walking by an upper window (which no longer had a floor), and LIFE Magazine even captured the photo of a levitating brick in the rubble — one of the last photos of Borley Rectory ever taken before it was razed.

Was the haunting of Borley Rectory a hoax?

It seems like it. Though Price presented the information in his book, "The Most Haunted House in England" as first hand experience, it seems that he actually rewrote the journals of Lionel Foyster. The Foysters later admitted that much of Lionel's journal was fabrication.

In his book, "We Faked the Ghosts of Borley Rectory," Louis Mayerling, one of Price's Borley investigators explains how a lot of the activity was created by the Foysters and Price's people. Though I haven't read the book, and reviews seem to question the author's account, Mayerling does point to one incident that could not be explained by the "hoaxers."

During a seance with a group that included some investigators and Marianne Foyster, "the kitchen bells seemed to clang together in one single clash. Apart from those sitting at the table, the house was empty, and both Foyster and Mayerling knew from experience that it was impossible to make the bells ring at the same time."

Could there really have been something paranormal occurring at Borley Rectory? Was any genuine activity overshadowed by the circus created by Harry Price and company?

Or are the ghost stories of Borley Rectory, just that, good ghost stories?