Demonic activity in a private residence in West Pittston, Pennsylvania. The phenomena at the home of Jack and Janet Smurl at 328–330 Chase Street received wide attention in the media, primarily due to the investigations of Ed and Lorraine Warren, lay Demonologists. Three Exorcisms were performed, but the Demon refused to leave. Skeptics said the case was a prank or hoax. The events were the subject of a best-selling book, The Haunted by Robert Curran, and a film by the same title.
The afflicted house was a duplex, built in 1896 on a quiet street in a middle-class neighborhood. The Smurls were a close-knit Catholic family living in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania. A Navy veteran, Jack worked as a neuropsychiatric technician. The Smurls were forced to move by the devastation caused by Hurricane Agnes in 1972. Jack’s parents, John and Mary Smurl, bought the house in West Pittston in 1973 for $18,000. They lived in the right half, and Jack, Janet, and their first two daughters, Dawn and Heather, moved into the left half. The Smurls did their own redecorating and remodeling and enjoyed a close relationship with Jack’s parents. For 18 months, their new life seemed idyllic.
Then strange things occurred. In January 1974, a mysterious stain appeared on new carpet. Jack’s television set burst into flame. Water pipes leaked even after repeated soldering. The new sink and bathtub in the remodeled bathroom were found severely scratched, as if a wild animal had clawed at them. Freshly painted woodwork in the bathroom showed scratches, as well. In 1975, their older daughter, Dawn, repeatedly saw people floating around in her bedroom.
The Smurls tolerated the annoyances. Life went on, and they had two more children, the twins Shannon and Carin in 1977. By then, something was obviously wrong in the house. Toilets flushed without anyone using them. Footsteps were heard on the stairs; drawers opened and closed when no one was in the room. Radios blared even when unplugged. Empty porch chairs rocked and creaked. Strange sour smells filled the house. Jack felt ghostly caresses.
In 1985, the annoying disturbances became frightening experiences. The house was often ice cold. John and Mary Smurl heard loud, abusive, obscene language from Jack and Janet’s side of the duplex when they were not even arguing. Then in February, Janet heard her name called several times when she was alone in the basement. Two days later, icy cold announced the arrival of a black human-shaped form, about five feet nine inches tall, with no facial features. First, it appeared to Janet in her kitchen, then it dematerialized through the wall and appeared to Mary Smurl.
From that point on, the haunting increased. A large ceiling light fixture crashed down on Shannon, nearly killing her, on the night 13-year-old Heather was to be confirmed. Jack levitated. In June, Janet was violently pulled off her bed after making love to her husband, while Jack lay paralyzed, gagging from a foul odor. The family German shepherd, Simon, was repeatedly picked up, thrown around, or whipped. Terrible rapping and scratching noises were heard in the walls. Phantom dogs ran through the duplex. Shannon was tossed out of bed and down the stairs. Invisible snakes hissed, bedspreads were shredded, and heavy footsteps crossed the attic. Even neighbors were not spared; several heard screams and strange noises from the house when the Smurls were not home, and others detected the presence in their own homes. Most of the neighbors were sympathetic. The Smurls vowed to fight.
In January 1986, Janet heard about the Warrens, and the couple decided to call them. The Warrens arrived with Rosemary Frueh, a registered nurse and psychic, and began the investigation by quizzing the Smurls about their religious beliefs, the happiness of their family life, and whether they had ever practiced SatanISM, used a Ouija™ board, or in any way invited the supernatural into their home. The Smurls said they had not. Then, the Warrens and Frueh walked the house, identifying the bedroom closet as the crossover point between the two sides of the duplex. The team said they detected the presence of four evil spirits. Three were minor, but the fourth was a Demon.
Without any evidence of family discord, occult invitation, or tragedy, the Warrens could only surmise that the Demon must have been dormant, probably for decades, and had risen to draw on the emotional energy generated by the girls’ entrance into puberty.
The Warrens tried twice to induce the Demon to expose itself through religious provocation, by playing tapes of religious music and confronting it with prayer. The Demon reacted by shaking the MIRROR and dresser drawers; another time by spelling out “You filthy bastard. Get out of this house.” The portable television emitted an eerie, silvery white glow. Only prayer and holy water seemed to stop the manifestations.
Phenomena continued. The eerie glow returned, the pounding in the walls worsened, and Jack and Janet were slapped, bitten, and viciously tickled. Small items disappeared. One day, Janet tried to talk to the Demon, asking it to rap once for yes and twice for no. When she asked the Demon whether it were there to harm them, it rapped once. Two phantom women dressed in colonial clothing appeared to Jack.
Even more horrifying, Jack was raped by a scaly Succubus posing as an old woman with a young body. Her eyes were red and her gums green. Ed Warren was choked and suffered terrible flu symptoms. An Incubus sexually assaulted Janet. Pig noises were heard in the walls. The Smurls said they tried several times to obtain support and action from the Catholic Church. The Roman Catholic Diocese of Scranton said it would consult experts, but official involvement seemed unlikely. At one point, Janet thought she was getting help from a Father O’Leary but discovered he did not exist: Allegedly it was the Demon impersonating a priest.
The Warrens called in BISHOP ROBERT MCKENNA, a traditionalist priest who refused to abide by the changes in ritual mandated by the Second Vatican Council. He said Mass in Latin and had performed more than 50 ExorcismS for the Warrens. He conducted the ancient rite, infuriating the Demon.
The infestation intensified. Their daughter Carin fell seriously ill from a strange fever and nearly died. Dawn was nearly raped by the presence. Janet and Mary had slash marks and bites on their arms. Everyone was depressed. Ed Warren explained they had moved into the second Demonic stage, Oppression, which follows infestation and is followed by Possession and death.
McKenna performed a second exorcism in late spring, to no avail. The Demon even accompanied the family on camping trips in the Poconos and harassed Jack at work. The family could not move to another house since the Demon would simply follow. After repeated refusals by the church to help, the Smurls decided to appear on television.
Remaining anonymous behind a screen, the Smurls were interviewed by Richard Bey on a Philadelphia talk show, People Are Talking. Later at home, the Demon retaliated. It levitated Janet, then hurled her against the wall. It appeared to Jack as a monstrous creature resembling a pig on two legs. A human hand rose up through the mattress and grabbed Janet by the back of the neck. Jack was raped again.
In August 1986, the Smurls felt that the risk of ridicule did not outweigh the need to tell their story to a wider audience and granted an interview to the Wilkes-Barre Sunday Independent newspaper. Their home became a tourist attraction for the press, curious onlookers, and skeptics who wished to investigate. Some skeptics, who included some of the Smurls’ neighbors, said they believed the family was concocting a story in order to profit from book and movie contracts.
Paul Kurtz, chairman of a skeptical organization, the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal (CSICOP) in Buffalo, New York, sought to investigate but was rebuffed by the family and the Warrens. Kurtz proposed to pay for the family to spend a week in a hotel with a private security guard while a team of investigators examined the house. Kurtz also offered free psychiatric and psychological examinations, which might have provided clues to the alleged activity. The Smurls said CSICOP had already made up its mind that their story was a hoax, and they preferred to work with the Warrens and the church.
Two CSICOP investigators went to the Smurl house but were denied entrance. Kurtz later opined in an article he wrote for Skeptical Inquirer, CSICOP’s journal, that the case was not paranormal, and the Smurls had denied CSICOP access because they were afraid of what the organization would discover. He cited discrepancies in Dawn Smurl’s accounts of her experiences and was critical of the Warrens. Kurtz suggested natural explanations for some of the phenomena experienced by the Smurls:
• abandoned mine voids in the area, settling and creating strange noises
• delusions by Jack Smurl that he was raped by a ghost
• a broken sewer pipe causing foul smells
• pranks by teenagers
Kurtz also pointed out that there were no police records of complaints of the haunting by Mrs. Smurl, though she said she had contacted police. Kurtz also wondered about motivation to make money on the case, since the Smurls began talking with Hollywood film companies shortly after the story broke in the press. The Smurls denied any interest in money.
Ed Warren raised more doubts of reporters and skeptics during a press conference he called in late August 1986. Warren said they had recorded paranormal sounds— groanings and gruntings—and had videotaped an unclear image of a dark mass moving about the house. Asked by journalists and CSICOP to produce the tapes, he declined. He told one journalist he had given the tapes to a TV company, the name of which he could not remember, and told Kurtz and other reporters they were in the exclusive possession of the church. However, church authorities later said nothing had been turned over to them. Warren also declined reporters’ requests to stay in the house, saying no one had paid attention when the Smurls first begged the media to spend a night to witness phenomena, and such requests were now out of the question. Warren said the Smurls would no longer deal with the press, and he was in charge of the case. The Smurls contacted a medium, Mary Alice Rinkman, who examined the house and corroborated the Warrens’ finding of four spirits. She identified one as a confused old woman named Abigail and another as a dark mustachioed man named Patrick who had murdered his wife and her lover and then been hanged by a mob. She could not identify the third, but the fourth was a powerful Demon, she said.
Press coverage finally pushed the Scranton diocese into action, and they reluctantly offered to take over the investigation. The Warrens, meanwhile, planned a mass exorcism with several priests. Prayer groups went to the house to give comfort. The Reverend Alphonsus Travold of the St. Bonaventure University, asked by the diocese to investigate, said he believed the Smurls were sincere and disturbed by the events but could not say whether Demonic presence was the true cause.
McKenna arrived a third time to exorcise the house in September 1986; this time, the ritual seemed to be effective. There were no disturbances for about three months. Prior to Christmas 1986, Jack again saw the black form, beckoning him to the third stage of possession. He clutched his rosary and prayed, hoping this was an isolated incident. But the banging noises, terrible smells, and violence started again.
The Smurls moved to another town immediately before the book about their ordeal, The Haunted, went to press in 1988. The church performed a fourth exorcism in 1989, which finally seemed to give them peace. A film version of The Haunted was released in 1991.
- Curran, Robert. The Haunted: One Family’s Nightmare. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1988.
- Kurtz, Paul. “A Case Study of the West Pittston ‘Haunted’ House.” The Skeptical Inquirer, Winter 1986–1987, 11, 2: 137–146.