For nine months in the late 1960s, the Pritchard family came under attack from reportedly supernatural forces at 30 East Drive, Pontefract, Yorkshire. Objects were thrown, kids were hauled up stairs, there was banging so loud it could be heard outside in the street. Now, writer-director Pat Holden has drawn on the events at his Auntie Jean's council house, in a disturbing new film, When the Lights Went Out, set in working-class Yorkshire in 1974. He talks about the film and the notorious Black Monk of Pontefract poltergeist case.
When did you first start hearing about the chaos at your aunt's house?
"Well it was a kind of feted thing locally. But my mother, she was round there while it was happening. Sometimes she would be there all night. I used to plead to be allowed in the house and they wouldn't let me in, because I was young. So I heard about it firsthand and it's just one of those things."
What do you mean?
"It's strange talking about it because it became so normalised. You need to understand that my aunty and my mother were very tough, down-to-earth people. You think you'd run a mile, but I'm not sure you do in those circumstances. I'm still trying to get my head around that anything like this could happen. It makes you question a lot of things."
What do you think was happening?
"It seems like a lot of poltergeists use adolescents or teenagers almost as an engine, they take their energy. Maybe it's some kind of manifestation of something that was wrong in the family. As part of my research I interviewed a Church of England exorcist who is a psychotherapist and a priest. He's called in to sort these things out and it's done in a very scientific, very logical, very everyday kind of way. He said that when he is trying to get rid of a ghost or a spirit or poltergeist, he tries to heal the rift in the family first."
Are you religious?
"No. But I am spiritual."
How did the stories make you feel when you heard them as a kid?
"It was absolutely thrilling. Maybe it's just childhood innocence but I didn't question it because it was coming from Mum."
At the time, did you ask her if she saw the intruder?
"Yeah. That's the thing you want to hear, isn't it? She said, 'Oh yeah, it scraped its fingers down my back and I turned round and there was this cowled figure behind me.' I said, 'You must have jumped a mile.' She said, 'No, I was strangely calm.'"
How much of the challenge of making this was staying faithful to the experience of your relatives while fulfilling some of the expectations that fans of the genre might have?
"It was a really big challenge, and I probably thought about that more than anything else. In the end I did my own interviews with the family. Extensive interviews. I went up there a couple of times and spent hours, and it was on top of the anecdotal stuff I have from my mum. What I tried to do is internalise it all and basically, when I started writing it, not throw it away but not try and use the facts as a straitjacket."
Something that makes the film different is the British working-class setting.
"Yeah, I'm sick of all these American films and I remember I said to someone, 'Look, this is going to be fascinating because it's The Haunting but it happened in this tiny little council house with a working-class family. It could be funny, and it's true.' The guy said, 'I don't know if we can get behind that but why don't you make it a doctor's family in LA or something?' You just throw your hands up and in the end you have to hope you get someone brave enough to do it."
You said you interviewed the family. Would you have done the film if any of them had opposed it?
"I would never have done it without their approval. I said, 'Look, I would like to take an option out on the story. We'll formalise this.' I wanted to make sure that they got some money from it as well. They'd kind of had their fingers burned a little bit in the past."
You've dedicated the film to your mother. Do you want the story to become more widely known?
"I never really thought of it like that. Just the irony of a Cluniac monk from medieval times inhabiting a council house with an ordinary family, I always thought was very fascinating. I guess if I had wanted to make it more widely known it would have been more of a documentary. It's more about, will this make a good film?"
Are you working on anything else?
"I'm writing a thing for Elton John's company, which is a sci-fi animation. I'm also doing a thing on Batley Variety Club. It's basically set in Batley, one of the most obscure, rough towns in Yorkshire, and in the late '60s this guy said, 'I'm going to build a variety club here and I'm going to attract all the top stars.' People laughed their heads off, but he got Louis Armstrong, Shirley Bassey, Roy Orbison . . . It was a little bit of Vegas dropped in a very obscure part of England."
When the Lights Went Out is released September 12
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