Saturday, December 29, 2012

The Smurl Case

Sometimes my research projects seek me out.  This is one of those instances.  A trail of butterfly effects led me to the fascinating story of the Smurl Haunting.  I first heard the name when reading a book that was a Christmas gift.  Curiosity led to serendipity, which led to West Pittston, PN during the 1970s and early 80s.  Jack and Janet Smurl were flooded out of their home in Wilkes-Barr after Hurricane Agnes in 1972.  They moved into a duplex owned by Jack’s parents who lived in the other side of the house.  They began experiencing paranormal phenomena and their story became more bizarre than the Amityville Horror which had become popular in the early 70s and involved some of the same players.

When I read about these cases I try to keep a level of skepticism.  Like I said, I wasn’t there and even if I were I can’t be sure that I wouldn’t still be wondering. The country had dug the Amityville Horror.  A few years had passed since then and an opportunity was there for the next big ghost story.  Something with that “based on actual events” tagline would be especially popular.  Enter "The Haunted," a book and subsequent film about the Smurl family’s ordeal following the media coverage of their situation.  Other than a few neighbors claiming two women had lived in the house and had practiced Satanism, the Smurl case lacked the sensational background story, but more than made up for it with it’s more bizarre claims and paranormal activity in higher frequency and intensity. I wasn’t there so I have no idea if their claims are true or not.  For my purpose that is beside the point.  It’s a really good story whether it actually happened or they made it all up.  If they did, they deserve the money they made off books and movies.  We make authors and screenwriters rich don’t we? I’m going to tell their story as if it really happened only because it’s easier and more entertaining to not insert “supposedly” and “alleged” into every sentence.

The Smurl Family

The Smurl’s ordeal began with a stain on their new carpet a year and a half after they moved in.  Despite several attempts, the stain couldn’t be removed.  Following that, an array of paranormal activity began, including but not limited to: toilets flushing on their own, footsteps heard, scratches appearing on a newly installed bathtub, drawers opening and closing on their own, radios that were unplugged suddenly blaring, rocking chairs creaking and rocking as if someone were sitting in them and Jack feeling the caress of an unseen hand.  These occurrences plagued the family for what seemed like an eternity.  One of their daughters told them about waking up and seeing many people floating around her room.  Neighbors even noticed strange things, like hearing screams and scratching noises and later learning no one was home at the time.   

The Smurl house

The activity eventually moved to Jack’s parents’ side of the house too.  They would feel icy cold spots and hear Jack and Janet arguing loudly, to discover they hadn’t been home at the time.  One day in 1985 Janet was doing laundry in the basement and heard her name called.  She went to see who her unexpected caller was, but she was alone in the house.  Two days later in the kitchen she saw a black shadow figure with no facial features appear and go through the wall, appearing to Jack’s mom, Mary, on the other side.  It seemed that after the apparition was seen, activity intensified.

The night of their daughter Heather’s catholic confirmation a heavy chandelier mysteriously fell, just missing their daughter Shannon.  One night while making love the Smurl’s reported Janet being pulled off the bed while clutching onto the sheets, and Jack laying paralyzed and overtaken by a vile odor.  The Smurl’s german shepherd, Simon, wasn’t spared form the oppression, being picked up and thrown several times.

Loraine and Ed Warren

 In 1985 Janet Smurl had heard about Ed and Loraine Warren who had been involved in the Amityville investigation and other high profile paranormal cases.  In desperation she contacted them.  The Warrens came to the Smurl’s home, accompanied by Rosemary Frueh who was a registered nurse and psychic.  After collecting background information the Warrens concluded the culprit for the violent activity was a demon.  They posited that it had lain dormant for years and when the family moved in with two girls hitting puberty, it was fueled back to life.  Rosemary agreed that there were up to four spirits in the house, but one was a major demon.  

The Warrens’ first tactic was to try and provoke the demon.  They played religious music which resulted in a mirror violently shaking and a voice growling.  Ed invoked the name of Jesus Christ and was hit by a noxious smell and fell ill for days.  He saw a black wispy smoke appear and spell out, “You filthy bastard, get out of this house.”  For the time being the Warrens had Rev. Robert McKenna perform two exorcisms and the sprinkling of holy water and prayer seemed to abate the demon.  But it was only to be for a short while.

Loraine Warren working on the Smurl case

The occurrences returned and their intensity was magnified.  In the book The Haunted Jack tells how he was raped by a succubus who appeared as a woman with a young body but the head of an old woman with red eyes and green gums.  Janet was also sexually assaulted by a shadow figure.  Pig noises were heard throughout the house.  Demonologists insist pig noises are often associated with demonic activity, probably relating to the story in the book of Matthew wherein Jesus casts demons into a herd of swine and drown them. 

Medium Mary Alice Rinkman came to the house.  Her reading corroborated that of Frueh, saying she felt there were 4 spirits in the house; a woman named Abigail, a man named Patrick who had killed his wife and her lover and then been hanged by a mob, another earthbound spirit, and a powerful demon. 

The intensity of the activity continued to increase.  The demon followed Jack to work and followed the family on a camping trip.  After being turned down by the Catholic Church for a sanctioned exorcism they sought media attention in hopes of finding help.  They went on a local talk show and told their story, although their faces weren’t shown.  It seemed the demon didn’t like this.  Immediately upon returning home Janet was picked up and thrown into the wall.  Later that night Jack says saw a figure that resembled a pig standing up on two legs and was raped again.  Now I’ve been subjective in telling this story up to this point.  However, I must pause here.  Would the small possibility of making some money off the story entice a man to claim he had been repeatedly raped by a ghost?  Or was the activity in this house THAT severe.  Are these claims so outrageous that one couldn’t make them up?  As I said before, since I wasn’t there I will never know.  Now on with the tale.

The shadow figure appeared to Jack, beckoning him to join it.  Ed Warren feared the family had been in the second stage of possession, oppression, and the figure was trying to lure Jack into the third stage, actual possession.  The final stage is death.

The media attention seemed to help and eventually the Catholic Church sanctioned the participation of clergy.  Father McKenna returned and performed a third exorcism.    The activity would die down then pick back up.  Frustrated, the family moved to another town.  After they left a fourth exorcism was performed and no further activity has been reported by subsequent owners.  A film version of The Haunted was released in 1991.

While the scientific world is hesitant and often scoffs at claims of the paranormal, the entertainment industry loves them.  “The Conjuring,” a film about Ed and Loraine Warren comes out this July.  For any readers who are Walking Dead fans, the film version of the Smurl story stars, Jeffrey DeMunn as Jack Smurl.  DeMunn was also Dale Horvath for two seasons on A&E’s The Walking Dead.  Janet Smurl is played by Sally Kirkland who appeared on television as Dr. House's mom and as Senator Ruth Martin in The Silence of the Lambs.

DeMunn and Kirkland in 1991's "The Haunted"

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