One interesting case Tony Healy and I investigated in our 2014 book ‘Australian Poltergeist‘ took place in San Remo, a small suburb on the central coast of New South Wales.
The San Remo case raises some interesting questions about the role of poltergeist agents. The literature generally portrays the individuals at the centre of these events as the helpless victims of malicious forces. Could outbreaks actually be providing some agents with the things they crave, like attention, power and control?
One evening in August 1986 George and Susan Sykes, then of Kalaroo Street, San Remo, received an excited phone call from Margaret and Ron Berrell, who lived in nearby Barker Avenue. Something very strange and frightening was happening there.
At about 8.30pm, soon after arriving at their friends’ house, Sue and George experienced the phenomenon for themselves: someone – or some thing was pounding on the building’s external walls. The walls, George told us later, were quite flimsy: fibro on the outside, and masonite on the inside.
But the noise, he insisted, “was coming from within the walls … inside the cavities … it wasn’t someone banging on the outside of the house … and it was BANG! BANG! BANG! Very loud; very sharp and loud. I said [to Ron] ‘You go out the front door and I’ll go out the back, and there’s no way [hoaxers] can escape’, which we did – and there was nothing there – not a thing.”
On other occasions George stationed himself on the roof, but still saw nothing to indicate hoaxing. The banging was clearly audible from outdoors, and to those outside it always seemed to be coming from inside.
“The banging would last for about thirty seconds to a minute”, Sue recalls. “It would keep going if you ignored it, but would stop as soon as you got up to look where it was coming from.” Initially the thumping began “only when we turned out the lights”, but later occurred in well-lit conditions and in broad daylight.
After the phenomenon had been going on for a few days the two couples noticed that although the noise sometimes emanated from other parts of the house, it usually came from a particular location on the wall – and that realisation led them to a rather unsettling conclusion.
“The old bloke”
The Berrell family hadn’t been living in the house for very long. Until 18 months earlier it had been occupied by an old man, and the Berrells had been renting the place next door. As “the old bloke” was very frail, Ron often dropped in to check on him and to help with his chores. Throughout the same period, however, Ron also spent nearly every weekend in Sydney, taking care of his elderly, sight-impaired mother.
During one of his unavoidable absences tragedy struck: the old man collapsed and lay helpless on the floor for three days. By the time Ron found him he had developed pneumonia and was beyond saving. When the ambulance officers arrived, the dying man told them he’d been knocking on the wall for the entire three days, vainly trying to attract the Berrells’ attention. Then, grabbing his neighbour by the wrist, he added rather enigmatically, “I will look after you, Ron.”
Several months later, George recalls, “the old man’s family said to Ron and Margaret, ‘Well, there’s nobody in the house, so you can rent it until you build your own place’. So it was after they’d moved into that house [in August 1986] that all the banging started – and I think it was the old bloke who may have been pissed off with Ron for not having been there to help him … I dunno.” The section of wall where most of the mysterious banging came from was very close to where the old fellow collapsed.
On 21 October Margaret told Sydney Daily Mirror journalist John Choueifate exactly how it all started. At 11.30 one Friday night they’d been woken by a banging noise in their son’s bedroom. “At first we didn’t pay much attention to it and thought it was possums in the ceiling. But the noise then moved across to my daughter’s room. There was a large picture on the wall which started to move from side to side for no reason. All the time the noise was getting louder … we were all terrified.” The thumping continued until 3.30am and recurred each night.
“Sue and George … said we were imagining things [at first, but] they soon changed their minds.”
A “usual suspect”
It will come as no surprise to many readers that one of the Berrells’ two children was an adolescent who was “a little strange”. Nineteen-year-old Julie-Ann was, George Sykes told us, perfectly normal but Craig, who was about thirteen, “was definitely a little bit on the weird side … a little bit slow … definitely deep inside himself. He wouldn’t talk to you, but he’d be down there [in his room or on the porch] talking to something or somebody … you’d see his mouth moving, like he had a conversation going on.”
As both of them were often in sight during the wall-banging, George and Sue were adamant that neither of the children could have hoaxed it. Nevertheless, George was convinced the phenomenon was linked in some way to young Craig: “I’m sure it was coming through him [but] I’m not saying he was faking it”. Sue, who’d read accounts of other poltergeist episodes centred on troubled adolescents, agreed.
Although the Berrells, particularly Margaret, were very frightened at first, as time went by “they got sort of used to it”. But then things changed drastically: on 4 September 1986, in another twist, the house was almost entirely destroyed by fire.
Sceptics may seize upon this: the blaze, Susan recalls, “… started in the room Craig was occupying”. On the other hand, no one accused the boy of having started it, and there may have been something odd about the way it began; “The Fire Brigade said it came from the light globe but the insurance investigators said it came from the bottom – so I can’t explain that. Margaret was in the house at the time. The wooden floor broke away … all the damage was down low … the bed was burnt.”
After the fire George and Susan insisted the Berrells stay with them until they built a new house. With the children sleeping inside and Ron and Margaret living in a caravan outside, there was adequate space, and all was well until Sunday 19 October – when trouble came a ’knockin’ once again.
Ron told journalist John Choueifate that the second episode began with a strange tapping on the roof of the caravan at about 6am: “At first it was like a tap leak but it began to grow and grow in intensity until it reached a violent bashing sound. The caravan started shaking and we thought it was going to tip over.
“Objects were being tossed about the place and smashed into the walls. Even the birdcage rose and travelled through the air. It was very scary and bewildering”.
The racket was loud enough to wake George Sykes, sleeping inside the house: “It was a constant bashing. I raced down to see what was happening”. But as he headed for the caravan he was “showered with pebbles … I was walking down the side of the house … and the pebbles just came up – I saw them actually come off the ground and hit me – they hit hard enough to hurt! Nobody could have done it …” (It is important to note that this occurred on the NSW Central Coast at 6am in late October; that is, in broad daylight).
Another particularly freaky episode happened inside the caravan while Susan was present: “Marg and Ron were sitting on the lounge and Craig was there too. Then all the cupboards opened and all the plates shuffled out like cards – the plates flew out of every cupboard and then cushions started to fly around the room, like in a circular motion. It was very scary. Some plates fell on the lounge but a lot of others were smashed.”
Who’s in the loo?
Shortly thereafter, Susan “was getting the same thumping sounds in the ensuite off my laundry – exactly the same sound – like in the wall cavity.”
This happened day and night: “It didn’t need the lights to be off. Then one evening the light was on in the laundry and I walked in to use the ensuite toilet and … the light bulb and the shade just smashed everywhere!”
That same night she woke at 2am to hear water running in the back yard: “I went out … and [the hose] was gushing flat out. It was off when we went to bed and there is no way my Boxer and German shepherd would allow anyone into the yard”. But that night her dogs “were cringing and whining down the back.”
On another evening, “when I was preparing tea and everybody was out of the house – Marg and Ron were in their caravan, Craig was up the back talking to himself and I don’t know where Julie-Ann was – and the next minute … I had an [open doorway] through to the dining room with wooden beads hanging in the doorway … and then thud! I looked, and the beads were moving – and there on the [tiled] kitchen floor was a cushion from the lounge!”
As with many of the objects that flew around the Humpty Doo house, the noise made by this cushion seemed unnaturally loud: “If someone throws a cushion it doesn’t make a real thud like this did when it lands. And I got angry then, and threw it back into the lounge room and said, ‘You’re not going to scare me!’”
The Sykes’ two teenage children apparently witnessed some of the polt’s shenanigans but we were unable to interview them. At least one of the children’s friends may also have observed some of the action. The first print journalist to report the story, Paul Callaghan of the Central Coast Express, wrote that he and photographer Bill Rosier “heard the loud, unexplained banging noises” at the Sykes residence. “There was no plausible explanation.”
It happened at about midday as the duo was talking to concerned neighbours outside. “At first no one noticed the front window shaking but then it became louder and almost instantaneously afterwards there was a loud, insistent banging noise from the rear bathroom. At the time the Berrells were being interviewed inside the house by a Mike Willesee television journalist.”
Although the television journalist told Mr. Callaghan she’d heard the sounds, Susan Sykes says the team’s sound man didn’t manage to record any of it. Still somewhat sceptical, Mr. Callaghan asked Margaret Berrell if her son had been on his own when the sounds occurred. “But she said he had only just left the room … and couldn’t possibly have made the noise at the rear of the house. The sounds came from both extremities of the house.” She insisted, also, that the banging had “… happened many times before when my husband and I and Craig have been sitting with friends.”
Ron and Margaret impressed Mr. Callaghan as being “a genuine, though distraught, couple”, who had “almost reached the end of their emotional resources.”
After their story was discussed on Radio 2GO the Berrells were disconcerted by the “flood of paranormal experts, religious fanatics … various ghost busters and nuts” who contacted the station. They decided, nevertheless, that they really did need expert help so, on 19 October, they contacted the Mizpah Clinic of Mind Dynamics, at nearby Wyong.
The clinic’s staff seemed well qualified to deal with a polt infestation. One of the two principals, Marilyn Campling, was a clinical hypnotherapist and clairvoyant, and the other, registered psychologist Russell Kennard, had done courses in psychic healing and mediumship. Both had many years of experience as psychic investigators. A couple of other counsellors and a masseuse rounded out the team.
Ms. Campling said that by the time the Berrells approached her for help, they were at their wit’s end: “devastated”. So between 21 and 24 October she, Mr. Kennard, and the crew suspended all other activity and concentrated exclusively on the case, spending long hours at the Sykes residence and counselling young Craig at the clinic.
She was convinced the events were paranormal. On one occasion, as she was making breakfast for the Berrells, “… the banging started. The intensity was amazing, tea cups were rising a foot above the coffee table and the banging was on the table itself … it was a strange, blunt knock that we couldn’t emulate. It seemed to come from the table’s centre.”
The weirdness peaked, she said, on Wednesday 22 October, when the team “brought three ladies in who I believe have psychic knowledge … we found out a lot that day. On the Thursday we used hypnosis and really found out who the spirit was … [it] needed certain specific requirements met and we finally communicated with it and met those needs … and [at about 4am on Friday] persuaded it to leave. I was physically and mentally exhausted.”
Uh, oh – not so strange?
Everything we heard from the George and Sue Sykes, and every quote attributed to the Berrells and to Marilyn Campling seems to indicate that the San Remo episode was truly paranormal, but in the opinion of one very well-qualified witness, that was not necessarily so.
When we interviewed Ms. Campling’s business partner, Russell Kennard, in October 2010, we found that his assessment of the case was quite different to hers. He thought, in fact, that young Craig could have faked the whole thing.
Like Ms. Campling, he recalls that their investigation of the Berrell case was quite exhaustive – and exhausting: “[in all] we spent weeks with the family … we went to the burnt-out house to cleanse it … we’d go out [to the Sykes residence] and we had the son in the clinic doing counselling, because the issues seemed to be around him. But although I’m a believer in spiritual events, because I’ve experienced them, in this case I wasn’t 100% convinced.
“There may have been something [paranormal] there but … because of my training as a psychologist … there was something around the boy that said to me that it could have been all [down to] him: him being mischievous. He had a lot of time to sneak around and organize things: nobody was watching him all the time … it [would have been] easy to arrange.”
“He was a strange-appearing sort of character, but he didn’t appear to be gifted with any psychic powers … didn’t have any clairvoyance that was demonstrated … didn’t seem to affect anything physically when people were with him.”
Although he agrees that Ron and Margaret Berrell were genuinely “terrorised”, Russell points out that “the relationship dynamics within the family were very stressed; I’d say that would have been the case without a poltergeist … I was open-minded to the possibility of a poltergeist but also to the possibility of the little boy … [the strange events] gave him a lot of attention … enormous power in the family.”
Interestingly, whereas Marilyn Campling said at the time that “Russell and I both heard the knocking sounds”, he can’t recall hearing anything out of the ordinary: “The main memory I have is being at the house at one or two in the morning, trying to disperse any spirit presence and I remember no verification of a spirit. It was just quiet.”
How could his recollection of events be so different from what Ms. Campling was quoted as saying at the time?
“Marilyn”, he told us by way of explanation, “was a gifted person: definitely psychic. She started as a Tarot reader … she was also clairvoyant; she could sense things that might happen or were happening”. But her experience “had been entirely in psychic phenomena – she had no training in psychology or science”. So whereas she would get excited at anything that suggested the paranormal, Russell “… was the one who’d put the brakes on. [She] was a fairly emotive person.”
The Berrells stayed with the Sykes for nearly three months, but eventually George and Sue felt they simply had to ask them to leave. In addition to the constant banging from the ensuite, the air in George and Sue’s bedroom would often become icy cold. That seemed not only inexplicable (given San Remo’s very mild climate) but distinctly sinister. Then one night Susan woke to find herself temporarily paralysed. “I didn’t mind so much”, said George, “when all this was only happening in the van, but when it came inside the house I said, ‘Well – enough’s enough.’”
It seems the Berrell’s departure from the Sykes’ house coincided, more or less, with the conclusion of the Mizpah team’s polt-busting exercise. And at about the same time the strange phenomenon seems to have petered out. Whether it wound down because of the efforts of Ms. Campling and the three psychic ladies, or because the hoaxer (or the polt) tired of the game, is anybody’s guess.
Even though the weird phenomena ceased, Russell Kennard doesn’t think that the episode “… ended smoothly – everybody living happily ever after.” That’s putting it mildly. After the Berrells moved away and built a house of their own, George and Sue Sykes chose not to socialise with them anymore. That was because while George “was ok with Marg, Ron and Julie-Ann”, he simply couldn’t abide being anywhere near young Craig.
The Berrells hadn’t been in their new house for very long before tragedy struck again. While on the expressway, driving back from his invalid mother’s home in Sydney, Ron had a fatal heart attack: “He pulled over to the side of the road”, said George, “and that’s where they found him.”
Despite Russell Kennard’s misgivings, it seems clear from the testimony of George and Susan Sykes that some of the strange events at San Remo simply could not have been hoaxed by Craig. There certainly seems to have been an interesting power dynamic at play and from Russell’s comments, it’s clear that Craig did seem to enjoy a unique position of power as the events unfolded.
The San Remo case follows a trajectory common in the literature; strange sounds and banging progressing to objects being displaced. It is interesting to wonder whether the strange events followed Craig Berrell in his adult life. I’ve been unable to trace the Berrell’s after 1986 – perhaps a reader of this blog might take up that challenge.