Smurl Haunting: Alleged Paranormal Phenomena and Demons!

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Mass hallucinations and alleged witch-hunts have taken place for centuries – could the Smurl haunting be part of the same phenomenon? Image by Howard Pyle.

Strange things happened in the West Pittston, Pennsylvania, duplex where the Smurls lived. Janet and her husband Jack, along with children Heather, Dawn, Carin, and Shannon, and their German Shepherd named Simon, lived in the duplex next to Jack’s parents, John and Mary Smurl.  According to the Smurls, the phenomena began in 1974.

This case involves demonologists, a skeptic, a “priest,” and an exorcist who was an expert in the paranormal – what happened to the Smurls in the 1970s?

Alleged Paranormal Phenomena

The family claimed that a TV burst into flames, water pipes leaked, scratches appeared on walls, and toilets flushed by themselves. They also heard footsteps and music from unplugged radios while empty rocking chairs swayed, and experienced foul odors permeating the place, and drawers opening and closing by themselves. The Smurls also claimed the house had a paranormal macro menagerie: an incubus and a ghostly pig-like creature.

The Smurls stated that they tried to get help from the Scranton Roman Catholic Diocese, which said it would consult experts. Janet alleged she thought a Father O’Leary was helping, but she came to believe he was a demon in the disguise of a priest!

In 1986, the Smurls finally heard about and contacted self-proclaimed demonologists Lorraine and the now-late Ed Warren.

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Warren Investigation and Exorcisms

The Warrens’ claim to fame stems from their involvement with The Amityville Horror which they proclaimed was real. The American Society for Psychical Research and other prestigious parapsychological organizations debunked this; one of the fraud’s perpetrators, George Weber, even confessed to the media that it was a hoax.

In West Pittston, the Warrens conducted no scientific investigation and didn’t question the Smurls about their feelings regarding the alleged phenomena; however, they announced that three spirits and a demon haunted the house. They asked a Father Robert F. McKenna (later a bishop, who was a member of an order of Catholicism that the Vatican does not recognize) to perform an exorcism. Two unsuccessful exorcisms ensued; the third one appeared to work, but the family later determined that it had failed.

It was around this time that the Smurls contacted the media and a book publisher.

CSICOP Investigation of Paranormal Activity

CSICOP is an acronym that stands for the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal. The organization investigates alleged paranormal phenomena. (The organization has since abbreviated their acronym to CSI.)

CSIOP Chairman Paul Kurtz offered to investigate the Smurl Haunting because of the attention the case garnered, and because of the Warrens’ involvement, and wrote a report about the results, “A Haunting in West Pittston? Not a Ghost of a Chance,” that appeared in the Winter  1986/87  issue of The Skeptical Inquirer.

Kurtz sent two teams of investigators to West Pittston. When they arrived, the Warrens denied them access to the house, although the Smurls gave one of the teams permission to investigate the Haunting claims. CSI members extensively phone interviewed the Smurls, neighbors and reporters working on the case.

What Caused the Smurl Haunting Reports?

Kurtz believed the hauntings were a hoax for a few reasons, including conflicting report from teenaged Dawn, and Jack’s health – he had brain surgery three years before the incidents to relieve water on the brain, which might contribute to delusions.

Allentown psychologist Robert Gordon thought that the family possibly suffered from mass hysteria similar that which happened during the Salem witch hunts and trials. He said shared tension might cause this, and common symptoms could involve delusions or hallucinations. When Kurtz asked the Smurls to undergo comprehensive psychological and physiological exams, they refused.

Neighbors had complained to town officials for years about foul stenches originating from a sewer pipe near the Smurl’s home as well, this could be the source of the odors the Smurls reported. In addition, There was intermittent settling of homes in the area due to layers of underground mine veins, which could have caused rocking chairs and other disturbances.

Kurtz noted the possibility that financial gain could have caused the hoax as well. Within days of the story about the alleged haunting making national news, a witness allegedly saw Jack negotiating with Scranton businessman Ralph Loma, head of the Star Group, a Hollywood production company. Jack initially denied this, but Loma confirmed he tried to get exclusive rights to the story about the case. In November, St. Martin’s Press proclaimed that it signed a book contract with the Smurls.

Ed Warren, in attempting to defend his refusal to allow the CSI team to investigate the Smurl’s home, called a press conference. He claimed he had tapes of terrifying sounds and a videotape of the dark form in the duplex. When someone asked for them, he couldn’t remember the name of the TV company to which he gave the tapes. He also said the Catholic Church had the “evidence.” The Catholic Church says that they don’t.

Scranton Diocese Investigation

The Scranton Diocese asked Father Alphonsus Trabold, exorcist, professor and paranormal expert from St. Bonaventure University, in New York, to investigate. When bishops feel that they don’t have a qualified exorcist in their diocese, they’re allowed to find one in another district. In 1998, I spoke with Father Trabold to find more information about the incredible phenomena in The Haunted, a book co-authored by the Warrens and the Smurls with Robert Curran.

Father Trabold told me at that time that he had previously worked with the Warrens until he discovered they weren’t sincere, were not what they purported to be, and were given to sensationalizing. He chuckled when explaining that when he went to one of their lectures, they saw him and toned down their act, so he wore disguises when he went to their future talks.

Father Trabold was very kind when he talked about the Smurl case and his investigation. He believed the family was sincere and that something happened, but he couldn’t say it was demonic.

Smurl Haunting Unproven

While the Smurls possibly experienced strange occurrences in their home, the facts don’t support proof of a demonic presence. Was their experience the result of mass hysteria, local conditions, greed, or some combination of the above? We may never know.

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    • Maggie: Thanks for your comment. The Smurl case attracted my interest because it happened about an hour and a half from where I live and the Warrens were involved. Actually, I enjoyed reading the book too. I also like the movies “The Shining,” “Poltergeist” and “The Exorcist.” They are so out of touch with reality that they amuse me. I also enjoy fairy tales, folklore and urban legends.

      I’m writing an article about poltergeists, based on my extensive research, to explain the phenomena and theories.

      • Hello Jill. Ive read your comment on the smurl case and seen you live hour n half away from the smurl haunting. Is the duplex still standing yet today yet? And have there been any mentioned hauntings there?

        • Hi Gary,

          I did further research. To the best of my knowledge, the duplex is still there. The woman who bought the house after the Smurls moved said she experienced nothing paranormal.

        • I live only 12 minutes away and it is still there. If you google map it you can see it at an angle. I never drove past, but I plan to.

  1. The Warrens have never been honest people (trust me on this, I wont say anymore) This is why they were so secretive. It is all about money, movies, lectures.look at how many books they have writen. People need excitment in thier lives. Just look at the recent “Annabell” movie “based” on a raggedy ann doll the Warrens keep in their “museum” I mean basement. I honestly dont think everything that is mentioned in the book is true. The Warrens were being sued by the Gletzel brothers who claim nothing from the book “Devil in Connecticut” happened. Ronald De Feo’s wife claimed the Warrens are also liars (Amityville Horror) When there is a chance to make a buck, the Warrens would be there. Mr Warren passed away some years back. His wife even claimed he paid her a visit?! I have to ask myself, is there no end to this? People need to get a life. Be happy. Live clean. Dont assume there is something supernatural or the devil is lurking in some dark corner of the attic. In other words, get a life. Ric Osuna exposed the Amityville Hoax (The Night the DeFeos Died) Again, the Warrens showed no shame for the claims they made regarding this event. Its the same with the Smurls.

  2. Ramiro, I’ve got to agree with you all counts with respect to the Warrens. I had the opportunity to work with them directly on several “cases” in the late 1990’s before forming my own investigative organization. My view is that, perhaps, in the beginning of their careers they had the best of intentions, that is, to assist people who have been experiencing unusual activity in their lives. They are quite talented, particularly in their ability to tell a story. I’d go so far as to say that they are masters in their own right. That being said, the money and, in particular, the fame seemed to drive them in their business pursuits. I can state the my cohorts and myself were summarily dismissed from their “investigative team” as a response to being overly inquisitive and actually caring about the people seeking their help. It could be stated that, in their own small way, they ran a highly successful little cult drawing many types of people, many looking to believe so very badly that anything that came forth from the mouth of the Warrens was absolute gospel and beyond reproach. That being said, the conundrum is the following: paranormal phenomena does occur. Demons do exist. This is where the true danger lies, that is, being able to discern or differentiate the nonsens being put forth by the Warrens AND when something legitimately is occurring within an investigation. Lastly, in my view, the couple fell prey to their own lies. “Success” was forthcoming as was fame to the extent that, after all these years, they have their name attached to blockbuster horror films under the guise of being based on “true events”. I pray for the soul of Ed Warren often and have asked Lorraine and their shyster son in law Spera to repent before it is too late. I hope they do so for the sake of their immortal soul.

  3. Thank you for those comments Walt. I too have offered my prayers for Mr.Warren. Nothing scares me more than standing before God’s tribunal and telling him: “Lord I did miracles and cast out demons in your name” and then having the lord say “I never knew you begone from me”. Regardless what your religious affiliation or belief may be its not a good thing to feed to peoples fears and worries. Human beings that are undergoing some sort of crisis should seek help from the medical profession first. They need assistance from people who have solutions and not from those that seek monetary gain (books, movies etc.) I wish you the very best Walt. I hope you truly reach out to those in need and may God and his angels always be with you. God bless.

  4. I remember the Smurl story very well as I still live in the next town over. The home is still there. In fact I worked with a lady that was ( could still be) living in the house. We were working one day and worked in West Pittston and I asked her if she remembered The Smurl story. She said, I actually live in the home and haven’t any problems at all. To this day I don’t know if I believe the story. The home that our family lived in was haunted.
    I’ve never seen anything in our home. Now mind you I am terrified of ghosts,spirits…or whatever.
    One night as a teen I was in bed reading and I heard this loud whispering coming from my walk in closet. I was frozen from fright and yelled for my parents. Another time I was in the bathroom and the doorknob was turning from the other side. I was sick in bed and opened my eyes and saw a red form next to my bed. I quickly turned on the light and thought it was just from waking and being sick with the flu.

    One day I was alone in the house with my dad and he was fixing the kitchen sink and asked me to go upstairs for s tool he needed and as I walked around the bed to leave the room I heard my name called out in a loud whisper. Many times I would just be falling asleep and would hear a male voice yelling “Hey” in my ear.
    When we moved out I was talking about the house with my mom and she had the same experience with the yelling in the ear. She would also hear knocking on her bedroom door. She actually saw a vision of a little boy standing in the corner of her bedroom dressed in a old school boy outfit. She was in the living room watching TV and she looked up at the steps and a lady in white was walking down the stairs looked at my mom and then turned and walked back up.
    My aunt was visiting and she heard voices so she thought she may as well get out of bed and have coffee only to go downstairs and everyone was still in bed sleeping. The longer we lived there the less experience we would have. But, I never wanted to be in the home alone. The house was well over 100 years old, We moved out about 20 years ago but I often wonder if the people that moved in had any experiences.

  5. I believe you Lisa, your comments sound very sincere. Many people witness unusual and strange activity at some time in there lives and do not realize until later it may be of paranormal origin. That is to say science has no logical explanation. Perhaps some day. I can accept someone telling me they saw something and leave it at that. What I find disturbing is the individual with all the degrees, awards, certifications that questions the integrity of another person because that individual is not as “qualified” as he or she. Therefore that person must be lying. Nash Fodor and Jung believed in the capacity of the human mind to some how be in an altered state and bring about paranormal activity. Harry Price when investigating Borley rectory called it the most haunted house in England. Only years later it was discovered Mariam Foyster wife of the elderly pastor that lived there had staged some of the activity her old husband had claimed he saw. This was many years after the rectory burned down yet people accepted the haunting as truth because of Price. The case with the Smurls and the Warrens involvement might have created the same situation. I experienced poltergeist activity when my son passed away as did Bishop Pike when his son took his life. Question: is our mind creating this in order to bare the grief? Pike saw movement of objects, I saw a small china plate hurl itself across the kitchen as I wept for my three year old son. So to have an “educated” person tell me it never happened simply because they did not witness it first hand is the same as calling me a charlatan, an attention seeker. I believe you experienced something real. God bless. Thank you for sharing those comments.

  6. I find this story fascinating. I also grew up in a haunted house and once saw what was haunting the house. It was also black but had features like really long arms and fingers, no face could be seen because it had its back to me. I thank God to this day that it didn’t seem to notice I was there and that it never appeared to me again. Their story is a classic case of a demon doing its best to destroy a happy family. Doing its best to mentally break these people.

    I can’t stand it when people say…”It was a hoax because the people living there now haven’t experienced anything.” Pfffft…not all people are effected by a haunting or if they are, the demon doesn’t necessarily have to show itself or what it’s capable of physically. They’ll often hide in the background causing sickness, depression, anger, nightmares, fear, stress and anxiety. They have all kinds of ways to destroy people.

    I’ve often wondered why some of us can sense them stronger than others or actually have the ability to see them. To this day, I have a hard time sleeping with the lights off and I’m 38.

    It was such a frightening experience that I vowed I’d never let my son grow up in a haunted house and we take extra precautions to keep evil out of our home and lives. For example, my stepmom and dad went to Europe and they brought me back some kind of a charm that was a round blue flat glass with a white centre and a black dot in the white centre. I immediately got the creeps from it and threw it out. I researched it and it’s actually to ward off evil spirits. Some kind of an occult charm. Had I kept it? It could have attracted evil.

    As for the Warrens, I pray for their souls as well. I believe with all my heart that their intentions were good but hollywood, the media and skeptics have destroyed their credibility and perhaps the money and fame took over their initial intentions. I believe in the Amytiville haunting because the family did change after moving in there and there are eerie facts in the case that cannot be explained, not to mention, there was no motive for Defeo to murder his entire family. His initial reasoning for committing the murders was that he believed demons made him do it but naturally, his lawyer isn’t going to let him stick to that story as a defence. Satan likes to remain hidden and what better way than to make sure people are calling them liars.

  7. Well it house none should go in. I believe it to be haunted. The best is to bring light out of the darkness and to chobserve light.