A HAUNTING IN WEST PITTSTON? NOT A GHOST OF A CHANCE BUFFALO, NY - The Committee for the S
A HAUNTING IN WEST PITTSTON? NOT A GHOST OF A CHANCE
BUFFALO, NY -- The Committee for the Scientific Investigation of
Claims of the Paranormal (CSICOP) has released the findings of its
investigation of the "haunting" of the Jack and Janet Smurl family
of West Pittston, PA
In a report appearing in the Winter 1986/87 issue of The
Skeptical Inquirer, CSICOP Chairman Paul Kurtz chronicles the
strange events of last summer, and offers a number of alternative
explanations, none rooted in the paranormal.
In mid-August newspapers across the country began carrying dai-
ly reports on the bizarre occurrences in the Smurl home. The Smurls
claimed that they were being terrorized by demonic forces manifested
in the form of foul odors, rappings on the walls, pig grunts, disap-
pearing objects, and direct physical attacks on family members.
Kurtz and CSICOP became involved in the case because of the
many inquiries by members of the media and public asking if CSICOP
knew what was going on. Kurtz organized and dispatched two teams of
investigators to West Pittston and proceeded to conduct an extensive
over-the-phone inquiry contacting members of the Smurl household and
various members of the press working on the story.
An examination of the evidence uncovered during the CSICOP in-
vestigation leads Kurtz to conclude: "Our investigation of the Smurl
case thus far points to several possible alternative explanations
for what has allegedly been happening without the need to invoke an
occult or paranormal one."
Kurtz noted that permission was given by the Smurls for one of
the CSICOP teams to examine the house. But upon arrival they were
denied entry by self-proclaimed "demonologists" Ed and Lorraine
Warren. The Warrens, who had also been invited to investigate the
house, were now acting as spokesmen for the Smurl family, and alone
had been given privileged access to the Smurl home.
"Special cause for suspicion in this affair was the presence of
Ed and Lorraine Warren," wrote Kurtz. "They have been involved in
many demon-possession cases, including the `Amityville Horror',
which has been admitted by its perpetrators to have been a hoax,
although the Warrens still maintain that it was genuine." Kurtz also
points out that the Warrens served as "demonology advisors" for Ami-
tyville II, a prequel to the Amityville Horror movie, which made mil-
lions at the box office.
The Warrens maintain that demons do exist and several were pres-
ent in the Smurl home. As evidence they claim to have made audio and
videotapes of paranormal events in the home. When asked by Kurtz and
others for permission to examine the tapes, Warren gave a number of
conflicting answers, including the response that the tapes would be
released only to the Roman Catholic church. Warren also stated that
he had lent the tapes to television production company and could not
remember its name.
"For any demonological claims to be accepted," Kurtz notes,
"they must be corroborated by independent observers. Thus far, we
have only the testimony of the Smurls and/or the Warrens, unsub-
stantiated by any kind of objective physical evidence. The presence
of such beings is highly improbable. On the other hand, we are com-
mitted to the impartial examination of any such claims, however exag-
gerated or fanciful thy might appear, particularly given the great
public interest in the case. But we were denied the opportunity to
examine the site or freely question the claimants. We could only exa-
mine the available evidence and consider possible alternative explan-
One such explanation Kurtz describes is the possibility of teen-
age pranks. Kurtz found that 17-year-old Dawn Smurl gave many dif-
ferent accounts of her experiences. It was also discovered that many
of the rapping noises seemed to emanate from walls that were adja-
cent to Dawn's bedroom. "Historically", Kurtz writes, "teenagers
have been involved in poltergeist cases .... and I wondered whether
Dawn .... could be responsible for the rappings." He notes that
Dawn's statements fit the pattern of a teenager playing tricks to
Kurtz also details possible psychological and physiological
disorders that might be affecting members of the Smurl family. It
was learned that Jack Smurl had had brain surgery three years prior
to the "haunting" to relieve water on the brain. Kurtz questioned
whether this procedure could be affecting Mr. Smurl's present behav-
ior especially in light of Smurl's claim that he had on several occa-
sions been raped by a demon.
It was also suggested by Allentown, Pennsylvania, psychologist
Robert Gordon that the family may have been suffering from hysteria
similar to that prevalent during the Salem witch trials. He said
that a shared tension might cause mass hysteria, with shared symp-
toms, that could involve delusions or hallucinations.
Kurtz requested the Smurl family to submit to a thorough psych-
ological and physiological examination. The Smurls declined.
Kurtz reports conversations with neighbors who revealed that
they had been complaining to village officials for years about foul
odors emanating from an inadequate sewer pope near the Smurl home.
Neighbors also told of sporadic settling occurring throughout the
area due to the layers of mine veins that honeycomb the earth below
the town. It was noted that the Smurl home had been settling badly,
and Kurtz questioned whether this could be responsible for the
Finally, Kurtz outlined the possibility of a financial motive
behind the reported haunting. It was learned that within days of the
story breaking in the national media, Jack Smurl was seen negotiat-
ing with the Star Group, a Hollywood production company headed by
Scranton businessman Ralph Loma. Although Smurl reportedly denied
that negotiations had taken place, Loma confirmed he had been trying
to obtain exclusive rights to the story and said,"We haven't signed
anything yet, but we hope to. It's going to make helluva movie when
its finally made."
In November St. Martin's Press announced that it had signed a
book contract with the Smurls. A hard-cover edition on the West
Pittston haunting will be published first, followed sometime later
by a paperback.
Kurtz also notes that the Smurls have since released a state-
ment saying that the demons have now left their home. Said Janet
Smurl, "It's like a different home now. We are not afraid to go to
sleep at night."
"The fact that the Smurls have signed a book contract raises
serious questions about their motives," wrote Kurtz. "No doubt, how-
ever, a large segment of the public and of the media is far more
fascinated by demons and ghosts than the possibility of a prank or
E-Mail Fredric L. Rice / The Skeptic Tank