Friday, April 28, 2017

The Enfield Poltergeist: General Skepticism (Part 2)

(Earlier posts in the series: part 1, part 2.)

Whatever poltergeists actually are, they often behave like a lunatic with supernatural power. One moment, they'll be calm, rational, or even helpful or humorous. Another moment, they'll be destructive, irrational, vindictive, or disturbing. That may be because poltergeists are "dissociated fragments of the personality or consciousness of the focus person", as Playfair puts it (THIH, 211). Or they may be manifestations of a spirit - a living human, a deceased human, a demon, or whatever - with a mental illness or some equivalent. They may be manifestations of multiple spirits, which could explain some or all of the inconsistencies involved. They may be the faltering efforts of a spirit to communicate in contexts the spirit is inexperienced with or in contexts in which any spirit would have difficulty communicating. And so forth. Whatever is going on, if a paranormal scenario like one of the ones described above is involved, we may not be able to make sense of it, at least not all of it. We should try. But as we try, we should keep in mind that we may be attempting to make sense out of something that's senseless.

Our expectations have a lot to do with how we judge a poltergeist case. Critics of a case, whether Enfield or some other one, often don't know much about the explanatory options or are overly influenced by movies, fictional literature, or some other source that distorts their expectations. We have ideas about how a demon, deceased human, or some other entity should communicate in a poltergeist or some other context, and we make judgments accordingly. If some phenomenon doesn't conform to our expectations, we may be overly critical of that phenomenon and not critical enough of our expectations.

We should keep these things in mind as we consider one of the most criticized aspects of the Enfield case, the voice phenomena. Over several months, three of the Hodgson children (mostly Janet, but sometimes Margaret or Billy) would occasionally speak in a "harsh male voice" (THIH, 115) often representing itself (when it identified itself at all) as a deceased human. The voices claimed to be different individuals at different times. Most of what they said was trivial or nonsensical, and they often seemed to have the interests and other characteristics of Janet. Playfair writes of how, on one occasion, "it became clear that the Voice was not going to talk about anything except girls' periods…The idea that a dead old man would be obsessed with the details of menstruation was a bit too much for me" (130). Add to this the fact that if you pull up a video about the voice phenomena on YouTube, it's easy to see how a skeptic listening to a brief clip of the voice would come away with the impression that it's something a child could easily fake. In the documentaries I linked earlier in this series, the people being interviewed would often express incredulity about the voice and dismiss it without much or any argumentation.

But that's not the full picture. Other factors have to be taken into account as well. The voice phenomena have to be judged by the totality of the evidence.

Before I discuss some of the evidence Grosse, Playfair, and others have marshaled for the authenticity of the voice, I want to remind readers of some of the explanatory options that are available. If the poltergeist is some sort of paranormal manifestation of Janet's subconscious, for example, then how would it be problematic for the voice to reflect Janet's characteristics in some ways? If some type of spirit was expressing itself through Janet, using her as an instrument, wouldn't some degree of mixing of characteristics be expected or at least a reasonable possibility? Etc.

I'm not saying that we should assume the most favorable explanations that are available for the voice without evidence that would justify a favorable conclusion. Rather, I'm saying that if we have good evidence for the paranormal nature of the voice phenomena, we could explain the totality of the evidence in a way like what I've described above.

And defenders of the voice's authenticity have produced a significant amount of evidence for it. Grosse and Playfair ran a lot of tests on Janet related to the voice phenomena, too many for me to detail here, but you can read more about the subject in Playfair's book. They taped her mouth shut, to see if the voice would still be produced, did the same with water in her mouth, put microphones on her front and back to see where the voice was louder, had the voice analyzed by a speech therapist, tested Janet with a laryngograph, compared the voice's vocabulary to hers, acquired information from the voice that they didn't think Janet would have had, etc. Something that's seldom discussed is the evidence that the voice sometimes manifested itself, apparently in a disembodied way, when none of the children were around or no people at all were around (THIH, 202-3, 231-2). There's evidence that it could read people's minds to some extent. The interactions between the voice and Richard Grosse (Maurice Grosse's son) are significant in this context. Playfair discusses those exchanges in his book to some extent, but you can find a fuller account at a web site I linked earlier. I want to repeat what I said earlier about that site, though. I don't know where they got the documents they quote. I emailed the site, asking for an explanation, but received no response. The documents seem to be authentic, but they need to be read with caution. You can also watch Grosse talking about his interactions with the voice and hear a brief audio clip from a recording of one of those discussions by watching the video here until 44:06. In that clip, Grosse refers to the voice's apparent ability to read his mind. But there's much more evidence involved, which you can read about at the site I linked above and in Playfair's book. Another important factor to take into account is how the voice seems to be connected to other phenomena for which we have good evidence. The voice was closely associated with the events of December 15, 1977 (which I'll be discussing in a later post), for example. If the voice was some sort of trick being played by the children, it's more difficult to explain the close association between the voice and other phenomena for which we have such substantial evidence. Will Storr argues for the authenticity of the voice on the basis of similarities between the voice and phenomena in other paranormal cases (WSVS, 224-5). I haven't looked into the details of his argument, so I don't know what to make of it.

Taking all of the evidence I'm aware of into account, I think the voice phenomena probably were paranormal to some extent. Perhaps some paranormal elements were mixed with fakery of some sort. But there's good evidence that something paranormal was going on.

Even if you reject the paranormality of the voice, it doesn't follow that everything else of a potentially paranormal nature associated with Enfield was fake. As the documentaries I linked earlier illustrate, some people, like Graham Morris and Mary Rose Barrington, accept some of the phenomena involved in the Enfield case while being skeptical of the voice.

Another aspect of Enfield that people often object to, both with regard to the voice and in other contexts, is the use of concealment. The voice would sometimes not allow particular people in the room, would only speak when people's backs were turned, etc. Other alleged paranormal activities also would occur only under such circumstances at times. That's suspicious.

But the large majority of phenomena didn't occur under those conditions. And the ones that did often involved other factors that offset the suspicious characteristics to some extent. For example, in the discussion mentioned above between Richard Grosse and the voice, John Burcombe and his daughter were allowed in the room at the same time when Grosse wasn't. Burcombe was initially skeptical of the Enfield phenomena and offered a normal explanation for what was being reported (THIH, 43). Playfair notes that Burcombe "like his sister [Peggy Hodgson] struck all who met him as the most reliable of witnesses" (222). As we'll see later, even Anita Gregory, probably the foremost skeptic of the Enfield Poltergeist, spoke highly of Burcombe's credibility. So, while it's suspicious that Grosse wasn't allowed in the room when the voice spoke, we need to keep in mind that Burcombe and his daughter were allowed in at the same time. And even though Grosse was kept out of the room for a while, he was able to attain significant information, including evidence of paranormal phenomena, as the video I linked above illustrates. Similarly, the events of December 15, 1977, which I'll say more about later, involved concealment, yet we have good evidence that paranormal phenomena occurred behind that concealment. David Robertson and Peggy Nottingham weren't allowed in Janet Hodgson's room, but three witnesses outside the house saw paranormal phenomena occurring inside the room through the window. That's an example of concealment being used while paranormal activity was going on. The concealment wasn't used to cover up a lack of paranormal phenomena. Rather, paranormal events were occurring under concealment.

But why would the voice do things like not allowing people in a room or requiring them to turn their backs? As I mentioned earlier, trying to make sense of poltergeist activity is often like trying to make sense of the behavior of a lunatic. We should try to understand it as far as we can, though. And I think there are some reasonable potential explanations for why a poltergeist would use concealment at times. One example is embarrassment. When people are inexperienced or bad at something, or the behavior or situation is humiliating or there's some other reason aside from fraud for wanting to prevent other people from seeing it, they often try to conceal it. If a poltergeist is a faltering paranormal manifestation of a person's subconscious, or the initial efforts of a deceased human to learn how to interact with the living, for example, embarrassment could be a factor. The voice in the Enfield case was often angry and suspicious of people, so suspicion of allowing people too much access to it could be a factor as well. And so on. I'm not saying that we should assume such explanations of concealment without concern for the evidence. Rather, I'm saying that if there's good evidence that paranormal phenomena have occurred, then we should give more consideration to such explanations of concealment accordingly.

If we were to set aside every event involving a lot of potential for fraud on the part of the Hodgson girls, the entirety of the voice phenomena, and all of the incidents involving concealment, we'd still have a lot left to explain. It should be kept in mind that even if you grant much of what skeptics are asking for, there's still a large amount of evidence for paranormality in the Enfield case.

(Later posts in this series will be linked here when they become available: part 4, part 5, part 6, part 7, part 8.)


  1. I hadn't heard of this case. I listened to the Monster Talk shows. The skeptics weren't all that persuasive. It seems to me that if all of was a hoax that there had to be adults helping the children and there doesn't seem much evidence of that.

    1. I'll be responding to each of the three skeptics on that MonsterTalk program in three of the upcoming posts in this series. They made some demonstrably false claims on that program, and have done so elsewhere, and they've left a lot of the evidence unaddressed.

  2. Thanks Jason. There were a couple people who said they saw levitation. They were outside the house and weren't "primed" to expect anything (although I imagine they heard there were unusual doings at the house).

    I thought it was interesting the police lady who showed up before it became a cause celbre. The skeptics say she was a victim of suggestion but I don't think she was inclined to believe there was anything unusual going on. I imagine police get strange calls all the time.

    Anyway, I'm new to this and appreciate your hard work.

    1. Thanks for the encouragement, Steve.

      I'll be saying more about the levitation you refer to in a later post. There are several converging lines of evidence for it. There were more than two witnesses to it, and the two most often cited were skeptical of the Enfield case before they saw the levitation. Other people reported levitations on other occasions. Janet was reported to have been seen levitating on multiple occasions during the case, attested by several witnesses.

      Carolyn Heeps, the police officer whose testimony is most often cited (regarding earlier events, not the levitating mentioned above), was accompanied by another officer who also witnessed some of the phenomena. The officers were called to the house without being told what was going on (they only received a vague reference to a disturbance at the house), and they both looked for and couldn't find normal explanations for the phenomena they witnessed. Claiming to have witnessed paranormal events that you couldn't find an explanation for, especially at a time when skeptics are blaming children for the events, is something that would damage a police officer's credibility. It would be easy for critics to dismiss the officer(s) as gullible, incompetent, taken in by children's pranks, etc. Police officers usually don't involve themselves in such matters. The best explanation for why both officers who went to the Enfield house decided to get involved in reporting paranormal events is that they did experience paranormal phenomena, truly couldn't find a normal explanation for what happened after putting forward a significant effort to do so, and were highly convinced that they had witnessed paranormal events. The most substantial effort I've seen to undermine Heeps' testimony came from Anita Gregory, and I'll be discussing that effort in the last segment in this series.