Monday, April 24, 2017

What The Enfield Poltergeist Tells Us About Skeptics

Near the end of a November 23, 1977 broadcast, a BBC reporter commented that the events he was covering could be "the best-documented ghost story of all time". He was referring to the Enfield Poltergeist.

This year marks the fortieth anniversary of the beginning of the case, so it's getting additional attention this year because of that. MonsterTalk, a podcast of Skeptic magazine, recently ran a two-part series on the poltergeist. The first part is an interview with Guy Playfair, one of the chief investigators of the case, and the second part looks at the case more broadly from a skeptical perspective.

What I want to do in this post is recommend some resources and discuss some of the evidence pertaining to the case. In the posts that follow, I'll interact with some skeptical attempts to explain what happened. The first few of those posts will address skepticism in general. The four posts that follow will each address an individual skeptic: Chris French, Deborah Hyde, Joe Nickell, and Anita Gregory. I expect to be posting one segment in the series every two days.

The principles involved in analyzing the Enfield case are applicable to other cases as well. And it's useful to see how skeptics handle a case that's so recent and so well evidenced, involving so many events and so many witnesses.

Playfair has said that the most accurate documentary on the Enfield Poltergeist is one done several years ago for the Paranormal Channel. Another one, which came out in 2007, is also worthwhile. The two documentaries have some overlap, but also differ enough to make both worth watching. They leave out a lot of relevant information, and they're wrong on some points (I'll be giving some examples in this series), but they're good at providing the general thrust of the case and some significant details. The first documentary linked above gives too much attention to the excessive skepticism of people like Douglas Bence, Graham Morris, and Mary Rose Barrington. It's useful, however, in illustrating how even people who are so overly skeptical acknowledge that some paranormal phenomena occurred in the Enfield case.

Here's a Facebook page that features photographs of many of the people, places, and events involved. And the video here will show you some of the outside and inside of the house where the poltergeist occurred. Apparently, the video was taken shortly after the last members of the family left, in the timeframe of 2003 to 2005.

The best book on Enfield, and probably the one resource (book or other) that covers the most ground, is Playfair's This House Is Haunted (United States: White Crow Books, 2011). The original edition came out in 1980, and the edition I just cited is the third and latest. I'll be citing it often in this series. I'll abbreviate it as THIH or refer to it as "Playfair's book" or some equivalent. In the preface to the 2011 edition, Playfair tells us that he's kept the original text of the book "with minor alterations" (xi). I've acquired an edition that was printed in 1984, which I suspect doesn't differ in any significant way from the 1980 text, and I haven't noticed any significant difference between that 1984 version and the 2011 one. (I looked up some of the most important passages in the book and compared the two versions.) If Playfair had changed the text in any substantial way, I'd expect his critics to have made a major issue of it long ago. They haven't, as far as I can tell. The consistency of his text is important, since it's an early eyewitness account that cites many other eyewitnesses.

But Playfair was only the secondary investigator of the case. The primary investigator was Maurice Grosse. You can watch a television program from the mid 1990s that provides a lot of information about him here and here.

It's important to recognize how difficult and extensive Grosse and Playfair's investigation was. They weren't being paid for their work. They did it in their free time. They were members and representatives of the Society for Psychical Research (SPR), but the SPR didn't provide them with much assistance. As Playfair's book details, there was often antagonism between them and large segments of the SPR. That made a difficult situation (working with a frightened family, surrounded by poltergeist activity, etc.) even worse. The SPR's Mary Rose Barrington is somewhat critical of Grosse and Playfair and their findings in the first documentary I linked above. But she acknowledges that they spent an "extraordinary" amount of time in the house where the poltergeist was, "far more" time than is usual in a poltergeist case. (To see Barrington making those comments, click here and keep watching until 30:30. Throughout this series, when I want to cite a segment of a video that I've cued up to a certain point, I'll indicate that by writing something like "here until [time when you can stop watching the video]". So, if I write "here until 54:28", you can click the word "here" to see the video and stop watching it at 28 seconds into minute 54.) Grosse and Playfair took extensive notes. They encouraged Peggy Hodgson, the mother in the family, to do the same. They arranged for many photographs and videos to be taken. They frequently set up audio recording devices around the house. More than 180 hours of audio was recorded during the case. They got about 20 hours of taped interviews with witnesses. They instructed the family and others involved to describe what they'd seen just after paranormal phenomena occurred, so that the descriptions could be recorded on tape just after the event by the voice of an eyewitness. Many of the alleged paranormal events (knockings, voices, furniture being overturned, etc.) were caught on tape. Playfair notes that "all quoted dialogue [in his book] is taken either from tape recordings, signed written statements or my own notes taken at the time…the transcripts of our tape recordings cover more than 600 single-spaced typed A4 pages…all quoted dialogue in this book, with very few exceptions, is exactly as spoken on tape." (THIH, x, 59) They acquired signed statements from many of the witnesses. They looked for normal explanations of the phenomena and regularly attempted to duplicate the phenomena by normal means. Playfair refers to their "regular policy" (70) of trying to duplicate the phenomena. They used many means to examine the sincerity of the family and to catch them in fraud if they were involved in it. You can find fault with some of what Grosse and Playfair did, but you can't deny that they put a lot of effort into the case and built up a substantial amount of evidence.

How many paranormal incidents occurred? They "cautiously estimated [the number] to have reached 1,500 by the end of March 1978" (THIH, 215).

Though Grosse and Playfair were representatives of the SPR, the SPR eventually decided to conduct a further review of the Enfield case. Four of its members were appointed to a committee that reexamined the case in depth, including conducting interviews with many of the witnesses involved. I contacted the SPR to ask about the availability of the report that was produced by that committee. I was told that the report is "sensitive" and can only be read at the SPR's London office or at the SPR archives in the library of Cambridge University. The report can't be copied, and you have to get permission to quote from it. But one of the members of the committee that produced the report is featured in the documentaries I've linked above, and she summarizes the report's findings near the end of the first documentary (here until 1:06:04.) You can find her making further comments about the report in an article in The Skeptic (vol. 23, no. 4, Summer 2012, p. 31). You can also find a summary of the report in the Enfield Poltergeist article in the SPR's online Psi Encyclopedia. See the second paragraph of the section titled "Methods of Investigation". The author of the article, Melvyn Willin, is a former skeptic of Enfield who changed his mind, and now accepts the authenticity of some of the phenomena, after studying the case in depth.

The SPR's journal is also a valuable resource. I'll be referring to it many times, with the abbreviation JSPR. Here's a listing of some of its most important material on Enfield:

Playfair, Guy Lyon & Grosse, Maurice. ENFIELD REVISITED: THE EVAPORATION OF POSITIVE EVIDENCE, Journal 55, 1988-89, pp. 208-19. Researchers who described apparently robust evidence of poltergeist activity in a North London household here describe the ways in which it was diminished during the following years by other people’s disbelief (This House is Haunted: An Investigation of the Enfield Poltergeist - London: Souvenir, 1980; see Suggestions for Further Reading). CORRESPONDENCE, pp. 375; Journal 56, p. 188. Earlier correspondence arising from the authors’ original book can be found in Journal 50, 1979-80, p. 258; Journal 51, pp. 34-5, pp. 115-6, 195, 321-2; Journal 52, pp. 92-5, 155-6; Journal 64, 2000, p. 192.

That 1988 article by Grosse and Playfair is important and is one of the first resources that should be consulted of all the ones I'm citing in this post. You can access the SPR's journal online for free for a week by registering here. To access it for longer than a week, you'll have to pay a fee.

Will Storr has a lot of significant material on the Enfield case, including interviews with Janet Hodgson and Maurice Grosse, in his book Will Storr Vs. The Supernatural (New York, New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 2006). I'll be citing it a lot, using the abbreviation WSVS or "Storr's book" and equivalent phrases.

There are many videos and articles online featuring eyewitnesses of the Enfield phenomena. I'll just provide several examples for now.

Go here until 2:30 to see Carolyn Heeps, a police officer, commenting on her experience seeing a chair move. I'll have more to say about her testimony later in this series.

In 2011, Graham Morris spoke on a BBC radio program about his experience seeing objects moving around the house. When you listen to the clip (about three minutes long), notice that he was initially skeptical. He wasn't expecting to experience what he did. Other witnesses were with him and agreed with him that what he thought occurred did occur. He comments that it's "impossible" that people were throwing the objects around. He expects a scientific explanation to eventually be found for what happened, but he doesn't think we have one yet. So, what we seem to have with Morris is the testimony of somebody who was a skeptic and takes a materialistic approach or something like it, yet admits that he witnessed something that current scientific knowledge can't explain.

Morris isn't the only individual from the media who witnessed some of the Enfield phenomena and has left a record of it. See here for an article by Douglas Bence.

And here's one by Michael Hellicar.

A good argument can be made that the central events in the Enfield case are the ones that occurred on December 15, 1977. One of the witnesses of those events was a baker, named John Rainbow, who was walking by the house and saw Janet Hodgson levitating (among other things he witnessed). You can watch some brief video footage of him talking about the experience here (until 8:45). I'll have more to say about the December 15 events later. I think Rainbow's written testimony, taken shortly after the events, is more significant than this brief video clip. But I'm providing the video as an example of something I'll be expanding upon later.

Here's a web site that has a lot of material on the Enfield case, including what seems to be the text of some of the signed statements Grosse obtained from witnesses. No source is cited for the documents, though, so use the site with caution. I emailed the site, asking them where they got their material, but I didn't receive a response.

If paranormal phenomena occurred in the Enfield case, why did they happen? Playfair recounts the two most common explanations, which he outlined for a meeting of the SPR in March of 1978:

I summarised the two leading theories as to what poltergeists really are; spirits of the dead or dissociated fragments of the personality or consciousness of the focus person, in this case, Janet. I insisted that while there was good reason to support either view, the truth probably lay in a combination of the two. Poltergeists certainly acted as if they were spirits, or individual entities possessing some kind of intelligence, but on the other hand the close connection with the personality of the focus person was often very striking. (THIH, 211)

To be in a better position to judge what the best explanation is for a poltergeist like the Enfield one, it's helpful to know more about how the phenomena started and how they ended, if they have ended. In 1978, Margaret Hodgson told Playfair that she had been using a Ouija board with some friends a few years earlier (THIH, 238-9). Some paranormal phenomena occurred at the time they used the Ouija board, including an apparition. Margaret also told Playfair that she saw an apparition of the same individual in the context of the Enfield poltergeist. That apparition provides a connection between the Ouija board use and the poltergeist, and Margaret's conversation with Playfair makes it evident that she suspected that it was at least possible that her experience with the Ouija board brought on the Enfield events. In an interview with Will Storr many years later, Janet Hodgson, Margaret's sister, refers to their using a Ouija board together with some friends prior to the poltergeist (WSVS, 195-6). She also commented that she had a friend (later in life) who experienced poltergeist activity or something like it after using a Ouija board. Janet told Storr that the use of the Ouija board could have brought on the Enfield events, but that there may not have been a connection. (Storr was the one who brought the subject up.) However, several years later, Janet seems to have been convinced that the use of a Ouija board had a role:

She [Janet, in an interview] also admitted playing with an Ouija board with her sister, just before the activity flared up at the house….

'As long as people don’t meddle the way we did with Ouija boards, it [the Enfield poltergeist] is quite settled.' (source)

Playfair and others often refer to how the poltergeist ended in 1978, 1979, or some other point around that time. See Playfair's comments to that effect and those of the narrator in the video here, for example (until 1:04:00). Playfair even says that "nothing" occurred after 1979. He may have some sort of narrow definition of poltergeist activity in mind. Maybe he's saying that the poltergeist activity in its fullest force didn't occur again. But why define things that way, and, if he was defining things in that manner, why did he mention the recurrence in 1979, which doesn't seem to have been as robust as what occurred earlier? Regardless of whether you would call the activity a poltergeist or would consider it a poltergeist acting in full force, there has been ongoing activity in the house:

After Peggy Hodgson died, Clare Bennett and her four sons moved into the house.

Last week, she said: 'I didn’t see anything, but I felt uncomfortable. There was definitely some kind of presence in the house, I always felt like someone was looking at me.'

Her sons would wake in the night, hearing people talking downstairs. Clare then found out about the house’s history. 'Suddenly, it all made sense,' she says. They moved out after just two months.

One of her sons, Shaka, 15, says: 'The night before we moved out, I woke up and saw a man come into the room. I ran into Mum's room and said: "We’ve got to move," and we did the next day.'

The house is currently occupied by another family, who do not wish to be identified. The mother says simply: 'I’ve got children, they don’t know about it. I don’t want to scare them.' (source)

It's important to note that Clare Bennett and her family were noticing phenomena in the house before they learned about the house's history.

In her interview with Will Storr, Janet Hodgson described some ongoing activities in the house, up to the time of her mother's death in 2003: "footsteps on the stairs…doors would open and close on their own" (WSVS, 197). And:

Janet says, 'Even my brother, until the day he left that place after Mum died, he'd say, '"There's still something there." And there was. Put it this way, you'd feel like you were being watched.'

'And do you ever feel there's something still with you?' I ask.

'Sometimes,' she says. She's speaking very softly, reluctantly, now. 'I do. Nothing nasty, but I do. I can honestly say, though, that I'm not possessed. I…I try to convince myself that I'm not, anyway.' (ibid.)

It's sometimes said that poltergeists don't do much harm to people. For example, in one of the documentaries linked above, Ian Fletcher claims that poltergeists have "no intention of harming". But as Playfair notes:

In 1975 I had tried to help the victim of a South London poltergeist which was causing the girl involved real distress, and even physical damage, for she kept getting scratched all over her body. (I saw and photographed some of these scratches while they were still bleeding, in the presence of a council member of the SPR.)…

I knew of at least one case that had ended in the suicide of a girl of about Janet's age….

I reassured her [Peggy Hodgson] that poltergeists did not kill people; they just fooled around. I told her nothing of the rare cases in which inexplicable deaths had occurred on such cases, for I did not want to give her one more cause for worry. (THIH, 40, 83, 168)

And it's not as though the terror, distress, worry, loss of sleep, other health problems, and other difficulties short of death aren't harmful. In the Enfield case, the poltergeist probably killed some family pets, it strangled or suffocated Janet several times, it slammed Janet's body into a second-story window while levitating her on one occasion, and so on. That's far from what we'd normally associate with "no intention of harming". Even where no harm is intended, it doesn't follow that none occurs. How much do intentions matter when something is as irrational as poltergeists often are?

Neither Grosse nor Playfair thought the Enfield poltergeist was demonic, though Playfair seems more open to that possibility than Grosse was. Grosse thought that the phenomena came about as a result of stress in the family. He often took a psychological view of the origins of paranormal phenomena, though he was also very open to the idea that something like a poltergeist could be caused by deceased humans. But he's derisive and dismissive of associating the paranormal with demons (WSVS, 132, 134).

I doubt that the Enfield Poltergeist was entirely or primarily demonic. I think the Enfield case at least primarily involves the psi of one or more living humans, the activity of one or more deceased humans, or a combination of the two. That offers a better explanation of the limited, faltering, and inconsistent nature of the phenomena, as well as the differences between those phenomena and what the Bible tells us about demons and their activities. And the similarities between Enfield and other paranormal cases are best explained if all of the cases primarily or entirely involve human activity (living or dead humans). A demonic view could get around such problems by proposing that demons were imitating human characteristics and so on, but that would be a less natural way of interpreting the evidence. I agree with Grosse that a demonic hypothesis doesn't offer much of an explanation of Enfield. But the demonic view (for Enfield and for other cases) isn't as problematic as Grosse suggests and can't be dismissed as easily as he dismisses it.

Those issues aren't the focus of this series, however. What I want to do in the remainder of these posts is analyze some objections to the Enfield case and some skeptics' attempts to explain what happened. I'll start with an examination of some common arguments that the Enfield poltergeist is fraudulent.

(Later posts in this series will be linked here when they become available: part 2, part 3, part 4, part 5, part 6, part 7, part 8.)


  1. Hugh Ross relates how a Christian couple asked him for advice regarding levitating utensils in their new home and a possible occultic connection here:

    1. Mike Licona describes how when he was young his father (who was an ex-Mason) would often do interviews about why Masonry is incompatible with Christianity. Often when his father would do those interviews they would experience poltergeist-like activity in their house. He gave various examples here:

  2. By the way, the earlier edition of Playfair's book that I cited above (This House Is Haunted [Briarcliff Manor, New York: Stein and Day, 1984]) has a map of the Hodgsons' house on page 14. Unfortunately, the 2011 edition of the book doesn't have that map or any equivalent.

  3. Here's a 1978 BBC radio documentary on the Enfield case. It's narrated by Rosalind Morris. It interviews a lot of witnesses.

    One of the witnesses is Vic Nottingham. He describes how the knocking moved around the house while he was there and when some police officers visited.

    I noticed a couple of points where the documentary refers to video tapes of the voice phenomena. The plural is used, referring to multiple tapes, and one of them is referred to as having been recorded in January of 1978, so it seems to have been filmed prior to Stewart Lamont's video. If there are videos other than the Lamont one that have been preserved, I haven't seen them. It could be that one or more videos other than the Lamont one still exist in the SPR archives, in the possession of Playfair or Grosse's family, or somewhere else.