Thursday, May 04, 2017

The Enfield Poltergeist: Deborah Hyde's Skepticism

(Earlier posts in the series: part 1, part 2, part 3, part 4, part 5.)

In 2012, Deborah Hyde appeared on a television program with Janet Hodgson, the individual the Enfield Poltergeist centered around, and Guy Playfair, one of the chief investigators of the case. It was an opportunity for Hyde, a prominent skeptic of the paranormal in general, to cross-examine two witnesses and demonstrate the strength of the skeptical case against Enfield. How did she do?

Poorly. When she wasn't speaking in generalities that fail to address the details of the Enfield case, she was often misrepresenting the few details she did address.

However, in a piece she later wrote for her magazine, The Skeptic (vol. 23, no. 4, Summer 2012, p. 31), she explained that the producers of the television program had asked her to "keep it generalised and unconfrontational". While that is a significant mitigating factor, it doesn't absolve Hyde of all blame for how poorly she did. Her choice of which generalities to bring up was bad, and when she brought some details into the discussion, she also chose those poorly and made some misleading comments about some of them.

At 9:23 in the video, she begins her appeal to generalities. We get a couple of examples of other paranormal cases that allegedly were inauthentic, without any attempt to show that Enfield is analogous. She refers to the unreliability of human perceptions and memory. I addressed those issues earlier in this series, and we've discussed them in many other contexts in the archives of this blog.

At 10:06, she gets more specific. She refers to how Douglas Bence, Graham Morris, and Mary Rose Barrington "had their issues with it [Enfield]". She doesn't mention that all three of those individuals affirmed that paranormal phenomena happened in the Enfield case, with Bence and Morris even citing incidents they witnessed. They "had issues with" some portions of Enfield, not all of it. While Hyde doesn't deny that, her comments are framed in such a way that she could easily be understood by many in the audience to be denying that those three people believed that anything paranormal occurred. She goes on to claim that the SPR's committee report on Enfield "concluded that the girls were faking it". After she made that false claim, Playfair corrected her. She had an opportunity to clarify her comments, if she had misspoken. She didn't offer any clarification. She then objected that the Enfield phenomena weren't replicated under controlled conditions, apparently having some sort of scientific experiment in mind. But that's an irrational objection. An entity like a poltergeist isn't something you can necessarily put through a scientific experiment or expect to be replicated in a predictable manner. But there was some scientific testing of Janet's paranormal capacities, as Playfair and Grosse mention in their 1988 JSPR article (vol. 55, 1988-9, p. 213).

After the program, Playfair wrote a response to Hyde. And Barrington wrote a response in Hyde's magazine. In that response, alongside Hyde's piece cited above, Barrington explains that the SPR's committee report affirmed the paranormal nature of the Enfield case rather than denying it. She also responded to some other aspects of Hyde's comments that she disagreed with.

In her piece alongside Barrington's, Hyde writes that "the phenomena were highly resistant to disbelieving witnesses…it's hard to avoid wondering whether the agents of the peculiar occurrences at Enfield were simply refusing to play to tough crowds." Similarly, at 10:15 in the recent MonsterTalk program about Enfield, Hyde or a woman interviewing her with whom Hyde seems to agree (I can't tell which) claims that anybody who didn't believe "wasn't welcome back in the house". We're told that "you only had people around who believed", that "that's just not good data gathering".

As I documented earlier in this series, many of the witnesses of paranormal phenomena in the Enfield case were initially skeptical, and some who believed in one or more of the phenomena were skeptical of one or more of the others. In some cases, like the police officers, how could Hyde know whether they were skeptical? And the idea that skeptics weren't allowed back in the house is demonstrably false. Anita Gregory was a skeptic, and she visited more than once. She was known to be skeptical (THIH, 113-7, 120), but was allowed back (ibid., 129, 170). As Gregory wrote, "My candid refusal to take any of this at face value was never held against me by any of the family, who always welcomed me most cordially" (JSPR, vol. 50, 1979-80, p. 540) And why just bring up whether people returned to the Hodgsons' house? Milbourne Christopher was invited with the knowledge that he was a professional magician, a skeptic, and somebody with experience debunking paranormal claims, and it was understood that he would be trying to catch the Hodgson girls cheating. Grosse and Playfair not only let him in the house, but also cooperated with him in his effort to test the girls (THIH, 158-63).

In 2015, Hyde wrote an article about Enfield. She largely repeats weak objections I've already addressed. But I'll respond to some other portions of the article:

In fact it was hard to see how more rigid data-collection could have occurred at all, as the site was a home with an understandably protective mother. “Mrs [Hodgson] made it very clear to Grosse [the other investigator – DH] and I … that while we … were welcome at any time, she did not want the others in her house again” wrote Playfair in the aftermath of a visit from doubters who thought the girls were playing up.

That's a highly misleading description of what happened (THIH, 78-9). Peggy Hodgson didn't say that the researchers in question couldn't come back because they were "doubters". Rather, she said they couldn't come back because of how they had behaved, "let alone having her children accused of putting it all on into the bargain" (ibid., 79).

As Playfair explains, the visit by these researchers caused "total bedlam". Only one of them had been invited, since there wasn't room in the house for more than one at that point. But that one individual, who was asked to come alone because of the lack of room for more people, brought five other individuals with him anyway. They "covered the family dining table with all sorts of small gadgets". "When the girls complained that the double bed, which they were both in, was shaking, he [one of the guests] promptly jumped in with them". (I think that's what's pictured in the photograph here.) That same researcher (Tony Cornell) "put some balloons full of water under the bed as 'bait' for the poltergeist. These were eventually flung by persons or poltergeists unknown in all directions, making a terrible mess as water seeped through the floorboards into the living room, drenching the unfortunate budgerigar [pet bird]". Playfair goes on to explain that while the researchers were visiting, a table in the kitchen overturned when one of those researchers was nearby. That researcher didn't even investigate what happened, but instead just assumed that the children who were in the area at the time must have done it. As Playfair explains, if the researcher had taken a closer look at the table and the surrounding circumstances, he would have realized that the children couldn't have overturned the table. Playfair and Grosse had done that sort of investigative work when incidents occurred in the house, so they knew how heavy objects like that table were, how much time it would take for a person to turn such objects over, etc. Apparently, this researcher who was visiting the house didn't do any work like that, but instead just assumed that the children must have turned the table over. Playfair does mention that Peggy Hodgson was upset that these researchers were suggesting that her children were faking the poltergeist phenomena, but he implies that she was primarily upset about their other behavior and only secondarily about the accusation against the children. She didn't prevent them from coming back just because they were "doubters". As I've documented, a lot of other people who were doubting the phenomena were allowed in the house both before and after the timeframe in question.

Hyde goes on:

When Graham Morris of the Daily Mirror told the girls that poltergeists caused outbreaks of fire, the Enfield entity turned its hand to pyromania….

It seems from a torn out magazine article found in the house that Janet had probably heard of Matthew Manning another child-focus of poltergeist phenomena. Manning’s mother had reported that the first strange event in their house was the disappearance of a teapot, and it was also one of the first incidents at Enfield.

Since a common paranormal view of poltergeists is that they're manifestations of the subconscious or some other aspect of a living human, such as Janet, how would Hyde's argument suggest that nothing paranormal occurred? Just as Janet could have gotten the idea to fake something from Morris' comments, his comments also could have given her the idea to produce fires paranormally, whether consciously or subconsciously. The same is true of deceased humans, demons, etc. Any such intelligent agent could have acted on what Morris said, for a variety of reasons. Playfair refers to how upset he was with Morris for making the comment, since he didn't want to distress the family by letting them know that poltergeists often produce fires (THIH, 187). Any being, not just Janet, who wanted to cause distress or some other harm to Playfair, the Hodgson family, or whoever else could have reacted to Morris' comments the way Hyde suggests above.

And if Janet and Margaret hadn't yet faked any fire incidents up to the point when Morris made his comments, which was nearly half a year into the case, why should we think Janet and/or Margaret had been studying other poltergeist cases to discover what to fake? If they had been doing research in order to fabricate a poltergeist, shouldn't they have been aware of the fire phenomena and have been producing them before Morris made his comments?

Playfair tells us that a fire incident occurred in the Hodgsons' home about a week after Morris' comments (ibid., 189). That's consistent with Hyde's argument, but doesn't demonstrate it to be probable. While the timing of the fire incident helps Hyde's argument, the other circumstances involved don't. Poltergeist fires often burn one object without burning others close by that would normally get burned in the process. In the Enfield incident under consideration here, "a lot of smoke" was seen coming from the kitchen drawers, which were closed at the time, and a box of matches was found to be burned without the matches inside being burned. Apparently, the matchbox spontaneously caught fire and spontaneously extinguished itself without burning the matches and other objects nearby (ibid., 138, 190). Instead of just suggesting that Janet and Margaret faked a fire incident that Hyde doesn't describe for her readers, she ought to explain how the girls allegedly would have carried out what happened.

Hyde's description of the teapot incident is even worse. Playfair does refer to a teapot incident as "one of the very first incidents at Enfield" (ibid., 106). But there's a difference between "the first" and "one of the very first". And given that a quadruple-digit number of paranormal events occurred in the Enfield case, an incident could be "one of the very first", yet have been preceded by a lot of other events. Unless Playfair is referring to an incident he doesn't mention elsewhere in the book, he seems to be referring to what's described on page 39. On the same page, he mentions a later event involving the teapot, but makes no reference to an earlier one. It seems unlikely that he'd mention both those events without mentioning an earlier one, if there had been one. So, it's likely that what Playfair refers to on page 106 is the event described on page 39. While it did occur toward the beginning of the Enfield case, there were many other paranormal incidents that occurred earlier. And since so many paranormal events occurred in the Enfield case, involving such a large number and variety of objects, how significant is it that a teapot was sometimes involved? Furthermore, the teapot didn't disappear. Rather, Grosse saw the teapot "rock back and forth on its own for about seven seconds, doing a little dance right in front of my eyes. The pot was empty, and it was cold. There was just no way it could do that normally." (ibid., 39) He was alone in the kitchen at the time. Again, how does Hyde think Janet and/or Margaret faked that?

Hyde writes:

A neighbour, Mrs Burcombe, who saw a plastic rod “materialise” in front of her eyes was probably just experiencing sudden awareness of it.

She didn't just see the rod. She saw it drop, and everybody in the area at the time agreed that nobody had been in a position to drop or throw the rod in front of her (THIH, 43). If there had been a shelf or something else nearby that the rod could have fallen from, you wouldn't expect Burcombe and everybody else present to be unaware of it or to not consider the possibility that the rod fell from there. After she "screamed, shouted…jumped back", she saw the rod "jump and come up again" (ibid.). That seems to be too long a period of time for the rod to have merely been bouncing, so it seems to have been doing something else. And if it had just been bouncing as an object normally would, it's doubtful that Burcombe would have made note of it as if something unusual had occurred.

Hyde gives her readers a misleading incomplete description of what happened. How would she explain the totality of the event?

She continues:

She [Janet] experienced another manifestation of the same thing [sleep paralysis] when she was in bed and “All of a sudden I felt something pull me – by the arms – out of bed”. She’s not short of company to judge by the between 15 and 40% (depending on the question used) of people who have suffered sleep paralysis at least once; I have felt that I was being dragged out of bed within the last month.

Janet didn't just feel that she was being dragged out of bed. She was dragged out, not just according to her own testimony, but also according to the testimony of two eyewitnesses. It happened twice, and it was recorded on audio tape both times. Hyde cuts off Playfair's quotation of Janet's words just before she explains that she was pulled out of the bed, through the door, and part way down the steps (THIH, 101; see also 212-3). Peggy and Margaret Hodgson were in the room with Janet when it happened. Peggy was next to the door and saw it open by itself both times. On the tape, she mentions no less than ten times that she saw the door open by itself. Margaret was too far away to have opened it, and Peggy would have seen her if she had opened it. Grosse was downstairs with John Burcombe, and they came running when they heard the commotion upstairs. They found Janet "lying head downwards on the staircase, slowly sliding down it, apparently still half asleep". They brought Janet back to her bedroom, and the same thing happened again a few minutes later. Janet's mother was "fully awake and clearly saw the whole episode". She once again saw the door open by itself as Janet was being dragged out of the room by something invisible. But since Janet was awake now, she "was on her feet this time, and it seemed as though she was being pulled along the floor". The implication is that she wasn't on her feet the first time. So, as paranormal as the second incident was, the first one seems to have been even more so. Apparently, in the first incident, Janet was asleep in bed, felt something pulling her out, was dragged along the floor without being on her feet, the door opened by itself, and she was taken partway down the steps by whatever was dragging her. Playfair, commenting on the second incident, notes that "This [being pulled along the floor] is exactly what it sounds like on the tape." So, we have the testimony of three witnesses who were in the room, with partial corroboration from Grosse, Burcombe, and an audio tape. Janet didn't just feel like she was being pulled out of bed. She was pulled out and dragged a long way, twice, with an invisible entity opening the door both times.

That's not sleep paralysis.

Hyde goes on:

Illusionist Milbourne Christopher thought the only spirits involved in the case were the high spirits of the girls.

There's a reason why Hyde cites Christopher's background ("illusionist") and conclusion ("the only spirits involved in the case were the high spirits of the girls") rather than citing any research he had done to support his conclusion. There isn't much research to speak of. Christopher only visited the house once, spending one night there (THIH, 158-63), and his visit did more to discredit him than to discredit the Enfield case. When he visited the Hodgsons, none of the paranormal events that occurred happened in his presence. He came there as a skeptic looking to debunk the case. The only justification he came away with for his skepticism was his own dubious interpretation of an event I'll describe below.

Before he got to the house, he and Playfair had agreed that it would be best to conceal his profession as a magician, so that the girls wouldn't know what they were up against if they were faking things. But Christopher abandoned that approach about fifteen minutes after he arrived, when he started playing some magic tricks for the Hodgsons. Playfair tried to salvage the situation by hastily interjecting, "Oh yes, Mr White's [a pseudonym they were using for Christopher] a pretty good amateur magician." When Playfair, understandably, asked Christopher for an explanation for why he blew his cover, he told Playfair that he "wanted to test their reactions". But he could have done that later, after watching the Hodgsons for a while without letting them know that he was so skilled at magic. I see no justification for Christopher's decision to blow his cover fifteen minutes after getting there.

But the worst came later. That night, Christopher saw Janet walking through the upstairs hallway. There are two versions of what happened. Christopher gave his version when he was being driven back to his hotel. Playfair audio-taped the conversation that occurred in the car, so he got Christopher's version of the events on tape. Grosse had set up an audio recorder upstairs in the Hodgsons' house the previous night, so Christopher's encounter with Janet was caught on tape as well. Christopher apparently didn't know that, and his version of what happened, which he gave to Playfair on the ride to the hotel, differs significantly from what's on the tape of the previous night's events.

According to Christopher, he saw Janet at the top of the stairs, looking down, then turning and going into one of the bedrooms immediately after seeing Christopher on the steps doing a magic trick to produce a flare of light. So, he reached the conclusion that Janet probably was intending to fake a paranormal event, but changed her plans when she unexpectedly encountered Christopher on the staircase.

First of all, notice how weak Christopher's reasoning is. There are a lot of reasons why a 12-year-old girl might look down the steps in her house and might turn to go somewhere else when she sees a visitor she doesn't know well producing a flare of light as he walks up the steps. She might have been planning to fake a paranormal event, but she could easily not have been.

More importantly, though, Christopher's version of what happened is inconsistent with the tape of the events. After more than twenty seconds of silence on the tape (Christopher was already on the steps when that period of silence began), there's a conversation between Christopher and Janet. What was Christopher doing during that period of more than twenty seconds? He probably had gotten upstairs by that point, and that's what his conversation with Janet suggests:

MC Hello, what are you doing? How are you?
JH Just got out of bed.
MC Just got out of bed, my goodness!
JH Don't like it here on my own.
MC Mm?
JH I don't like it here on my own.
MC What happened?
JH I don't like it here on my own. Why do I have to stay here on my own?

Judging by how much time had elapsed on the tape and Janet's references to "here", they seem to be having the conversation in Janet's bedroom or close to it. And she gives a highly reasonable explanation for why she was out of bed. She was frightened and wanted to go to another bedroom to spend the rest of the night with her family.

In Christopher's version of the events, no conversation is mentioned. And he claims that Janet immediately turned and went into the other bedroom after seeing him in the staircase. Instead, it looks like Christopher got all the way up the stairs, went in or near Janet's bedroom, had the conversation with her quoted above, then performed his flare magic trick (without giving Janet any explanation for why he was doing it), after which Janet said "Oh my God!", went into the other bedroom and commented "He's gone mad!"

Think of how ironic it is that skeptics like Hyde keep citing Christopher's view of Enfield. Supposedly, Christopher should be trusted as a great magician who applied his skills to the Enfield case to discern that Janet and her sister were faking it. But Christopher's visit to the house didn't turn up any faking on the part of Janet or Margaret. It did turn up some fakery on Christopher's part.

Before I close this response to Hyde, I want to address a YouTube video suggesting that Playfair was dishonest or had a bad memory on the television program on which he and Hyde appeared. Anybody who's made much of an effort to follow the Enfield case should know what incident Playfair is referring to in that video. It's on page 47 of his book. In the video, Playfair makes multiple comments that distinguish the event in question from the earlier event involving the police officer. He refers to how Janet had just been sitting on the chair, how it flipped over backward, and how it was daylight at the time. None of those factors were involved in the incident with the police officer. And Playfair is well aware that the event with the police officer occurred earlier, when he wasn't yet involved in the case, since he spells out that chronology so clearly and at so much length in his book. The idea that Playfair is claiming, in the video, that he was with the police officer when the earlier incident with a chair occurred is ridiculous. All he's saying in the video is that the later chair incident that he witnessed is the same type of incident as what the police officer experienced. We have a very reasonable explanation for Playfair's comments in the video, an explanation that doesn't require us to conclude that he was being highly dishonest or highly forgetful. The skeptic's video undermines his own credibility rather than Playfair's.

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


  1. Another excellent post. I look forward to what you have to say about Anita Gregory.

  2. This has indeed been an enlightening series; thank you, Jason. Have you ever looked into the Amityville case? If so, I'm wondering if you think it's the outright fraud that skeptics claim it is. Do you have any opinions on Ed and Lorraine Warren?

  3. I appreciate the encouragement from both of you.

    I don't know much about the Amityville case.

    From what little I've heard about and from the Warrens, their work seems highly problematic. Playfair discusses his view of Ed Warren in the MonsterTalk interview I linked earlier (start listening at 26:30). The Warrens' involvement in the Enfield case was negligible.

  4. Jason,

    Thank you for this series. You have brought this case back to life with your engaging style in clearly laying out the details, the objections and the ultimately weak nature of those objections. It is once again fascinating to see nature of the sceptics' a priori assumptions in this case. You answer the sceptics' objections clearly and in a manner that exposes the utter inadequacy of such objections.

    I wonder, have you thought about producing a book in a similar vein?

    1. Thanks, Danny!

      There isn't much interest in posts like these when they're so accessible and free, linked to audio and video, etc. There would be even less interest in a book. If you address apologetic issues beyond the lowest stages of an introductory level, the vast majority of people aren't going to be interested. The potential audience for posts like these is likely an extremely tiny fraction of one percent of the population, and only a tremendously small percentage of those people will ever come across any of these posts.

      If another book is to be written on the Enfield case, the best person to do it would be somebody who lives in England and, therefore, has far more access than I do to the SPR archives, the eyewitnesses who are still alive, and other relevant sources. It's astonishing to me that the writing of such a book and the publishing of such material online and in other contexts aside from books didn't happen long ago. But it's even more astonishing that our culture is so corrupt that anybody who did that sort of work wouldn't get much of an audience for it.

      Playfair has some good passages in his book about this subject, and I plan to quote him in a post on my Facebook account tomorrow. I'll link it here.

    2. That's fair enough, Jason.

      I echo your sentiments in lamenting the lack of interest in such a fascinating case as this, and the anti-rational a priori dismissal by self-proclaimed 'critical thinkers' of all things paranormal.

    3. Here's the Facebook post I referred to in my comment above.