Tuesday, May 02, 2017

The Enfield Poltergeist: Chris French's Skepticism

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

One of the documentaries I linked in my first post periodically features a critic of the Enfield case, Chris French. Let's consider some of his objections in that documentary, then take a look at an article about Enfield that features his objections.

He first appears at 9:49 in the video, making the point that one witness of an event can lead another witness to reach a false conclusion. He doesn't explain how that general principle applies to Enfield in particular. As we'll see, that's a recurring problem with French's analysis. He deals too much in generalities and too little in specifics. The fact that one witness can mislead another doesn't prove that a first witness usually misleads a second one. And the first witness would have to be wrong, or some sort of miscommunication would have to occur, in order for what's communicated to the second witness to be incorrect. We have no reason to think that witnesses are usually wrong or that miscommunication usually occurs. Though eyewitness testimony is wrong sometimes, it usually isn't. The Enfield case involves a quadruple-digit number of alleged paranormal events (THIH, 215). Even if we assumed that a large minority of those incidents involved faulty memory, miscommunication, an optical illusion, the overreliance of a second witness on what a first witness claimed, or something else that led to a normal event's being perceived as paranormal, there would still be at least several hundred events left to explain.

Many of the events are especially unlikely to have been misperceived the way French suggests. In some cases, the evidence for what happened is too accessible, explicit, and lasting to have been so easily misunderstood, such as the ripping of the fireplace out of a wall it was cemented into. Some of the events lasted for a long time, so it wasn't a matter of one person mistaking something he saw out of the corner of his eye and misinforming other people about what had happened. And incidents that involved three or more witnesses would be harder to explain under French's scenario, since they would require a larger number of people being mistaken. The incident involving objects moving around the Hodgsons' home while Douglas Bence, Graham Morris, and other witnesses were present is an example of an event that had these characteristics I'm referring to. Listen to Morris' description of what happened here. Many of the paranormal events were recorded with an audio device, and we can often hear two or more people reacting to what happened at the same time or with too little time between their reactions to argue that one person significantly distorted the perceptions of the others involved. And so forth. While French's objection has some merit, it doesn't have much. It explains little of what happened in the Enfield case.

At 10:27 in the documentary, French raises the lack of filmed evidence for the phenomena. I addressed that objection in a previous post.

At 23:52, French comments that knocking noises are common without anything paranormal happening. He also notes that once somebody has suggested that a poltergeist is occurring, people will have a tendency to see poltergeist phenomena where they don't exist.

But some of the witnesses involved were highly knowledgeable of what knocking noises would normally be heard in a house (e.g., Vic Nottingham, who was a builder), and we're not just talking about knocking noises in general here. Rather, we have highly detailed descriptions from witnesses, and we have audio and video recordings of many of the knockings. The sound would sometimes follow people through the house. It would move from one wall, ceiling, or floor to another. The knocking would sometimes respond to people's questions and comments, as if there was an intelligence behind it. See the 11:01 point in the BBC video here for an example.

And French's appeal to the power of suggestion doesn't explain why people perceived the knocking to be unusual when nobody had told them about the knocking before they heard it. It also doesn't explain why witnesses who were initially neutral or skeptical, of whom there were many in the Enfield case, believed that the knocking they heard was paranormal. And those who came to believe that something paranormal was occurring continued to look for normal explanations. As I've noted in earlier parts of this series, Grosse and Playfair had a "regular policy" of trying to duplicate the phenomena by normal means (THIH, 70). They couldn't duplicate or explain the knocking, nor could the police officers, reporters, and other people who heard it or people who have analyzed the tapes of the recorded knockings since then.

At 35:44, French says that "we know, from mountains and mountains of psychological research, that eyewitness testimony can be notoriously unreliable". The key word there is "can". But the issue here is what's probable, not what's possible. Eyewitness testimony is reliable the large majority of the time. See here. The psychological research French appeals to is itself dependent on eyewitness testimony, and his memory of that research is itself a matter of what he remembers about books he saw, articles he saw, etc. French is giving us eyewitness testimony about psychological studies that are dependent on eyewitness testimony. If eyewitness testimony isn't usually reliable, why does he expect us to believe what he's saying?

This is a good place to get into some of the details involved in the events of December 15, 1977. I've read or listened to a lot of skeptics attempting to explain the Enfield case, and I've never seen one even come close to providing an adequate explanation for what happened on that day. They rarely even attempt to offer an explanation, but instead tend to focus on much lesser events that are easier to be skeptical about. Even people who think more highly of the Enfield case often underestimate the December 15 events. In one of the documentaries I linked earlier, Ciaran O'Keeffe says that a levitation of Janet on that day is supported by the testimony of "two independent witnesses". But the evidence is much better than that. If you read Playfair's account of what happened that day (THIH, 132, 141-9) and the further details provided in the 1988 article by Grosse and Playfair that I cited in my first post in this series, you find a convergence of several lines of evidence. They interviewed all of the witnesses involved, and they acquired some signed statements about what those witnesses had experienced. Here are some highlights:

- A dog belonging to one of the neighbors, one who "almost never barked", began acting "strangely" around the time of the levitations on December 15. The dog "became very agitated" and "began to pant hard", was let outside, then "ran straight to the fence, looked towards the [Hodgsons'] house and began to bark furiously, although there was nobody in sight" (THIH, 141).

- Janet said that she was levitated.

- David Robertson, who was standing outside the closed door to the room, heard corroborating noises and had other corroborating evidence (objects in the room, like one of the beds, had been moved in ways Janet probably wouldn't have done; he was unable to open the door when he normally would have been able to; he could hear Janet gasping and crying; he could hear her hitting against the window during an alleged levitation; he heard Janet say that she was being levitated and was being slammed against the window; she "sounded frightened" [JSPR, vol. 55, 1988-9, p. 212]).

- Peggy Nottingham was present with Robertson, so she was a witness of much of what happened.

- Robertson and Nottingham gave Janet a red pen to draw a line around the light on the ceiling. They judged that she wouldn't be able to reach the light without moving a bed to reach it with, and they would be able to hear her moving the bed if she did so. They didn't hear her moving it. When they came into the room after one of her alleged levitations, there was a red line around the light.

- Janet claimed to have gone through the wall into the Nottingham's house during one of the levitation sessions. With Janet still in her room, Nottingham went back to her house to look at the room Janet allegedly went to. She found one of Janet's books on the floor, a book Nottingham and Robertson had seen in Janet's room minutes earlier. (They had instructed Janet to do things to gather evidence for what she was experiencing, so she apparently left her book behind on purpose, so that her presence in the other house could be verified.)

- John Rainbow, a baker who was walking through the area as he made his rounds, saw Janet and some objects in the room with her levitating, moving in a circle in a clockwise direction. He also saw the window's curtains blowing in an upward direction, even though the window was closed. Janet was hitting against the window as she was moved around, and she was hitting it so hard that Rainbow was concerned that she might be thrown out of the house. Since Rainbow heard objects hitting the window, in addition to seeing them, any argument that he was hallucinating would have to propose both visual and auditory hallucinations. He explained to Grosse and Playfair that he had been skeptical of the Enfield case prior to what he had witnessed that day. So, his testimony is that of a skeptic who was persuaded upon seeing some of the phenomena.

- Hazel Short, a school crossing guard, also saw Janet levitating. Like Rainbow, she initially was skeptical.

- Another woman, who was a friend of Short and was with her at the time, saw the levitation as well. But she was reluctant to talk about it. (Rainbow and Short referred to how terrified they were by what they witnessed, and this friend of Short probably was as well.) Playfair writes:

Later, Grosse and I went to see this friend, who lived round the corner. At first, she denied having been present, and when we said Mrs Short had given us her address she became extremely agitated and refused to say anything except 'I'm afraid I really can't talk about it.' We had the impression that even several weeks after the event she was still thoroughly shaken and frightened by what she had seen. (THIH, 144)

- Rainbow saw Janet outside shortly after the event in question and said she "looked very vacant, and certainly not like a child, who had just been playing about" (ibid., 145).

- Grosse and Playfair tested Janet's bed and found that she couldn't have gotten to a high enough height to be seen outside the window by bouncing on the bed (ibid.).

So, we have six witnesses (Janet Hodgson, David Robertson, Peggy Nottingham, John Rainbow, Hazel Short, Short's friend), some of them initially skeptical. We also have some other evidence corroborating those witnesses (the dog's behavior, the pen markings around the light, Janet's book left in Peggy Nottingham's house, etc.). The general skeptical principles laid out by French don't provide an adequate explanation of the details involved in the events of December 15.

On a rare occasion when somebody offered a partial skeptical explanation for the events of that day, Mary Rose Barrington commented that you "don't get a very good view" of what happens in a room by looking through a window from the road (here until 45:46). But look at the opening seconds of the video here, which shows the relevant part of the Hodgsons' house from a perspective on or near the road. You would be able to see into the room adequately. And keep in mind that much of what's reported about what happened in the room happened right next to the window. (Janet's body was being slammed against the window as she passed by, and other objects were hitting the window as they levitated through the room.) Furthermore, it's not as if all we have to go by is what the two witnesses Barrington refers to saw from the street outside the house. Rather, we also have other witnesses and other lines of evidence, as I've described above.

In 2016, an article was published that uses French as its primary source, giving five reasons to believe that the Enfield case is a hoax. Since then, French has explained that the article expresses more skepticism toward the Enfield case than he would. (See his comments at 23:15 in the MonsterTalk program here.) The objections raised in the article are ones I've already addressed. French isn't responsible for everything in the article, but he is responsible for offering the sort of highly inadequate argumentation that's reflected there and in his other efforts at explaining the Enfield case. He leaves the vast majority of the evidence for the paranormal nature of Enfield unaddressed, including the best evidence for it. That's something he has in common with other skeptics. We'll be seeing more examples in upcoming posts.

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


  1. French is a smart guy and doesn't seem to be a dogmatic skeptic.

    The recording of the knocking and its responding to human questions is quite interesting. I wonder where the girls were at the time.

    1. Steve Jackson wrote:

      "The recording of the knocking and its responding to human questions is quite interesting. I wonder where the girls were at the time."

      Playfair's book discusses some occasions when the children were being watched during the knocking and/or there was some other form of evidence that they didn't produce the knocks. He gives some examples that apparently happened on November 5, 1977. After some knocking had started, Grosse "was soon satisfied that none of the children was doing it. The knocks came from several parts of the floor, skirting boards and even the walls, and he could see all the children's hands." (THIH, 68) After some exchanges with the poltergeist on other issues, Grosse asked it how many years ago it left the house. It knocked 53 times and knocked twice for "yes" when asked for confirmation that it had left the house 53 years earlier (ibid., 68-9). It would be absurd to argue that one or more of the children did the knocking all 55 of those times without Grosse thinking to look at what the children were doing or without noticing that one or more of them had been doing it.

    2. Here's more material on the evidential nature of the knocking.

      In a December 26, 1978 radio documentary you can listen to here, Vic Nottingham discusses how the poltergeist's knocking followed him as he walked through the house and occurred in each room upstairs (apparently simultaneously) when he and two other men were there. Listen from 1:42 to 3:02.

      On page 59 of his book, Playfair refers to an incident in which "The knocking began at once, with me in the room. I could see without any doubt that nobody was doing it on purpose." So, Playfair was an eyewitness on that occasion, and he was able to rule out purposeful knocking by other people "without any doubt".

      On pages 63-65 of Yvette Fielding and Ciaran O'Keeffe's Ghost Hunters (London, England: Hodder & Stoughton, 2006), you can read the text of a statement signed by ten witnesses. The events occurred on October 23, 1977. During a period of knocking, "Mr. [Vic] Nottingham and Mr. [John] Burcombe examined the house thoroughly while some of the knocking was taking place but they could find no agency to serve as an explanation." Keep in mind a point I made earlier in this series, that Nottingham was a professional builder. He was knowledgeable of what noises a house could normally make, so his inability to find a normal explanation for the knocking is significant. And his examination of the house, accompanied by Burcombe, was "thorough" and occurred while the knocking was going on.

      On page 20 of the March 30, 1978 edition of the Daily Mirror, there's an article on the Enfield case by Bryan Rimmer, titled "Ghost Story". Toward the end of the article, there's a section about David Robertson's experiences with the case. The article refers to how Robertson "has heard knockings from empty rooms - one that he locked himself." So, not only did knocking come from empty rooms on multiple occasions witnessed by Robertson, but the knocking even came from an empty room after Robertson himself had locked it.

  2. I'm curious how French would explain the heater become dislodged from the wall. It obviously happened.

  3. I have heard of this French guy before. On Jime Sayaka's blog, Subversive Thinking, he did two entries about him:

    Wayback Machine: Subversive Thinking-Dean Radin exposes Chris French

    Also, on the third post down, there is another post about Chris French (conceding that skeptics apply a double standard towards parapsychology):

    Subversive Thinking: May 2011 Archive

  4. To get a better idea of the significance of the red line Janet drew around the light while levitating, watch the video here from about 6:00 to 6:30. As the camera moves around, you'll see the light on the ceiling. It doesn't look like Janet would have been able to have drawn a line around the light if she'd moved one of the beds near it. I think the ceiling would be too high for her to reach, even with a bed under her. If you look at the photos in which Janet allegedly is being thrown from her bed, photos that critics claim are just pictures of her jumping, you can't even see the bottom of the light. The top of the light, where it attaches to the ceiling, is even higher. How would she have reached that high, even if she had been jumping off a bed?

  5. Jason, at 6:30 and following in the video you just mentioned there is a video of a cardboard box being thrown at Grosse. Is that a recreation?

    1. Yes. All of the video of paranormal events in that broadcast were recreations. The BBC team tried several times to duplicate the speed and noise of the box-throwing incident, but weren't able to do it (THIH, 70).

  6. I'm curious if you watched Conjuring 2. It's not scholarly of course, and the ending is typical Hollywood horror goofiness, but for much of the film the director seems like he tries to stick to the events as they occurred.

    1. I haven't seen the movie. Judging by what I've read about it, it's a lot different than the Enfield case. Apparently, it takes bits and pieces of what happened, rearranges them, mixes them with a lot of fiction, and leaves out a lot.