Saturday, May 06, 2017

The Enfield Poltergeist: Joe Nickell's Skepticism

(Earlier posts in the series: part 1, part 2, part 3, part 4, part 5, part 6.)

Joe Nickell's article on the Enfield Poltergeist is one of the best debunkings I've ever seen. Of Nickell.

But he recently said that Playfair is "one of the most credulous people, maybe, in the history of the paranormal…he loses pretty much all credibility…a very gullible man" (in the program here at 43:58, 45:35, and 1:06:30). Nickell never even comes close to substantiating those descriptions of Playfair. But let's take a look at how much Nickell damages his own credibility in his efforts to undermine Playfair's.

Just a few paragraphs into Nickell's article, it becomes evident that there's a major problem:

Once, for example, when Peggy shouted, “I can’t move! Something’s holding me!” she was found on the stairs with one leg extended behind her in a manner that could easily be explained as play-acting.

First of all, I don't know why Nickell keeps referring to Janet's sister as "Peggy". He does it multiple times in his article and multiple times during the podcast I linked above (around 54:42 and 56:33). In the Enfield material I've read, watched, and listened to, the sister is referred to as "Margaret" in order to distinguish her from the Hodgson mother, who's referred to as "Peggy". So, why does Nickell keep using the names differently? It makes you wonder how well he's been following the facts involved in the case.

More significantly, though, notice what Nickell doesn't mention in Playfair's account of the incident described above:

Grosse and Peggy Nottingham went to see what was happening, and found her [Margaret] standing on the staircase on one leg, the other stretched out behind her. She was not even holding the rail.

'It's holding my leg!' she repeated. Grosse took her hand and pulled, but she was rooted to the spot. Peggy then took her other hand and tugged hard, half expecting [Margaret] to crash down on top of them, but she stayed as rigid as a statue, still balanced on one leg. Finally, Grosse managed to twist her sideways, whereupon she suddenly returned to normal and was able to walk downstairs.

'She was defying the laws of gravity,' Grosse told me the following day. 'It was exactly as if someone was really holding her leg.' (THIH, 75-6)

Why does Nickell not mention that two middle-aged adults (and Grosse was a World War II veteran who was in good shape and only in his fifties when the incident in question occurred) attempted to pull Margaret loose and had such a hard time doing so? It's highly misleading for Nickell to leave those details out. To make matters worse, he refers to how "easy" it is to provide a normal explanation for the event in question after he's left out the details that a normal explanation would have the hardest time addressing.

He goes on to make the false claim that "when neither girl was present—for example when Playfair spent a night alone in the house—there were no disturbances at all (1980, 80)." As I documented earlier in this series, there were many instances in which phenomena occurred when neither Hodgson girl was present (e.g., THIH, 121, 231-2, 237, 246). The first paragraph in Nickell's article cites a 2011 piece by Zoe Brennan. In that piece, Brennan mentions that apparently paranormal events continued to occur in the Hodgson home for years after Janet and Margaret moved out. The same article mentions that the people who moved in after Peggy Hodgson's death also had some seemingly paranormal experiences in the house, including before they found out about the house's history. So, not only is Nickell misrepresenting Playfair's book, but he's also misrepresenting what's been reported by other sources that he himself cites.

He continues:

Were both girls playing tricks, or could the poltergeist be in two places at once? When Janet was in the hospital for six weeks for evaluation, some incidents occurred only at home (Playfair 1980, 69, 90, 102, 263).

There were some, but not many, purported incidents at the hospital and at the nuns' home Janet stayed in just before going to the hospital (THIH, 241-4). As Playfair points out, something happened at the hospital that Janet could have portrayed as paranormal, but she took the initiative to find a normal explanation for it (ibid., 242-3). And she could have made up whatever stories she wanted to make up about alleged incidents at the hospital. She didn't.

If Nickell is suggesting that it's significant evidence against the Enfield case if the poltergeist isn't as active in other locations as it is in the house where it's most active, I'd like to see his reasoning.

Under the heading "Children's Tricks", he writes:

After a chest of drawers tipped and jammed at an angle against a wall, Playfair played his tape recorder and heard suspicious creaking noises, as if someone like Janet had slipped up to the chest.

Janet mentioned, on her own initiative, that she heard creaking before the chest fell over (THIH, 38). The creaking may have resulted from Janet walking over to the chest. Or the chest may have wobbled or moved in some other way, as objects often did, before falling over, thus creating the creaking.

Nickell tells us:

The poltergeist, a.k.a. “The Thing,” tended to act only when it was not being watched. Stated Grosse: “It’s smarter than we are. Look at its timing—the moment you go out of a room something happens. You stay in the room for hours, and nothing moves. It knows what we’re up to” (Playfair 1980, 53).

Given that a quadruple-digit number of incidents occurred in the Enfield case, something can "tend" to happen, yet not occur on hundreds of other occasions. Even if we assumed a normal explanation for every incident that occurred under the circumstances Nickell refers to above (we shouldn't), there would be hundreds of other events left to explain.

And Grosse made the comments Nickell quotes near the beginning of the case. He and Playfair had seen some paranormal events at that point, but they would see many more later. At a later date, Grosse commented, "I've seen enough now to write a hundred bloody books. I don't care if anybody believes me or not. I know what I've seen." (THIH, 71) Furthermore, in the passage Nickell has cited, Grosse is referring to what "we", he and Playfair, experienced. Before Grosse and Playfair had even heard of the case, people like Peggy Hodgson and Carolyn Heeps were seeing paranormal events occur in front of them, in full view and with easy means of verifying what they'd experienced afterward. Grosse and Playfair eventually experienced many such events as well, even though they initially missed a lot.

Even an incident that occurs partially or completely away from you can be verified to a significant extent. An object that moved could be too large for one or more of the children to have moved, the children may have been away from where the event occurred, etc.

Nickell continues:

Indeed, when Janet knew a camera was on, nothing occurred (1980, 53).

Stewart Lamont, a BBC reporter, got video of the voice phenomena and some knocking. (To see Lamont discussing that knocking, watch here until 23:30.) That video recording occurred with Janet's awareness. The knocking in the video happened while Janet and Margaret were being filmed sitting on a couch in another part of the house. Nickell should explain how the girls supposedly produced that knocking. In a book he wrote, Lamont explains that "all the family were under observation at the time [when the knocking occurred]" (Is Anybody There? [Great Britain: Mainstream Publishing, 1980], 6; see also 27). So, not only does it look like the girls didn't do the knocking, but it also looks like we have good evidence that the other members of the family didn't do it.

I discussed the objection to a lack of video footage in an earlier post. Since the failure of the video equipment in so many circumstances is itself something that seems to have been paranormal, it's ironic that critics like Nickell object to a lack of video. He ought to interact with the public statements Graham Morris, Don Hitch, and other experts in filming have made about the extremely unusual or inexplicable equipment failures they experienced when working on the Enfield case.

Nickell writes:

The incidents involving “curious whistling and barking noises coming from Janet’s general direction” suggest the extent of Playfair and Grosse’s credulity. In time, the entity began to voice words, including obscenities, and although Playfair wondered if it were really Janet acting as “a brilliant ventriloquist,” he did not think so. His faith in Janet continued even though “the Voice” refused to speak unless the girls were alone in the room with the door closed (Playfair 1980, 138, 146). Moreover, the credulous investigators noted that, when the growling voice occurred, “as always Janet’s lips hardly seemed to be moving” (1980, 190).

Playfair and Grosse gathered some evidence that the whistling and barking sounds weren't being faked by Janet. Nickell ignores that evidence. And I provided some examples of the evidence for the voice phenomena earlier in this series. Nickell ignores that evidence as well.

I've addressed the issue of concealment in an earlier post. It's not true that the voice only spoke under the circumstances Nickell describes. (How does he think Grosse and Playfair knew how much Janet's lips moved?) The Lamont video linked above, for example, shows the voice speaking while Janet was knowingly being filmed.

Nickell does this over and over again. He refers to how credulous it is to accept certain alleged paranormal phenomena without more evidence, all the while ignoring such evidence amassed by Grosse, Playfair, and others involved in the Enfield case.

Nickell writes:

Evidence of ventriloquial fakery was even taken as proof of authenticity! According to Playfair, “The connection between Janet and the Voice is obviously very close. There have been several occasions when she says something it obviously meant to say, and vice versa. Would she slip up like that if she was faking the whole thing?” (1980, 173).

Is he kidding?

Is Nickell kidding?

As Playfair explains in his book, one of the most common hypotheses for explaining poltergeists is that they're paranormal manifestations of the subconscious or some other aspect of a living human. Under such circumstances, there can be a mixing of the normal characteristics of somebody like Janet and other characteristics that aren't normal for her. The same is true under other views of what poltergeists are. A deceased human communicating through a living one is using the living individual as an instrument, so there could be, and in some contexts would be, a mixing of characteristics. And so on. It doesn't follow that I, Playfair, or anybody else is saying that we should accept such a view of the Enfield Poltergeist without sufficient evidence. Rather, we're saying that these are some of the explanatory options and that we should accept one or more of them if the evidence warrants it.

In his book, Playfair provides some examples of aspects of the voice phenomena that seem to reflect Janet's characteristics and examples of other aspects of the phenomena that don't seem to reflect her characteristics, including aspects that seem to be paranormal. He lays out some of the explanatory options and occasionally discusses what conclusion he thinks the balance of evidence points to, though he seems to struggle with the issue at times and seems to occasionally change his mind. What Nickell is doing is singling out the aspects of the voice that he finds easiest to dismiss while ignoring the rest. He ridicules explanatory options other than his own without saying much about why we're supposed to reject those other options.

He goes on:

Even after professional ventriloquist Ray Alan visited and concluded that the girls were producing the Voice because they “obviously loved all the attention they got,” Playfair and Grosse were not persuaded that the girls were faking.

Nickell is citing Alan the same way Deborah Hyde cited Milbourne Christopher. Notice that Nickell mentions Alan's background ("professional ventriloquist") and conclusion ("the girls were producing the Voice because they 'obviously loved all the attention they got'") without citing any evidence justifying his conclusion. That's because Alan, like Christopher, only visited the Hodgson home on one brief occasion, didn't witness much, and didn't interact with the large majority of the evidence Grosse, Playfair, and others had gathered. Nickell's suggestion that Grosse and Playfair were being unreasonable by not abandoning their conclusion once they found out Alan disagreed with it is absurd. What about the evidence they had for the voice's paranormal nature, including the testimony of other experts? Why is Alan's opinion supposed to override everything else? Nickell doesn't explain.

He tells us:

In fact, they were quick to claim that even if the girls faked the Voice, the other mysterious happenings remained unexplained (Playfair 1980, 233).

That's not just something Grosse and Playfair said. There are people, such as Graham Morris and Mary Rose Barrington, who don't accept the voice phenomena, yet accept other aspects of the Enfield case as paranormal. Morris saw objects moving around in the Hodgsons' home in an apparently paranormal manner. Why should his rejection of the authenticity of the voice lead him to reject the authenticity of the movement of those objects?

Nickell writes:

This remained Playfair’s and Grosse’s defense even when Janet was caught at trickery (Playfair 1980, 196–7) and when Janet and Peggy confessed their pranking to reporters. The two investigators soon elicited a retraction from the girls (1980, 218–21).

I've addressed the trickery issue in another post.

Is it true that Janet and Margaret confessed to reporters? Since Nickell only cites Playfair's book as a source, let's start there.

Playfair discusses the incident on pages 204-7. The alleged confession came from Margaret, not from both of the girls, and Margaret denied that she made any such confession. It was supposed to be a confession about the voice, not the Enfield phenomena as a whole. She said that the person to whom she allegedly confessed (Ray Alan, who came to the house with some members of the Daily Mirror staff) was using a lot of language she didn't understand and that she sat there nodding while not paying much attention to what he was saying. She was upset once she learned the paper was claiming she'd made a confession. Playfair explains that not paying attention to what other people were saying, all the while nodding her head or otherwise acting as if she were paying attention, was something Margaret often did and was something he had experienced when interacting with her. When Janet was asked what happened when the team from the Daily Mirror visited, she said she hadn't even been asked about the voice. The paper only claimed to have gotten a confession from Margaret and only claimed that it was a confession about the voice, not the other phenomena. Apparently, all that happened was that Alan went into the kitchen, where Margaret was finishing her dinner, talked to her using a lot of language she didn't understand (references to how a voice could be faked using the diaphragm, etc.), and mistook her inattentive nodding for a confession. While Nickell claims that Grosse and Playfair "elicited a retraction [of their confession] from the girls", Janet never made a confession she could retract, and Margaret denied that she'd made a confession as soon as Grosse asked her about her encounter with Alan. Grosse's asking her to provide her view of what happened isn't much of an "eliciting" of her denial that she'd confessed, and a denial that a confession ever took place isn't equivalent to retracting a confession.

So, Nickell gets Margaret's name wrong, attributes something she allegedly did to both of the girls, ignores Margaret's denial that she made a confession, ignores Playfair's explanation of what likely happened, misleadingly claims that Grosse and Playfair "elicited a retraction from the girls", and refers without qualification to how the girls "confessed their pranking", even though the alleged confession was only about the voice phenomena.

Playfair's book is the only source Nickell cites on this subject, and his conclusions aren't warranted by what's in the book. But let's also take a look at the Daily Mirror's article. It's written by Bryan Rimmer, is titled "Ghost Story", and is found on page 20 of the March 30, 1978 edition. You can get a copy of it by registering and paying a fee here.

Before I quote the relevant portions of the article, I should note some background information provided by Playfair. He explains in his book that Rimmer told him that there was "internal strife" within the Daily Mirror over how to cover the Enfield story (205). Some of the individuals on the Daily Mirror's five-person team who went to the Hodgsons' house seemed to have intended from the start to run a negative story on the Enfield case. Playfair refers to how one of them, Neil Bentley, acted "like a bully" (Peggy Nottingham's words) toward the girls and apparently offered a bribe to Nottingham in an unsuccessful attempt to get her to make negative comments about the case (206-7). Though Rimmer wasn't as negative about Enfield as some of his colleagues were, he was "caught in the crossfire" between the two sides (205), and the anti-Enfield faction at the Daily Mirror probably influenced his article to some extent. Once they'd gotten the alleged confession from Margaret, even if it had been one as dubious as her nodding inattentively while Alan was talking to her, the Daily Mirror's anti-Enfield faction probably would have wanted the paper's article to mention that Margaret had confessed.

Here are the relevant portions of Rimmer's piece:

Grosse remains convinced, despite the fact that in a harrowing scene in the family kitchen one of the girls tearfully confessed to TV ventriloquist Ray Allen that the whole voice episode was a hoax.

Ray, better known as the sidekick of dummy Lord Charles was called in by the Mirror to use his special knowledge to find out if the voice was a spoof.

The younger girl admitted to him, in my presence, that she and her sister had invented the voices to keep attention centered on them.

The next day the girl retracted her admission.

But even if her retraction were not valid, it still does not account for the other odd events in the house….

The sisters knew nothing about the moving furniture and flying objects, but Dirty Dick and Andrew Garner [names of some of the entities allegedly speaking through them] were products of their imagination.

Ray Alan said later: "It's very sad, but these little girls obviously loved all the attention they got when objects were mysteriously moved around the house and they decided to keep the whole thing going by inventing the voices.

"But it got too big for them and they didn't know how to stop what they had started."

Rimmer's article is mostly accurate, but it does make some mistakes, including in the section quoted above. It misspells Alan's name the first time he's mentioned, refers to Margaret as the younger sister in the Hodgson family, and claims that she retracted her confession, even though she denied that she'd ever confessed rather than retracting.

Rimmer apparently thought Margaret's crying helped create a "harrowing" atmosphere, but his reference to crying doesn't have much significance if it isn't further qualified. Margaret also cried when she denied that she'd made any confession (THIH, 206). Graham Morris commented that she was somebody who "cries at the drop of a hat". Rimmer doesn't say when Margaret began crying, nor does he provide other details that would tell us more about how significant the crying was. It's understandable that somebody who didn't know Margaret well would have overestimated the significance of her crying, but there is a good chance that he overestimated it.

What about the alleged confession? There are a lot of problems with the scenario the Daily Mirror reports.

If Margaret had been faking the voice, why would she confess that in the context under consideration here? Why would she confess to somebody like Alan shortly after meeting him? She apparently didn't confess to Bentley when pressured by him for a confession around the same time. In her interactions with Anita Gregory and other skeptics in the previous months, she hadn't confessed. When her mother's health deteriorated and her family suffered in other ways as a result of the poltergeist, she wasn't motivated by those events to confess. In the few decades since her adolescence, there's been no report of her confessing to anybody. But a brief exchange with Alan several months into the case led her to make a confession? Did Alan just happen to be present when some unknown factor or combination of factors motivated her to confess? While such a scenario is possible, it's unlikely. It's significant that nothing about the context surrounding Margaret's alleged confession suggests that she would have wanted to confess. To the contrary, it was the sort of context in which we'd expect her to have had more motivation to not confess than to confess. (She would have known that confessing for the first time to the Daily Mirror would have caused a lot of problems for her relationships with her family, Grosse, Playfair, and others involved. She apparently resisted Bentley's pressure to confess on the same night, so why would she have confessed to Alan? Etc.)

And why would she deny that she had confessed so soon after confessing? Again, that kind of scenario is possible, but unlikely.

If she did confess, it was unnecessarily risky for her to deny it. She could have claimed, instead, that she only confessed in order to get the people from the Daily Mirror to leave her alone, that she was joking, etc.

The idea that Margaret confessed to Alan when she had so little reason to do so and so much reason to not do it, then denied having confessed just afterward, and did so in the sort of unnecessarily risky way mentioned above, doesn't sit well with the notion that she was the sort of genius deceiver who could have faked the Enfield case with her sister.

Rimmer doesn't quote anything Margaret said. He only says that she confessed. He may just be referring to her nodding in the way Playfair describes. Given how frequently Rimmer quotes people in his article, and given how significant quoting Margaret's confession would be, the fact that he doesn't quote anything she said is important.

Why does the Daily Mirror's article say nothing about interviewing Janet or even any attempt to get a confession from her? Here's Playfair's account of what happened when Grosse asked Janet about the visit from the Daily Mirror:

'I didn't say anything,' said Janet, with her usual directness. 'They didn't even ask me, and I haven't faked the voice anyway.' (THIH, 206)

Wouldn't you expect them to have interviewed Janet? Especially if they'd just gotten a confession from Margaret? Especially given that the voice phenomena came primarily from Janet? Their avoiding Janet makes more sense if they were aware that the alleged confession they'd gotten from Margaret was fragile, that it was highly susceptible to falling apart when subjected to scrutiny.

And it's not just a matter of their avoiding Janet. What about the rest of the family and the other people who were present, like Peggy Nottingham? Why doesn't the Daily Mirror say anything about how they reacted to Margaret's supposed confession? Why no interviews with them? Why no quotations? Again, it leaves me with the impression that they were aware of the fragile nature of their claim to have gotten a confession.

If Playfair's explanation of what happened is false, why have Rimmer and others with so much knowledge of the situation let Playfair have the last word? Maybe Rimmer, Alan, and/or others have disputed Playfair's account over the last few decades, but I haven't seen it.

When Douglas Bence and Graham Morris discuss the Enfield Poltergeist, as they often do, such as in the documentaries I've cited, I never see them mention Margaret's supposed confession. Keep in mind that Bence and Morris worked for the Daily Mirror, and Morris was part of the Mirror's five-person team who went to the Hodgson house on the night in question. Even when Bence and Morris are discussing why they're skeptical of the voice phenomena, the confession isn't mentioned. Rather, they give other reasons for doubting the authenticity of the voice. Maybe the people editing the programs on which Bence and Morris appear keep leaving out their comments about the confession, maybe the thought of bringing up the confession keeps eluding them, etc. But it seems more likely that they're aware that the confession claim is too problematic to be worth citing.

The idea that Margaret and her sister faked the voice is a poor explanation of many of the phenomena involved, as I discussed in an earlier post. The nature of some of the phenomena makes fakery highly unlikely and, therefore, suggests that Margaret wouldn't have had anything to confess as far as those phenomena are concerned.

I think it's unlikely that Margaret confessed, but there's a reasonable chance that she did. Let's assume, for the sake of argument, that she did confess. Much of what Nickell claims still wouldn't follow. Rimmer's article repeatedly uses the singular: "one of the girls", "The younger girl", "the girl". So, Rimmer agrees with Playfair, against Nickell, that only one of the girls was involved in the alleged confession. Rimmer also agrees with Playfair that the supposed confession was only about the voice phenomena, not the paranormal events as a whole. Like Playfair, Rimmer never suggests that Grosse and Playfair "elicited a retraction from the girls". So, if Nickell isn't getting his conclusions from Playfair's book or the Daily Mirror article, where is he getting them?

Regarding Milbourne Christopher, Nickell writes:

Another time, when Janet was sent to her room and the Voice manifested, Christopher slipped upstairs to observe. He saw Janet quietly steal out of her room to peer down the stairs as if to make sure she was not being watched. Seeing Christopher clearly flustered her. Christopher would later conclude that the “poltergeist” was nothing more than the antics of “a little girl who wanted to cause trouble and who was very, very, clever” (1984–85, 161).

I've already discussed Christopher's role in the case. See here. Nickell leaves out or misrepresents a lot of significant details. He doesn't mention that Christopher's encounter with Janet was caught on audio tape, that the tape is inconsistent with Christopher's claims about what happened, that Janet provided a credible explanation on the tape for why she was out of bed, and that Christopher's explanation for why she was out of bed is highly speculative and unverifiable. Nickell also doesn't mention how skeptical Christopher already was before he even got to the Hodgsons' home, how he blew his cover by playing some magic tricks just after he arrived, and that Janet only became "flustered", if we should even call it that, after Christopher started acting strangely by lighting a flare in front of her for no apparent reason. Christopher's visit to the Hodgson home did more to discredit him than it did to discredit the Hodgson girls. You wouldn't know that from reading Nickell, who's long been an admirer of Christopher.

Nickell continues:

Paranormal investigator Melvin Harris also weighed in on a fast photo sequence that supposedly “recorded poltergeist activity on moving film for the first time” (Playfair 1980, 106). Harris (1980) demonstrated how the photos actually reveal the schoolgirls’ pranking.

Harris and Playfair went back and forth on the subject in the JSPR, and I've read their exchange. From what I can tell, it ended with Playfair saying:

"However, as I am not professionally qualified in either ballistics or electrostatics, I have sought the help of a member who is; and Professor J. B. Hasted, head of the Department of Physics at Birkbeck College, has kindly agreed to make a thorough study of the photographs in question and send you his opinion. When he has done so, if any retractions are called for on my part, I will gladly make them." (JSPR, vol. 51, 1981-2, p. 399)

I haven't found any material from Hasted on the subject. It seems that Playfair stands by his analysis of the photographs, though I don't know whether that's a result of information given to him by Hasted.

It should be noted that Harris, like Playfair, had no relevant qualifications in any field of science pertinent to analyzing the photographs.

And Nickell is misrepresenting what Harris did in his exchange with Playfair. Harris didn't argue that the photographs in question "reveal the schoolgirls' pranking". Rather, he argued that the photos aren't evidence of paranormal activity. As he put it, "In fact, these photographs provide no evidence at all for the existence of poltergeist activity." (JSPR, vol. 50, 1979-80, p. 552) At the end of his letter (ibid., p. 554), he asserts that other photographs, which he didn't analyze in his letter, show "spirited high-jinks", but he provides no argument to that effect.

One problem with Harris' analysis is that he leaves out a significant factor. He argues that the girls could have timed their activities (throwing pillows, jumping from a bed, etc.) so that the remote-controlled camera in their room wouldn't be activated until it was too late for their faking to be captured on film. For example, they could have timed things so that the camera wouldn't capture their throwing of a pillow, but instead would only capture what happened to the pillow afterward. But the camera isn't all that could have caught them cheating. In some of the photographs, Peggy or Billy Hodgson is present. See the photograph at the beginning of the Psi Encyclopedia's Enfield article, for example, which shows Peggy looking directly at Janet as she's in the air. Earlier in this series, I discussed Peggy's credibility and how she seems to be universally trusted as an honest witness. Maybe Janet cheated and simultaneously avoided getting caught by both the camera and her mother who was facing her, but the risk and difficulty involved in doing so need to be taken into account.

We also need to qualify Nickell's suggestion, depicted in a drawing included in his article, that Janet used her bed as a trampoline. Skeptics often make that suggestion, but without interacting with the testing done by Grosse and Playfair and reported in Playfair's book. In his book, he explains that they tested Janet's bed and found that it "was a hard bed, with little bounce in the stiff springs…I found that however hard I bounced on it, I could not get up into the air at all" (THIH, 141, 144).

We also need to be cautious about using a term like "levitate" and expecting Janet to not look like she's jumping if she did levitate. The girls claimed to be thrown out of bed at times, though I'm not sure that what happened to them every time was the same. They may have been thrown on some occasions, but experienced something else on other occasions. If Janet was thrown up into the air, I don't know how different we should expect that to look from jumping. People who are more knowledgeable of the scientific issues involved could address the subject better than I can. Because I'm so ignorant of those issues, I don't attach much significance to the photographs in question.

What I consider far more significant is a line of evidence Nickell doesn't address in his article. We have a lot of evidence for Janet levitating (in the most common sense of that term or in some other way, such as being thrown) in other contexts. In an earlier post, I discussed an incident in which she seems to have been thrown while highly incapacitated under the effects of Valium. She sometimes levitated while on her back, in a horizontal position. In a previous post, I discussed the evidence for her doing so on December 15, 1977. In addition to that, Peggy Hodgson saw Janet levitate several times, sometimes even levitating up to the ceiling (THIH, 232). The language used on that page in Playfair's book seems to imply that Janet was in a horizontal position as she levitated. Regardless, she did it in front of her mother, so it's not a matter of her only doing it in front of a camera with nobody other than her sister in the room. On another occasion, Janet was thrown off a chair she was sitting in and went about eight feet into the air with the chair's cushion remaining under her the whole time. The incident occurred in front of Grosse, and he saw the whole thing (ibid., 74). Go to the 7:49 point in the video here for Peggy Nottingham's testimony that Janet was thrown "completely across the room" on one occasion.

Another issue that should be brought up here is how often paranormal events seem to have happened that involved Janet's bed. Peggy Hodgson said that those events would sometimes occur while the girls were away from home, not just when they were in the house (THIH, 121). The more evidence we have for the poltergeist's interest in Janet's bed, the more plausible the photos of her allegedly being thrown from her bed become.

Nickell writes:

But the question remains: Is it true that Janet and the other children really could not have caused certain disturbances, as Grosse and Playfair insisted? Let us look at just one instructive incident. Maurice Grosse reported that “[the poltergeist] just threw a slipper while we were all in the room. It was not within the reach of the children, it was down near the end of the bed” (Playfair 1980, 82).

However, all that would have been necessary would be for Janet, say, to have earlier gotten hold of the slipper and then waited for the proper moment—when Grosse was not looking at her—to toss it….

As a magician experienced in the dynamics of trickery, I have carefully examined Playfair’s lengthy account of the disturbances at Enfield and have concluded that they are best explained as children’s pranks.

Why did Nickell choose the slipper incident instead of explaining, say, how Janet levitated almost to the ceiling in front of her mother? How John Burcombe saw an apparition in the house when neither Janet nor Margaret was present? How a fifty-pound fireplace was ripped out of the wall it was cemented into? How a couch rose four feet into the air, flipped backwards, and dropped upside down onto the floor? How the people living in the house many years after Janet and Margaret moved out also experienced paranormal phenomena, including before they found out about the house's history? Etc.

But even Nickell's explanation of the slipper incident is weak. When the children could have faked things on other occasions, Grosse and Playfair acknowledged it and adjusted their conclusions accordingly. The fact that Grosse said the children couldn't have thrown the slipper, and described where the slipper had been before it moved, suggests that it had been in his line of sight recently enough for trickery to be ruled out.

It's also worth noting that in the nearby context, there's an account of Grosse communicating with the poltergeist, getting responses from it through knocking. Why does Nickell single out the slipper incident while not addressing the more significant knocking phenomenon? That's the sort of cherry-picking Nickell engages in, as Playfair mentions in his response to Nickell's article.

On the recent MonsterTalk program I linked earlier, Nickell asks, "Why are we still bothering with this [Enfield] case?" (1:06:23) One reason is that skeptics like Nickell keep offering such poor explanations of what happened.

(The last post in this series will be linked here when it becomes available.)


  1. I listened to Nickles' interview. If he doesn't like Playfair that's fine, but to attack him the way he did while simultaneously ignoring all the evidence borders on the malicious.

    I'd like to hear someone try to explain the fireplace.

    1. Yes, Nickell's treatment of Playfair is highly irresponsible. In the interview you've referred to, he not only repeats his inaccurate claims about Playfair's work, but also laughs while doing it. See 53:18, for example, where Nickell falsely claims that "the voice wouldn't speak unless the girls were left in the room alone and the door closed". He laughs while saying it, then one of the hosts of the program says, "Yeah." At 56:51, while laughing again, Nickell falsely claims that "the girls confessed, and then, of course, Playfair and Grosse got them to retract their confession".

      When Playfair made some negative comments about Nickell a couple of years ago, Nickell responded by referring to how Playfair "lacked training in these essential fields—or in much of anything as far as I have seen","now aged 89, either continues to be in deep denial or pretends to be". Playfair has a degree in modern languages from Cambridge University, worked as a journalist, and had experience investigating poltergeist cases prior to Enfield. Those aren't the best qualifications a person could have, and Nickell's qualifications are better in some ways, but Playfair has had some training and some educational, professional, and other experiences that are significantly relevant to Enfield. It's absurd to say that Playfair doesn't have training "in much of anything". As far as Enfield in particular is concerned, he was an eyewitness with far more access to a lot of other evidence (other eyewitnesses, audio recordings, etc.) than Nickell has had, which makes Playfair far more qualified than Nickell to judge that case. Just as Nickell wouldn't want people to conclude that Playfair must therefore be more correct about Enfield than Nickell is, Playfair can be more correct than Nickell in contexts in which Nickell has better qualifications in some ways. And Playfair wasn't 89 years old when Nickell wrote. He's off by about a decade. Playfair was born in 1935.

  2. Another excellent post, Jason.

    It's amateur night in Dixie once again. Nickell's analysis simply lacks the rigour required. Yet again we have an utterly poor attempt at debunking the case.

    ////Nickell writes:

    But the question re¬mains: Is it true that Janet and the other children really could not have caused certain disturbances, as Grosse and Playfair insisted? Let us look at just one instructive incident...////

    As Jason notes, this is simply an attempt to aim for (what Nickell thinks is) the 'low hanging fruit.' Yet his attempt to deal with this 'low hanging fruit' is utterly laughable:

    ////Maurice Grosse reported that “[the poltergeist] just threw a slipper while we were all in the room. It was not within the reach of the children, it was down near the end of the bed” (Playfair 1980, 82).

    However, all that would have been necessary would be for Janet, say, to have earlier gotten hold of the slipper and then waited for the proper moment—when Grosse was not looking at her—to toss it….////

    Again, my thoughts practically mirrored Jason's here. What on earth is Nickell trying to pull? Eyewitness Grosse has clearly set the scene. The slipper '...was not within the reach of the children; it was down near the end of the bed.' Yet somehow one of the children managed to avoid being spotted by Grosse while they moved to the end of the bed and grabbed the slipper, discounting [Grosse's] own testimony of where the slipper had been prior to its being thrown.

    ////As a magician experienced in the dynamics of trickery, I have carefully examined Playfair’s lengthy account of the disturbances at Enfield and have concluded that they are best explained as children’s pranks////

    No, sir. You have just discounted eyewitness testimony with an utterly appalling excuse for a normal explanation. It does not take a magician 'trained in the dynamics of trickery' to come up with this kind of amateurish offering. A five-year-old could have offered that flimsy response.

  3. For more discussion of the evidence that Janet (and Margaret) levitated, including a scientific experiment, see the relevant sections of the posts here and here.

  4. Here's a post that discusses the Enfield levitations in more depth.