Friday, May 19, 2017

Too Skeptical To Be Reasonable

Here are some of Guy Playfair's comments about a report on the Enfield Poltergeist that he and Maurice Grosse delivered to a meeting of the Society for Psychical Research (SPR). This occurred on March 29, 1978:

He [Grosse] kicked off with a very concise and factual account of the case to date, summarising the types of phenomenon we had observed or recorded from eye-witnesses under seventeen headings. These included knocks, movement of small and large objects, interference with bedclothes, appearance of water, apparitions, levitation of persons, physical assaults of several types, automatisms, psychological disturbance, equipment malfunction and failure, the passage of matter through matter, unidentifiable voice phenomena - both embodied and disembodied, and spontaneous combustion.

While he was reeling off this list, I looked around the audience. Some, like Professor [Hans] Bender, were listening intently, while elsewhere I saw a number of raised eyebrows. Clearly, this was a bit much for some SPR members, who had never witnessed anything paranormal all their lives.

Anticipating this reaction, we each provided a list of incidents we had actually seen ourselves. We had selected our lists very carefully, and included only those for which neither of us could suggest a normal explanation….

We then played selections from our tapes, and the somber Divinity Hall reverberated to sounds I am sure it had not heard before. We had picked some of our best incidents, including the whole of the sequence in which the cardboard box had been thrown in Grosse's face and the one in which Janet had been dragged out of bed and half way downstairs.

This was too much for one member, who interrupted Grosse's commentary with 'Excuse me, where was [Margaret] when Janet went out the door [after being dragged out of bed by an invisible entity]?'

'She was in bed,' Grosse replied. I then drew a plan on the blackboard showing Janet's approximate movement, making it clear that if [Margaret] had opened the door, she would have had to get right out of bed. Moreover, there was not room at the doorway for two people, as the door almost touched [Margaret's] headboard when opened. And did he really think [Peggy Hodgson, the mother of the girls] would not have seen her [Margaret]?

This did not satisfy our colleague. 'She could quite easily have opened the door,' he insisted. Grosse replied that she was asleep.

'How do you know she was asleep?' Oh my God, I thought. Why couldn't he wait for question time like everybody else? I saw the argument going on all night. He had just heard [Peggy Hodgson] state no less than ten times on the tape that the door had opened by itself. What more did he want?

We managed to get on with our lecture without further interruption…

Finally, we came to discussion and question time. Professor [Archie] Roy, at my request, gave an account of his Scottish poltergeist case, which had almost all the features of ours, including a brief sample of similar-sounding deep voices.

The only feature of our case that most members seemed to want to ask questions about was what they insisted on [calling] 'fraud'…

As one member after another droned on and on, airing their private obsessions, I became thoroughly fed up. Fraud, I assured the audience, was the first matter Grosse and I had gone into on the case and we had totally eliminated it as an explanation of the case. We had spelled out no less than twenty-six incidents for which no kind of fraud hypothesis could account. Was that not enough?

Apparently not, for one member demanded to know exactly how many of the incidents, which we cautiously estimated to have reached 1,500 by the end of March 1978, had been observed by outside witnesses. I told him I had no idea, and invited him to tell me how exactly we could be expected to record precise details when things were happening faster than we could write them down, as had often been the case.

'Some of you people,' I declared at one point in the ensuing discussion, 'won't accept the fact that the phenomena this Society was founded to investigate actually do exist. I don't know why you're in the Society at all.' We had presented, I thought, a precise and detailed account of a very remarkable case, one that deserved to be studied as a whole rather than as a mere string of separate incidents. Yet the reaction of one questioner after another was entirely negative; all they were interested in was fraud and statistics.

I managed to bring the meeting to a close by reminding the chairman that the pubs were going to close. We had been on the platform for exactly two hours, and all I could think of was a pint of good Cambridge bitter. Luckily, the chairman sympathised with me. (This House Is Haunted [United States: White Crow Books, 2011], 209-10, 212-6)

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