Tuesday, April 10, 2018

The Death Of Guy Playfair

I was sad to learn this evening that Guy Playfair died this past Sunday. As the article just linked notes, it was the morning a new BBC program on the Enfield Poltergeist aired.

I only interacted with him briefly, in an exchange of a few emails last year. He was courteous and helpful, but was busy with other matters at that point and wasn't able to say much. I was hoping to have further discussions with him in the future, but it wasn't to happen.

I don't know how anybody could read his book on Enfield, This House Is Haunted (United States: White Crow Books, 2011), and not have some respect and gratitude toward the man. One of the passages that's stood out most to me summarizes what I have in mind:

The following day, I received a note from Anita Gregory and John Beloff, accompanying the report they had written jointly the morning after their visit in Enfield. It was their opinion, they told me, that the girls were playing tricks with us.

Maurice Grosse and I, who knew that they were not playing tricks with us, at least certainly not all the time, plunged back into the battle on 12 December. (120)

The phrase "plunged back into the battle" caught my attention the first time I read it and has stayed with me as one of the most memorable parts of the book ever since. Part of what's so commendable about what Playfair (and Grosse and others) did in the Enfield case is that it was such a difficult battle and would be for decades. As Alan Murdie notes in his obituary linked above, the Enfield case is "the best documented poltergeist disturbance on record". But Playfair and his colleagues received far less help than they should have in investigating the case, received far more opposition than they should have both during and after their time in the Hodgson house, and would see their work get far less attention and respect than it deserved for decades to come.

Playfair wasn't a Christian. I've had some disagreements with him, including some aspects of how he handled the Enfield case. But how can you not resonate with somebody who writes like this:

Incredible things had happened, and Maurice Grosse and I knew they had happened, some right in front of our eyes. But what did it all mean?

The sad part of it was that so few people seemed to be interested in finding out, and how fortunate it was that Grosse had seized upon the case with such enthusiasm, and kept going despite all obstacles. Had he not done so, I hated to think what state the [Hodgsons, the family experiencing the poltergeist] might be in by now.

Had he and I discovered a new species of cockroach under the floorboards, no doubt the world of science would have beaten a path to our door, handing us large cheques for research funds. But when we came up with evidence of another world beyond the reach of the five known senses, what happened? With a few notable exceptions, people either laughed or just went away….

I unwrapped my sandwiches, opened a tin of beer and read the [Hodgsons'] Daily Mirror, wondering why nobody in twentieth-century Britain seemed interested in anything but wages, strikes, football and sex. (175-76)

If you haven't read his book, I recommend reading it. It's flawed, but a classic.

When discussing the Enfield case, people often mention the exhaustion of the Hodgson family over the ordeal they went through. Part of what stands out in Playfair's book is the exhaustion of the researchers as well. I often think of Playfair staying in the house until well into the night, under such disturbing circumstances, only to go home and listen to tapes of the events and write out his notes, produce transcripts, and do other such work further into the night. We've benefited from that work and will continue to for generations to come.

Here you can watch Playfair summing up the case, including how exhausting it was and how he wouldn't want to do it again.

Here's a clip from a television program in 2012. It's a line he often used - "we were there, and you weren't" - this time in response to Enfield skeptic Deborah Hyde.

Here's paranormal researcher Mark Rosney discussing the significance of Playfair's book on Enfield. Something that ought to be mentioned more often is that several eyewitnesses of the Enfield case who read the original edition of Playfair's book (John Burcombe, Sylvie Burcombe, Vic Nottingham, Peggy Nottingham, Peggy Hodgson, and Maurice Grosse) signed a statement testifying that his book was an accurate account of what happened (This House Is Haunted [Briarcliff Manor, New York: Stein and Day, 1984], 11). The book doesn't just reflect Playfair's view of the events. Other eyewitnesses have also referred to it as a generally or entirely reliable account.

My series on Enfield serves as a standing tribute to Playfair. I'll have more to add to it in the years ahead.

If I come across any other tributes to Playfair worth noting, I'll mention them in the comments section of this thread.


  1. Thank you for this touching tribute, Jason. And thank you for your good work in not allowing Guy Playfair's (and others') hard work to be forgotten.

  2. Ditto what Danny said. Thanks for all your work on Enfield and look forward to more in the future!

  3. Here are some early reactions to Playfair's death from paranormal researchers posting on Twitter.

    Ciaran O'Keeffe wrote, "Truly heartbraķing. An inspirational psychical researcher who remained steadfast on Enfield in the face of much derision and scepticism."

    Lee Roberts: "Gutted to hear of the passing of Guy Lyon Playfair. He was the driving force behind the investigation of the Enfield Haunting in the 1970’s. Not many legends in this field but he certainly held that title."

    Richard Estep commented, "One of the best and most gentlemanly lights in our field has gone out."

    Steve Parsons: "Truly a giant of Psychical Research."

    Loyd Auerbach wrote, "One of the greats of our field has left us for the next world. Guy Lyon Playfair (1935-2018) is now in the know about what happens after the death of the body. If you have not read any of his books, do so!"

    Hayley Stevens, who's skeptical of Enfield and the paranormal more broadly, commented, "I have just learned that Guy Lyon Playfair has died. I once had the chance to interview him for the Righteous Indigation podcast with my co-hosts and I was terrified but also in awe of him. His legacy will continue on in ghost research. Whether you agreed with his ideas or not, there is no denying that ghost researchers of today were all influenced in some way by Playfair….(Also This House is Haunted is possibly my favourite ghost-related non-fiction book)"

  4. Here's a lengthy obituary from the Times.

  5. And here's something from the Daily Mail.

  6. A British radio program, Last Word, has about five minutes of coverage of Playfair's death. Start listening at 17:25.

  7. The July 2018 edition of the Journal of the Society for Psychical Research (vol. 82, no. 3) has an obituary of Playfair written by Alan Murdie. The Summer 2018 issue of Paranormal Review has a few articles about Playfair and his death.