Wednesday, February 05, 2020

The Credibility Of The Enfield Witnesses

An important component of evaluating Enfield or any other paranormal case is to judge the character of the witnesses. On the reliability of witnesses in general, especially as it pertains to the paranormal, see Stephen Braude's article here. I've said a lot in other posts about the evidence we have for the trustworthiness of the witnesses in the Enfield case (the initial skepticism of some of the witnesses; the ongoing skepticism of witnesses who corroborated the case; witnesses admitting facts against their interest when they could easily have denied those facts without being refuted; evidence against the fabrication of the case for money; evidence against the fabrication of the case for attention; etc.). What I want to do in this post is provide some additional illustrations from the tapes of Maurice Grosse and Guy Playfair. I'll use "MG" to refer to Grosse's tapes and "GP" to refer to Playfair's. MG3B is tape 3B in Grosse's collection, GP78A is 78A in Playfair's, etc.

Human testimony is generally reliable. Many of our previous posts, on Enfield and other topics, have addressed the reliability of human memory and the limitations of the explanatory value of hallucinations, for example, and Braude's article linked above addresses such issues. We don't begin with a default assumption that people are lying, nor should we even be agnostic. Liars typically are highly selective in what they lie about. They don't have an interest in lying about most topics. And there's a danger of lying so much that their dishonesty isn't as believable as they want it to be. So, even unusually dishonest people have a lot of motivation to often tell the truth. And there are checks and balances in life. A desire to be dishonest in a particular context can be outweighed by some negative consequences that might or probably would follow from that dishonesty. Where one person has a motive to be dishonest, other people involved have motives to be honest and to oppose the dishonesty of the first individual. Where multiple people are involved in a deception, coordination is required, not only initially, but also for however long they want to maintain the deception afterward. The obstacles that sort of coordination will face are often difficult or impossible to anticipate. Planning and carrying out a deception involve time, effort, and other resources, and the more extensive the deception is, the higher the price that has to be paid to carry it out. Even where two people are sufficiently motivated to be dishonest, they can be dishonest in opposing ways. The larger the number of people we're supposed to think are lying in the same way, even though one or more of them could benefit significantly from lying in a different manner, the more problematic a fraud hypothesis becomes. And so on.

In the remainder of this post, I want to move on from these general principles to the details involved in the Enfield case. I'll start with some of the general parameters of the case, then get into some of the lesser details provided by Grosse and Playfair's tapes.

The Enfield events numbered at least in the quadruple digits and were reported to have been witnessed by a low triple-digit number of individuals, as best I can tell, from 1974 to shortly after Peggy Hodgson's death in 2003. The events range across dozens of paranormal categories, involving all five senses, with some of the phenomena going on for a double-digit number of minutes or longer. Many of the events are supposed to have been witnessed by two or more people. There's a large amount of instrumental evidence (audio recordings, instrumental evaluation of those recordings, videos, scientific experiments, etc.). None of the witnesses have recanted. Animals, who can't be accused of something like bias or perpetrating a hoax in the way a human could be, were involved in some of the events in an evidential manner. Etc. I can't get into all of the relevant details here. This is an article, not a book, and even a single book couldn't cover such a large case exhaustively. But the factors I've outlined here are enough to make the point that any fraud hypothesis meant to explain the Enfield case as a whole would have to be vast.

What I want to do in the remainder of this post is supplement the points I've made here and in other posts about the credibility of the witnesses. I'll be focused on examples from Grosse and Playfair's tapes.

I've made many comments in previous posts about issues pertaining to acting. The scope of the tapes, involving a triple-digit number of hours over multiple years, highlights how difficult it would be to plan and carry out a fabrication of the case. And you wouldn't expect so many people within such a small social circle to be so good at acting. I'll mention a few examples among many to supplement the ones mentioned in earlier posts:

- There are occasions when people say things they apparently prepared ahead of time, whether in the context of reading something off a piece of paper or in some other context. It's evident that they're bad at delivering prepared lines. That doesn't go well with a fraud hypothesis involving a lot of acting. On one of the tapes, John Burcombe seems to be participating in a radio interview, by phone, and it sounds like he's reading some comments he wrote beforehand (MG1A, 29:23). His delivery is awful. He speaks briefly on a television program filmed in November of 1977, which you can watch here, and he sounds awkward there as well, though not nearly as bad as on the tape I cited above. I suspect he prepared his lines for that television show, and it may have required more than one take for him to get his lines right and deliver them without even more awkwardness. He sounds much better when he's speaking more naturally, like in the 1995 television program here. If he'd been putting on an act to fake the case, I'd expect it to be evident. It's not. Similarly, there are tapes on which Peggy Hodgson reads the notes she took on paranormal events that occurred while the investigators were away (e.g., MG19A, 0:14, 13:23), and she's also bad at delivering prepared lines. She sounds much better in other contexts.

- Billy Hodgson provides some evidence against acting as well. He had a severe speech impediment and spoke more clearly when he was upset. His clearer speaking in the context of various paranormal episodes (MG6A, 22:21; MG13B, 38:01; MG34A, 2:47) is a significant line of evidence that he, at least, considered the events authentic.

- In early October of 1977, Grosse met with some school officials regarding Janet's academic situation. He explained to them what a poltergeist is, what the family was experiencing, etc. Notice the significance of Janet's behavior in school. If she was putting on an act, then extending it into her school time would require that she kept up the act much longer, before a larger number of people, and in a larger variety of contexts. One of the officials refers to how Janet would "burst into tears all over the place" (GP45A, 5:35). She's sometimes "very, very worn out" (6:19).

- The weariness issue is relevant to a lot of witnesses, not just Janet. The poltergeist would often be active well into the night, and I would estimate that a large majority of the people involved had to get up for school or work the large majority of the mornings that followed. The people on the tapes often come across as weary, frustrated, angry, and such, as you'd expect. Not many people would have the ability and willingness to maintain good acting under such circumstances for so long.

The tapes provide extensive evidence for the honesty of the witnesses. I can only provide a small percentage of the examples that could be cited here, to supplement the other examples I've discussed in other posts:

- Playfair sometimes left his tape recorder running without the family's knowledge. He was deliberately bugging them. He describes one of those occasions at length in his book (This House Is Haunted [United States: White Crow Books, 2011], 45-47). He mentions that "I was certain nobody knew it [the tape recorder] was there…when I got back from the pub and asked what had been happening the account they gave me followed the evidence of my tape very closely" (46-47). It's tape GP6A, and it was recorded on October 15, 1977. There's some significant content on the tape that Playfair doesn't mention in his book, nor have I seen anybody else discuss that content publicly. Shortly after he leaves the house, you can hear some exchanges between Peggy Hodgson and her children (especially at 9:01 and 10:48). It seems that the girls are objecting to how they have to go to bed so early in order to accommodate the investigators. Grosse and Playfair would sometimes stay at the house until shortly after the family went to bed, then go home, since the poltergeist was often unusually active just after bedtime. The family would often go to bed early on those occasions in order to accommodate the researchers, so that they could get home earlier. Peggy defends Grosse and Playfair, commenting on how they're coming to the house in their free time, aren't getting paid, etc. At one point, Margaret comments, "They know, if they don't come, they're going to get a phone call, and we'll be back where we started again. They're not going to come out. So, one of them knows they've got to come out, so I suppose he's come out on the pretext that his mother's doing well." (10:48) Margaret may not have chosen her words well, since it's hard to make sense of some of what she said. But I think I can explain at least most of her comments in light of the surrounding context. It seems that she's saying that she doesn't think Grosse and Playfair want to keep coming to the house. Grosse had been sick a lot in October of 1977, so he probably wasn't going to the Hodgsons' house as often as he had previously. It looks like Margaret mistakenly interpreted Grosse's absence as evidence of a lack of interest in helping the family. And she thought some comments Playfair made about his mother's health were a pretense for going to the Hodgsons' house on some occasions, but not on others. There's also some discussion of how old Playfair is and what relatives he has. So, it does seem that the family is unaware of being taped. I doubt the girls would have complained the way they did if they had been aware they were being recorded, and I doubt they and their mother would have discussed Playfair's age and relatives if they knew the recorder was running. Shortly after, Margaret wants to get a dressing gown she has upstairs, but she doesn't want to go up alone. She asks Janet to go with her (15:46). Janet apparently refuses, and Margaret tries to get Billy to go with her, and Billy refuses. Peggy then tries to get one of them to go with Margaret. That sort of fear of going upstairs alone suggests sincerity, especially when an older sibling is asking for help from a younger one. (On other tapes [GP34B, 35:13; GP39B, 31:51], Playfair and Peggy refer to the family in general being afraid to go upstairs alone, so they seem to have had that fear somewhat often.) As the tape proceeds, you hear the sound of furniture or some other object going over from time to time. You periodically hear Peggy say "Leave it." Apparently, she wanted them to leave everything where it was rather than putting it back, so that Playfair could see what the poltergeist had done when he returned. As it gets more active, you can tell that the family is anxious for Playfair to return (GP6A, 24:58). It does seem that they were unaware of being recorded, so the tape serves as strong evidence for the sincerity of the Hodgsons and the genuineness of the phenomena that night.

- On the tape just discussed, Margaret makes a comment that's unintelligible to me, after which Janet says loudly and angrily, "I haven't been laughing once tonight." (21:57) As I've mentioned before, Janet was easily excitable and often found humor in situations, even when nobody else did. I suspect that, in the context just mentioned, Margaret was upset about the poltergeist's activities, with Playfair out of the house at the time and nobody else around to help them, and she didn't think Janet was taking the situation seriously enough. The family generally got along well, but they would criticize one another occasionally, and Margaret criticized Janet somewhat often. That includes some occasions when she accused Janet of faking a paranormal event or raised concerns about faking. That doesn't fit well with the notion that Janet and Margaret were working together to fake the whole case. I've given some examples in other posts, and I'll provide more here. There was a movement of a chair Janet was sitting on, and Paul Burcombe, who saw it happen, comments that he doesn't think Janet could have faked it (MG2B, 11:04). It didn't look fake to him, and he and Playfair weren't able to duplicate it by normal means when they tried. Peggy then comments on how she's been noticing the chair vibrating or moving in other ways when Janet's been sitting on it, and she's noticed that Janet seems frustrated by the situation. But Margaret goes on to comment that Janet seems to be enjoying what's going on (13:07), though she "can't say" whether Janet has faked these chair incidents. Shortly after, Peggy says she thinks the furniture movement that's been happening lately is at least partly genuine, but that she can't rule out Janet causing some of it in a normal way. Grosse then says he's tried to duplicate what happened when Janet sat in the chair, and, like Paul Burcombe and Playfair, he was unable to duplicate it (13:43). Later on the tape (18:49), Grosse brings up the incident again. He asks Janet about it, and there's initially some confusion, either because Janet didn't understand what he said or for some other reason. The girls begin arguing, and one of them calls the other a liar, though it's unclear which of the two is saying it and what the lie is supposed to be. Grosse has Janet try to duplicate the chair incident by normal means, and she can't. I suspect the event was genuine, but it's significant that Margaret was so suspicious of Janet and willing to express doubt about her behavior in front of other people and on tape. Margaret would occasionally make comments about how Janet should be more serious, should stop playing games, and such (GP5A, 14:33, 17:15). In the early stages of the whistling phenomena, which I've discussed elsewhere, Peggy commented that she thought Janet was doing it (MG35A, 10:43). There were other such incidents, which go a long way in supporting the credibility of the witnesses and undermining a fraud hypothesis.

- Peggy Nottingham recounts how Janet had asked her to go into the bathroom with her, since she was afraid to go alone (MG3A, 1:07). Peggy referred to the request as "silly" and refused to do it. She agreed to stay outside the door instead. It would be embarrassing to ask anybody to go to the bathroom with you, especially for a young adolescent girl like Janet, who didn't need any assistance for a health reason. It would be even harder to make the request of somebody you thought highly of, as Janet did of Peggy. The best explanation for why Janet made the request is that she was honestly afraid to go to the bathroom alone. The poltergeist was sometimes active in the bathroom, including when people were there by themselves.

- On another tape, Janet is told to go downstairs to change her clothes in preparation for bedtime (GP88B, 13:09). She asks to have somebody go down with her.

- Peggy refers to how Billy was so afraid in a particular context that he didn't want to leave his mother's side, even when they were changing their clothes to get ready for bed (GP55A, 3:39).

- The witnesses often assigned natural causes to events that could have been interpreted paranormally (MG2A, 0:42; GP5A, 30:35; GP6A, 2:54; GP10A, 24:07; GP12B, 12:08; GP13B, 9:43; GP15A, 7:59; GP31A, 16:52).

- The family kept one or more lights on at night. Grosse went as far as to say, in March of 1978, that there hadn't yet been a single night when the lights were turned off deliberately (MG83A, 17:57). That makes sleeping harder and faking things more difficult. It doesn't just allow people in the house to be able to see faking more easily, but also makes it easier for people outside to see what's happening in the house. And it was a busy street.

- The family would often talk about the embarrassing nature of the poltergeist voice, how bad it must make them look to other people and so forth (GP91B, 15:20, 25:59; GP94A, 16:45). Peggy mentions that the voice puts them at risk of losing friends, being considered mentally ill, etc. (GP95B, 24:01) It affects their decisions about how to conduct themselves in public, like whether to go into a store.

- Peggy takes the initiative to tell Janet to show her hands on occasions when there's knocking (MG59A, 46:38). She also implemented a regular practice of checking the children's clothes and beds for any hidden items before bedtime (MG95A, 11:05, 12:30). Peggy did many such things throughout the case (taking detailed notes about paranormal events at the request of the researchers, keeping items that were evidentially relevant to paranormal phenomena rather than discarding them, helping the researchers get interviews and signed statements from witnesses, etc.). She was highly cooperative with the investigators and other people who visited the house, including people skeptical of the case, like Anita Gregory.

- When Grosse was running tests on the poltergeist voice by trying to get it to talk with liquid in Janet's mouth, he would acknowledge when Janet swallowed too much of the water or the test was invalidated in some other way (MG52Ai, 16:48). He also accuses the children of faking things or criticizes them for joking around at times, on tape, without editing out that content (MG6A, 19:23; MG55A, 57:06; MG61B, 57:43; MG65A, 12:55; MG87B, 39:01).

- The family and other witnesses would often say that they didn't remember some of the details of paranormal events, or didn't witness them at all, in contexts in which they could easily have made things up and gotten away with it (MG38A, 27:23; MG55B, 6:25; MG65A, 3:03; MG76B, 5:25; MG95A, 22:05; MG98B, 30:58).

- They would also include details that cast doubt on the paranormality of an event. For example, John Burcombe refers to seeing a towel move in the kitchen (MG76A, 3:23). Grosse asks if anybody was nearby who could have thrown it, and Burcombe refers to how "everybody" was in the kitchen at the time, which makes it harder to confirm that the event was paranormal. After Peggy reported that some objects were moving in a paranormal manner upstairs, Grosse asked her if the objects came from more than one room or just from the front bedroom, where the children were located at the time, with Peggy staying in a different bedroom (MG95A, 11:20). She responds that the objects came only from the front bedroom. There are many such scenarios on the tapes (and in Playfair's book and elsewhere). The witnesses frequently not only refrain from including details favorable to the authenticity of the case, details they could easily have made up and gotten away with making up, but also include details that weaken the case when they could easily have avoided including those details.

- As far as I know, none of the Enfield witnesses have recanted. That's especially significant when you consider factors like how many witnesses there are, how much time has passed, how many of them have died, and what could have been gained from recanting. Skeptics can't have it both ways. If we're to consider the possibility that people who claimed they witnessed paranormal events lied in order to gain something like money or attention, we also have to consider the possibility that people could gain something like money or attention by recanting. See here for Mary Rose Barrington of the Society for Psychical Research commenting on how she initially didn't know what to make of the credibility of the Hodgson girls, whereas she's now impressed by their not recanting since then. Peggy Hodgson, the most significant witness in the case, died in the same low-income house where the poltergeist had occurred, having never gotten the sort of money or attention she could have gotten if she'd been faking the case with that sort of motive. Melvyn Willin tried to contact John Rainbow for his thoughts on the Enfield case, but "Mrs Rainbow - the wife of John Rainbow a local tradesman who had witnessed Janet levitating - replied that unfortunately her husband had died in July 2018, but she confirmed that he had continued to believe that what he had seen was a genuine levitation." (The Enfield Poltergeist Tapes [United States: White Crow Books, 2019], 117) Rainbow didn't just see Janet levitate, but also saw other objects levitating with her and saw the curtains in the room blowing inward (with the windows shut) and saw a large chair cushion appear on the roof of the house after being teleported there. So, he witnessed a lot. I put up a post last year about Grosse's interview with Rainbow in 1978. He comes across as entirely sincere. I've only cited a few examples here, but more could be mentioned. The witnesses not only didn't get the sort of money and attention they could have gotten from affirming the authenticity of the Enfield case, but also didn't recant their initial claims in order to get money or attention from recanting. And there are other relevant factors, like changes in a person's character over time, whether by means of a guilty conscience, a religious conversion, or whatever else. It's significant that no such factor has led the witnesses to retract their claims after nearly half a century.

- It's tremendously unlikely upfront that such a high percentage of people in such a small social circle would have come to believe in the authenticity of the phenomena because they were all gullible about such matters. And the witnesses often referred to their initial skepticism (Peggy Hodgson, GP94A, 26:20; John Burcombe, MG2A, 0:42; Rosalind Morris, GP36B, 8:15; etc.). Some witnesses, like Graham Morris, not only were initially skeptical, but even remained skeptical of many of the events in the case after coming to accept others. In fact, Morris regularly includes the qualifier that he thinks a scientific explanation will eventually be found for the genuine Enfield events, though he doesn't think we currently have a scientific explanation for what happened. See here for Morris' colleague at the Daily Mirror at the time, Douglas Bence, referring to how hesitant he is to even use the word "paranormal". Yet, he affirms that he saw objects moving around in a way that would typically be described as paranormal (see here and here). Some individuals, like Milbourne Christopher and Anita Gregory, corroborated the paranormality of Enfield while remaining skeptics of the case, a subject I'll be expanding upon later this year. These aren't people who were in any relevant way gullible or prone to believe paranormal claims.

1 comment:

  1. For more about Peggy Hodgson and her credibility as a witness, see here.