Saturday, August 01, 2020

A Tribute To Guy Playfair

(I'll be making reference to the Enfield tapes of Maurice Grosse and Guy Playfair. I'll use "MG" to refer to Grosse's tapes and "GP" to refer to Playfair's. So, MG90B is Grosse's tape 90B, GP87A is Playfair's tape 87A, and so on.)

It was a September 11, 1977 program on BBC Radio that convinced Guy Playfair to get involved in the Enfield case. Part of what he heard on the program that convinced him was the exhaustion that was evident in Maurice Grosse's voice. Playfair would later write, "I knew what Grosse could expect at Enfield. Sleepless nights, a great deal of constant confusion, and at the end of it all the same feeling of utter bewilderment. I had helped research several cases in Brazil…'Let me know if you get really stuck,' I said to Grosse as we left the meeting room of Kensington Public Library. I cannot have sounded very sincere…[A few days later] I happened to hear the [BBC Radio] programme while eating my Sunday lunch. It was dramatic stuff, and Grosse, who had not had a proper night's sleep that week, sounded really worn out….I rang Maurice Grosse and asked if he needed some help. He did, he said. And so, on Monday 12 September 1977, I postponed (as I thought) my holiday plans, and went along to the 'house of strange happenings.'" (This House Is Haunted [United States: White Crow Books, 2011], 23, 30) That September 11 radio program is in Playfair's collection of Enfield tapes (GP36B). On the program, Grosse's weariness is obvious, and so is the significance of the case. Grosse later told Playfair, "Well, I mean, if you hadn't have come on the case, it would have been bloody awful for me, to say the least." (MG20Bi, 36:06)

Grosse made that comment in November of 1977, which probably was the most difficult month of the case, largely because of Janet Hodgson's trance states. But even before that, Grosse had been sick for a while, and the poltergeist's embodied voice was to begin the next month, in December, which involved a lot of additional work. So, Playfair's assistance was beneficial on many fronts from the start.

Some of the most memorable parts of the case involved the two of them working on site at the same time. Grosse would monitor one part of the house while Playfair monitored another. They got some significant results by taking that approach, and the same can be said of their working together in other contexts. I've provided examples in previous posts, and I'll just highlight one here. They were both on site the day Janet went through one of her trance states and was thrown by the poltergeist while sedated with Valium (with the end result in the photograph here). They had separated the children that day, having Margaret and Billy at the Burcombes' house with Playfair while Grosse was at the Hodgsons' house with Peggy and Janet. On the tapes, you hear what was going on in both houses. While Janet was in a trance state at her house, Playfair's tapes have a recording of him interacting with the people at the Burcombes' house about paranormal events going on there. As Playfair discusses the situation with John Burcombe, Peggy arrives after being sent over by Grosse. "I think she's [Janet's] going into one of those things, [unintelligible] trances. I had an idea this would happen tonight. Mr. Grosse asked me if I'd come and tell you." (GP12B, 1:34) He goes over to the Hodgsons' house, and from that point there are two recordings of the events there. That's fortunate, since each picks up details missed by the other. Go here, and do a Ctrl F search for "One doctor's", for some examples of what Grosse and Playfair recorded that night and how well their recordings complement one another. That's true of their work on the case as a whole as well.

Playfair was soft-spoken, which makes him harder to hear on the tapes, and mild-mannered, which is a valuable quality to have when working on a poltergeist case. His demeanor had to have been helpful to the family, and so was his experience with poltergeist cases. The family needed calmed down, and his personality and background offered a good supplement to Grosse's. His presence, the fact that he made himself available and was so often at the house, made a lot of difference for the better.

The photograph at the top of this post seems to have been taken sometime in the range of October 26, 1977 and the middle of the next month. For an overview of the whole room, see the floor plan here. I suspect the photo was taken by one of Graham Morris' remote-controlled cameras. He probably had it set up in or near the alcove in the main bedroom upstairs, the area with the dresser that had a radio on top of it, where the poltergeist threw Janet a few times. In the photo, Playfair is standing just outside the alcove and observing the room as the family goes to bed. My impression is that they typically went to bed during the 9:00 hour, to accommodate Grosse and Playfair, so that they could leave earlier in the night. Peggy can be seen above Playfair, preparing the bed Janet usually slept in. It looks like Margaret and Billy are already in the bed to the right. And the bed at the bottom of the photo probably was the one Peggy would sleep in that night. The space for the fireplace below the mantle, partially behind Margaret and Billy's bed, seems to have a piece of cardboard covering it. So, the photo must have been taken no earlier than October 26, the day the poltergeist ripped the fireplace out. When the BBC filmed a story on Enfield in the middle of November, a new fireplace had been installed, as you can see in the video footage here. It seems, then, that the photo above must have been taken sometime from October 26 to mid November. And that would explain why Playfair is wearing a heavy long-sleeve shirt or sweater.

The photo gives you some idea of what a typical night was like at the house when the poltergeist's activity was at its height. The missing fireplace underscores the power of what the family and investigators were up against, the quality of the evidence for the case, and the difficulties involved in living with a poltergeist. The cardboard probably was meant to keep cold air (and whatever else) from getting into the room.

The Starsky & Hutch posters on the right side of the photograph are hard to miss. They've become closely associated with the Enfield case. Playfair found them amusing. In the original edition of his book on Enfield, there's a photograph that doesn't appear in the latest edition. (Click here to see it.) It's a photo of one of the beds turned on its side, apparently by the poltergeist, with the Starsky & Hutch posters above it. The caption below the photo reads: "Getting no help from TV detectives Starsky and Hutch, the author tries to work out how the heavy double bed was turned on its side and moved towards the door." (This House Is Haunted [London, England: Souvenir Press, 1980], last photograph between pages 128 and 129) On one of the tapes, some members of the family comment on how somebody had seen the eyes move on a poster (apparently one of the Starsky & Hutch ones), and Playfair responds, "Starsky and Hutch coming to life, almost. Well, we need them, don't we? They might be able to help us." (GP12A, 6:06) On another tape, you can hear one of the girls trying to get Billy to go with her to watch Starsky & Hutch on television (MG76A, 17:01).

There were times like those, which helped put the family at ease. They're part of the reason why the family is often smiling or laughing in photographs and on tape.

But Playfair knew how dangerous poltergeists are and what the family should expect to go through, and he often warned them about it. In January of 1978, he explained to Peggy and Margaret how bad the situation was (GP33Ai, 9:15). He mentioned how concerning it was that the case had gone on for so long, how other cases had led to death, suicide, or mental illness, and the possibility that Janet and Margaret would have to be separated if the poltergeist continued much longer. (He and Grosse often gave the family incentives, both negative and positive, to stop faking the poltergeist if they were faking it.) Playfair also gave Margaret some advice about how to avoid letting the poltergeist have too much influence over her, how to keep it from dominating her thoughts. He was often concerned or pessimistic about what might go wrong, more so than Grosse, probably largely because of his experiences with other poltergeists. But the negativity was accompanied by concern for the family and a lot of effort to calm them, protect them, and improve the situation.

Something ought to be said about Playfair's relationship with Billy. He was only 7 years old when the case began, and he had a severe speech impediment. I would estimate that I've been unable to understand well over 90% of what Billy says on the tapes. His mother seems to have understood him much more than other people did, and Margaret seems to have understood him more than most, but the large majority of people who interact with him on the tapes don't seem to understand much of what he's saying. There isn't a lot of interaction with him. It's evident from some of the tapes that he had problems at school, probably due to his speech impediment, maybe because of the poltergeist and other factors as well. Playfair went out of his way to give him attention and include him in discussions (GP5A, 4:09; GP6A, 1:01). On an occasion when more than one person was talking at once (which often happens on the tapes, especially when the children are around), Playfair said that not everybody can talk at once, then told them to let Billy talk first (GP26A, 9:57). On another tape, Playfair had Billy imitating the poltergeist voice (GP32B, 55:29). Janet comes over and asks about one of the lights on Playfair's tape recorder, and he takes the occasion to show Janet and Billy how the recorder works (56:34).

Playfair mentions in his book that he wanted to get Janet a dog for Christmas of 1977 (171). It was a good idea in some ways. A dog probably would have significantly raised the spirits of the family, especially the children. But Grosse objected, since he thought it would be too problematic to bring a dog into a poltergeist environment. He probably was right, especially given that three pets the Hodgsons already had would later die under suspicious circumstances, two of them just before Christmas and the other on Christmas day. The poltergeist probably killed them, and it may have killed a dog if one had been brought into the home. But none of the three pets had been killed when Playfair came up with the idea of getting a dog, apparently, and the fact that none of the three had been killed at that stage gave him some reason to think a dog probably wouldn't be killed either. Though it's good that he didn't go through with the idea of getting Janet a dog, his interest in doing it reflects his (and Grosse's) concern about and kindness toward the family.

A lot could be said about the difficulties involved in interacting with the poltergeist, the objections raised by Playfair's critics, and other subjects I've already addressed at length elsewhere. I want to close this post with some comments on his book, his work on the case more broadly, and the conclusion of his life.

During the earliest years following Grosse and Playfair's investigation of the Enfield case, it was much more difficult for the public to access information on the case than it is today. Playfair's book made far more information easily accessible to the public than any other source did. A large percentage of what people knew about Enfield came solely or primarily from Playfair's book. It's still one of the most significant sources of information on the case, and it continues to shape a lot of what people think and say about Enfield.

I've said before that the book is a flawed classic. The Enfield case is, as Playfair put it near the end of a documentary, a "real-life mystery. Marvelous." The same is true of his book. The ending of the book is somewhat disappointing and overly ambiguous and confusing. But he's not discussing something like a crime investigation that was solved. He's not writing a book in which all of the pieces are put together and everything is understood at the end. Rather, he concludes, "The Enfield case might have ended, but the search for the explanation of it had barely begun. I hope that this book will encourage others to join in this search." (269) The case is much larger and much more complicated than a crime investigation, and far more is at stake. Part of what makes the book so good is that you're being informed about the case by one of the leading investigators while knowing that the case is far from being resolved and that a lot more work needs done. It's an open case. He does well in presenting it that way for the most part, though the conclusion could and should have been handled better. And he wrote the book more for a general audience than an academic one, it doesn't argue for its conclusions as well as it should have, and it has the sort of spelling and grammatical mistakes and disorderliness you'd expect from a book that was hurried.

But there was some merit to hurrying it. The case is a highly important one, and you'd expect somebody who had experienced so much of it to be in a hurry to tell other people about it. There was good reason for one of the chief investigators, who had a lot of sympathy for the family at the center of the case, to want to tell their story before anybody else did. The case had a lot of critics. And it got a lot of media coverage. There was reason to think there was a lot of potential for the spreading of misinformation if somebody like Playfair didn't publish a lengthy account of the case and do it sooner rather than later.

The book is as good as it is largely because the underlying material is so good. It was an unusually active poltergeist, and many of the people involved, including Playfair, are likeable and elicit your sympathy.

But the book had to have been difficult to write in some ways. It covers many events, often highly controversial ones, involving many people over multiple years. Putting together a timeline for such a large and complicated series of events, piecing together all of the witnesses' memories, the signed statements, the tapes, etc., would be hard. (He had to use cassettes to do his work with the audio, with all of the difficulties involved, including the risk of damaging the tapes. He didn't have the advantage of using the digitized version.) He makes occasional references in his book to staying up late at night reviewing his tapes, writing transcripts, and doing other such work, sometimes giving large portions of a day to that sort of labor.

The book didn't get the audience it deserved. Shortly after Playfair's death in 2018, Alan Murdie put the number of copies sold at 98000. In a 2017 interview (at 28:08 here), Playfair explained that most of the copies sold to date had been sold in recent years, as a result of the Enfield Haunting television series in 2015. (And it's likely that a significant number were sold after The Conjuring 2 came out the following year.) I suspect the book sold worse than Playfair had expected. And many of his colleagues showed little interest in, and were often hostile toward, his Enfield work in general.

He and Grosse acknowledged their need for help from the start. They knew they were just beginning what other people would have to complete. Within a few days of starting on the case, Grosse was asking his colleagues in the Society for Psychical Research (SPR) for help at a September 8, 1977 meeting, which Playfair recounts in his book. Both of them asked for help at an SPR symposium the following March. And they sought help on a lot of other occasions. That's a recurring theme in Playfair's book. Part of what makes the Enfield case so valuable is that it's so large and complicated. We should be grateful that Playfair did as much as he did to get the process of researching the case started.

After Grosse's death in 2006, Playfair took over the mantle of the leading spokesman, defender, and advocate of the Enfield case. He had a sort of patriarchal role in the dozen years between Grosse's death and his own. And he had the look, sound, and demeanor of a patriarch. During the years between Grosse's death and Playfair's, he would frequently appear on television, radio, and podcasts to discuss the case, he published two further editions of his book on Enfield, and he lived through and addressed the controversies surrounding the Enfield Haunting television series and The Conjuring 2.

In 2012, he made a television appearance with Janet Hodgson, apparently because she'd asked to have him go on with her as a condition for appearing on the program. (See Playfair's account of the background to the program here.) Playfair sat in the middle, between Janet and Deborah Hyde, a skeptic of the Enfield case. As my article just linked discusses, Hyde made some misleading claims during the program. There wasn't much chance to respond to her at the time, since the segment on Enfield was so brief. And Playfair wasn't at the height of his abilities. He was well into his seventies and only a little more than five years away from his death. But he made some good points during the program, and he had an opportunity to use his line "We were there, and you weren't." You can't blame him for using it. It's a good line, and it addresses an important fact. To my knowledge, that television program was the last time he and Janet were to appear together in public to address the Enfield case. It was fitting that he was a shield between Janet and Hyde. By the time he died, he'd had that sort of role, defending the Hodgsons from their critics, for over forty years.

I was too young to have followed much of what was going on with the Enfield case during the initial years after it started. My earliest memories of the case consist of watching some YouTube videos about it sometime around 2010 and listening to an interview with Playfair on Alex Tsakiris' podcast in 2011. It wasn't until 2017 that I started studying the case in a lot of depth, but both before then and since, Playfair has been a valuable guide.

After reading his book, I wanted to listen to the tapes he refers to there, but especially the recording of the ripping out of the fireplace. That thought had been in the back of my mind for a long time, but I had been occupied with other matters during the closing months of 2017 and the opening months of 2018, and Enfield was getting less of my attention than it had gotten earlier. On the night of March 4 of 2018, however, I had a strong impression, unexpectedly, that I should contact Melvyn Willin about the Enfield tapes. (I'd had brief contact with him about other Enfield issues in 2017.) I was particularly interested in the audio of the fireplace incident referred to above, but also the rest of the tapes. The email I sent that night would eventually lead to my funding of the digitizing of all of the tapes, which is something I hadn't anticipated. The first phase involved the digitizing of Grosse's collection. (Playfair was still alive at the time. The second phase, involving the digitizing of his tapes, which I only partially funded, didn't develop until later in the year.) When Melvyn gave me an estimate of how much the first phase of digitizing would cost, he had no way of knowing that it was close to the maximum amount of money I could afford to spend on the project at the time. I had the amount I needed without much to spare.

Within a few weeks, Playfair died in the early hours of April 8, a Sunday. Later that day, BBC Radio aired their first program on Enfield in a long time. Richard Grosse was one of the guests, and his father's Enfield tapes received prominent attention during the program. They apparently had no way of knowing that later that week, on Thursday, April 12, my proposal for digitizing Grosse's tapes would be voted on by the SPR's Council.

It was reading Playfair's book that led me to such an interest in the Enfield audio, especially his recording of the fireplace incident, which led to my involvement in the digitizing of Grosse and Playfair's tapes and the SPR's vote on the matter on April 12, just after the other significant Enfield events at the start of that week. Whatever view you take of whether the sequence of events discussed in these last few paragraphs was paranormal (it probably was), it at least illustrates the significance of Playfair's work and his influence. In his obituary of Playfair for the SPR's Journal (vol. 82, no. 3), Alan Murdie wrote, "By one of those coincidences which always intrigued him he died a few hours before several million people heard his voice on a Radio 4 broadcast of 'The Reunion' dedicated to the Enfield poltergeist." (192)

We believe that a detailed study of this case, which we ourselves have not yet been able to make, will contribute greatly to an eventual understanding of and solution to a mysterious phenomenon that causes much distress and hardship and deserves to be researched as thoroughly as any physical or mental illness….

We will end with a strong call to further investigation of the poltergeist, especially this one, chiefly by psychologists and physicists. For here we have what appears to be a unique opportunity for study of the interactions between mind and matter, a relationship that has intrigued man since the earliest days of recorded knowledge. When we have learned the true nature and mechanisms of poltergeist activity, we can then turn these mechanisms to more useful ends. This research must be interdisciplinary, and it must be adequately financed. There is a limit to the amount of useful research that voluntary, part-time researchers, such as ourselves, can do in our own time, with our own money. We ask members [of the SPR] to help us draw up plans for the final attack on an area of human experience that has remained unexplored for far too long. (Guy Playfair, GP38A, 32:25, 35:51)

[A poltergeist] shows that there really is a direct link between mind and matter, and that there are forces and dimensions in our world that are not yet even dreamed of in our established philosophies. To me, the prospect of exploring those dimensions and harnessing those forces to make them work for us rather than against us, as we have done very successfully, for instance with electricity and magnetism, is far more exciting than the mere sight of a chair falling over. This prospect, I believe, is now a very real one….

I thought of what Hernani Guimarães Andrade, who had taught me all I knew about psychical research, had often said to me while I was working with his research group in Brazil. 'When spontaneous cases come up, we drop everything and go after them. They will not wait for us.' He had made it sound like a moral obligation….

I felt I had reached the limit of what I could do, by getting the facts of the Enfield case on record. From now on, it was up to the real experts.

We said goodbye and headed for our respective homes. The Enfield case might have ended, but the search for the explanation of it had barely begun. I hope that this book will encourage others to join in this search. (Guy Playfair, This House Is Haunted [United States: White Crow Books, 2011], x, 30, 269)


  1. Kudos Jason for providing some of the finance that permitted the digitization of the Enfield tapes. In the annals of psychic research, the case is a classic of poltergeist phenomena and it is dispiriting that it has not received much greater attention. The question of why that is and the irreconcilable differences between those like us who accept that paranormal phenomena occurs (at least prima facie) and the implacable skeptics constitute fascinating issues in themselves. Robert McLuhan goes some way to explaining this gulf and the nature of the skeptical mindset in his excellent 2010 book 'Randi's Prize'. And of course, there were at times even skeptics at the scene at Enfield who couldn't be swayed.

    I only ever had one or two exchanges with Playfair - on Mcluhan's site 'Paranormalia'. The exchanges were only about some minor details of the case but, as you point out, he was rightly active in defending the legitimacy of the Enfield phenomenon. Playfair strikes me as an interesting character in general and his life before and after Enfield is interesting. I first learnt more about his time in Brazil while reading the chapter entitled 'The Black Magic Connection' in Colin Wilson's book on the poltergeist. Although illuminating, it is difficult to see how there might be any such connection with the Enfield case. Black magic and the Spiritist credo are hardly a feature of north London life in the same way they often are in Brazil. But of course, despite the ambiguity surrounding the use of Ouija boards, it seems plausible that the use of one by Janet and Margaret may have opened some sort of gateway, as it appears to have also done with the bizarre stench that bedevilled Tony Cornell for a number of months.

    You allude to Playfair's disposition and manner and it is evident that he was an educated man. I believe that one of his books, 'Cycles of Heaven', is principally a work of science; and he also mentions his interest in sunspots in his book on Enfield. Do you know much about his life and work aside from Enfield? I have wondered, for example, that given he spent in excess of 1,000 hours at Enfield how he was sustaining himself financially? And what of his personal and family life? I had assumed that he was a bachelor - though I've never come across any information whatsoever about his personal life.

    As for his book on Enfield, I was a tad disappointed by some of the spelling and grammatical errors. My copy is the 2007, 30th anniversary edition by Sutton Publishing. As you say Jason, Playfair will have been in a hurry to publish the book in 1980, but how do you feel about these errors in the 2007 edition and their bearing on Playfair's assiduity as an investigator and researcher? You will recall my highlighting Tony Cornell's unflattering reference to Playfair's book 'The Haunted Pub Guide'.

    I look forward to reading your forthcoming tribute to John Burcombe, and perhaps learning more about his utterly extraordinary experiences at the house - particularly the ones in which he was completely alone.

    1. Hi Anthony,

      I don't remember having come across any information about how Playfair made a living during the initial investigation of the Enfield case. However, he mentions (on page 23 in his book on Enfield) that, in early September of 1977, he had just submitted to his publisher the manuscript of a book he'd written (The Cycles Of Heaven, which you referred to). In the preface to the last edition of his Enfield book, he mentions that "I neither sought or received any financial help from anybody during the two years spent researching and writing this book" (xi). The term "financial help" is too ambiguous to rule out his having had some source of income during that timeframe. But it could be that he'd had enough money saved up beforehand or gotten enough from The Cycles Of Heaven to get him through the Enfield years.

      Near the end of the preface to This House Is Haunted, he refers to how the final edition of the book has "the original text (with minor alterations)" (xi). The book is an early report from a major witness, so there's a lot of merit to retaining the original text. I suspect he kept the spelling and grammatical mistakes in the book either to keep it as close to the original as possible or because he thought correcting such mistakes had too little significance to be worthwhile.

      Alan Murdie has a lot of biographical information on Playfair in the obituary in the SPR's Journal cited above. And Paranormal Review published an issue focused on him shortly after his death. In the obituary I cited, Murdie wrote:

      "In helping provide information for a Fleet Street obituary, I was pressed to say Guy Playfair was a 'confirmed bachelor'. He was nothing of the sort, as confirmed by evidence from his own writings, the recollections of family members and photographic evidence of associations with a number of glamorous women up until the mid-1970s. However, the breaking off of an engagement with one particular girlfriend over this period seems thereafter to have terminated any marital plans and propelled him into the life of a dedicated scholar." (192)

      Thanks for the comments and the encouragement!