Monday, February 01, 2021

Enfield Miscellany (Part 5)

(See part 1 here for an explanation of what this series is about. And here are the other parts in the series: two, three, and four. When I cite Maurice Grosse and Guy Playfair's Enfield tapes below, I'll use "MG" to designate a tape from Grosse's collection and "GP" to designate one from Playfair's. So, MG1B refers to tape 1B in Grosse's collection, GP94A refers to 94A in Playfair's, etc.)

The Absurd Logistics Of A Fraud Hypothesis

Part of what makes poltergeists so interesting, and has the potential to make them so evidential, is the variety of phenomena involved. And the Enfield case has a much larger number and variety of events than the average poltergeist. Faking such a large and varied case would be more difficult accordingly. I've written about many of the traditional categories involved: levitations, apparitions, fires, etc. But some of the events don't fit into a traditional category. Or they do, but with one or more characteristics that stand out as highly difficult to fake. Those events add to the variety of the case, and they illustrate the absurdity of a fraud hypothesis that would have one or more of the Hodgson children being skilled enough to so successfully fake such a variety of phenomena. (For documentation of how often critics try to explain the case by attributing the events to trickery on the part of one or more of the Hodgson children, see the first paragraph here.)

Margaret Hodgson and Peggy Nottingham reported that they saw the Hodgsons' refrigerator move about six inches forward, then turn to the side (MG3A, 0:23). Grosse, while discussing the incident a few minutes later on the tape, refers to the refrigerator as "extremely heavy", one that he found "most difficult" to move. When he got it to move, the process of moving it was "very noisy", whereas Peggy told him that the poltergeist's movement of it made no noise.

The poltergeist would often move lights. Peggy Hodgson reported an occasion when she monitored a lamp that was out of her direct line of vision by watching its shadow. She saw the shadow moving, indicating that the poltergeist was moving the lamp, apparently with no shadow of any person near it (MB10B, 8:11, 10:13).

Peggy also saw a light bulb move out of its socket and slowly fall diagonally rather than dropping straight down at a normal speed (MG65B, 29:01). Nobody was near it.

In another context, Janet opened a loaf of sliced bread, and six or so slices shot out of the bag on their own and went across the room (MG95A, 17:30). Peggy saw it happen. She refers to how "the slices kept coming out", and she told Janet, "Quick, shut that bread." Janet goes on to say that the bread came out "bit by bit", so both her comments and her mother's suggest that each slice came out on its own. It's hard to believe that Janet faked it all six times, with Peggy mistaking it for a genuine event each time.

Later on the same tape, Peggy recounts an occasion when she saw a tube of cream moving around by itself on the floor and squeezing out cream as it went (23:59).

On another occasion that also was witnessed by Peggy, a cupboard was moving around by itself and kept moving for about ten minutes (GP31A, 1:27).

Many more such events could be cited. These are just several examples. And the cumulative effect needs to be kept in mind, including the cumulative skills needed to fake all of these episodes.

A Presentation On The Case By Maurice Grosse Shortly Before His Death

If you haven't done so yet, I recommend listening to a presentation Grosse gave on the Enfield case before the Scottish Society for Psychical Research. It's titled "Enfield Poltergeist 25 Years On", and you can find it here. Judging by what he says during the presentation, the 25 years reference was just an approximation. The talk seems to have occurred in 2003, which was 26 years after the case started. He refers to Peggy Hodgson as if she's still alive, though she died in 2003, so it seems that he gave the presentation shortly before her death or before finding out about it. He mostly repeats information that's been widely available to the public for a long time, but some of the details he includes are less known. He included some photographs, and apparently some of them are ones I've posted elsewhere. He provides some background to those photos that I wasn't aware of, assuming those are the photos I posted. He discusses his note-taking practices, his role in editing Playfair's book, how he often carried a Kodak camera with him, around his neck, while at the Hodgsons' house, etc. There are many such details included in the presentation. It's well worth listening to.

Premonitory Headaches

I've occasionally mentioned the premonitory headaches Peggy Hodgson would get shortly before a paranormal event was to occur. An advantage of listening to Grosse and Playfair's tapes is that you get a better idea of how often such things occurred. There's frequent mention of Peggy's premonitory headaches on the tapes, and other individuals would sometimes get them. It seems to me that Peggy got them more than anybody else, though. Playfair went as far as to say that her premonitory headaches were never wrong (GP40A, 20:23). I don't know if that's true. (Peggy was nearby when he made the claim and didn't correct him.) But even if he was going too far in making that claim, it does seem that Peggy at least often anticipated events by means of these headaches.

Sometimes they would be accompanied by one or more other indications of something paranormal. For example, just before an allegedly paranormal writing incident occurred, she sensed a presence in the area and got one of her premonitory headaches (MG19A, 8:32). She commented at one point that she used to get headaches in coordination with furniture moving, but that the nature of her headaches changed with the arrival of the embodied poltergeist voice (GP32B, 10:14). Notice that the headaches not only kept happening in connection with a particular type of event, namely the moving of furniture, but also that the nature of the headache changed with the arrival of a new type of event (the embodied poltergeist voice). It seems highly unlikely that all of that coordination of timing was coincidental or has some other sort of normal explanation.

Grosse referred to how he had "a very bad headache" just before the famous incident when he saw a tea kettle move on its own in the kitchen, with nobody near it, and he refers to how "I don't suffer from headaches. I never have suffered from headaches." (15:58 in his presentation referred to above) That headache went away just after the tea kettle incident. John Burcombe recalls an incident in which he experienced a headache just after Peggy mentioned that she had one (MG91B, 31:54). In an earlier post, I recounted an experience Burcombe had that he considered the most frightening one he'd gone through. Something I didn't mention there is that just after the recording of that event, Burcombe mentions that both his daughter and Peggy had a headache (MG99A, 3:30). If you read the relevant section of the post I just linked, you'll see that there was a lot of paranormal activity reported around that time. On one of the tapes, there's discussion of two members of the family having a headache at the same time (GP13A, 7:41). It's somewhat hard to tell who's being referred to, but I think the two individuals are Peggy and Margaret. Apparently, they were far apart from each other when it happened. (Margaret was at school at the time.)

Earlier on that tape, Playfair asks Peggy for more information about the nature of the headaches (3:33). He asked her if the feeling is always the same. She responded, "It varies. If it's [the poltergeist's] hanging about, I get a slight throbbing sensation. And if it's going to be bad, it's sort of like a tight band across the front of the head. It only affects the front of the head. It's not like a normal headache." Playfair then asks if it's like a migraine, and she says she doesn't know what a migraine is like. It doesn't seem that she regularly got bad headaches before the poltergeist arrived. Even if she did, she says that these premonitory headaches aren't like a normal headache, so the sensations involved are different. She goes on to say that the headaches usually don't last long and that they don't go away until after the poltergeist has done whatever the headache was anticipating.


  1. Thanks for the reference to the SSPR, Jason. Not only is Grosse's lecture available, there's also a lecture about the South Shields Poltergeist.

    The premonitory headaches are most intriguing. But like all the other phenomena, baffling. Could it be some sort of physical effect that the poltergeist exerts on people and the environs whilst it's mustering the energy to create a disturbance? Interestingly, premonitory headaches are not a feature that I've encountered in any other cases that I can think of.

    In case you missed it, here is a link to the current BBC Radio 4 series on the Battersea Poltergeist:

    I have only started listening to it, but it seems remarkable for its longevity.

    1. I've been listening to the Battersea series. I haven't read James Clark's book about the case yet, but I expect to eventually. The series would have been better without the reenactments. The time would be better spent on information, arguments, and evidence related to the case. We're not told upfront how the reenactments relate to what happened. Are the reenactments attempts to reproduce historical events to a high degree of accuracy? Are they largely fiction with some basis in fact? You can eventually piece things together and get the impression that at least some parts of the conversations in the reenactments really occurred, but it's still too unclear how much is factual and how much isn't. Reenactments have been a problem with Enfield coverage as well. I repeatedly come across people who think the reenactments in the BBC's November 1977 story are footage of the actual events. And reenactments are typically of low quality, inaccurate, trivializing, and distracting. They could be useful at times, but they tend to be used far too much and not too well. The Battersea series should have started out with and frequently reinforced the most impressive facts, the sort often mentioned in Enfield coverage (the number of events, the number of witnesses, the nature of the documentation, etc.), but so far there hasn't been enough said about those facts. Some of the most important aspects of the case have gone undiscussed so far or weren't mentioned until well into the series. I also don't know why they keep making the false claim that poltergeists begin with sounds before moving on to other activities. The host's claim that the case will be solved by his series is dubious. I'm glad that the series was done. It seems like a very important case and one that should get more attention, but the coverage of it needs to be of a more objective and persuasive nature. Maybe there will be more of that later in the series.

      The longevity of the case is highly significant, but a lot depends on the manner in which it was active in the later years (the quantity and quality of the events). Enfield was active for more than a quarter of a century, assuming it isn't still active, but we don't know much about the nature of the activity after 1979. It's remarkable that so many people in the media and elsewhere who have covered Enfield in the years since then haven't gotten and publicized more information on what happened in the 1980s and beyond. There's another Enfield documentary on the way, and I hope it addresses that later activity.

    2. Regarding premonitory headaches, one possibility is that their greater prominence in the Enfield case than elsewhere resulted from the poltergeist in that case malfunctioning in some relevant way. A poltergeist wouldn't normally cause that sort of reaction in people, but this particular one did. Given how much poltergeists (including this one) conceal their activities, try to frighten people, and such, you'd think they wouldn't want their activities anticipated as much as this poltergeist's activities were through these premonitory headaches. It may have caused the headaches deliberately, but that seems less likely. There were many instances when the poltergeist made apparent mistakes, seemed ignorant of certain types of information, learned how to do things over time, and so on. I give some examples in my article on the poltergeist's voice, such as in the section titled "The Voice's Failures". There are other examples, and I think there are some I haven't discussed anywhere yet. I may do so in future posts. I haven't given the issue much thought, but my impression at this point is that the premonitory headaches were a result of some kind of malfunctioning of the poltergeist rather than something it did on purpose or some sort of psychic capacity all of the experiencers had.

    3. Concerning premonitory headaches in other cases, I don't recall hearing about them much. However, after Charles Moses of the Southern California Society for Psychical Research visited the Hodgsons' house in 1978, he noted a "striking" similarity between Peggy's premonitory headaches and the ones experienced by a man in another case (MG69A, 20:35).

  2. Yes, I agree with your views about re-enactments and their somewhat kitsch effect. I guess they're intended simply to pull in a popular audience, rather than to offer a serious analysis. Unsurprisingly though, the series hasn't attracted any comment from skeptics. It never ceases to amaze me the way in which distinguished scientists and psychologists, etc. just blithely dismiss foci like Shirley Hitchings.

    The features of the poltergeist that you cite here - its apparent mistakes, its ignorance (but also, paradoxically, its erudition - witness its use of an arcane word on one occasion) - just serves to underline how difficult it is to capture and categorise the phenomenon.

  3. I also just noticed your comment that there is another Enfield documentary on the way. I haven't read or heard anything about it but let's hope it's sufficiently serious and rigorous.

    The only reference I've ever seen to post-1979 activity is in Will Storr's book, in which it's said that Peggy Hodgson still heard footsteps and doors opening and closing of their own volition - though I'm going purely by memory here. That raises the mysterious question as to why its activity was so attenuated compared to the poltergeist's apogee, and also why it remained in the house at all. After all, we know that it was capable of relocating, since it may even have generated phenomena while the family was visiting Clacton-on-Sea.

    1. In addition to Janet's interview with Storr, there are relevant comments in Zoe Brennan's article on Enfield written several years ago. She discusses the experiences of the Bennetts, who moved in after Peggy Hodgson's death. Brennan also quotes Janet saying:

      "Years later, when Mum was alive, there was always a presence there — something watching over you. As long as people don’t meddle the way we did with Ouija boards, it is quite settled. It is a lot calmer than when I was a child. It is at rest, but will always be there….Even my brother, until the day he left that place after Mum died, would say: 'There’s still something there.' You’d feel like you were being watched."

      So, in addition to the phenomena you mentioned that came up in her interview with Storr, there seems to have been some unusual sense of a presence in the house, and she thinks the poltergeist is still "there", though in a "calmer" way. I don't know if she'd had contact with one or more of the later residents, heard about their experiences indirectly, was just expressing her own impressions about what seemed likely, or something else. Near the end of the BBC's 2007 documentary, Janet commented on the ongoing sense of a presence in the house, but added the qualifier "I don't know about now". Brennan's story was originally published in 2011, and I think the BBC's documentary was at least mostly produced in 2006, then released in 2007. Maybe Janet's view of whether there was still a presence in the house after her mother's death changed by the time of the 2011 article, but it's also possible that her later comments were expressed poorly or misreported. Clearly, though, the popular claim that the phenomena ended in 1979 shouldn't be accepted.

      Notice, too, that the initial comments of Clare Bennett cited in Brennan's article are so similar to Janet's, regarding a presence in the house, even the detail about how "someone was looking at me". Presumably, Bennett made those comments without knowledge of what Janet had said.

      And the "quietening down" Brennan's article refers to after the fall of 1978 is significant, since a lot of activity occurred in 1979. It's true, from what I can tell, that there was less activity after the fall of 1978, but Grosse's tapes from 1979 refer to a large amount of activity over multiple months, involving a broad variety of events. The Warrens and their team reported a lot of activity during their 1979 visit, and they claimed there was some when they visited in 1981, though apparently significantly less. So, if activity like what occurred in 1979 is so often not even discussed or is referred to as a state of having "quietened down" and such, the level of activity after 1979 could be similarly significant.

      Aside from interviewing the witnesses still alive, another potential source of relevant information is the notes and other records kept by Grosse and Playfair. To whatever extent they were keeping in contact with the Hodgsons and others involved over the years, they may have kept some records of ongoing reports of activity.

  4. Thanks Jason, interesting as ever. Did you in fact mean the 2007 Channel 4 documentary 'Interview with a Poltergeist'? Unless of course there is another documentary I'm not aware of. Where did you learn about the forthcoming documentary on Enfield?

    As for the later activity - which, as you say, was considerable - it makes one wonder why Playfair described this activity as a 'brief flare-up'.

    It's interesting also that Janet hints that it was her use of an ouija board that precipitated the phenomena. Given that poltergeist eruptions happen when none of the participants appear to have used a board, and the fact that Derren Brown once conducted a sitting and impressively conjured up what at first sight appeared to be a spirit, I suppose we have to be cautious on that point. Then again, the board does appear to have played a role in the Tony Cornell case, 'The Smell', about which I have stated previously has to rank as the strangest (and in some ways, the most disquieting) ghost story I have ever come across.

    As ever, there are no real answers. Only more questions.

    1. Yes, I was referring to the Interview With A Poltergeist documentary. I don't know much about British television, and I could easily be wrong about the BBC's involvement. I may have misinterpreted something I came across or may have been given some inaccurate information.

      Regarding the upcoming documentary, Melvyn Willin mentioned in the 2018-19 annual report of the Society for Psychical Research that he was "in correspondence with a film company interested in making a legitimate documentary about the ‘Enfield Case’" (7). Douglas Bence recently updated his web site. On his Enfield page, he writes:

      "There’s been a mini TV series, a blockbuster feature film, several documentaries and if it hadn’t been delayed by the social restrictions of 2020’s pandemic, another was on the way."

      Concerning the Ouija board use, keep in mind that Margaret Hodgson reported that an apparition appeared when she was involved in using a Ouija board in 1974, an apparition she saw again during the height of the poltergeist's activities (Guy Playfair, This House Is Haunted [United States: White Crow Books, 2011], 238-39). The poltergeist may have been imitating something that initially wasn't part of the poltergeist's activities, but the involvement of the same apparition in both contexts makes a connection between the Ouija board use and the poltergeist more plausible. It's not just a matter of speculation. There's some evidence for a connection. If Margaret is to be believed, and I see no reason to not believe her, the Ouija board use resulted in some paranormal activity. And there could be more of a connection between the Ouija board phenomena and the activities of the poltergeist. What Margaret reported may not be complete. Something convinced Janet of a connection between the Ouija board use and the poltergeist, whether it was the events surrounding that one apparition Margaret referred to, something else, or both.

      On the other hand, Janet mentioned in her interview with Storr that, later in her life, she had a friend who reported poltergeist-like phenomena after using a Ouija board, so her friend's experiences may have led Janet to reconsider and reinterpret what happened in her life in the 1970s (Will Storr Vs. The Supernatural [New York, New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 2006], 196). When Storr asked Janet whether she saw a connection between her and her sister's Ouija board use and the poltergeist, she was agnostic (195). Storr's book came out in 2006, so I suspect the interview with Janet occurred sometime in the mid 2000s. Apparently, something happened in the years that followed, prior to Brennan's 2011 article, that convinced Janet of a connection between the Ouija board use and the poltergeist. It may have been the interview with Storr that got her thinking more about the subject.

    2. Here's a story from last September about what surely is the Enfield documentary discussed above.