Monday, March 01, 2021

How The Personality Of The Enfield Poltergeist Differed From The Personalities Around It

I said a lot about the subject in my 2019 article on the poltergeist voice. I want to expand upon what I wrote there in relation to a certain aspect of the poltergeist's personality.

The poltergeist communicated in a variety of ways (e.g., speaking, knocking, writing), and it communicated through a variety of sources. Most significantly, the poltergeist voice manifested through multiple individuals, not just one, and sometimes was manifested in a disembodied form or through a dog. And some fraud hypotheses would propose that more than one person faked the knocking and writing incidents, for example, which means those hypotheses propose that multiple personalities were behind those phenomena. Even those who believe in the authenticity of one type of phenomenon sometimes reject the authenticity of another (e.g., accepting the knocking while rejecting the voice). So, when there's continuity across multiple types of phenomena and multiple individuals manifesting the phenomena, that continuity can have some significance for a wide variety of views of the case. That's especially true if the continuity involves something that seems to differentiate the poltergeist from the individual(s) thought to have faked the case or thought to have produced the poltergeist through psychic activity.

As I proceed, I'll be making reference to the Enfield tapes produced by Maurice Grosse and Guy Playfair. I'll cite a tape from Grosse's collection with "MG", and "GP" will be used to cite one from Playfair's. So, for example, MG98A refers to tape 98A in Grosse's collection, and GP4B refers to 4B in Playfair's.

Something that's striking about the poltergeist's communication as a whole is the lack of concern shown about Tony Hodgson, the father of the children and the ex-husband of Peggy. Another striking characteristic is the hostility exhibited toward the Burcombes, especially John. I'm not suggesting that those are the only characteristics that are relevant to what I'm discussing in this post, but I'll focus on those ones. The same principles can be applied to other characteristics.

The lack of interest in Tony goes across all of the phenomena, as far as I recall. In the vast majority of the sources I've consulted, including Playfair's book and the tapes, I don't remember any comment from the voice, trances, knocking, dreams, or writing, for instance, that was focused on Tony. Perhaps I'm overlooking one or more incidents. Even if I'm overlooking some events, they have to be rare.

The reason I referred to "the vast majority" above is because of what Anita Gregory reports on page 170 of her doctoral thesis about at least one visit Tony made to the house. Gregory mentions that Peggy told her in January of 1978 that "her ex-husband…brings the children's money on Saturdays, and how they all hate it…the voices told him [Tony] to shove off, f… off, p… off etc, and although Mrs. H says she very much disapproves of this sort of language…it was quite useful in getting Mr. H to go away quickly." I don't recall Gregory or anybody else reporting that the voice acted that way toward Tony on any other occasion. And Gregory refers to how Peggy said the voice's behavior "was" useful, which leaves the impression that such behavior wasn't ongoing. If the voice frequently or always behaved that way toward Tony, I'd expect Peggy to have used different language in describing the situation to Gregory, and I'd expect to have come across other reports of the voice's behaving that way. If the incident Gregory reports only occurred once or some other small number of times, then its significance is less accordingly. And the voice frequently swore at people - the Hodgsons, paranormal researchers visiting the house, people the Hodgsons encountered outside the house, etc. As I mentioned before, one of the reasons the Hodgsons hated the situation with the voice and wanted it to go away was because of how disruptive it was to their relationships (GP91B, 15:20, 25:59; GP94A, 16:45; GP95B, 24:01), sometimes to the point of motivating them to not leave the house. Even when people visited who were highly courteous and got along well with the children, like Playfair and Charles Moses, the voice would be abusive toward them. It didn't always behave that way, but often did. Nothing in Gregory's description of how the voice reacted to Tony suggests that the poltergeist was reacting to him as the Hodgsons would. It may have been expressing the mindset of one or more of the Hodgsons on that occasion, but the evidence Gregory provides is inconclusive. None of Tony's weekly visits to the house were caught on tape, but the visits are sometimes described later. I don't remember anybody else mentioning any behavior of the poltergeist during Tony's visits that's significant in the context under consideration in this post.

The poltergeist was somewhat active while Tony was there, but apparently not a lot. Gregory mentioned that the voice manifested on at least one occasion when Tony was at the house, and there are reports of other activity. There's a reference to a brush hitting him in the face (MG33A, 4:23). And Tony was the one who discovered the poltergeist's writing on a mirror during an incident you can read about here. Peggy noted that when Tony arrived for his weekly visit on December 3, 1977, it was about half past 10:00 in the morning. Peggy made a comment to Margaret about how the poltergeist often becomes active at 25 minutes until an hour, and paranormal events started at 25 minutes to the hour just after Peggy made that comment (GP20A, 2:34). So, Tony not only witnessed the events, apparently, but also heard Peggy anticipating the time when the events would start. But I don't know of any major incidents in the case or any significantly large number of lesser events that occurred while he was visiting.

He typically came to the house on Saturdays. And there was a lot of activity on some Saturdays. I mentioned December 3 of 1977 above, for example, which is the day when Janet got dragged out of bed by the poltergeist a few times. A significant series of events occurred the previous Saturday, November 26, as well (e.g., Janet going into a trance state, being injected with Valium, then getting thrown across the room by the poltergeist). But the December 3 events happened several hours before Tony arrived, the November 26 events happened after he left, and no connection to him was expressed during any of those events, as far as I know. When Janet was in her trance state on November 26 (which was captured on tape), she spoke while in that state and mentioned other people, but I don't think Tony was mentioned at all.

Some of the more eventful days in the case were Saturdays, but some weren't (October 23, 1977; November 10, 1977; December 15, 1977; May 30, 1978; etc.). To whatever extent there was a lot of activity on Saturdays, it's not as though Tony's visiting that day is the only potential explanation (e.g., Saturdays were the first day the family was together the whole day after five days in a row of the children having been away much of the time at school).

It seems that the poltergeist didn't show much interest in Tony Hodgson. By contrast, he was Peggy's ex-husband and the father of her children, and Peggy discusses him occasionally on the tapes and is referred to by other sources as having discussed him on other occasions. Peggy referred to how all of the children had told her that they didn't want to see their father (GP13B, 7:11), so the children weren't silent about their relationship with him either. Grosse went as far as to say that the children "hated" their father (at 1:18:01 in his presentation titled Enfield Poltergeist 25 Years On here). Playfair referred to an effort being made in a local court to try to prevent Tony from visiting the family (GP39B, 39:57). Playfair goes on to mention that Janet discussed her unhappiness over the situation with her father during a hypnosis session (the one conducted by Ian Fletcher on December 8, 1977). Here's a segment from a documentary in which a few witnesses discuss how bad the situation with the father was. The poltergeist's lack of interest in Tony seems to distinguish its mindset from that of the Hodgsons.

Before saying more about that subject, I want to expand on the poltergeist's hostility toward the Burcombes. I've discussed that hostility in some of my previous articles, such as this one on the poltergeist's voice and this one on the writings of the poltergeist. I want to supplement what I wrote in those articles, then address why the poltergeist may have been so hostile to the Burcombes.

Some of the poltergeist's earliest communications through knocking expressed hostility toward the Burcombes, especially John. The knocking began responding to Grosse on the night of October 23, 1977. On that night, John Burcombe asked the poltergeist whether he annoys it, and it knocked twice for "yes" (MG9Bii, 8:30). Just after, one of the children, apparently Paul Burcombe, asked if he annoyed the poltergeist, and he got one knock for "no" in response. The voice of the person asking the question seemed to be Paul's, but it may have been Janet or Margaret instead. It's a child's voice, and I think it's Paul's, but it may be Janet's or Margaret's instead. Even if Paul asked the question, it's still significant that his father got such a hostile response from the poltergeist. At another point during that night, Denise Burcombe asked the poltergeist whether it wanted to speak to her. It knocked once for "no" (MG9Bi, 1:31). Just after, Peggy Hodgson asked if the poltergeist wanted to speak to her, and it knocked twice for "yes". So, there was at least some negative response to two of the Burcombes, John and Denise, especially John. There may have been a more positive response to Paul, but, as we'll see, even if the poltergeist was more positive about Paul than it was about the other Burcombes at that point, it didn't take long for the poltergeist to show a lot of hostility toward Paul.

I've sometimes linked a portion of a documentary on Enfield that plays a few clips of the poltergeist voice expressing its anger. All of those clips come from the night of December 13, 1977. The voice was largely interacting with three of the Burcombes that night: John, Denise, and Paul. In the documentary segment just linked, the person talking to the voice is John. I've said before that the voice seemed to express more anger on that night than at any other point. And that anger seems to have been directed primarily at the Burcombes. In addition to its anger at John in the clips linked above, there's another point when it says of John's son, Paul, "He's a fucking swine." (MG44A, 31:44)

The poltergeist voice manifested through every member of the Hodgson family. Hostility toward the Burcombes was expressed by the voice through four of the five Hodgsons, all of them other than Johnny. I don't have much information on the nature of the voice manifestations through Johnny, for a variety of reasons. He isn't on the tapes much, and I don't recall coming across much information about his voice manifestations on the tapes. So, the lack of evidence for hostility toward the Burcombes through Johnny's voice doesn't have much significance. But Janet's voice is much more hostile toward John Burcombe than Janet seems to be. Billy's voice shows hostility toward both John and Paul Burcombe that seems uncharacteristic of Billy. And Peggy's voice swore at John when Peggy and John were in a store together, which is something I doubt Peggy would have done. So, there's a pattern of the voice showing hostility toward the Burcombes that's uncharacteristic of the individual through whom the voice is manifesting.

That hostility toward the Burcombes might have been due to mechanical factors. The Burcombes may have interfered with what the poltergeist wanted to do. They, especially John, were frequently at the Hodgsons' house and provided another location where the Hodgsons often lived. It would sometimes follow them to the Burcombes' house or go there on its own initiative, but it was substantially less active there than at the Hodgsons' house. We don't know much about the mechanics of poltergeists or the psychology of this particular one, but it could be that the frequent presence of the Burcombes interfered with the poltergeist's activities in some way, and relocating to the Burcombes' house may have involved some difficulties for it or may have placed limits on its actions, limits that it didn't want. (I discuss some potential explanations of how that would occur in my article on the voice.)

The hostility toward the Burcombes also may have been something of a more psychological nature. Perhaps the entity behind the poltergeist disliked one or more of the Burcombes, for whatever reason. Or it may have been picking up on a dislike of one or more of the Burcombes on the part of one or more of the Hodgsons and escalating it. The poltergeist would sometimes reproduce things it seems to have gotten from the mind of Janet or somebody else, but would reproduce it in a distorted form. On the tapes, the Hodgsons occasionally make negative comments about one or more of the Burcombes, but not often and to much less of a degree than the poltergeist did. The evidence I'm aware of strongly suggests that Peggy thought highly of her brother, and I doubt the store incident I referred to originated with her. (It's uncharacteristic of her in multiple ways, not just in its hostility toward John.) Grosse referred to how deliberate and calculating the poltergeist was and compared their interactions with it to a game of chess, in which the poltergeist makes a move and they make a countermove. Grosse thought the poltergeist was involved in "a deliberate attempt to cause dissension between the two families [the Hodgsons and the Burcombes]…a very calculated move on the part of the entity to cause dissension" (MG19A, 17:38).

There's an episode I want to highlight here that combines what I've been saying about the poltergeist's lack of interest in Tony Hodgson and its hostility toward the Burcombes. Earlier, I referred to an incident in which the poltergeist left some writing on a mirror, writing that was discovered by Tony on one of the occasions when he visited the Hodgsons' house. You can read about that incident here. It was the occasion when the poltergeist took a pork pie Denise Burcombe was preparing at the Burcombes' house and wrote "I've got your pork pie" on the mirror at the Hodgsons' house. It's significant that the poltergeist showed so little interest in Tony while he was visiting the house, but, simultaneously, showed so much interest in causing trouble for the Burcombes. That episode is a good illustration of that combination of traits.

Both the lack of interest in Tony and the hostility toward the Burcombes distinguish the poltergeist from the individuals most often proposed as the (normal or paranormal) source of the poltergeist, namely the Hodgsons. Tony was the children's father. Many people suggest that his behavior and the divorce associated with it brought on the poltergeist or were largely responsible for it. Even some skeptics of the case will propose that the children faked the case partly or wholly for reasons closely related to Tony. Similarly, as I've mentioned before, though the Hodgson children seem to have had some hostility toward the Burcombes, it seems to have been much less than what the poltergeist exhibited.

Characteristics of the poltergeist like these are some of the factors we should take into account when judging competing hypotheses about the case. Even within a narrow range of hypotheses, these characteristics I'm highlighting can be helpful in evaluating our options. For example, among those who think the poltergeist is some sort of manifestation of one or more psychological disorders among the Hodgsons, we can ask which disorder or combination of more than one best explains the characteristics I'm referring to. Even those who think the entire case is fraudulent would have an interest in explaining the psychology of the people involved, and the characteristics I'm addressing are relevant to that.

I've explained elsewhere that I think the entity behind the poltergeist was a deceased human with a malfunctioning mind. What the poltergeist thought of Tony and the Burcombes, especially John, makes a lot of sense under that view. Tony wasn't around much and didn't show much interest in the poltergeist. It probably didn't have much interest in him. By contrast, the Burcombes were around a lot, especially John, and he probably was the most skeptical individual and the one most critical of the poltergeist among those who were at the house the most. He and his family also provided the Hodgsons with another place to live occasionally, which may have interfered with the poltergeist's activities in ways it disliked.

But this post isn't intended to be primarily about my view of the entity behind the poltergeist. Rather, I'm focused on some characteristics of the poltergeist that need to be explained by any view, whether mine or somebody else's. It's important to keep in mind that the characteristics I've highlighted were manifested across multiple types of phenomena, multiple circumstances, and multiple individuals through whom the phenomena operated, for example. That continuity across so many contexts needs to be explained. It requires a higher level of intelligence, planning, and such under a fraud scenario, for example. Or under a scenario in which the poltergeist was being produced by the psychic activities of one or more living individuals, it would need to be argued that two or more individuals involved happened to have the trait under consideration, that one individual with that trait was projecting it onto one or more other individuals, or whatever else. And so on.

To fully appreciate the significance of the degree to which the poltergeist was consistent in these traits, it's helpful to think of how inconsistent people often are, including the Hodgsons in particular. As I've listened to Grosse and Playfair's tapes, I've noticed many differences among the Hodgsons and within the life of a given individual over time. Playfair's book on Enfield (This House Is Haunted [United States: White Crow Books, 2011]) sometimes discusses the differences among the Hodgson children. Here's Mary Rose Barrington of the Society for Psychical Research describing some of the differences she noticed between Janet and Margaret. And here's Graham Morris talking about some differences among the Hodgsons. Morris refers to how Margaret would "cry at the drop of a hat". By contrast, Janet didn't cry much. In Stewart Lamont's Enfield video, you see the two girls sitting on a couch together, with Margaret dressed better, sitting up straighter, communicating more clearly, and rebuking Janet for making an inappropriate comment at one point ("Shut up!"). In another context in the same video, we see Janet and Billy on the floor, playing with Legos, while Margaret is sitting with her mother and has a more serious disposition. Notice, too, that Billy is turned away from the camera, with an arm over his face, apparently because he didn't want to be filmed. By contrast, in this segment of a video from November of 1977, Billy lifts his head up from the kitchen table and looks directly into the camera. Maybe he became more self-conscious from November of 1977 to February of 1978 (when Lamont's video was filmed) or handled the situations differently for some other reason. Children are often inconsistent like that. In his book, Playfair refers to how different Janet was after she spent some time in the Maudsley Hospital in the summer of 1978 (241-43). When you're the age the Hodgson children were at that time, you change more rapidly. A period like a year, two years, or even less than a year in some contexts can involve more change than it would during other phases of life. Factors like these should be taken into account when evaluating the consistencies of poltergeist phenomena. Why was the poltergeist so consistent at a time when the Hodgson children were so inconsistent? That isn't to suggest that the children were inconsistent in every conceivable way. Obviously, there were consistencies accompanying the inconsistencies. But it's striking that the poltergeist not only exhibited some characteristics you wouldn't expect from the Hodgsons, individually or together, but also did so with such consistency at a time in life when the Hodgson children were so inconsistent.


  1. James Padmore has raised some objections to my post on Twitter. I don't have a Twitter account, I don't know much about how Twitter operates, and I'd prefer to respond in this format I'm more familiar with anyway.

    He says:

    "Totally biased writing. You can't say the children were *mostly* inconsistent and say the 'voices' were not consistent with the children. If a child was making the voices, do you *really* think the child wouldn't try to mask any consistencies in order to avoid detection??!"

    I was addressing more than the voice, and I was addressing more than fraud hypotheses in which the children carried out the fraud. I was discussing some factors that every view of the poltergeist must address, whether a fraud hypothesis of whatever type or any other view. See the second-to-last paragraph of my original post above, for example, in which I acknowledge that a fraud hypothesis could be maintained in light of what I've cited, but explain that the fraud hypothesis would have to involve fraud of a higher nature. James' response doesn't refute anything I said.

    And the scenario he refers to, in which the children carried out such a fraud of a higher nature, is deeply problematic. It fails to explain the phenomena that occurred when none of the children were nearby or when they were nearby, but are unlikely to have produced the events (e.g., the voice's manifestations by means other than the children). See here, for example, regarding events that occurred when the children weren't around. Or here regarding events involving the operation of machinery, with the accompanying unlikelihood that the children knew how to operate all of the relevant machinery in all of the relevant ways. And so on.

    My original post above provides examples of events likely to be authentic that reflect the poltergeist's relevant characteristics (lack of interest in Tony Hodgson; hostility toward the Burcombes, especially John). The incident when the voice manifested through Peggy Hodgson and swore at her brother occurred in a store when none of the children were around, for example. The incident in which Tony discovered some writing on a mirror at the Hodgsons' house probably wasn't faked, for reasons I explained in my original post that discussed the event. I cited some incidents from October 23, 1977, the day the poltergeist's responsive knocking originated. See here, and do a Ctrl F search for "October 23", to read an overview of some of the evidence for the genuineness of the knocking in that context. As these examples illustrate, we have good reason to think the poltergeist exhibited the traits in question in contexts in which fraud by the Hodgson children is unlikely.

  2. A most interesting piece, Jason. The fact that the voice manifested through every member of the family (something I actually wasn't aware of) is really quite remarkable. Is there any information as to the quality of the voice, as expressed by the individual family members? You may have already touched on this, so apologies. Assuming that the voice was faked by the children, as has been stated, then how do the skeptics account for the voice manifesting through Peggy Hodgson? The idea that a north London housewife, struggling as she was on a modest income to raise a family, would do such a thing strikes me as absurd.

    As for Tony Hodgson, his absence from the whole affair is striking, and I was particularly intrigued by the information you supplied about him not so long ago. I recall that you were at pains to point out that there was no evidence to suggest that he had ever been physically abusive to Peggy Hodgson or the children, but at the same time it was commented on that he had been found culpable of child sex offences. Ruminating over this some more, although one has to be very circumspect in what one says, it would be useful to know more about his behaviour and its impact on the family dynamics. I recall Grosse saying in an interview that the disharmony engendered by the divorce was significant. And the one thing of which we can be certain about poltergeist phenomena is that, invariably, there is some sort of discord or distress amongst the participants and which underlies the whole phenomena - and the Enfield Poltergeist would appear to be no different. Of course, the discord in itself does not explain how the pent-up emotions of Janet Hodgson externalise themselves and form a simulacrum of a troublesome, sentient entity; or how and why the discombobulated mind of a deceased human comes along and seizes on these emotions as a source of sustenance. However, the discord may be only one factor, though it seems to be an important one, as I struggle to think of many poltergeist outbreaks in harmonious homes.

    One possible exception that I have always found interesting is the low-level poltergeist phenomena that afflicted an elderly couple, Kay and Jim Tatum, in Atlanta, Georgia in the mid-1980s. They were seemingly comfortable retirees, possibly childless, and not under any apparent stress. They built a new home but, 5 months after moving in, an unplugged drill came to live of its own volition, and a bell would also ring without human intervention. Kay Tatum used this bell to summon her husband of a morning, so that he could attend to her. They both agreed that in order to outfox the phenomena, Kay would ring the bell three times so that Jim could be sure that it was her who was summoning him, not the entity. However, whatever was in the house was clearly intelligent, since it immediately began to ring the bell three times.

    The only final comment I would make about your view that the Enfield interloper was that of the disordered mind of a deceased human, is that it is perhaps somewhat belied by the fact that at one point, the entity broached the subject of menstruation. Although one can accept that the animosity expressed towards the Burcombes came from the entity, since the Hodgson children's reservations about the Burcombes were not all that great, one struggles to accept that an entity would broach the subject of menstruation, even if it was able to detect that this was a subject Janet was at that time preoccupied with. Remember, someone obliged the voice by giving a detailed description of the process!

    1. Some of the voice issues you've brought up are addressed in my article on the voice. The menstruation issue is discussed there.

      Regarding the quality of the voice relative to each family member, something that hasn't gotten enough attention in discussions of the voice is how varied its audio qualities were. It would most often manifest in the sort of masculine, raspy manner you hear in documentaries and in YouTube videos. But it sometimes manifested in another manner, such as with a female voice or by imitating somebody, like Maurice Grosse. Even what was produced through one individual, such as Janet, would vary substantially. It would be louder one time and quieter another, more low-pitched on one occasion and more high-pitched on another, would be unbroken at one point and break up a lot at another point, would involve no movement of the lips one time, a lot of movement another time, and a small amount of movement on some other occasion. And there was no consistent development. The lips of the person through whom the voice was manifesting would move only a small amount at one point, not move at all after that, then move a lot, then move a smaller amount again. I provide some examples of variations like these in my article on the voice.

      There are noticeable differences in the audio quality of the voice from one person to another. Billy's voice sounds younger and weaker, for example.

      I've never seen any Enfield skeptic express an awareness that the voice manifested through Peggy. Surely there are some skeptics who are aware of the fact by now, but they seem to have decided to not address the subject, as they don't address so many other aspects of the case.

      Concerning Tony Hodgson's background, there's still a lot of potential for living witnesses to discuss the subject. And there may be information in Grosse and Playfair's notes and other records in the SPR's archives.

      Keep in mind that the fiftieth anniversary of the case is coming up later in this decade. Given the psychological and cultural interests people have in fiftieth anniversaries, I'd be surprised if we don't see a minimum of two new documentaries before the end of the decade. There could easily be more than two. And each one brings a lot of potential for new information to come to light and lost information to be recovered.

  3. Yes, it's hard to believe that the fiftieth anniversary is looming - I can clearly remember buying the reissue of Playfair's book to mark the thirtieth anniversary in 2007. As you've touched on before, it's astonishing that such an important case has not received serious analysis from so many quarters.

    Thanks for the link to your piece on the voice. I had started to systematically work through your writings on the Enfield case, but had to stop as I need to replace my e-reader. I think you offer a plausible explanation though: despite my echoing Playfair's views on the poltergeist's menstruation comments, it does make sense that the entity could seek to embarrass Janet by raising the issue. It would have been interesting to hear from the speech therapist who visited Enfield, Daphne Pearce, but like Carolyn Heeps, for whatever reason she has not appeared in any of the Enfield documentaries. Perhaps both women feel they said all they had to say about the case, and want to avoid the attention that they would inevitably bring on themselves, were they to reappear. Interestingly, an online search seems to show that Dr Pearce is still practising.

    1. The Daphne Pearce who shows up in online searches does seem to be the same one. It would be good to hear more from her and Heeps, but an advantage to not hearing more from them is that it provides further evidence that neither of them was making things up out of a desire for something like money or attention. They've had many opportunities for that sort of thing if they wanted it (television shows, radio programs, books, a very popular movie, etc.).