Thursday, December 01, 2022

Evidence For The December 15, 1977 Enfield Levitations

There's widespread agreement that the events of December 15, 1977 are among the most significant ones in the Enfield case. I've discussed much of the evidence for those events in previous posts, like this one that provides an overview of the day as a whole and this one focusing on an interview with one of the witnesses, John Rainbow. See here for a discussion I had with David Robertson in 2018 that was partly about the background to the events of that day. He explains what he was trying to accomplish and the reasoning behind it. Contrary to what people often suggest, there were more than two people outside the house who saw Janet Hodgson levitating that day. There were at least four who saw the levitation, and David told me, as quoted in the post linked above, that he suspects there were more than four. Keep in mind that the Hodgsons' house was directly across from a school, that the children were being let out of the school around the time of at least one of the levitations, and that the street the house is on is a very busy one. Anybody who's interested can read the posts linked above and other relevant ones in our archives for more about these issues. I don't want to reinvent the wheel here. What I want to do in this post is add some further lines of evidence for these December 15 events, including some that I don't recall having seen discussed before.

I'll be making references to the tapes of Maurice Grosse and Guy Playfair. I'll refer to Grosse's tapes with "MG" and Playfair's with "GP". MG35A is tape 35A in Grosse's collection, GP4A refers to tape 4A in Playfair's, and so on.

The two witnesses outside the house whose testimony has gotten the most attention are Hazel Short, a crossing guard for the school across the street, and John Rainbow, a deliveryman for a local bakery. There are significant similarities and differences between what they report. They were looking at the house from different distances and angles and apparently during different times to some extent. Their testimony overlaps somewhat, but not entirely. Playfair quotes some of that testimony in his book (This House Is Haunted [United States: White Crow Books, 2011], 141-46). Rainbow's comments quoted on page 145 suggest that he initially saw Janet going up and down above her bed, then saw her levitating in a circular pattern around the room. Short apparently saw the first part of that process, when Janet went up and down above her bed, but not the latter events. Grosse and Playfair's tapes provide more evidence that Short and Rainbow were providing independent testimony, without any collusion. The idea that a school crossing guard and a bakery deliveryman were involved in collusion in that sort of context, with neither of them seeming to make much or any money from the case in later years (and Rainbow not even letting his name be made public initially), is unlikely. Anybody who wants us to think there was some kind of collusion bears the burden of proof. We don't begin with an assumption of collusion as our default position, and there are multiple reasons to think it's unlikely in this context. Grosse and Playfair's tapes provide further evidence to that effect.

They interviewed Short at least a few times. In an interview conducted in May of 1978, Grosse asked her what happened to some items that she reported seeing hit the window. They asked her what happened to the items after they hit (MG87B, 46:58). The other witness, Rainbow, had provided some details about what happened to the items that hit the window and was impressed by what he saw. The items didn't drop down, but instead kept levitating around the room. But Short said she didn't know what happened to the items after they hit the window. She then says she "presumes" they "must" have dropped, but that she has no memory of what happened to the items at that point. She also says she didn't see Janet hitting the window, whereas Rainbow made much of his seeing her hit it. If Short had been colluding with Rainbow, you wouldn't expect her to not only not remember portions of the events that Rainbow emphasized, but to even say that she "presumes" something contrary to what he reported. Their testimony is consistent, but in a way that suggests a lack of collusion.

Later in that discussion in May of 1978, Short, in the process of describing the December 15 events again, refers to hearing a bang from a book hitting the window "followed by a pillow, a striped, candy-striped pillow, then a book, then the pillow again" (51:24). Notice how Short's description corroborates Rainbow's. He refers to the items levitating in a circle around the room and continuing to move after hitting the window. That would explain why Short saw the items hit the window twice and in the same order each time (the book, then the pillow).

The reference to a book hitting the window has some significance, though not much. People often have books in a particular room of a house, but not always. Even houses with a lot of books in them have some rooms with no books. The Hodgsons did have some books in the room in question at the time, though not many. If Short was making things up, hallucinating, or something like that, then she made a fortunate guess.

Her reference to a "candy-striped pillow" (MG80A, 2:44), which I just cited from a March 14, 1978 interview, is significant. There was a pillow with that design in the relevant bedroom during the relevant timeframe. However, a pillow with that design appears in the BBC's November 23, 1977 television program about the Enfield case, so it could be argued that she picked up that detail from that television show.

During the interview in May of 1978, Short mentions another significant detail. She refers in passing to how "the bottom of her [Janet's] skirt" was hanging down (MG87B, 48:48). A skirt covers the lower part of the body. How would Short know Janet was wearing a skirt by looking through a bedroom window on the second floor of a house? And why would she make up that sort of detail, which could so easily be falsified if untrue? If the lower part of Janet's body was significantly above the bottom of the window, as it would have been under the levitation scenario Short claimed to have witnessed, then her knowing Janet had a skirt on makes more sense (or something that looked like a skirt, such as the skirt-like nightgown or pajamas Janet often wore). The distance from the floor of the bedroom to the top surface of the window sill was just under 34 inches (MG80A, 4:53). And Janet was 5'6" tall at the time (7:51). I'm taller than Janet was, and you wouldn't be able to see the relevant part of my body even if I stood next to the window and you were looking in at the same height as the window. Since Janet was shorter than me and was (allegedly) being seen from a much lower position by somebody standing at street level, Short shouldn't have known, under normal circumstances, that Janet was wearing a skirt. Playfair's book refers to how she was in too bad a condition to go to school that day and how David Robertson took her upstairs for the levitation session just after breakfast (132), so it seems highly plausible that she was wearing a nightgown or pajamas at the time. Rainbow refers to how Janet came out of the house shortly after the events in question (page 145 in Playfair's book). Maybe Short saw Janet's clothing in that context and, after learning that Janet had a skirt on, misremembered having seen her skirt hanging down during the alleged levitation.

But instead of proposing a series of fortunate guesses, fortunate coincidences, mistakes, or lies to explain how Short knew the details I've just mentioned (the presence of at least one book in the room, the candy-striped pillow, Janet's skirt), it would be simpler, and preferable, to conclude that Short was accurately reporting what she saw. The same applies to Rainbow's references to seeing books and dolls levitating. There was at least one doll in the room. Young adolescent girls sometimes have one or more dolls in their bedroom, but they often don't. And how would Rainbow have known that the room in question was a bedroom and one belonging to the girls? Maybe he saw the BBC television program referred to above and mistook its contents for memories of the December 15 events or was lying, but why prefer that sort of explanation? Why even consider it an equal alternative to taking Rainbow at his word? He couldn't have gotten some of his details from that BBC show, since the show didn't include any discernible footage of the books or dolls in the room. In fact, the lack of such details in the program makes it unlikely that he was fabricating or misremembering details based on that program. So, a skeptical hypothesis in which Rainbow got some of his details from the BBC program would only be a partial explanation of the relevant details in his testimony, and it would be problematic even as a partial explanation.

Short referred to a friend who was with her when the levitation in question occurred. As I've mentioned before, what Playfair reports in his book about what happened when he and Grosse went to interview that woman suggests that she saw the levitation:

"Later, Grosse and I went to see this friend, who lived round the corner. At first, she denied having been present, and when we said Mrs Short had given us her address she became extremely agitated and refused to say anything except 'I'm afraid I really can't talk about it.' We had the impression that even several weeks after the event she was still thoroughly shaken and frightened by what she had seen." (144)

The tapes provide further evidence that this woman did witness the event. During her March 14 interview with Grosse and Playfair, Short commented, "My friend could see her [Janet, as she levitated] as well. We both could see her." (MG80A, 3:47) During the interview in May of that year, Short commented, "She [saw] it, but it frightened her, because she saw it happen. I think she saw it happen. I can't be positive." (MG87B, 54:32) Short comes across as honest and credible in every interview I've seen, and it's to her credit that she adds some qualifiers in the May interview. Though she adds those qualifiers, she considers it likely that her friend saw what happened. Short's impressions combined with what Grosse and Playfair experienced when they spoke with Short's friend suggest to me that it's probable that the woman witnessed the levitation and was disturbed by it (as Short and Rainbow were, by their own admission).

I should add that during the taped interviews with Short and Rainbow, both acknowledge that they don't remember the exact date of these events. They remembered the month, and Rainbow incorrectly put it in "late December" (MG84B, 0:48). I doubt they'd have been so imprecise about the date if they were making things up for attention, money, or whatever.

Another problem with any fraud hypothesis is that Short and Rainbow were making claims about what happened in the middle of the day (close to noon) in a highly public setting, on a very busy street and when children were getting out of school. Even aside from all of the witnesses and potential witnesses outside the house, how would Short and Rainbow know that any account they made up wouldn't be contradicted by the people inside the house? They presumably didn't know who was in the house at the time. And it turns out that a few of the people who were inside (David Robertson, Peggy Nottingham, and Peggy Hodgson) are widely considered honest witnesses, including by skeptics of Enfield, even Anita Gregory. That's a situation in which inaccurate claims would be highly susceptible to falsification. Instead, nobody falsified Short and Rainbow's claims, and multiple witnesses corroborated them.

Any explanation involving something like hallucinations or overactive imaginations wouldn't work. Short and Rainbow agreed about many of the details, including ones of an unusual nature and ones they're extremely unlikely to have hit upon coincidentally through independent hallucinations or imagining things: seeing the same girl, in the same house, in the same room of that house, at the same time, involved in the same activity (levitating), with the same objects levitating with her, with those objects hitting one or more of the windows, with the hitting being loud enough to draw their attention.

Short seems to have seen less of what happened, apparently because she had to turn away to assist the children leaving the school at the time. But the details only referred to by Rainbow are problematic for something like a fraud, hallucination, or overactive imagination hypothesis. He reported seeing the curtains blowing into the room, even though the windows were closed. (Not only did he say that he saw that the windows were closed, but the mid-December timing of the episode also makes closed windows more likely than opened ones. Furthermore, David Robertson was just outside the bedroom door at the time, and he reported that he didn't hear the windows being opened at all. At least one of them made a loud noise when opened. David should have heard that. He didn't.) As the curtains blew inward, the objects levitating with Janet moved outward. How would a twelve-year-old like Janet fake the inward blowing of curtains as multiple objects levitated with her in the opposite direction in which the curtains were blowing? And if Rainbow was hallucinating or mistaken in some other way, why would he associate a levitation with curtains blowing inward (or the levitated objects banging against a window)?

Short is still alive and has never retracted her claims, as far as I know. A few years ago, Melvyn Willin tried to contact 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)

I've been focused on a few of the witnesses outside the house, but we need to keep in mind that there were a few inside the house as well. As my earlier posts linked above discuss, much of what the outside witnesses reported was corroborated by the witnesses inside. David heard Janet talking about being levitated and heard some banging against the window with a lot of force, there was a red mark on the ceiling after Peggy Nottingham gave Janet a red pen to draw with if she was levitated again, the door to the room was incapable of being opened when it should have been capable of being opened under normal circumstances, and a book that was known to have just been in the bedroom was found in the Nottinghams' bedroom just after Janet said that she'd levitated through the wall into the Nottinghams' house.

In his book cited earlier, Playfair refers to how a dog belonging to one of the neighbors, one who "almost never barked", began acting "strangely" around the time of the levitations on December 15. The dog "became very agitated" and "began to pant hard", was let outside, then "ran straight to the fence, looked towards the [Hodgsons'] house and began to bark furiously, although there was nobody in sight" (141). That neighbor is interviewed on one of the tapes (MG80A) and comes across as credible. She's the one who provided the details Playfair refers to in his book regarding that dog. As far as I know, the woman's name has never been mentioned publicly, though it is mentioned on the tape. I doubt that she was seeking attention or money.

On December 16 of 1977, the day after the one under consideration here, David held another levitation session with the girls. It was taped. As I discussed elsewhere, you can hear a dog just outside the house barking loudly a few times during that levitation session. I don't recall any other occasion when you could hear a dog barking so loudly and doing so right in front of the Hodgsons' house, as seems to be occurring on the tape just referenced. It would be a remarkable coincidence if one or more dogs just happened to direct their barking at the Hodgsons' house at the times when levitation and teleportation were reported to be occurring on December 15-16. It seems more likely that there was something about the teleportation that occurred (which happened in the context of levitating on both days) that caused that unusual reaction from one or more of the dogs in the neighborhood.

An explanation for the December 15 events involving honest mistakes - such as hallucinations, overactive imaginations, or faulty memories - would be extremely unlikely, for reasons I've explained. It seems that the best skeptical alternative is deception, some kind of conspiracy among the witnesses. On the morning of December 16, Grosse interviewed David Robertson about the events of the previous day. During that interview, David referred to the sort of "ridiculous conspiracy" that would be needed to offer a normal explanation of what happened (MG48A, 1:12).

Skeptics often bring up the fact that we know that some people hallucinate, that some people are highly dishonest, and so forth. But the issue isn't what we know about people in general across time in general. Rather, the issue is how likely it is that so many people within such a small social circle would have had the relevant attributes at the same time.

A conspiracy in this context would seem to involve at least eight people: Janet Hodgson, Margaret Hodgson, David Robertson, Peggy Nottingham, Hazel Short, Hazel's friend, John Rainbow, and the neighbor with the dog who reacted to the events in question. All of them lived within a small geographical area, and most lived on the same street or a nearby one. How likely is it that so many people in such a narrow context would all be willing to carry out such a conspiracy at the same time, with all of the time, effort, risks, and other factors involved? Those other factors include things like unusually good acting skills. If you listen to and watch the interviews with people like David Robertson, Peggy Nottingham, Hazel Short, and John Rainbow over the years, it's evident that they would not only have to be unusually dishonest to have carried out the sort of conspiracy in question, but also would need to have unusually good acting skills. In my post on Grosse's interview with Rainbow, for example, I noted how Rainbow's wife commented on how shaken he was on the days following December 15. Was that all an act? Or should the conspiracy be expanded to include Rainbow's wife? Even if several people were dishonest enough and had other characteristics needed to do something like hoax the events in question, how likely is it that everything else that was needed lined up? How likely is it that their health circumstances, career situations, relationships, finances, and other aspects of their lives allowed them to carry out what needed to be done? I've written before about the general trustworthiness of witnesses and the credibility of the Enfield witnesses in particular, including some reasons to trust some of the ones involved in the December 15 events in particular (e.g., here; Anita Gregory's comment that "John Burcombe and Mrs. Nottingham seemed to me sensible and reliable witnesses." [Journal Of The Society For Psychical Research, vol. 50, 1979-80, p. 539]). So, it's not just that it's highly unlikely that so many people in such a narrow context would be willing to perpetrate such a hoax. It's also a matter of overcoming the evidence we have for the trustworthiness of the specific individuals involved.

Then there's the issue of sustaining the conspiracy over time. Mary Rose Barrington of the Society for Psychical Research made a good point on this issue in a documentary. You can watch the segment here. Just as something like a desire for attention or a desire for money can motivate people to fabricate paranormal claims, people can have such motives for renouncing paranormal claims as well. A person who wanted attention or money by claiming to have witnessed the December 15 events a few decades ago could get attention or money by renouncing the claims later. And the motives for renouncing a deception wouldn't have to be bad. Somebody could renounce a previous claim in response to a guilty conscience, a religious conversion, or a desire to simplify his life by relieving himself of the burden of sustaining a lie, for example. But none of the December 15 witnesses have done any of that.

A conspiracy hypothesis also faces the problem that it requires that the conspirators repeatedly bypassed a better context for their deception and, instead, repeatedly chose a worse one. If you want to fake a levitation or some combination of a levitation and other phenomena, why not do it all inside, such as inside the Hodgsons' house or inside the Nottinghams'? Why have it occur next to a window facing a street, with so many of the witnesses outside the house at the time? On such a busy street. With so many vehicles going by. With so many people walking by. With so many neighbors around, including ones who weren't involved in the conspiracy. With a school directly across the street. With the students about to leave the school (which is why Hazel Short was there), with all of the implications that follow (students looking out the windows as they anticipate leaving, school staff doing the same and preparing for the students' departure, perhaps including preparations outside the school). Why have a large red cushion allegedly being teleported to the front roof of the house shortly before the levitations, which would direct people's attention to the relevant part of the house (including people not involved in the conspiracy)? Why have the hoaxed paranormal events involve loud banging on the windows that happened repeatedly? If the claims of banging were false, that would be easily noticeable by other people in the area. If the banging happened, but nothing paranormal was producing it, then other people in the area could easily discern that nothing paranormal was occurring. After all, the banging would not only draw their attention, but also draw it directly to the most relevant location. And why claim that the supposed paranormal events were as substantial as what the witnesses claimed: the teleportation of a large red cushion onto the roof of a house right in front of the street; multiple levitations of a person and several other objects not only right in front of windows so easily visible from the street, but even so close to the windows that the objects repeatedly hit the windows hard; the curtains blowing inward while the windows were closed; the levitated girl teleporting through the wall into the adjoining house; the levitated girl rising so high at one point that she drew a red line around the light on the ceiling; a dog nearby looking directly at the house and barking furiously, which was behavior that was highly out of character for that dog? Notice the combination of so many visual and audible elements that could so easily attract so much attention, including the attention of people not involved in the conspiracy. All of those complications and potential falsifications could so easily have been avoided by moving the events from outside the house to some inside location.

So, the idea that all of the December 15 witnesses wanted to perpetrate a hoax is highly unlikely, their choosing such a poor context for perpetrating the hoax in question is highly unlikely, and their sustaining the hoax for so long without anybody renouncing it is highly unlikely. And any claim that the prior improbability of the events is so high as to outweigh factors like the ones I just mentioned would need to be argued, not just asserted.

When evaluating the prior probability, we need to keep in mind that the issue isn't how likely it is that levitations and such would occur by normal means. Who denies that something like a levitation is extremely improbable under normal circumstances? Rather, the issue is whether there are human capabilities we don't yet know much about, involvement of an independent spirit of some sort, or some other such scenario producing the events in question, which are therefore classified as paranormal rather than normal. Think of water flowing from a faucet. Saying that the water normally drops to the sink under the effects of gravity doesn't prove that it's extremely improbable that somebody will place a glass under the faucet that prevents the water from reaching the sink in a particular situation. With the December 15 events in the Enfield case, we not only have so much evidence that somebody put out a glass that day, but we also have a highly evidential surrounding context (the rest of the Enfield case) in which that was happening repeatedly, with a triple-digit number of witnesses, including many skeptics. Something like a levitation wouldn't have as high a prior improbability as skeptics typically suggest even in a random situation. But Enfield wasn't a random context. It was the sort of context that made events like the December 15 ones much more likely than they'd normally be.

Skeptics have a tendency to overestimate the prior improbability of paranormal events. They'll deny that paranormal events are even possible, or they'll overestimate how unlikely the events are. In a documentary that aired about a decade before his death, Guy Playfair made some comments that are applicable mainly to those who deny the possibility of the paranormal, but also have a lesser application to the other type of skeptic:"To repeat what Sir William Crookes said in about 1860, 'I never said it was possible. I said it was true.' And the position is the same today. We've just got to redefine what we think is possible."

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