Polterwotsit has been rather a dead letter for a couple if years now; Becky has completed her PhD, my ghost group GSUK has not met, and Parasoc has quietly disbanded. Ironically I have been just as busy, if not more so, as always in studying poltergeist cases, and as this is as far as I know the only poltergeist dedicated blog on the web I think it is time to revive it.
The spur has come from a new Sky Living drama based on the Enfield Poltergeist, which begins tomorrow (Sunday) night and my friend Hayley asking me to answer some questions to assist with her writing for her piece on the case in The Skeptic magazine.
Unfortunately my answers were rather longer than the whole piece, so obviously could not be used — so I ran them past Guy Lyon Playfair – I have no idea if he read them, but we chatted amicably by email – and shall present them here.
Why are my opinions on a case that occurred a decade before I joined the SPR important? That may not be, probably aren’t — but I think if I can be taken as at least a little representative of the “next generation” of parapsychologists, my responses to Hayley’s questions may have some interest, and perhaps throw some light on the case for those whose interest is slightly more recent.
Obviously the real people to talk to are the family, and those who were there – Maurice is gone, but Guy still has plenty to say, and there is a vast amount of physical evidence that is not being studied.
This is not a primer to the case, or an introduction. It assumes some knowledge of what transpired, though even watching the drama might suffice, I don’t know I have not see it. (GLP seems to think it is good I’m relieved to say; that of course is not the same as “accurate” – accuracy is not usually a concern in drama!) If you haven’t read Playfair’s classic account of the case you should – This House is Haunted – and this Channel 4 documentary is superb too.
Anyway, here are my thoughts in response to Hayley’s questions…
Were the initial experiences significant/worthy of investigation?
A few years ago I made a calendar info-graphic of the case, showing the development of different symptoms, and compared them with those in the 500 cases collected by Gauld and Cornell from across 5 continents and many centuries for analysis in their 1979 book Poltergeists. Yes very much so…
The early part of the case is extensively detailed in GLP’s This House Is Haunted; the very first part of the case was recorded by BBC radio reporter Rosalind Morris who made several visits to the house in the period before the 45 minute broadcast on Radio 4 during The World This Weekend programme on September 11th 1977.
The case began on a quiet note, with two of the children’s beds shaking, which Peggy dismissed, but on the 30th August an unusual sound puzzled her enough to ask neighbour and builder Vic Nottingham in, who called the police.
WPC Carolyn Heeps saw a chair move, and it was clear the family were very distressed. WPC Heeps has always stuck to her statement “I’m absolutely convinced no one in that room touched that chair or went anywhere near it when it moved. Absolutely convinced”.
The next day Peggy Hodgson claims she saw an extraordinary sight – a chest of drawers ‘shuffling’ towards her. The children were at this point apparently terrified “just screaming and screaming”.
By the 4th September the Nottingham’s has called the Daily Mirror – and after considerable persistence (having been sworn at and cut off) they convinced the Mirror to send reporters.
Douglas Bence and Graham Morris came over – Graham was the photographer. Channel Four have done parapsychology a favour by recently recording extensive candid interviews with the two men for the show Interview with a Poltergeist – and it is clear that both men still believe something absolutely extraordinary was happening at Enfield, before Grosse and Playfair arrived.
I regard the amount of testimony from those who were present in the earliest phase of Enfield to be unusually good, and it is hard to believe that reporters, by nature a cynical bunch, would have been easily deceived.
So yes, the case was in every respect worthy of investigation at this point: it stood to tell us more about poltergeist cases, and the family’s distress was extreme.
Is the eye-witness testimony of the police officer who saw a chair move considered better? Does it make a contribution to the case?
WPC Carolyn Heeps gave more than one statement. The police officers returned to the station and logged the call out; however the statements usually discussed are those given to Maurice Grosse in writing and dated 10th September, and the February 1978 statement to BBC Scotland.
In a later (1982) statement to Mary Rose Barrington there were discrepancies – but five years had elapsed, and if I have shown one thing beyond reasonable doubt in all my years in psychical research it is that contrary to the “flashbulb memory” and confabulation models of memories of paranormal experiences, they erode with time, like any experience, only becoming ‘fossilised’ to some extent by constant re-telling, but losing detail, not gaining it.
The 1978 statement given to Scottish BBC television director Peter Lamont reads
“The chair was by the sofa, and I looked at the chair and I noticed it shook slightly. I can’t explain it any better, and it came off the floor oh, nearly a half inch I should say, and I saw it slide off to the right about three and a half to four feet before it came to rest…I’m absolutely convinced no one in that room touched that chair or went anywhere near it when it moved.
Absolutely convinced I checked to see whether or not it could have possibly slided on the floor. I placed a marble on the floor to see whether or not the marble would bear the same direction as the chair did and it didn’t; it did not at all. I checked for wires under the cushion of the chair – I find no explanation at all”.
The 1977 Statement from 40 days after the event read
“On Thursday, 1st of September 1977 at approximately 1:00am, I was on duty on my capacity as a police women when I received a radio message to Green St., Enfield. I heard the sound of knocking on the wall that backs onto the next-door neighbours house. There were four distinct taps on the wall and then silence. The eldest son pointed to a chair, which was standing next to the sofa. I looked at the chair and noticed that it was wobbling slightly from side to side. I then saw the chair slide across the floor towards the kitchen wall. It moved approximately 3 or 4 feet and then came to rest”.
WPC Heeps was the only police officer to give a written statement, but not the only police officer to experience or be present during the phenomena, I think it would be worth trying to contact her colleagues now, before it is too late. As an external witness who was there right at the start when unidentified banging noises were suddenly joined by object movement phenomena, I think WPC Heeps testimony is important.
I find the minor variations over the years in how so she gave her statement more indicatives of truthful testimony than a made up story as well; however I have one caveat.
There is a tendency to rate “trained observers” as more reliable than others in terms of testimony. WPC Heeps seems to have no motive as an outsider to lie to us; I hesitate however to believe that because she was a policewoman she was any better equipped than anyone else to make accurate observations. Eyewitness testimony has been shown to be fallible by Loftus and many others; however these studies rarely dealt with the truly bizarre. One may fail to note an accurate description of a stage murder: however can one be sure the same rules apply when a kitchen chair moves unaided towards you in defiance of logic and physics? I don’t know!
My caveat is simply — don’t assume a police officer’s testimony is any more accurate than any other witness statement . Maybe, may be not. Depends on the person, the situation, and many other things.
If this scene happened now I would immediately think of the movie Poltergeist (1982): it is important to recognize this happened five years before that film came out, and the film drew from GLP’s This House is Haunted, not vice versa. (Likewise the name Gozer in Ghostbusters came from this case, not the other way round!) I am inclined to think WPC Heeps description is highly accurate, but only because in one of the very few ‘paranormal’ experiences in my life I saw a coffee cup move in a very similar manner at a pub in Offchurch, Warwickshire in the mid-90’s. The vibration before the movement, the lifting and ‘flight’, are exactly what I an two others observed on that occasion. I was not aware to the best of my knowledge of the police officer’s statement before that date – I did not, perhaps surprisingly, read This House is Haunted properly until 2011.
Were there issues with the investigation? If so what?
Yes, of course. There are issues with any investigation. After a major police investigation the Home Office sometimes order a review to look over the case and see what lessons can be learned; the SPR did something similar with the Committee on Enfield under barrister and parapsychologist Mary Rose Barrington . Here we are fortunate; as well as the somewhat scanty reports in the literature, we have the at times almost confessional This House is Haunted, as well as the SPR review written by those unconvinced by the case.
It is clear that Grosse and Playfair were self critical; and there was a continual scrutiny by the press, and various sceptics and scientists who visited. In fact so many people visited Enfield at one time or another that I find it hard to imagine how more scrutiny could have been applied.
Of course I never went to the house: I was 8 years old the week it all began, and it was a decade later before I heard of the SPR, which I did not join until 1992. As such I freely admit my opinions are not worth much: in writing this I have drawn on notes from conversations in the period 1994 to 1996 with Maurice Grosse and Tony Cornell, who held very different attitudes to Enfield, and to the written sources.
I think it is fair to say that most of the SPR members who visited Enfield believed that some of the phenomena were genuine – and that the main investigators, who knew the family and case intimately and observed much of the phenomena first hand, Grosse and Playfair, were utterly convinced.
I think however that other members of the SPR who visited were far from convinced: they still however accepted that at the core the case had been genuine, at least that was my reading of Mary Rose Barrington’s position in the Enfield report. It was Mary Rose who first taught me that wonderful phrase of Renee Haynes, “the boggle threshold”. Some of the phenomena at Enfield fall close if not just over my boggle threshold: I find them hard to accept. I turn to the magisterial work of Gauld and Cornell, neither particularly impressed as I recall by Enfield, and I find by looking at the tables in their book Poltergeists that actually many of the phenomena are pretty normal for poltergeist cases.
So were there issues in the case? Yes, but one of the major ones seems to have been the reluctance of the SPR to fully commit to a full scale investigation. This is really a result of the actual constitution and set up of the SPR – it holds no corporate opinions, and members reflect all manner of beliefs. As such the opportunity was there to bring many perspectives on the case: but of course SPR members have jobs, families and lives outside of psychical research, and here Playfair and Grosse as relatively ‘junior’ members may not have had the back up they deserved.
Still that was because by the time other SPR members arrived on the scene, things had developed in to the more questionable latter stages of the case – the voice, the levitations, the pillow moving through the roof, etc. I can’t at this distance really tell you what happened: I do however think it highly dangerous, if not a little absurd, to privilege those critics who visited the house once over those who spent many months there like the journalist and Playfair and Grosse.
The first is what I call the ‘Good Man’ critique – Maurice was a thoroughly decent fellow, who was genuinely moved by the appalling poverty and hard conditions the Hodgson’s endured. He therefore “helped out” financially, and also emotionally, becoming something of a surrogate father figure to the kids whose own father had left.
There are problems here; although the father had left the kids, he was in contact and visiting – and may well have been a kind and loving chap for all I know, though clearly the situation was distressing at some level. Secondly, while the family were poor, from the pictures and accounts they do not sound markedly more so than my own family when I was that age. Thirdly, while Maurice struck me as a kind fellow – he bought me dinner at an Italian restaurant a few times as I recall after SPR meetings – so did many other people – he was far from daft. I’m not convinced he was buying the kids presents on a regular basis, or helping out ot the degree where fraud was motivated by cash. I’ve never seen any hard evidence to suggest it anyway.
The second critique of Grosse is the “Bereaved” notion – like many people Grosse came to the SPR after an odd experience made him question if life after death was real, following the loss of his daughter Janet.
At the very end of This House is Haunted Playfair discusses how Grosse had come to wonder if Janet was somehow attempting to communicate through the case to him, but this may have been a slightly whimsical suggestion: I never came to know Maurice intimately, or even well – we were acquaintances at best, and I probably had just a handful of conversations with him after SPR meetings over dinner – but I do not recall him ever suggesting such a thing to me. He was however extremely critical of critics of the case, and he was overly defensive enough to put backs up I feel.
One such critic was Tony Cornell, that charming, and at time belligerent cynical old curmudgeon I came to admire greatly (and who did not speak to me for his last decade; the admiration was one way!). Tony was pretty direct in his critiques – he felt the girls played games, and played Maurice at times for a fool as I recall. Memory could be misleading me; but even Tony admitted there was a real case underlying what he was as tomfoolery and nonsense later on. Now I can’t be certain – more than twenty years have elapsed since Tony and I used to chain smoke outside SPR meetings and he delivered his marvelously well informed and often scathing critiques on all aspects of psychical research.
I thought Tony planned to write a book on Enfield – unless Investigating the Paranormal (2002) was the book in question, which doubtless gives his opinions on the case ( I have lent my copy to a friend so can’t check), I don’t know exactly what he was critical of.
This brings me back to where I started this section: the SPR could have supported Playfair and Grosse better than they did it; but the organisation was riven by internal politics. Lab based psi research was “in”, and about this time we see the beginnings of the renaissance in British Parapsychology that flowered at Edinburgh with the KPU under Bob Morris. Spontaneous cases were out of favour, and physical phenomena doubly so – poltergeists were plain unfashionable.
While Playfair and Grosse stayed with the SPR, by 1981 a sizeable number of members left to found ASSAP, an organisation with far more emphasis on spontaneous cases. Now of course Cornell and Gauld certainly had a strong interest in poltergeist cases, as did Mary Rose Barrington – so that was not the sole problem with Enfield – but generally the SPR were moving in a more “respectable” and scientific direction, and observational fieldwork may have been unwelcome in some quarters 🙂 Playfair’s Spiritist beliefs may have also caused some raised eyebows.
To me, well I think the case was a triumph. Almost every avenue was explored, it was well documented, and from the beginning Playfair and Grosse put the families welfare slap bang at the centre of their agenda. They went above and beyond what could be expected in bringing in expert help, going to considerable efforts to help the family get Janet examined at the Mausdley Hospital by Dr Peter Fenwick and liaising with schools and social workers. There is an odd dynamic there – but that probably is best discussed elsewhere. Overall I think they did better as investigators than I could ever hope to, and their persistence diligence and courage did not harm in the long run, and may have helped the family greatly. I guess it depends partly on what you see the key responsibility of the investigator is: to me it is to help the family make sense of their experience, move on and get through it. `
Was there evidence that activity was faked?
Yes. Margaret Hodgson is on record as saying about 2% of the phenomena was the girls playing around, and Janet has admitted they cheated at times, but were always caught. One incident where fakery was detected is reported in This House Is Haunted – it involves them hiding a tape recorder, and discussing what they were doing while it continued to play. No teenager is that daft: they wanted to be caught there. There is another incident, where the girls were persuaded a journalist to confess – and immediately afterwards retracted their confession. I believe a newspaper story ran at the time with reference t the alleged confession – if so it would be interesting to see it. It certainly proves the girls were pliable and eager to please, but today, nearly forty years on, both insist the phenomena was genuine.
I was 12 in 1981, a couple of years later. Looking back on that period when some major changes in my life occurred, and I moved home and changed schools and lost most of my friends, well I have only the most fragmentary memories of it all. These were huge changes in my life, that massively effected me – but I can’t recall more than a few tiny snippets of that traumatic summer. I’m guessing the Hodgson girls struggle to recall 1977 the same way, and remember more odd bits, and what they have read and been told since. Does anyone really know what happened at this remove? Only the press coverage, radio interviews and recordings can bring it back; that and This House Is Haunted. Maybe even the sisters don’t know exactly what the truth is after forty years?
People say that although some of the activity may have been faked a lot was genuine? Do you believe that this is true? Why do you think people make this distinction?
There is no doubt some of the activity was faked – absolutely everyone involved with the case, from the sisters to the journalists to Grosse and Playfair accept that. The girls were 11 and 13 when it all kicked off; and they acted like teenagers anywhere. At first they were terrified, but soon they began to enjoy it all, and if I recall correctly Tony Cornell was particularly put off by the way he though Janet was loving every moment and endlessly amused by the investigators failure to get to grips with it.
The more conservative SPR faction tended to think the later part of the case was faked: they accept some original simple poltergeist phenomena in most cases (though at least one SPR member who visited the house once would not allow even that, calling hoax). Maurice Grosse was perhaps the most open to all the phenomena – the journalists seems to suggest he was at times a little credulous, though actually I suspect Maurice may have been being kind, and giving the family the benefit of the doubt.
Once again forces are at work which are possibly not immediately obvious to those who have not spent some of their youth kicking around with the SPR. It might be partly political, but also there is a well establish SPR tradition dating back to the 19th century that once a medium or psychic claimant is caught in fraud, that is it, game over, they are totally discredited. If they cheat once, then nothing they do afterwards, no matter how spectacular, can be taken seriously. Eusapia Palladino fell victim to this – perhaps uniquely she was given a second chance, but it was well known she would crudely cheat as a psychical medium if not carefully controlled.
So when the SPR felt there was strong evidence the girls were playing around, that was it. The case was tainted – by the normal rules of play of almost a century it was time to pack up and go home. Except Grosse and Playfair didn’t – they persisted. In doing so so they went against the culture of the SPR, which was traditionally dismissive of those who practice “mixed mediumship”, that is sometimes cheated to “help along the phenomena”. I can’t also help wonder if there was a bit of a class divide here: this was 1977, and while Playfair had been in Brazil, and Grosse was a self-made man, most of the SPR probably inhabited a very different world to that of the council estate dwelling Hodgsons. However to be fair to the SPR, when I joined the Society just over a decade later the council estate dwelling CJ was welcomed and never encountered any class prejudice at all, indeed quite the contrary – I was embraced with enthusiasm for a few years before my being caught up in the fall out of an SPR intrigue led to my fall from grace and exile from the SPR for 15 years.
Anyway the question is not was anything faked; the question is how much? I could look at the phenomena and critically assess them, but at this remove it would be wasted words. I was not there!
What do you think might have been happening if there was activity that wasn’t faked?
I actually don’t know. I’m not at all sure. I suspect the phenomena were playing along with Playfair’s and Grosses expectations; they appear to be intelligent, elusive and quite unpleasant, but with art times a sense of humour – albeit a malicious one. I’d say it was a poltergeist, as it acted just like poltergeists have from China to Brazil for over a thousand years, and probably far longer. I don’t think the Hodgson’s would have known a lot about poltergeists, but Enfield had a case before I think, and certainly the Battersea poltergeist and other cases used to occasionally show up in the papers. I don’t know what was going on – I really don’t. I’ve read a lot, talked to everyone I could at the SPR at some point or another, and you know – I’m still little clearer. I believe the family were upset, had no strong motive for fraud, but yes I think fraud occurred at times. Still, you know what I’m going to say – I wasn’t there…
There are ways we could make an assessment. Grosse recorded 180 hours of reel to reel tape of Janet. That could be digitised and made available to researchers. The photographs could me made available in an archive not the handful published, any. The Radio 4 broadcast should be readily available. Someone should collect the recordings, clippings, and oral testimony from Playfair, Janet, Margaret and others. What about the scientific readings taken by Prof Hasted? The recordings by the guys from Pye? The testimony of sceptics like Christopher Milbourne and celebrity ventriloquist & sceptic Ray Allen? The SPR report. All of this could be published now, maybe with a few small redactions to grant the family some privacy. It is one such redaction that puzzles me the most – we hear time and again about the two daughters, but little about the sons. Yet while one son was away from the house apparently at boarding school, the other Johnny appears to have been present throughout. Yet he does not seem to ever appear, and like his brother has not chosen to speak as far as I know yet? Maybe he was too young to recall,and I have no desire to pry in to the familiy’s privacy further, but the boys seem curiously absent from the narrative…
Anyway I am puzzled as to why the materials gathered during the case are not preserved in the British Museum or some scientific institute, or even a university. They really should be, for posterity.
Would you have conducted the investigation in the same manner?
No. I would have done far worse 😉
Do you have any other comments?
It’s taken me so long to write this I had best call it a night
So That’s was my response to Hayley. I don’t know if it was any use, or of any interest, but hey I tried. Feel free to comment, or email me at the usual address email@example.com