Are Poltergeists Real? British Researcher Says Yes
Posted on 12 July 2011, 2:09
In a 1995 book titled Bizarre Beliefs, the authors emphatically stated that “there are no ghosts, no poltergeists, and no hauntings. They are all mistaken, imaginary or fakes.” Much of mainstream science shares this view, but Guy Lyon Playfair, a British journalist, author, and psychical researcher, knows better, as he has been involved in investigating a number of poltergeists, including the Enfield Poltergeist, one of the most intriguing cases in the annals of psychical research. He will agree with the “bizarre” part, but definitely not with the denial of such phenomena.
“Some take the easy way out of the dilemma and simply put their heads back in the sand,” Playfair writes in his book, This House is Haunted, which is about the Enfield Poltergeist, first published in 1980 and recently updated and republished by White Crow Books.
The Enfield case took place during 1977 and ’78 in the northern London suburb of Enfield. It involved a divorced mother, Peggy Harper, and her four children, Rose, 13, Janet, 11, Pete, 10, and Jimmy, 7. The phenomena included large pieces of furniture being overturned, objects flying through the air and floating through walls, dancing slippers, levitations, coins falling from the ceiling, strange voices that often responded to questions, people thrown from their beds and chairs, mysterious writing on the walls, electronic disturbances, a number of ghostly apparitions, stones seemingly falling from the sky, excreta appearing in the sink and on walls, inexplicable outbreaks of fire, and mysterious knocks and footsteps.
As a member of the Society for Psychical Research (SPR), Playfair, a Cambridge graduate who spent many years as a freelance journalist for The Economist, Time, and the Associated Press, was, along with fellow SPR member Maurice Grosse, asked to investigate the anomalous activity at the Harper home. Beginning in September 1977, the two researchers devoted some 14 months to investigating the case, often spending nights at the Harpers’ home and observing first hand some of the bizarre phenomena, which gradually declined and ended in early 1979.
I recently had the opportunity to put some questions to Playfair by e-mail. Here is our exchange, with apologies to Playfair for converting the King’s English to the more crude American English.
Guy, your book gives a lot of detail relating to your observations in Enfield, but I am wondering if there is one thing among the many things you experienced and witnessed that stands out more than the others.
“Yes, indeed – what we call the passage of matter through matter, or if you prefer de- and rematerialization. I’ve observed this directly (on another case) and several times indirectly at Enfield – the book that turned up in the house next door and the cushion that appeared on the roof in full view of a tradesman who was walking towards the house, to name just two of the best witnessed incidents. This is a real challenge to science, and pretending the evidence isn’t there is not the way science
advances. I don’t just believe it happens, I know it does. I’ve seen it happen. It never seems to be discussed sensibly and it’s time it was. The scientific community has just ignored it.”
As you point out in the book, the two leading theories concerning poltergeists are that they are spirits of the dead or dissociated fragments of the personality of someone living in the home, in this case Janet, the 11-year-old. You concluded that the truth is probably a combination of the two. Would you mind elaborating on that a little?
“I’m a writer with a journalistic background, not a scientific one, so I concentrate on reporting the evidence as accurately as I can and leave the theorizing to the scientists. I definitely think there has to be what we might call a discarnate component. I mean – how can a dissociated fragment of a living person make a book go through a wall? There has to be another level of reality and another dimension of space involved. That’s what makes people uncomfortable and go to the lengths that they do to deny the evidence. (I like making scientists uncomfortable).”
I was most intrigued by the voice or voices. You describe them as being loud and guttural, nothing like Janet’s normal voice. Ventriloquism was considered and ruled out. Although different entities communicated, did they all sound the same?
“Yes, they were intriguing. The speech therapist we brought in was totally freaked out. We established that Janet was using her false vocal folds (plica ventricularis), which you can’t normally use for long without doing damage to your vocal cords.
That’s just one of the things we discovered that should be of scientific interest and it’s a pity the so-called expert wasn’t interested. She just wanted to get out of the house. She might have written an interesting journal paper, but no doubt was scared of losing her job if she had.
“The voices did vary, yes. Some were very convincing, giving the impression of a confused earthbound entity, and saying things that proved to be true although nobody in the family knew it at the time, such as the bit about going blind and dying in the armchair downstairs, as the previous owner did. That was only verified years after the case ended. How would Janet have known that? But yes, some of the Voices did seem to be coming from bits of her unconscious. This deep voice coming from a young girl phenomenon is well known. Oesterreich’s ‘Possession Demoniacal and Other’ gives several examples from the 19th century. It does take time for science to catch up with real life.”
So much of this sounds like the Fox sisters of early Spiritualism history – knocks and raps, a man who had died in the house communicating, and then the newspapers offering bribes for a confession from the girls. Why do you think the newspapers and so many of your research colleagues would prefer the fraud explanation?
“Yes, there were similarities, and I’m sure the family had never heard of the Fox sisters. They had never even heard of the word poltergeist. Janet called it the ‘polka dice’. As for fraud, it’s quite right to be suspicious. The girls did play some tricks later on, we knew that at the time and they knew we knew. It was no big deal. And as they have repeatedly admitted, we always caught them. The tricks were a sign that things were getting back to normal. But if you go for a fraud explanation, you have to account for every single one of the hundreds of incidents we witnessed, and no critic has attempted to do that. Easier to mutter something vague about ‘later, the girls confessed…’ as if that explained away the whole case. I often wonder just how much evidence you need to change people’s minds.”
You mentioned that just last year there was a breakthrough in poltergeist research, at least to the extent that the rapping sounds made by poltergeists are not the same as normal raps. Would you explain a little more about that research?
“Yes. This is very important, and it’s rather a sad story. I’ll try to keep it short. In 1973, on a poltergeist case in São Paulo (Brazil), I managed to record some very loud bangs on the floor that weren’t made by anybody living. Then my colleague Suzuko
Hashizume and I decided to do some banging ourselves for comparison. I’d hoped that somebody could study the sounds and see if ours were in any way different from those made by the Thing. We never managed to do this, and we didn’t know that several other people had recorded poltergeist raps including the BBC. In 2009 a colleague from the Society for Psychical Research named Barrie Colvin decided to look into the matter, and I helped him compile a collection of about 12 tapes from different cases. He ran them through his oscilloscope and saw at once that the poltergeist raps were quite unlike normal ones. You can find the details in the Journal of the SPR for April 2010. That was the good news. The bad news is that we sent out a press release to about 35 papers, magazines, radio and TV programs hoping that they would be interested in our instrumentally recorded and easily repeated hard evidence for an unexplained effect.
They weren’t. Only two mentioned Barrie’s work, and they were the two where I had a personal contact. Many of them devoted whole pages to a book by Richard Wiseman that came out a few months later and rubbished the whole psi research scene. That’s what I’ve come to expect from the media today, although back in 1977-78 we had massive coverage of the Enfield case, mostly very positive. But that was before the professional wreckers moved in.”
In 2010 there was a major breakthrough in poltergeist research when Dr Barrie Colvin published the results of his study of tape recordings from a dozen cases in five countries in which rapping sounds presumed to be of poltergeist origin were recorded on tape. Comparing these with raps made by normal means, he found that the acoustic signatures were quite different, as can be seen in the above charts of raps recorded at Enfield. The bottom chart shows what three raps made by Playfair on the living room ceiling look like. The top chart shows the signature of a rap from the bedroom above, recorded on the same tape shortly afterwards. In all of the normal raps Colvin studied when he tapped wineglasses, struck piano keys, or made any other kind of percussive sound, the signature began at full amplitude and rapidly declined. All of the poltergeist raps he examined, without exception, did not, and reminded experts of signatures recorded during earthquakes. This discrepancy awaits explanation. Colvin’s findings were published in the April 2010 issue of the Journal of the Society for Psychical Research and are reproduced here with his permission.
You wrote that it was becoming apparent to you at some point in your investigation that paranormal events only take place in the presence of people who believe them to be possible. Why do you think that is?
“I have no idea, but it’s something I keep noticing. Parapsychologists like to talk about the ‘experimenter effect’ which I am sure is much stronger than they think. All the really successful experimenters I know began their careers not just believing in the possibility of psi (telepathy, etc.) but knowing it from their own or their parents’ experience. Maurice Grosse had considerable experience of anomalous phenomena before he went to Enfield, as I also had from my time in Brazil.”
I gather that you have investigated other poltergeist cases, especially in Brazil. Were they similar to the Enfield case?
“No two cases are identical, but there does seem to be a poltergeist syndrome with about 15-20 common symptoms. You don’t get all the same symptoms on all cases but the symptoms themselves don’t vary much from case to case. You do get national variations – Brazilian poltergeists are far more violent and destructive than ours. Nearly all the cases I was involved in there showed signs of black magic at work, which British poltergeists don’t as a rule.”
Do you really think that science will someday have a better answer for us as to what poltergeists really are?
“Not if scientists continue to ignore the evidence, as they did when Barrie Colvin published his findings, and when I published mine thirty years earlier. In fact there is more than a thousand years of it. You may have gathered by now that I’m not very impressed by scientists.”
And what do you feel about the case now, more than 30 years later?
“Huge gratitude to Peggy H. for letting me invade her home for more than a year, and equally huge admiration for her immense resilience at a time of prolonged and severe stress that would have left many weaker women in hospital with nervous breakdowns, and equally grateful to Maurice Grosse for the way he managed to combine the roles of investigator, counsellor and friend of the family. Both are sadly missed. Disillusion with the scientific establishment for refusing even to examine instrumentally recorded and properly documented evidence for anomalous events, of which there is plenty from Enfield. The Greeks, of course, had a word for it - Misoneism (hatred of new ideas).”
This House is Haunted is published by White Crow Books and available in paperback and ebook formats from Amazon and all good online stores.
Michael Tymn is the author of The Afterlife Revealed: What Happens After We Die, Resurrecting Leonora Piper: How Science Discovered the Afterlife and Dead Men Talking: Afterlife Communication from World War I.
Fuller’s biography of Arigó is absolutely required reading for anyone interested in mediumship. He and I spent much time together when he was doing his research in Brazil and I was doing mine for The Flying Cow, which White Crow will reissue in a much enlarged and updated edition soon. Fuller was a real pro who knew how to do proper research. He was also a sceptic of the best kind - one who questions and examines, but does not reject a priori. I highly recommend all his books, especially The Ghost of Flight 401, and the sequel by his wife Elizabeth (My Search for the Ghost of Flight 401).
Guy Lyon Playfair, Thu 28 Jul, 04:47
As for Joe Fisher’s Hungry Ghosts, I agree with Lawrence - It’s a chilling example of how ‘earthbound spirits’ can wind you up and drive you round the bend, or in his tragic case, off a cliff. It’s a fascinating read and a very sobering one.
Jane Katra, Thu 28 Jul, 04:34
I discuss Arigo: The Surgeon with the Rusty Knife at length in the first book I wrote with Russell Targ, Miracles of Mind. Do you have it?
If not, I’ll send you one.
Another great article about an important topic, Mike.
Jane Katra, Thu 28 Jul, 04:23
I hope you interview Guy on more of the subjects about which he is an international encyclopedic treasure, as are you.
I am familiar with John Fuller from his R-101 book, but not Arigo. Also, I read the Joe Fisher book many years ago, but I don’t recall being overly impressed by it. I think it is one of the many books I got rid of when I moved from Oregon back to Hawaii five years ago, so I don’t have it for an easy refresher.
I am familiar with the soul fragment or astral body fragment theory, or at least have read several books supporting that theory. Isn’t that a Theosophist belief? Applying Occam’s Razor, I lean toward the full earthbound spirit theory, but I suspect that it is one those things that is so complex and beyond human understanding that I’ll just have to remain open to either possibility.
Michael Tymn, Mon 25 Jul, 14:34
M Tymn wrote:
“To begin with, I have not read, or even heard of, the Arigo book you have mentioned, but I will definitely check it out.”
I’m really surprised you haven’t heard of it, it’s one of the more famous and credible books on the subject, written by the highly regarded late John Fuller. ‘Arigo’ was very famous in Brazil (died in a car crash circa 1970), along with the ‘Dr Fritz spirit’ who continues to manifest through other mediums. Personally I think the evidence for the paranormal reality of these ‘possessions’ is considerable, including with Arigo, however I beg to differ on the reality of the discarnate spirits, the German surgeon Dr Fritz included.
I think these are unconscious creations/archetypes
whose ‘discarnate existence’ is a necessary rationalisation for the mediums and their audience. Anyhow, this book is a classic in the genre. A must-read.
Michael I would be curious to know what you think of Joe Fisher’s ‘Hungry Ghosts’ book. It’s a book you ought to review here. This book had a big influence on my thinking in this regard and it deserves a major focus from all writers and researchers trying to come to grips with the enigma of possession and the like. I don’t quite agree with Fisher’s conclusions myself, I think he unnecessarily complicated things. Are the hungry ghosts/pretas perhaps not ourselves? Is the simplicity of this solution (if it is the solution) what makes it is so difficult to consider? I recognise that one would have to take into consideration a universal or collective unconscious here, not only the personal subconscious.
Lawrence, Mon 25 Jul, 13:43
Vitally interested in scientific evidence on the after death state..Body? Clothing?
John Bockris, Sat 23 Jul, 00:04
Michael Tymn, Thu 21 Jul, 01:56
Hello Michael Tymn, I have just purchased your new book, The Afterlife Revealed, on Amazon and if I was to FedEx it to you once I receive it, with return address labels and $ to FedEx it back to me, would you be willing to sign it please?
I am a relatively new learner of Afterlife information. I have been fortunate to come in contact with, and read books, from James Webster, August Goforth and Timothy Grey, Victor Zammit, N. Riley Heagerty as well as the information from Monsignor Robert Hugh Benson through Anthony Borgia. I am very much looking forward to the information in your new book.
Are there other must reads that you can recommend?
Thank you for your time.
Richard Ashton, Wed 20 Jul, 22:52
British Columbia Canada
Many thanks for your comments and questions.
To begin with, I have not read, or even heard of, the Arigo book you have mentioned, but I will definitely check it out.
I understand your concern or confusion about the ultimate meaning that goes with continual evolutiion of spirit. I have the same concerns, but have more or less contented myself with the idea that it is beyond human comprehension, as so many things are, including God, reincarnation, and biological evolution. That’s why in my book I suggested that one compare the afterlife to the “beginning” of retirement. As I looked forward to retirement, I looked primarily at the years immediately after retirement, not 20-30 years after. I think we just have to have faith that the evolution of spirit is something we will appreciate and enjoy and leave it at that.
As for intelligent life in other parts of the universe, there have been a number of “revelations” through mediums on that subject, but, regretfully, I have not indexed that subject and cannot put my hands on anything right now. Some of them suggest life on Mars, which, of course, conflicts with what modern science tells us, but modern science is able to address only the type of life that we know of here. i’m sorry that I can’t give you a better answer on that one.
Michael Tymn, Fri 15 Jul, 03:46
Hello Mr. Tymn:
This comment isn’t about this post, but I wanted to say that I read your most recent book on the After Life and enjoyed it very much. I’ve not really focused on mediums and wasn’t sure what to make of them, so to speak, golden age of mediums. Perhaps I found the accounts too distant and anecdotal—but, of course, I’ve never read the original material. But perhaps I will now ... Your book raises many more questions that are perhaps unknowable, but I will pose one of those questions anyway: I guess I would phrase this question as the big Why? i.e., from your research is there any speculation as to the purpose of our earthly incarnation? It’s often said that we’re here to learn, but is this the only way we can “grow”? And what is the urgency or import of this “growth,” why is it so important that we do so? I’m also curious whether any (okay, this is more than a single question!) of the mediums spoke about other intelligent life in our universe and whether we interact with those beings in the afterlife. Finally, have you ever read “Arigo: Surgeon of the Rusty Knife” (http://www.amazon.com/Arigo-Surgeon-John-Grant-Fuller/dp/067178823X)? If not, it’s a fascinating account of an amazing healer in Brazil who claimed that he was guided by the spirits of deceased physicians.
Carl, Thu 14 Jul, 19:24
Very interesting article. It is a tremendous shame that something so measurable is refused to be studied by mainstream science.
Kardec received a detailed explanation from the spirits in regard to how these types of phenomena occur.
At my own house, there have been numerous door knockings, and once very loud stomping noises upstairs, never with anyone (alive) there. There have also been other types of noises heard as well as different smells sensed.
They are definitely real spirit phenomena.
I generally ignore them…you get used to it after awhile. Nothing bad has ever happened
However, I always say my regular daily prayers for spiritual protection of my home.
If you pay a lot of attention to these noises, they can have a tendency to get worse. You don’t want to encourage this type of spirit activity,
generally the work of inferior spirits.
Spirits know when they find a place where the can be seen, heard or noticed.
Of course, this does not include actually seeing spirits that show up.
One of our mediums was having trouble with the displacement of objects to other rooms
and bad smells. We had this stopped with the assistance of her spirit guides.
Eventually, if these spirits are allowed to communicate with us, they are brought to our spirit sessions to have their say.
My kids used to call my father’s house “the house of spirits”...now it’s my house. We conduct our mediums class one day a month with 8 mediums at my home. Interestingly, when the mediums come in my house for that day, they can instantly
“feel” the “atmosphere” in my home as being “different”...only on that day.
I always pray every day for a week ahead of time that our spirit guides prepare
the ambient for our spirit session.
It is very fascinating… The spirits never cease to amaze us. Our sessions are as a laboratory and classroom to observe, investigate, assist those spirits in confusion, receive moral and spiritual instruction, etc. We also have mediums-in-development who are just begininng…We deal with all of this in a very serious, respectful manner with unity of thought and sincerity of purpose.
Yvonne Limoges, Thu 14 Jul, 07:22
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