139. Are Ghosts Real? Guy Lyon Playfair’s Thirty-Year Investigation Yields Insights

Noted parapsychology investigator and author Guy Lyon Playfair discusses poltergeists, after-death communication and the telepathy of twins.

Join Skeptiko guest host Steve Volk for an interview with Guy Lyon Playfair.  During the interview Mr. Playfair summarizes what he’s learned about the poltergeist phenomena:

Steve Volk: What’s your best guess, at this stage, after all these years, on what poltergeists, or ghosts, are.

Guy Playfair: The short answer is that there are two possibilities. Either they are some kind of discarnate entity – which I certainly don’t rule out – or else they are an entirely unknown force that emanates from the human mind.  How it works we simply don’t know. We can only observe its effects. I think there’s quite strong evidence that it’s some kind of so-called spirit or discarnate entity, kind of drifting blobs of exo-intelligence, if you like. But that is an extremely controversial opinion and not many people share it.

Steve Volk: I do find it interesting that in some cases skeptics have started putting forth more complicated and I would say more interesting theories than the usual, the mind plays tricks, wishful thinking, creaking floorboards, leaky pipes kind of explanations.

Guy Playfair: Yes, there’s another possible line of inquiry. Poltergeist outbreaks have got certain features in common with Tourette’s syndrome, where you get these sorts of jerks and muscular spasms and things and also very strange vocal sounds. A poltergeist looks rather like an extension of some super-Tourette’s where not only the muscles twitch but furniture starts twitching as well. But that’s not my idea. That was actually Michael Persinger and William Roll, who is a very experienced researcher. I think it’s an interesting line to follow up.

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I’m Steve Volk, guest hosting for Alex Tsakiris on Skeptiko. My guest today is Guy Lyon Playfair, a journalist and translator who has been conducting paranormal research seemingly forever. His first book, The Unknown Power, a book on psychical research, was written in 1975. In the ensuing years he’s written about Uri Geller, hypnotism, telepathy among twins, reincarnation, and we’ll discuss some of those things.

Today we’re going to focus out of the gate on the topic of Guy’s new book, a re-release really, of a book first published in 1980. The book is called, This House Is Haunted, and it deals with the very famous Enfield Poltergeist case.

I wanted to talk to Guy because in my book, Fringe-ology, I kind of out myself, describing what I call “the family ghost,” an old ghost story I grew up with as a child. I was about six years old and have a few memories of the events my family’s described to me. In general, without getting into too much detail, there was a booming and thumping sound that came from the walls and ceiling. It seemed to respond to my parents’ movements in the house. My sisters talked about having the blankets pulled from them as they slept, their beds shaking in unison in the middle of the night, and a female apparition who walked through the room.

I’m hoping Guy, in talking about the Enfield case, can give me a little insight into poltergeists, including some details from a new study which used some recordings from the Enfield case, conducted by Dr. Barrie Colvin, with whom Guy cooperated. Hopefully we will get to much else besides. Guy, thanks for being on Skeptiko.

Guy Playfair: Thank you for having me.

Steve Volk: Please, can you describe for starters how you got involved in the Enfield case and the basic outline of it?

Guy Playfair: Well, it was a string of very strange coincidences. I had planned it to go on holiday in August of 1977. I’d just returned from Brazil and I happened to go to the Society for Psychical Research monthly lecture which happened to be on poltergeists. I happened to sit in the next row to a fellow called Maurice Grosse, who I hardly knew.

At the end of the talk, which was very well done, Maurice jumped up and said he was working on a case right now which looked very interesting and he’d only been there for two or three days and he wanted some help and would anybody be interested. Well, I wasn’t. I would have had to not go on holiday. I’d just finished a very long, difficult book and I was pretty well worn out.

Then a few days later, I heard him on the radio on a BBC lunchtime news program. It made the news. The BBC had sent along a reporter who had managed to record all kinds of live action, and I thought, “Hell, this is serious. The holiday will just have to wait.” So I joined Maurice the next day and then stayed through the case for 14 months. It was a long time without a holiday but it was worth it.

Steve Volk: Could you talk to me a little bit about what kind of phenomenon you encountered?

Guy Playfair: Well, just about everything you’ve ever heard of. We didn’t have any green slime running down the wall. We had everything else. It started with objects being flung around, which I was able to witness. Small things like marbles and pieces of Lego brick and later on, the big stuff started. I saw a heavy armchair sliding along the floor and going over backwards. And no, there wasn’t anyone near it. We had the big sofa in the main room flip over on its face, which is almost impossible for one person to do. You’d need one at each end. And oh dear, it just went on and on. I mean, you name it; we had it.

Steve Volk: Was there a particular moment you can isolate for me when you thought something strange really is going here? Some initial currents…

Guy Playfair: Yeah, the first day I was there I thought something strange was going on. But then what the skeptics tend to forget is that the atmosphere in that house, to start with, they were all absolutely scared out of their wits. They wouldn’t sleep without the light staying on all night. And eventually the two girls and the mother were sleeping in the same bed. They were absolutely terrified. The idea that one of them was sort of playing tricks just to amuse the others and kept it up for 14 months is just totally stupid.

Steve Volk: What was the thing that got you?

Guy Playfair: The very first incident I think was quite a minor one. I was outside the bedroom late at night when the girls were in bed, hopefully asleep. Something hit the floor and I found it was a marble. It just made a single bang. It didn’t bounce and it didn’t roll. We tried to repeat that and we just couldn’t. You drop a marble, it will not keep still. It will either bounce if it’s a very light one and this one didn’t bounce. The one I heard just was as if somebody had picked it up and put it on the floor by hand as it were. It didn’t move. This happened several times. Other people observed the same thing.

Then I think it was that night with a book. It was on the mantelpiece. It went out of the room and around a corner. I actually saw that. It got out of the back bedroom and ended up in the hall. It made a turn at about 60 degrees, which is rather hard to explain by normal aerodynamics. It went on and on. I think I made a list of about 30 incidents that I’d witnessed close-up and in perfect conditions. It was obvious right from the start that this was a proper case and an unusually intense one.

Steve Volk: Let’s address this question of fraud head-on. For instance, in the marble scenario, Guy, do you know at that point where in the house the girls were?

Guy Playfair: In bed. Right in front of me. I was standing outside their bedroom door, which was open. I could see the foot of the bed and I could see perfectly well if anybody had got out. And they were in there, snoring away. This marble just slammed on the floor quite close to me.

Steve Volk: And where was mom?

Guy Playfair: Downstairs, I think. She wasn’t around.

Steve Volk: See, I bring this up—this case is so fraught—so many claims and counterclaims over the years and you were one of the people who were there. I know that witnesses to various episodes included yourself, neighbors, and the police. But the skeptics have, to their own satisfaction at least, claimed to explain all this away. I want to get into this.

Other researchers from the Society of Psychical Research came to investigate but when they came into it one of the girls whose name was Janet, right? This was the Hodgson family? The girls asked him to stand facing away and then they were hit with objects while the children giggled. The investigators felt that the children—there were some odd voices and we’ll get into those, too. The investigators felt that the children were producing the voices themselves and trying to hide it by burying their faces in sheets.

There was one researcher, Anita Gregory, who claimed that the children’s uncle had told her he believed Janet had taught herself to talk in this deep voice and that she’d always been athletic and mischievous and delighted in tricking strangers. He apparently believed that Janet was the cause of the phenomenon. I just want to give you a chance to sort of unpack all that.

Guy Playfair: Well, the uncle certainly never said any of that to me. I got exactly the opposite impression. He witnessed a great deal. He was totally startled himself and he also saw a fully materialized apparition which he described in great detail. He was very much attached to the girls. They were very fond of him. And he was in the house almost constantly. He never gave the slightest indication to us that there was any sort of trickery.

Well, there was trickery by December, which is when that incident took place because the girls were getting back to normal and you know, 12-year-old girls tend to play tricks. I’d be quite worried if they hadn’t. It showed they were getting over it. But the thing was they were not very good at it. I mean, on one occasion they hid my tape recorder and said that the ghost had taken it away. So I said, “Oh yeah?” I found it quite soon and it was still running, having recorded all the evidence. I just said, “Look, please don’t mess around with my tape recorder.”

So they knew that we knew that they’d played one or two tricks. They always admitted it. They were always caught. They said that over and over again. “We did play one or two tricks just to see if Mr. Grosse and Mr. Playfair would catch us, and they always did.” So I hope that coin is dropped finally.

Steve Volk: Yeah, I don’t think it will be, though.

Guy Playfair: They never give up, these skeptics. They just won’t admit defeat ever, whatever I say.

Steve Volk: You’re getting to something interesting here to me because when I read the claims and counterclaims back and forth as a journalist, I find myself in a sort of netherworld, right? And what I mean by that is this seems unexplained. It doesn’t mean necessarily, right, that poltergeists exist and that there are spirits in the world. It doesn’t mean that it was or wasn’t fraud. It just means that when I read over the material, and I’ve read over, I can’t really say with certainty what happened.

Guy Playfair: Well, there’s one point that skeptics overlook. By any kind of draw of probability you will not get witnesses from all over the world who have absolutely no contact with each other and many of whom have never read a single word about poltergeists, in fact, at Enfield they’d never heard the word before. They always used to refer to it as “polkageist.”

You would not get them all saying exactly the same thing, describing identical incidents, whether it’s in Brazil or South Africa or Iceland or Australia or wherever. It just would not happen. If they were trying to fake a case they’ve got to know what the real stuff is. I think it was William James who was the first to point out that you can’t produce any fake something unless there’s a genuine something. That’s quite a good point, I think. You’ve got to know where to start.

Steve Volk: How did this affect the family, from your perspective, over the years?

Guy Playfair: It did upset them a great deal. The eldest daughter, I’m more-or-less in touch with now and then. She’s still afraid it’s all going to start up again. I keep telling her there’s no way, it’s not going to happen. I’ve lost touch with the younger girl who’s married and gone somewhere. It made a lasting impression on them. An interesting point is that Janet, the eldest girl, she was twice offered a huge sum of money to confess to popular newspapers and she just told both of them to bleep off. No way. I mean, she could have made enough money to buy a house. It really was a big bribe. And it didn’t work.

Steve Volk: All right. To put a capper on the poltergeist portion of the interview, what’s your best guess at this stage after all these years–and if you know Dr. Colvin’s you can share that with me, too—on what poltergeists are.

Guy Playfair: Oh boy. Do we have all day? The short answer is that there are two possibilities. Either they are some kind of discarnate entity which I certainly don’t rule out, or else they are an entirely unknown force that emanates from the human mind. How it works we simply don’t know. We can only observe its effects.

I think there’s quite strong evidence that it’s some kind of so-called spirit or discarnate entity, kind of drifting blobs of ex-intelligence, if you like. But that is an extremely controversial opinion and not many people share it. So perhaps I’d better keep quiet about it for the time being.

Steve Volk: Do you know if Dr. Colvin has a position here or do you want to stay away from characterizing it?

Guy Playfair: Well, I can’t put words in his mouth. He’s a very articulate fellow and he’s a good scientist, very cautious. I doubt if he shares my eccentric opinions. I think I should really wait until he gets into print, which I hope he will in due course. If we get any serious rebuttals to his paper I’m sure the Journal will print them. They’re not afraid of…

Steve Volk: Well, I’m hoping the folks at RationalSkepticism will, in fact, submit their work for publication. I’d love to see Dr. Colvin. I understand he’s busy but stick his head above ground a bit and maybe come on Skeptiko and talk about his research and their research and where from his perspective it all falls out.

Guy Playfair: Yeah, I hope they do that.

Steve Volk: I have to say for myself, really I find the family ghost story I mentioned at the top, right, and my history, to be the kind of episode that forces me to accept a certain amount of cognitive dissonance as my best option, right? So I believe my family and I’m not going to go over all the details of the story here.

I believe my family but I have a really hard time, as the years have passed, believing the story because it doesn’t fit neatly into my own store of experiences. I’ve just sort of settled on the idea for now that there are some things that simply remain unexplained. I’m curious what your advice would be for me, given all the time you’ve had in the trenches of all this.

Guy Playfair: From the brief description you gave in your case, I can only say it’s extremely similar to what you might call the typical case, particularly the bedclothes interference. It’s very common. Bed shaking, we had that practically every night at Enfield. Apparitions are much rarer but they do happen. We had at least two at Enfield. So at a guess I would say your case was genuine, and if it didn’t recur then there’s nothing to worry about. I’m sure it won’t bother you now.

Steve Volk: No, in fact what I’m struggling with—I shouldn’t even say struggling with because I’m no longer struggling with it, but what I was concerned with is just where do I file it? What do I do with it? What should it make me think or not think in terms of my outlook on the world? That’s what I, coming up as a kid anyway, that was what I had to sort out for myself, and in part that’s what the book deals with. But I’m sort of curious for you, where you file these experiences.

Guy Playfair: I file everything in my filing cabinet. I would it down under “Personal” or something. I think what makes it interesting is if you read as much as you can in the area and find similar experiences that happened to other people. We have no idea what poltergeists are. It’s just a word that we use. It’s something we don’t understand. It’s probably a very misleading one, too, but we’re stuck with it and we don’t have another one.

Steve Volk: I will say I do find it interesting that in some cases skeptics have started putting forth more complicated and I would say interesting and probably fruitful theories than the usual, the mind plays tricks, wishful thinking, creaking floorboards, leaky pipes kind of explanations. So here I’m talking about the kind of thing that was published in the Journal of NeuroQuantology, I believe, about potential effects coming from the minds of living human beings. Michael Persinger and the idea of EMF waves somehow being involved or Vic Tandy and infrasound.

These are all things that sound essentially materialistic. They at least speak to the idea that something odd and dramatic happened as opposed to someone heard a floorboard creak and their imagination took over, which I’ve always found just plainly–yes that happens in some instances, but it’s certainly no blanket explanation.

Guy Playfair: No, there’s another possible line of inquiry. Poltergeist outbreaks have got certain features in common with Tourette ’s syndrome, where you get these sorts of jerks and muscular spasms and things and also very strange vocal sounds. A poltergeist looks rather like an extension of some super-Tourette’s where not only the muscles twitch but furniture starts twitching as well. But that’s not my idea. That was actually Persinger and William Roll, who is a very experienced researcher. I think it’s an interesting line to follow up.

The psychiatrist Jan Ehrenwald, who is a very highly respected researcher, he once told me personally at a lunch we had together that psychokinesis follows what he calls “established psychiatric principles.” You get things like these voices and a neuroimage of hysterical dumbness and clairvoyance is a kind of mirror image of hysterical blindness. Telepathy was, again, a kind of reaction against mutism.

So they’re not totally beyond the grounds of any possible explanation. We just don’t really have a neat explanation yet.

Steve Volk: Look, I’d be remiss having you on here if I didn’t explore at least a couple more topics with you in the time we have. We obviously don’t have time to go through the whole Uri Geller experience…

Guy Playfair: [Laughs]

Steve Volk: That could be several programs, right? But what’s your take on him? I’ve met a lot of people in the parapsychological community in researching this who believe Geller has some sort of ability but jumbles it up with a flair for theatre and for magic tricks. What’s your take?

Guy Playfair: Well, he’s undoubtedly got genuine abilities. I have far too much experience with that. I’ve witnessed some really extremely strange incidents. I’ve seen an object appearing in mid-air in his house, which I don’t see any possibility of any form of trickery on that. He’s done some very remarkable feats of telepathy. He also repaired a clock of mine long distance. That’s another program. So I have no doubt at all that he’s got abilities.

He’s also a great sort of—not quite a practical joker, but he really enjoys winding people up. He loves being controversial. He’s told me that. In fact, I seem to remember once I offered to set up a completely fool-proof experiment and he turned it down straight off. He said, “Oh no, I want to keep people guessing.” I think he’s got a point there.

Steve Volk: Yeah, he told me that the controversy ultimately has been very, very, very good for his career. That the night of the great Carson debunking was actually the best thing that ever happened to him.

Guy Playfair: Yeah, well, he loves being controversial and I have a sort of theory that he actually encourages it. He likes people to think he’s a magician or faking or something and then he’ll suddenly do something that pulls you up short. He’s still going strong. I think he’s in the Ukraine right now doing a TV show. He goes down very well. He’s a terrific public speaker, really puts on a wonderful talk. People just love it, you know? He’s still going very strong and he’s 60-something. I think he’s got a lot more mileage in him to come.

Steve Volk: Before the interview, you and I exchanged some emails and you had mentioned that you wanted some time to talk about your research into twin telepathy.

Guy Playfair: Yes.

Steve Volk: So what was your work there and what did you find?

Guy Playfair: Gosh, that’s another whole program. This is an example of one of those things where I tried to find a book about it back in the 1970s, when we had a great high-profile murder of a twin here in England. The editor of the Guinness Book of Records, Ross McWhirter, was shot dead by an IRA terrorist.

I wondered if there was any truth in all this twin telepathy stuff and I managed to get through to his brother through a friend who worked for him. After a decent interval, he made tactful inquiries like, “Did you feel anything when your brother was shot?” And he said, “No.” So I thought, “Well, that’s that,” and I forgot about it.

Well then by another series of coincidences which I always seem to attract, I got offered a book job in about 1996, 20 years later. The publisher happened to be the son of Norris McWhirter, the brother of the man who was murdered. I happened to show him the article that I’d written for the SPR journal and Alistair, the son, took a look at an episode that I’d quoted from the novel by Alexander Dumas, The Corsican Brothers, where you have an incident where a brother is killed in a duel in Paris and the other one is riding on horseback in Corsica and he falls to the ground, saying, “Oh dear, my brother has been killed!” And indeed he had.

So I showed that to Alistair and he immediately said, “That’s exactly what my father did.” So I thought, “Eh?” Well, to cut a very long story short, he kindly gave me a statement which I dictated, I wrote it down word-for-word right on the spot. Yes, his father had reacted at the time of the shooting and he’d completely wiped it from his memory.

I think it’s what they call fugue. He just completely exterminated the memory of something so profoundly shocking as the sudden death of the twin, which is a very intensely close relationship. Until he died recently he just did not remember it at all. But the son, who was there, saw it happen. So I thought, “This has to be looked into,” and I did that.

Steve Volk: Can we back up for a second? The son saw the father react. The father just never remembered reacting.

Guy Playfair: Yeah, that’s right. He actually touched his chest and slumped into an armchair and the son was so alarmed he ran for his mother to call an ambulance. She was just about to do that when the phone rang and it was the police saying that Ross had just been shot and they had to come and identify the body. So that’s what happened.

I thought this should be followed up and then I started looking around and couldn’t find any books about it. So as usual, I thought, “Well, somebody’s got to do it.” So I did it myself. I collected a huge amount of material and at last persuaded a major university twin unit here in London into taking the subject seriously for the first time ever and doing a large-scale survey. They’ve got 5,000 twins on their books. I’m collaborating with a colleague of mine who’s interviewing them and questioning them and so on. We’re establishing that it’s a very real phenomenon. They do experience telepathy, period. No doubt at all.

Steve Volk: You asked them questions about whether or not they’ve had these sort of shared states?

Guy Playfair: We’ve actually done two questionnaires. The first one a few years ago was a very informal one, done at a garden party. We had a sort of telepathy tent where we just invited people to come in and do simple tests. Just the guessing the card business. We found that some of them were extremely good at it and others were absolutely hopeless. We found as George Orwell might well have said, that some identical twins are a lot more identical than others. That is literally true.

Some of them never have an experience with telepathy at all and are even quite hostile about the very idea. Others have it all the time. I tried to figure out why this should be so, because they are genetically just about identical, and brought up usually together. What could the difference be?

The only difference I can see is the timing of the actual splitting of the egg. It can be anywhere between day 1 and day 12 and if you split early on, each egg gets its own individual plastic bag—what do you call it, the chorionic sac. If the split is late, the embryos are literally entangled throughout pregnancy and it seems to be logical that they are more likely to be in closer rapport than the ones who were individually wrapped.

They have done research in the University of Indiana into this kind of personality difference. They don’t do any telepathy there but they do find that the later the split, the closer the twins are sort of psychologically. So that’s an interesting finding. I hope that’s continuing. My guess is that’s got something to do with such a huge difference between twins experiencing telepathy ranging from 100% down to 0%.

Steve Volk: You know, it’s remarkable because we do seem to have this capacity to be connected and for myself I don’t even know to what degree we need to define it at the moment. It’s material or immaterial or whatever. I don’t think we can get a final answer on that at this point, anyway, so maybe the best solution in some instances is to just stand back and enjoy it.

I read an article yesterday—I don’t know if you’re familiar with this—an experiment done with firewalkers in which they had not only the people walking on the coals but the people observing them walking on the coals, hooked to heart rate monitors. The hearts of the people close to whoever was firewalking at the time, the firewalker themselves, and also people who had someone else there who was going to be firewalking. Not everyone did. Their hearts, as the researchers put it, “beat as one.” So their heart rates increased and decreased at the same rates at the same times.

I’m not even going to make any claim for anything remotely paranormal going on there, but there is this degree to which we are connected and feed off each other, even if you just want to talk about mirror neurons and our capacity for empathy. That’s really striking. I do wonder where the connections between all these things might be.

Guy Playfair: There have been experiments done in public here in London. A very well-known researcher, the late Maxwell Cade, invented a machine called the “mind mirror,” where you can actually watch your own brainwaves blipping away. He put on a show at one of these sort of psychic fair things where he had a healer and a patient both hooked up to mind mirrors. After a period you can see that the two brains are actually synchronized.

It takes us right back to the early days of mesmerism, where people like the Marquis de Puységur discovered that he could literally enter the mind of his patient and do his thinking for him. This has been swept under the rug for 200 years and it’s coming out again gradually with all this kind of quantum approach to things. Talking about non-local entanglement and all that stuff. It does appear that you can actually blend your own brain or consciousness or whatever with somebody else’s. Now you can actually see it happen on an instrument.

Steve Volk: Guy, I’m afraid all we’ve proven here is that you’re a great radio guest or podcast guest…

Guy Playfair: Oh, thank you.

Steve Volk: There are so many different topics that we could go on about for 40, 45 minutes. Whether it’s with me or with Alex, I hope you’ll come back.

Guy Playfair: I’d love to, yes. There’s certainly a lot more to say about everything, but then there always is.

Steve Volk: Thanks very much again, Guy Lyon Playfair, for being on Skeptiko. I hope to see you back here again someday.

Guy Playfair: Thank you for inviting me.