Enfield Haunting: Guy Playfair not a Fair-playing Guy

May 7, 2015

I don’t know if Guy Lyon Playfair has ever been scared by his own shadow, but he is most assuredly a True Believer in some scary things that science can’t prove actually exist—poltergeists, for instance. Skeptics have been following Playfair for years—rather like trailing behind an elephant in a parade to clean up after it.

Playfair was interviewed prior to the May 3, 2015, airing of The Enfield Haunting, a made-for-TV-movie that hypes a “poltergeist” case of the 1970s at Enfield, a northern suburb of London. The phenomena—knocking sounds, thrown objects, and other antics, including a mysterious muffled “Voice”—centered around schoolgirls Janet and her sister Peggy. Playfair “investigated” with a colleague and went on to write the astonishingly naive book, This House Is Haunted (1980).

The interview with Playfair was conducted by Michael Hodges for radiotimes.com. Hodges’ penultimate paragraph reads:

“When I mention the claim by American debunker of the paranormal, Joe Nickell, that Janet and her siblings invented 100 percent of the events, Playfair gets angry. ‘Nickell can p*** off,’ he says. ‘The man knows nothing. They are absolutely useless, these people. They are just expressing their own stupidity and laziness in not doing proper research.’”

Now, I don’t think Playfair is playing fair. He could easily discover that I have expertise in trickery (I am former Resident Magician at the Houdini Magical Hall of Fame) and in investigation (having been a private investigator—twice promoted—for a world-famous detective agency). Playfair lacked training in these essential fields—or in much of anything as far as I have seen. He is hardly one to teach “proper research,” but he does excel in one thing: credulity regarding paranormal claims.

Hence, Playfair was repeatedly snookered by the girls at Enfield, even after noted magician Milbourne Christopher observed Janet skulking about, and a professional ventriloquist determined the girls were producing the Voice. Janet was actually caught at trickery, and she and her sister confessed their pranking to reporters. Nevertheless Playfair and his colleague soon elicited a retraction from the girls and he, now aged 89, either continues to be in deep denial or pretends to be. (For more on the case see my “Enfield Poltergeist” in Skeptical Inquirer magazine, July/August 2012, pp. 12–14.)

After Enfield, Playfair collaborated with paranormal claimant Uri Geller to produce the 1986 book The Geller Effect. That term supposedly describes psychokinetic ability (such as causing keys and spoons to bend by the power of mind over matter), but it actually applies to bending a pliable mind to believe in such nonsense through the use of magic tricks. Playfair has made a career of first being fooled by tricksters, and then fooling others. It isn’t much of a legacy, but it does serve as a model of how not to approach paranormal claims.