This issue, we remember the psychical researcher who investigated everything from Brazilian spirit healing and Uri Geller’s powers to the Enfield Potergeist...
GUY LYON PLAYFAIR
It is with great regret that we record the death of veteran psychical researcher Guy Lyon Playfair three days after his 83rd birthday. Guy exemplified the independent scholar who masters the data of psychical researchers to a professional level and then successfully spans the boundary between academic approaches and practical field investigation. He was active in many areas of the subject over 46 years, and it would be difficult to pick any aspect upon which he could not either lecture in-depth or have something significant or original to say. Most importantly, he expressed his opinions openly, and was more than prepared to respond to ill-informed critics on their own level.
Born in Quetta, India, the son of Major General Ian Lyon Playfair and novelist Jocelyn Playfair, he narrowly survived death a month later in an earthquake that killed thousands. Moving back to England, he grew up in rural Gloucestershire and after schooling went on to study modern languages at Pembroke College, Cambridge, specialising in Russian. He wrote for Granta, the University magazine, translating some stories by Chekhov into English for the first time. After two years’ National Service in the Russian translation section of the RAF in Iraq, he pursued a career in journalism, working full-time for Life magazine, and in 1961 moved to Rio de Janeiro where he worked for the next 10 years as a freelance journalist for a number of international business magazines, the
Economist, Time, the Guardian and Associated Press, covering everything from popular music to the hunt for Nazi war criminals. He also served for four years in the press corps of the US Agency for International Development (USAID).
His mother had been a member of the Society for Psychical Research, and he read the society’s journal as a child; but his interest in the paranormal began in earnest with his own successful treatment by a Brazilian psychic healer. Initially sceptical, he was soon satisfied the effect and cure he experienced were genuine. Thereafter, he immersed himself in the psychic culture of Brazil, taking a particular interest in physical mediumship and working closely with the Institute Brasileiro de Pesquisas Psicobiofisicas (the Brazilian Institute for Psychobiophysical Research, IBPP). This was a research society founded in 1961 by a civil engineer Herman Guimaraes Andrade (1913-2003), a spiritist trying to discover the “underlying laws, properties and potential of the spirit by scientific methods”. He also joined the SPR in Britain as an overseas member.
In 1973 he investigated a poltergeist outbreak in a private apartment in São Paolo, where he succeeded in taping unexplained rapping sounds and followed up a number of other well-attested cases of poltergeist arson and destruction in the country, interviewing the victims and baffled professionals who had been called in to try and contend with the phenomenon. Some of his experiences and conclusions were detailed in his book The Flying Cow (1975), a landmark study on psi in Brazil. They also helped shape his views expressed in later books such as The Indefinite Boundary and Cycles of Heaven.
Residency in Brazil uniquely placed him for investigating one of the many extraordinary claims concerning Israeli psychic Uri Geller, who was receiving international attention at the time. A story appeared in Psychic magazine that a Brazilian banknote had materialised at the home of researcher Andrija Puharich in the USA, following a visit by Geller. Usually, claims of teleported objects are untraceable items lacking serial numbers or provenance. Guy sought to interview all concerned and gathering the details established the note as one of a Brazil series of lowvalue notes printed in 1963. It seemed the sort of trivial curio that might have been picked up as a tourist souvenir by Puharich on a visit in the early 1960s and forgotten. His account of his investigation and sceptical verdict was published with approval in New Scientist and in The Magic of Uri Geller (1975) by sceptic conjuror James Randi. However, Guy developed lurking doubt regarding the cogency of his mundane explanation after his own first-hand experiences with testing Geller, though the incident that most impressed him was materialisation of a shaving mirror when he was
alone in a bathroom shortly after completing one set of experiments. This and other incidents led him to change his mind concluding: “I became convinced of something many had learned before me: inexplicable things do happen in the presence of Uri Geller” (in The Geller Effect, 1986, co-written with the psychic himself).
This reversal of opinion concerning Geller was all the more powerful since he had undertaken a detailed study of both conjuring techniques and hypnotism (later writing If this be Magic: The Forgotten Power of
Hypnosis). He was always willing to collaborate with professional magicians who were actually serious about scientifically testing psychic claims. He was a close friend of veteran SPR sceptic and Magic Circle member Dr Eric Dingwall (1896-1986), and he later coauthored the book A Question of
Memory (1983) with magician David Berglas (who shared with him the stage secret for making a grand piano disappear).
On his permanent return to England in 1975, his interests and research activities widened. Though settled in Earl’s Court in London – chosen as it was conveniently close for both the offices and libraries of the SPR and the College of Psychic Studies – he nonetheless kept abreast of developments in research developments worldwide. Utilising his flair for languages – as well as Russian he spoke Portuguese, Spanish and French – he travelled extensively in Eastern Europe following up claims of progress in psi research in Soviet bloc countries.
This international perspective, coupled with his vivid accounts of the exotic Brazilian psi scene and his readily accessible endorsements of healing and psychokinesis as real, ensured
a receptive and enthusiastic audience within British psychic and spiritualist circles. However, certain figures in the SPR were cooler in their reception, particularly regarding his support for physical mediumship. This was illustrated at an SPR Conference in September 1977 where he was present in the audience when Maurice Grosse appealed for help investigating a poltergeist outbreak at the home of the Hodgson family in Enfield, North London (see FT32:47-48, 33:4-5). The reception was lukewarm, with no volunteers save for Guy committing themselves. Although due to take a holiday, Guy immediately decided to go and visit, fully expecting to find a normal explanation. What he witnessed swiftly convinced him the case was genuine. Cancelling his holiday plans indefinitely, he subsequently spent 180 days and nights with the troubled family between 5 September 1977 and June 1978, including 25 all-night vigils. More than 140 hours of tape recordings were obtained, resulting in initial transcripts running to over 500 pages (a substantial number of his original recordings have still to be transcribed). The key incidents of this lengthy investigation of what became known as the Enfield Poltergeist were published three years later in his book,
This House is Haunted (1980), selling 98,000 copies. It was reprinted in 2012 and 2015. Not helping acceptance of the case by the parapsychological fraternity of the time was the fact that he considered the favoured theory of Recurrent Spontaneous Psychokinesis (RSPK) as inadequate to explain manifestations, putting him at odds with the minority of parapsychologists in the Anglo-Saxon world at the time who accepted poltergeists as genuine. As he stated in This
House is Haunted the mere “mention of spirits invariably polarises people into either fanatical believers or total sceptics”. Citing the malicious and destructive aspect of poltergeists, together with signs of an intelligence being responsible for disturbances, he proposed the Latin American spiritist approach envisaging action by malicious discarnate entities as a better working model, certainly when trying to end outbreaks. In this he was almost a lone voice in psychical research, save for writer Colin Wilson who adopted a spiritist explanation, drawing upon this idea for his own book Poltergeist! (1981).
Often asked if any of the sceptics who criticised his book on Enfield ever attempted to examine the original material upon which it was based, he confirmed that in more than 35 years none ever did. Ultimately, Guy accepted limitations existed with all existing theories on poltergeist causation; indeed not long before he died he said that researchers were no nearer to an understanding than when he began.
Another later controversy arose with the infamous BBC
Ghostwatch broadcast of October 1992 (see FT67:38-42, 166:36-41), loosely based on This
House is Haunted. Contrary to what was claimed in a recent a
Daily Telegraph obituary, Guy was not an adviser to the show and subsequently had the Society of Authors launch legal action against the corporation for infringement. The
Ghostwatch broadcast hardened
his already full-blown opinion that television was a bad thing. Having personally eschewed the box himself, he explored the negative impact of TV on society in his classic book The Evil Eye: The Unacceptable Face
of Television (1990), highlighting the social damage done by the distortion of reality on the TV screen. He recommended complete abstinence from TV viewing and going off to find more creative, fulfilling and meaningful activities. His considered rejection of TV did not impede but rather enhanced a regular column he penned for an SPR magazine, commenting on the treatment of psychic topics in the media and exposing errors and bias. He eventually permitted a TV dramatisation of his Enfield book in a mini-series
The Enfield Haunting (2015), though deploring the inevitable inaccuracies imposed for dramatic effect (see FT329:51). He had nothing whatsoever to do with the fictional Conjuring
2 film the following year and would have sued had he been portrayed.
Long before this, both he and Maurice Grosse had concluded that a process of inherent psychological resistance was at work which inhibited consideration of positive physical evidence in the Enfield case. However, after an extensive re-investigation by an SPR committee of the Enfield case in 1982, their findings came to be more widely accepted, senior SPR members eventually acknowledging him by his elevation to vice-Presidentship of the Society. He also served on the Society’s Spontaneous Cases, Survival and Library Committees, and was a director of the Dragon Trust supporting research by Paul and Charla Devereux into ancient sites and indigenous cultures, as well as writing for the magazines
Light (serving on its editorial board) the Paranormal Review, Fortean Times, and many others. Later activities included research into reincarnation, translating classic Latin American parapsychological texts and examining meaningful coincidences. He was also especially interested in cases of telepathy and non-physical associations between identical twins, publishing the book
Telepathy: Twin Connection in 1999 (see FT171:34-40).
Although concentrating on psychic research, he had a varied life outside it. He was active in taking up local planning and community issues affecting Earl’s Court and did not hold back in criticising the poor performance of public services. Free of the distractions of television, he maintained a serious interest in theatre, art cinema, and classical music. He was an accomplished harpsichord and trombone player, having played the latter with a military band in his youth and later with a jazz band at Cambridge. He also enjoyed real ale, including brewing his own, but inevitably both his musical and drinking tastes found an extension into psi research with an investigation into the musical mediumship of Rosemary Brown over 19781980 and when compiling The
Haunted Pub Guide (1984), detailing many of Britain’s haunted pubs and inns.
Although increasingly housebound in recent years due to declining mobility, he hosted meetings at his flat, answered numerous inquiries and maintained a lively and extensive correspondence by letter and e-mail with writers and researchers worldwide. Not long before he died he was in touch with JacquesVallee, discussing poltergeist effects in ufology, and was planning research into precognitive dreams. By one of those coincidences in which he always delighted, he died peacefully on the morning that Radio 4 broadcast an episode of ‘The Reunion’ dedicated to the Enfield case. Guy Lyon Playfair, psychic researcher, born Quetta, India, 5 April 1935; died London 8 April 2018, aged 83.