This is­sue, we re­mem­ber the psy­chi­cal re­searcher who in­ves­ti­gated ev­ery­thing from Brazil­ian spirit heal­ing and Uri Geller’s pow­ers to the En­field Potergeist...

Fortean Times - - Strange Days - Alan Murdie


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.

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