Extraordinary claims. Ordinary investigations.

Adam Curtis on Enfield, Ghostwatch (plus some Philip)


Two of the greatest creators I profoundly admire for their always insightful and ever balanced overview are Carl Sagan and Adam Curtis – there’s not a thing they produced that I can’t get tired of appreciating. While Sagan was an inspiring author for our scientific dreams, Curtis offers cautionary tales regarding those same dreams. Curtis’ “Pandora’s Box” in particular is required viewing just as Sagan’s Cosmos is.

But they don’t contradict each other, as Curtis never once blames science itself, that ideal thing we try to practice. Instead Curtis exposes how science paradoxically vanishes when people try to promote it with too much eagerness, as that eagerness often translates into misapplied science through political struggle, and that misapplication, that struggle, is his main focus.

Unlike Sagan, Curtis is still with us, actively producing great material, and sharing a lot of it on his very own blog at BBC. His latest post is a gem with great film snippets on “The Ghosts in the Living Room”. How the depiction of ghosts evolved in the small screen, and the link between the Enfield Poltergeist and Ghostwatch.


Which is an opportunity for me to comment a very interesting piece on the Poltergeist mania of the 1970s, the Philip Experiment. A fictional ghost was invented, with a background story full of holes. And they managed to contact the imaginary spirit!


This was a thought provoking isolation of variables, and the results are promoted by those proposing Poltergeist phenomena may be actually psychic manifestations of very living people. Given that a fictional “ghost” manifested mostly all the same paranormal phenomena as allegedly real ghosts, one could do away with actual ghosts and work solely with the collective unconscious. Very well, but Occam’s razor may cut deeper.

I bought and watched the 15 minute documentary on “Philip, the Imaginary Ghost”. It’s fascinating,  but exactly because I couldn’t see a single instance where the alleged physical manifestations of the imaginary ghost couldn’t be attributed to the ideomotor effect, that is, movements made unconsciously by the participants.

Stack-Name-Art-coastersIn the clip above, one participant mentions the “doily nights’”, where they put doilies under all the hands over the table, to make sure that no one was moving it – in which case the stacked doilies would slide and be behind the hand, showing the direction and origin of movement. This method comes directly from the original protocol used by legendary Michael Faraday in the 19th century to prove that precisely table-moving was the result of the ideomotor effect. The stacked cards he put under the hands of “very honourable, very clear in their intentions” parties all showed that whenever the table moved, the hands moved first and further. Never the other way around.

So why did the Philip Experiment obtain results that Faraday couldn’t? Perhaps they had actual paranormal powers, or perhaps their controls were not as good as Faraday’s. One thing all the recorded film that I could see shows is that it’s always the table top that goes forward in one direction, with the legs behind. Though their doilies allegedly contradict Faraday’s cards, the table itself may be evidence they were unconsciously, but very mundanely, moving it by the top, doing away with the last paranormal thing in the experiment and providing another look on how very honourable parties may be integral part of the Poltergeists they investigate, blurring the distinction between their imagination and the reality.

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Posted in Fortean,Ghosts,Paranormal | 8 comments

8 Comments so far

  1. PersonFromPorlock December 26th, 2011 5:54 pm

    Ah yesss… “Cosmos,” starring Carl Sagan and co-starring the Universe. Damn, he was irritating.

  2. my name is philip December 28th, 2011 5:49 am

    If you are interested enough to buy a 15minute tape why not buy a used copy of the book
    which provides far more info.

  3. Mori December 28th, 2011 8:10 am

    Good point. I assume you have read it, can you help and point if the information on the book refute what I wrote about based on the footage?

    A priori I would tend to give more relevance to the film footage, the dreaded anecdotal evidence is slippery. From the Florence Cook case to the Sister Josefa (see http://www.csicop.org/specialarticles/show/spiritualism_in_brazil_alive_and_kicking/ ), what I have seen repeatedly is a great amount of perfectly respectable testimony that when analyzed in a critical light must be interpreted as very faulty to say the least. Despite their extended descriptions of “foolproof” controls, the actual physical evidence in the form of photos or films are much more revealing.

    It’s actually hard to believe a testimony could be so faulty, but somehow, that’s what the evidence shows. Repeatedly. Of course, one can believe instead that despite all the appearances, the “Katie King” spirit was just very alike Cook, just as Sister Josefa was very similar to Diogo; that both Cook and Diogo later started to hoax despite originally possessing authentic powers; just as the “Philip” imaginary ghost accomplished feats very similar to what Faraday proved in the 19th century could be attributed to the ideomotor effect and the film footage I have seen is by chance alone just the footage which is ambiguous and the actual evidence is on some other footage.

    I’m not being sarcastic, I would honestly respect that position, but personally I don’t share it. From what I know, my provisional conclusion is to discard the testimony and consider these cases as instances of gullibility and deception.

  4. my name is philip December 28th, 2011 4:35 pm

    Well, if you disregard eyewitness testimony there is probably no point in getting the book. Have you ever looked into Rosenheim, where you have film, phone records, etc. Such a case is not as dependent on eyewitness testimony. Thanks for the awesome Curtis link.

  5. my name is philip December 30th, 2011 5:22 pm

    I’d be interested to get your take on Rosenheim. By the way, the Guy Lyon Playfair book about his time in Brazil has, or is supposed to be, republished. You might find it interesting. Or you might not.

  6. Mori December 30th, 2011 6:14 pm

    I do not have anything to add to the Rosenheim case — not that I would have much to add on the other cases. I did comment on Playfair’s evaluation of Brazilian medium Chico Xavier on:


    As far as I know Playfair has not revised his positions on Xavier, and then just as now he has not approached the case with much necessary skepticism.

  7. my name is philip December 31st, 2011 1:35 am

    Well, I wonder if you would find Rosenheim a challenge.

  8. Bob Couttie January 1st, 2012 12:24 am

    Having looked at several poltergeist cases, including Enfield (I knew Maurice Gross personally) and Rosenheim I wrote a BBC Radio 4 play, The House At Spook Corner, loosely based in them. Having had some contact with Playfair, including on in which he threatened to sue me and the BBC for libel over an episode in the radio series “Forbidden Knowledge”, I’m afraid I find his approach somewhat short of ratonal when the paranormal is involved.

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