The Search for Doris Bither

In one of the most bizarre cases recorded in the history of alleged paranormal activity the one involving an ordinary, unassuming woman stands supreme in its oddity.  The public knows some of the details of this “haunting” courtesy of the 1981 horror film, The Entity (released in the US in 1983) and from the novel upon which that film was based.Doris Bither/The Entity (frontispiece)Credit: Vic Dillingerâ„¢, © 2012

What is often overlooked, though, is that the heroine of the movie (the fictional Carla, or Carlotta, Moran) was a fictional version of a very real, tormented individual.  This woman was Doris Bither, and the search for information about her (as a person, not as a case study) has been frustrating, interesting, and—at times—even amusing.

The Entity Case
Much has been written about the Doris Bither “entity” case.

To briefly recap, this is the instance of a woman who reputedly was spectrally beaten, bruised, and raped repeatedly in the early 1970s.  The alleged ghostly rapist was sometimes assisted by two smaller entities that would hold her down during these assaults.  Poltergeist activity also allegedly occurred in her home (objects flying around, etc.).

Doris came under the scrutiny of two budding parapsychology academics, Mr. Kerry Gaynor and Dr. Barry Taff.  She relayed her torment to these two, and they subsequently invaded her home with cameras, audio tape recorders, and their presence for almost three months in 1974.

In the end, all the investigation netted were some observations by this psychic team of “orbs” floating around, an allegation by Gaynor he saw pans fly from a cabinet, a few suspect 35-mm photos of arcing lights, and another couple of images of a “ghostly” smudge across Doris’ face (taken with a Polaroid, the significance of which will be discussed). 

After the investigators departed, Doris Bither basically sank into obscurity.  Not much is known abouther after Taff and Gaynor were finished except it had been commonly reported her attacks continued even after she moved.  These assaults diminished in intensity and frequency over time, totally abating about five years after she first reported her torment.

ArcingCredit: Gaynor & Taff, 1974

Web Work
A novelization of the case was published in 1978 by Frank De Felitta.  [This is the same author who spurred renewed interest in reincarnation (at least, as it was understood by American consumers) with his 1975 novel, later turned into a film, Audrey Rose.  That particular book was based on some flaky behavior of his son who, at the suggestion of an occultist De Felitta consulted, was obviously living out a personality of a past life!]

It is unknown how much money, if any, she received in compensation for the book written about the case by De Felitta (with Taff’s help) or if she garnered any consulting fees for the early 1980s’ film.

As a result of the hype from the 1970s, The Entity Case is a very provocative subject on the Web.

Unfortunately, the most “popular” case-related item about the event on-line currently (in terms of page “hits”, putting it at the top of the list for any keyword search on the subject) is a very badly written, ill-researched (if any actual research was done at all) piece that is almost excruciating to read due to its amateurish tone.  It is confusing, lacks a good narrative flow, and butchers an otherwise compelling topic.  It has many holes in it, lacking significant details.

It does, however, have one unique quality not seen elsewhere: it posits theories from the writer’s fiancée, no less.  [According to the writer, she was clearly credible because “she is an intelligent person, and extremely gifted in psychiatry.  Especially abnormal psychology [sic]”.  From the tone of the “writing” it sounds as if the girlfriend, she of this apparently great intellect, was a college student just starting out and not actually a licensed, practicing psychiatrist or psychologist: her opinion means soooo much.  Yay, team!  Really credible there, chief.]

Sadly, this is what passes for erudition and scholarly/journalistic discourse these days.

The point is there just isn’t much solid information about Doris Bither, the woman, available.  Even of the most mundane details about Doris Bither there is a tenuous quality; contradiction, vagaries, and disagreement are in ready supply, however. 

She is known almost exclusively as a case study; except for this alleged paranormal event her passing through life is apparently unremarkable.  

Meet Jane Doe
Doris’ life story begins in “the Midwest”, thought to be in Illinois (yes, this is the best available data).  She was believed to have been Doris McGowan at birth (simple math, based on her description in 1974, leads to a birth year between 1936-1943).  Allegations of parental alcohol abuse have been mentioned.

The McGowan family moved to California when Doris was ten (probably some time in the late 1940s to early 1950s), but for unknown reasons she later came under the guardianship of an aunt and uncle.  Doris, purportedly, was a troubled teen, and her parents and the mysterious aunt and uncle disowned her after a family dispute.  [The nature and causes of this dispute are unknown, but given the era it was possibly over Doris’ being a teenage mother-to-be; her first child would have been born when Doris was either 17 or 18 years old in about 1957 or 1958.]  Both sets of adults later died, and it was alleged Doris’ brother received the aunt's and uncle's inheritance with Doris receiving nothing. 

By this time Doris was an unwed mother (she would go on to have four children total: three boys, and the youngest, a girl, all with different fathers).  The intervening years are a biographical void, but by 1974 she and her four children lived in a tiny, rented single-family dwelling at 11547 Braddock Drive, in Culver City, California, having moved there from Santa Monica, California.  It is not known what Doris did for a living up to this point.  Certainly she did something for money; maybe she was in the Welfare system.  No mention is made of her occupation.

In 1974 single women with children did not have the resources and social support that today’s women have.  [Think of the taking-it-all-in-stride “joy” of put-upon, soon-to-be grandparents of the teenage girls on that horrific TV show, 16 and Pregnant.]  No one gives out-of-wedlock birthing much thought now (though they should since such children end up being a fiscal burden either on society or their nearest direct relatives), but back in the late 1950s through the early 1970s it carried a stigma for a woman.  Doris would likely have been very much alone in the world.  She was reputedly married a couple of times, but it is not known if her husband(s) fathered any of her children.

Life would have been very hard for Doris in that time in America.  Inflation was high, and she apparently didn’t have any special skills (it isn’t known if she even graduated high school). EntitiesCredit: Vic Dillinger, 2011The mystery began when she somehow drew the attention of Gaynor and Taff.  What’s interesting is how she met them—it is never clearly stated if she either found them or they were referred to her.  [One version has it that she overheard the two of them talking shop in a public place and approached them with her story.  Another version has it that Gaynor and Taff were giving a public lecture about ESP or some other paranormal subject, Doris caught the lecture, and approached them afterward.]

In any event the two parapsychologists (working under the aegis of a respected academic named Dr. Thelma Moss, of UCLA) decided to meet further with Doris.  This meeting occurred at a local book store (Hunters Books in Westwood Village), and Doris told the two men her story of poltergeist activity at her home (it was only after the investigation started she told of her spectral rapist, which then shifted the focus of the inquiry to her as a subject).  An agreement was reached to investigate.

Doris’ four children (boys aged 16, 13, and 10, the girl aged 6) attempted to stay out of the investigators’ way and tried to live a normal life during this period.  The children made it clear, though, that they hated the disruption in their lives.

Neighbors, of course, having heard the house was “haunted” tormented the Bither household, and privacy was a concern.  The middle boy (believed, but not confirmed, to be named Brian Harris, possibly a pseudonym) later said he was teased at school because of the publicity surrounding the house.

And it should be noted the public’s attention surrounded the house and not Doris herself at this time.  Neighbors were unaware of her agonies during this period.  ArcingCredit: Gaynor & Taff, 1974It may never be truly known what really happened to Doris relative to her spectral attacks.  Were they real?  Self-inflicted as a bid for attention?  The result of a latent psychosis or unresolved emotional issue?  Anyone’s reasonable guess is valid.  The investigators, however, came away—apropos of expectations—believing they’d experienced something of a paranormal nature (spectral manifestations, floating lights, smudgy photos), but of what they weren’t sure. 

The timing of this event couldn’t have been better for Gaynor and Taff.  The Exorcist had just been released in theaters in 1973 and was going strong as a media sensation.  The movie spurred a renewed interest in psychic phenomenon.  The Exorcist was a fictionalized account of alleged demonic possession of an actual teenage Maryland boy in the mid 1940s.  However, a great deal of this boy’s biography is known (his place and date of birth, his movements during the relevant time, later follow-up in his life). 

In Doris’ case, though, precious little is known.  The attention to detail about this woman is lacking to say the least.  Words such as “petite” and “in her 30s” were used to describe her.   These are not the clinically detached terms of professional investigators but rough, descriptive terms used by writers.

For example, “in her 30s” covers quite a span, so her age at the time of the paranormal investigation isn’t really clear—was she 32?  35?  39?  What is in the extant photos (the famous “arcing lights” photos are black and white, the “smudged” Polaroids are in color) is a woman of average build, with long, dark (possibly brunette) hair.   Her face is not clearly seen in them.

Personal habits of Doris: she smoked cigarettes and drank alcohol.  Much has been made of her alcohol use, with Taff reporting early on that she was drunk “all the time”; this is probably not likely.  Rather, it seems more probable the woman was simply self-medicating to endure whatever trauma she was suffering.  Her children received some parental/custodial care, and an alcoholic cannot do that (no reports of abuse, neglect, or destitution were found, though the house in the photos looks to be very messy).

Returning to the photos, it isn’t known what is in any of the “spirit” photos taken in Doris’ bedroom (any anomalous light source can create heliographing or arcing).  One sees a streak of light in photos of Doris sitting on her bed.

In the “ghostly” smudged Polaroids (the ones where Doris’ face is obscured by a hazy, amorphous shape) there are at least one or two rational explanations for this, and believers in the paranormal will not want to hear them.Doris Bither (with and without 'The Entiy' obscuring her face)Credit: Gaynor & Taff, 1974 For those familiar with Polaroids keep in mind the emulsifying agents allowing the photo to develop “instantly" are sandwiched between the front print paper and the back film coating.

Peter Gabriel (third album cover)Credit: Hipgnosis, 1980Now, for those familiar with the music of Peter Gabriel, there is a certain album cover of his where his face appears to melt.  This effect was achieved (in the Dark Ages before Photoshop) with a Polaroid photograph (lots of them, to be exact, just so it could be done satisfactorily).   

The technique is surprisingly simple.  The picture pops out and just as the image begins to emerge from the print (mostly so the artist can see what he is doing, otherwise this can be done immediately) the surface of the photograph is rubbed and “drawn” with a large gum eraser.  This shifts the chemicals within the photo “sandwich”, and the emerging photographic image is distorted.

With respect to the Doris Bither “face ghost” photos it is unlikely this technique was applied intentionally (certainly the end results aren't as dramatic as the Peter Gabriel album cover).  Given the smudge’s placement and its relative size, the situation, and the confusion involved (Doris had just reported the entity was “right in front of” her face when either Gaynor or a team member quickly—and probably with tremulous hands—took the shot), it is a sure thing that whoever took that photo couldn’t wait to get it out of the camera to see what was captured.

In this haste it’s almost certain this person would have gripped this picture smack over where Doris’ face would be and yanked it from the camera, thus agitating the underlying emulsion and creating the hazy image (nothing more, in the end, than a thumbprint-sized flaw).  Separating the Polaroid print’s front from its back would have confirmed this—the gel inside would have been visibly compressed and disarranged, and the “back” image would not reflect the front.  It is too far down the path to conduct this test—and doing so would destroy part of the film “sandwich”—but suffice it to say it is the most likely explanation.

Either that or the sealed film pack itself was defective, having been mildly compressed in transit, smudging the emulsion in the package.  Or there could have been a tiny hole in the outer protective packaging, allowing light to expose parts of some, but not all, of the individual print surfaces; the overexposed, yellowish quality of the image, as well as that of several others later presented as “proof” of a paranormal presence in her house, tends to suggest defective film cartridges.

Regardless of which physical act created the haze it is absolutely not proof of an “entity”, only of a badly exposed instant photograph.

Not Finding Doris
After the investigation Doris’ torments continued but lessened.  Gaynor and Taff ascribed this diminution to a concurrent build in Doris’ self-composure and her confidence (which may tend to point toward a psychological cause for her trauma).  She moved to San Bernardino, California, and then was thought to have moved to Texas, then back to California.  Her middle son (apparently the only one who can speak or write) reported the spectral assaults followed Doris during this period, but continued to abate.

And it is with Doris’ son, “Brian Harris”, that a return visit to the “most popular” Entity article is warranted.

Research conducted through keywords on Doris’ case will also bring one to an article claiming to be an interview with Brian Harris, Doris’ middle son (but second child, 13 years old in 1974).  This article was written by the same person who wrote the “most popular” article noted.  In this second installment, a man the writer wants the reader to believe is Brian Harris is “interviewed” by telephone.

Everything about this interview is suspect.  The person purporting to be Brian Harris doesn’t divulge anything during the conversation that any well-read person could not have known, nor is he forthcoming with any insight or facts known only to him about what happened to his mother.  Also, the writer does nothing to substantiate or otherwise corroborate the man's identity with whom he is speaking (at least, this was not done in the article itself for public review). 

This lack of credibility is critical because investigation shows someone purporting to be Brian Harris has commented elsewhere upon several “paranormal” articles about The Entity Case.  In each observed instance, the sender of the e-mail, claiming to be Brian Harris, writes anonymously from generic e-mail addresses (in one case a Yahoo address that includes no elements of his name or any other simple tag that would lead a rational person to conclude it is Brian Harris). 

The e-mails are spectacularly bad, incoherent and fraught with mixed-case lettering and misspellings.  One e-mail's content stated “my mother died of pumonery dises [sic]”; her death date was not given.

Another such e-mail, after repeating that Doris is dead, also has this Brian Harris wanting e-mail information so he can contact Dr. Barry Taff (for whom this Brian Harris claims he’s been searching).  This comment, likewise, comes from a dead-end e-mail, and in all likelihood is not from the real Brian Harris.  After all:

1.  Dr. Barry Taff is all over the Web, and a simple search will give the average person a means to contact him without a need to use a blogger as a go-between (Taff’s website lists a phone number and an e-mail address where he can be reached)

2.  Considering the intimate, albeit short-lived, circumstances of Taff’s knowledge of the family the real Brian Harris probably has valid contact information and would not need a blogger’s help to find Dr. Taff.

The telephone interview, as noted, only corroborates what the public already thinks it knows.

There is a very amusing “gee-whiz” moment in the transcript of this exchange wherein “Brian Harris” says, “ . . . it’s all true” (in reference to the poltergeist activity), followed by the requisite—and dramatic—heavy sigh.  The writer then mentally gushes, “WOW!  This is it!  This is the confirmation I’ve been waiting for.  I nod my head, as if I knew it all along.  A sort of ‘Hell yea!’ motion.”  [Grammar and syntax are preserved here—it is uncertain what a “‘Hell yea!’ motion” actually is.  Maybe he should have asked his obviously more insightful girlfriend (“extremely gifted in psychiatry.  Especially abnormal psychology”) if he got it right!]

For the Harris interview article, three things are possible:

1.  Brian Harris, Doris’ son, was interviewed by this blogger over the phone, and Harris simply gave a less-than-compelling interview

2.  Someone alleging to be Brian Harris gave the interview, and the blogger (in his excitement) fell for it hook, line, and sinker

3.  The interview is a fraudulent creation of the blogger's imagination.

It isn’t known which circumstance applies, but what is known, as with many other things about Doris, is that this interview sheds no light on her condition. 

Dependent upon which source one believes, Doris died in California in 1995 of pulmonary arrest, in Texas in 1996 of pulmonary disease, in California in 2002 of pancreatic cancer, or died in 2006 in California of (unspecified) cancer.

Dr. Taff himself believes she succumbed to cardiopulmonary failure in 1999 at the age of 58 (making her birth year either 1940 or 1941, in the range of what this author had originally surmised based on the original oblique reference to Doris’ being “in her 30s” in 1974).   He stated that he came by this information from her sons (all of them, apparently, not just Brian or one of the other two, and certainly not Doris’ daughter who is apparently disinclined to make her presence known in the world).

Since many Web sites have done nothing more than copy and paste different articles (including those of Taff and that “most popular” article multiple times) into their content, the plethora of disinformation and lack of information stemming from these articles propagates. 

Truth gets left behind.Bither houseThus, Doris Bither lived, achieved a brief notoriety, and died.  A definitive biography has not been written.

Kerry Gaynor claimed Doris was interviewed for about two hours at her home before he and Taff took on her case (and it was then that she revealed the true nature of her issue, the spectral rapes).  And certainly, with the amount of time spent in her close presence, they could have learned much about her had they bothered to ask, treating her, perhaps, as a woman rather than as a mere test subject.  It would truly be informative and enlightening to know more about what kind of person Doris was.

Was she happy?  Morose?  Was she fun or boring?  What kind of jobs did she hold?  What place in her life did her children’s fathers have (her boyfriend during the events of 1974 abandoned her during that time, probably when she might have needed his moral support most). 

In the end, the public doesn’t know much about this sad woman and what tormented her.  And that's a pity because the more known about her the more insight could be gleaned about The Entity Case.  


Author’s Update [April 28 & April 29, 2015]: An unsolicited contact from someone affiliated with Get The Truth Out (a website) has spurred some interesting hypotheses about this case.  And discussing it in ongoing exchanges has helped raise some new concerns.

First, it was reported that Doris likely was getting some form of recompense relative to either the book or movie of her case (or from both).  These checks stopped being cashed at some point years ago (thus, one can infer Doris is, indeed, dead). 

A suggestion arose that “Doris Bither” was not a real woman but, instead, was part of a major hoax orchestrated by Gaynor and Taff.  Their only possible reason for doing such a thing (if that were true) would have been to lend credibility to the floundering (closed soon after) parapsychology department at UCLA to which they were attached.  While plausible (and history records many bizarre hoaxes, some executed for no other reason than notoriety or a perpetrator’s prankish nature) this seems unlikely.

People cannot keep their mouths shut; considering the number attached to this case one of them—certainly the boyfriend who left Doris at the time—would have blown the whistle on it before now, over 40 years later.  The money to be made on such an exposé would be phenomenal; no one, however, has stepped forward to do that.  [By way of comparison, one of the originators of The Amityville Horror hoax, a lawyer named William E. Weber, came out publicly and talked about his role in creating the scam within only two years of the best-selling novel’s appearance and while the first film was still in theaters!]  However, it may be possible that Doris changed her name later in her life (through marriage or legally), which is why no death information could be located.

Taff has since tempered his position on the events surrounding Doris.  He says that in retrospect he doesn’t believe anything paranormal was happening there; he attributes what transpired to real, albeit difficult to detect, physical forces and not “ghosts” or other “entities”:

“ . . . while there was plenty of evidence that we were dealing with real paranormal phenomena, it [is] very likely [it] had nothing whatsoever to do with incorporeal sex, except in the minds of Doris and her children.”

A good investigation always begins with a in-depth background of its subject or complainant.  This was not done in Doris’ case.  Taff explains (lamely) in his own words exactly why better biographical information was not obtained at the time:

“Doris was very evasive and somewhat cryptic regarding her background, so much so that she refused to even tell us her age, which we knew was older than ours, but not by how many years.  Had we pushed Doris hard to reveal more about her hellish past, such efforts on our part might have pushed us right off the case.

Had we even attempted to secure the type of background information we currently collect, such as medical, psychological, family psychodynamics, prescribed medications (names of meds, dosage and duration) as well as recreational drugs and alcohol usage, Doris would surely have shown us the door from the outset.  We had no way of knowing just how utterly disturbing of a life she really had led: disowned by her family as a young teenager and cast out to fend for herself.”

Thus, he admits the opening of the investigation was slipshod.  In other words, it was more important to forge blindly ahead based on flimsy hearsay rather than lay solid groundwork.

And, considering Doris was asking for his help it seems unlikely she wouldn’t want to be as forthcoming as possible if her story was legitimate.  Anything to the contrary should have been perceived as a red flag, a clear sign of the questionable nature of her claims to these young men.  I attribute that lack of insight and failure to press her for details to their inexperience dealing with the deluded and with cranks.  [And, if it were me investigating her, had she been as cagey as Taff alleges, I would have walked away, telling her as I departed, “Good luck with your ghost rape there, lady.  See ya!”  At that point she would have either come clean or told me what I wanted to know; otherwise I would’ve walked out the door and the world would never be aware of this exaggerated, overly-hyped case.]  

A few interesting things were found about the person who headed up the parapsychology department under whom Taff and Gaynor worked, UCLA’s Dr. Thelma Moss.  As with most people in the world of “paranormal investigations” she started her working career in an area quite unrelated as a failed actress in the 1950s but gaining success as a screenplay writer during the same decade.  Surviving two suicide attempts led to “treatment” of her chronic depression and other psychological issues with LSD.  Beyond that, the woman established herself as a serious member of the paranormal world, actually bothering (unlike most “ghost hunters” today) to get a Ph.D in something at least quasi-related to paranormal studies, psychology.  And her involvement in Doris Bither and what her junior staff were doing was virtually nonexistent—Taff wrote that she visited the Culver City “haunted” house only once while the investigation was ongoing. 

Finally, The Entity as a film is being remade in 2015 with no release date set yet.  The publicity around this retelling, once it swings into full-on merchandising mode, should, hopefully, spur a renewed and, maybe this time around, more professionally-based interest in this case.

Maybe somebody will actually be able to get some closure on Doris Bither.

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