“Frights and sounds” (Electronic voice phenomenon)


Electronic voice phenomena are recorded sounds that are interpreted by some as spirit voices. Without exception, this ghostspeak is limited to incoherent hisses in one to three word bursts.

When one can make a phrase out of it, it is likely the result of apophenia, the mind’s tendency to perceive patterns in random stimulus. It is what causes people to see a Face on Mars or Jesus in their Post Toasties. Other factors in hearing spirit voices on recordings are expectation and desire, but the biggest influence is equipment shortfalls.

Sound engineer David Federlein has noted that despite using much higher quality equipment than most EVP researchers, he has “never heard from the dead and I have been listening to tape and hard disc recordings for years. EVP are usually recorded by raising the noise floor – the electrical noise created by all electrical devices – in order to create white noise. When this noise is filtered, it can be made to produce noises which sound like speech. When you factor in other aspects of physics, such as cross modulation of radio stations or faulty ground loops in equipment, you have a lot of people thinking they are listening to ghosts when in fact it is nothing more than a controlled misuse of electronics.”

Indeed, sample rate conversion, vibration isolation, and noise alteration can all cause recordings to assume qualities separate from what they originally picked up. Even meteors can be a factor. While hurtling through Earth’s atmosphere, they leave a wake of ionized particles and electrons that can reflect transmission radio waves. The resultant sound lasts no more than a second, but it can transform a message sent via CB, cell phone, baby monitor, or ham radio into a wail of torment from a 16th Century knight.

As an anti-vax message on the Internet shows, scientific advances can be coopted by anti-science forces. So the advent of film and audio enabled mediums and ghost hunters to bolster their charade. One of the first instances of this was Attila von Szalay in the 1920s. He conducted recording sessions using a microphone in an insulated cabinet connected to an external recording device and speaker. He reported finding sounds on the tape that could not be heard on the speaker when he recorded. He interpreted these extraneous sounds to be voices from the netherworld.

Opening our skeptic toolkit, we find three items. First, von Szalay is employing Tooth Fairy Science, where research is conducted on a phenomenon before establishing that the phenomenon exists. This leads seamlessly to the next problem, the logical fallacy of affirming the consequent. Von Szalay insinuates that if we hear voices, it means ghosts are speaking, and we indeed hear those voices, so voilà. Also crucial is that he never established that any of the equipment could be used for the purpose he was claiming. As an amusing postscript, the ghostly missives included “This is G” and “Hot dog, Art.”

In the early 1980s, William O’Neil constructed an electronic audio device called the Spiricom, which he said could enable him to dialogue with the discarnate. But he committed the same errors as von Szaly and, furthermore, no one was able to replicate his results using the device, meaning either that it didn’t work or only O’Neil had The Gift.

Along the way, Sarah Estep founded the American Association of Electronic Voice Phenomena and put this Tooth Fairy Science on an even grander stage by announcing that the voices came from other planets or dimensions.

It is telling that the only persons who pick up these voices are those that are specifically looking for them, even though EVP researchers use the same type of equipment as sound and video broadcasters, engineers, and producers. The spirits never announce their presence on CNN or NPR. Then again, maybe the discarnate favor the darkened rooms, hushed tones, and frightened hosts that shows like Ghost Hunters employ.


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