Category: Electronic Voice Phenomena (EVP) Views: 3829
The Universal movie White Noise was released in January 2005 in the UK. It concerns the still little known paranormal occurrence of EVP, or electronic voice phenomena, in which discarnate voices are captured, at least for the purposes of the film, through the medium of ‘white noise’, the soft, swishing sound that one finds – or could find before the airwaves filled up – at an inter-frequency position on the radio, or on the static-filled screen of a detuned television where distorted, ghostly faces sometimes appear.
In the film, Michael Keaton plays Jonathan Rivers, whose wife Linda suffers a sudden, mysterious death. Later, Jonathan is contacted by a man who claims to be receiving and recording messages from the dead, including some from Linda herself. Initially sceptical, Jonathan soon becomes obsessed by his need to communicate with Linda and starts making his own EVP recordings. As is usual in Hollywood treatments of paranormal phenomena like EVP, there is a dark side: some of the messages appear to be premonitions from beyond, and before long it is clear that meddling with such matters may be a dangerous business – and that we might end up experiencing more than just messages from departed loved ones. As the trailer has it (cue deep, gravelly voice): “If they can come through… who else can come through?”
While the film’s treatment of EVP is not all sensationalism and spookiness, the horror movie approach (as well as the ads on the sides of buses shrieking: “They want to get hold of you!”) may serve to scare some people off the subject, or perhaps convince them that EVP as a phenomenon was ‘made in the USA’ like Coca Cola and gas-guzzling cars. This, of course, is not the case.
The Prehistory of EVP
In the 30 October 1920 issue of Scientific American, Thomas Alva Edison (below), America’s most celebrated inventor – whose track record included electric light, the phonograph and moving pictures – wrote as follows:
“If our personality survives, then it is strictly logical and scientific to assume that it retains memory, intellect and other faculties and knowledge that we acquire on this Earth. Therefore, if personality exists after what we call death, it is reasonable to conclude that those who leave this Earth would like to communicate with those they have left here… I am inclined to believe that our personality hereafter will be able to affect matter. If this reasoning be correct, then, if we can evolve an instrument so delicate as to be affected or moved or manipulated… by our personality as it survives in the next life, such an instrument, when made available, ought to record something”. 1
One can but wonder what some of Edison’s peers made of this, and though there has been speculation that Edison himself experimented with the construction of such an instrument, no evidence has survived to confirm such a notion. 2 Edison’s ideas – linking the world of the spirit to that of emergent new technologies – were, perhaps, somewhat ahead of their time. Although there is evidence that, quite independently from Edison, Marconi and Tesla also showed serious interest in using technology to contact the spirit world 3, it would be decades before what became known as EVP emerged fully.
Nevertheless, strange instances of seemingly discarnate voices reaching Earthly listeners were recorded over the intervening years. In the 1930s, as Europe witnessed the slow build-up to World War II, Swedish and Norwegian pilots found strange and unidentifiable voices on their frequencies. They were believed, at first, to be stray Nazi transmissions, but no evidence was found one way or the other, and the voices from nowhere stopped as abruptly as they started in 1934, after which they were largely forgotten.
John Butler, writing in his 1947 book Exploring the Psychic World, described a strange event at London’s Wigmore Hall that also happened in the 1930s, in this case in the presence of 600 people. A medium was on stage and a microphone was placed some distance away, wired to loudspeakers throughout the hall. Suddenly, voices began to speak through the microphone; about 40 or 50 were counted. No one was standing near the microphone, and two technical representatives of the installers, a well-known firm of electrical engineers specialising in public address systems, heard the voices and publicly stated that they could not have had a human source and appeared to be disembodied in origin. Both these men later signed a statement, published in Psychic News, that they had become spiritualists as a result of their experiences on that occasion.
In 1949, a small group was formed in Manchester, England, with the name of ‘The Spirit Electronic Communication Society’ and with the stated aim, from their sixpenny pamphlet, of “Electronic Communication for the Spiritual Emancipation of the People”. The formation of the society had been inspired by the work of Dutchman Mr N Zwaan who had demonstrated, at the International Spiritualism Federation’s 1948 Congress, an “electrical device which produced a field of energy capable of stimulating the psychic senses into activity”. The device was initially named the ‘Super-ray’, then the ‘Zwaan ray’ (Binnington model), before developing into the ‘Teledyne’ and finally the ‘Telewave’. Marvellous results were claimed for these science-fictional sounding devices, including a form of direct voice communication with the dead. By 1952, though, this burst of excitement and activity seems to have simply petered out. However, in that same year, two eminent Roman Catholics, one the Benedictine monk Father Pellegrino Maria Ernetti, 4 the other respected physician Father Agostino Gemelli. They inadvertently picked up inexplicable voices while working on a recording of Gregorian chant with a wire recorder in the physics lab at Milan University. Their work was not going well, and a frustrated Gemelli implored his dead father to help him. When they listened to what had registered on their primitive recorder, to their utmost surprise they heard the priest’s dead father say: “I am always with you and help you”. News of this event reached Pope Pius XII, who decided that the Fathers should not worry as the voice they had recorded was a scientific fact and had no basis in spiritualism. 1
Seven years later, in 1959, the real breakthrough came. Friedrich Jurgenson, a Latvian-born artist and documentary film producer, was recording birdsong at night in the woods near his home in Mölnbo, Sweden, for a documentary film he was making. On playback, he noticed a man’s voice speaking Norwegian and discussing the nocturnal habits of birds. Despite the striking coincidence of subject, Jurgenson thought that somehow his recorder had picked up a normal radio transmission. But he was shaken when, recording again some weeks later, he captured another, female voice. The voice enquired: “Friedel, my little Friedel, can you hear me?” Friedel was Jurgenson’s pet name, and he immediately recognised his mother’s voice. She had died four years previously. Now convinced that he had established a link with the beyond, Jurgenson carried on recording, capturing hundreds of discarnate voices, speaking in numerous languages, many of which appeared to respond to him personally and which he identified as deceased family members and friends. 5
Jurgenson published his findings in the 1964 book Voices from the Universe, attracting attention from other researchers, including Dr Hans Bender, head of the parapsychological research unit of the University of Freiburg. Bender put his own team of scientists to work on the voice phenomenon, and their results – recordings of voices speaking recognisable words obtained by using blank tapes and normal tape recorders in a silent environment – seemed to vindicate the reality of Jurgenson’s experiments.
And it wasn’t just the parapsychologists who were interested in his work. Jurgenson was decorated with the Commander Cross of the Order of St Gregory by Pope Paul VI in 1969. The award was ostensibly for documentary film work on the Vatican and Pompeii, but Jurgenson later told a friend that he had found a sympathetic ear for the voice phenomenon in the Vatican. Given Pius XII’s apparent knowledge of Gemelli and Ernetti’s involuntary EVP incident, it would seem that the Vatican might have more than a passing interest in the subject.
In 1965 another Latvian, Dr Konstantin Raudive, a well-known psychologist and one-time student of Carl Jung, heard of Jurgenson’s work. Raudive had long been interested in direct voice mediumship and, after meeting Jurgenson and becoming convinced of the validity of his EVP work, set up his own research project in Germany. Initially, Raudive used an ordinary crystal set, but eventually enlisted the help of physicists and electronics engineers who helped him create a custom-designed instrument named a ‘Goniometer.’ With its help, Raudive recorded thousands of discarnate voices and, in 1968, published his research in a German-language book entitled Unhörbares wird hörbar, translated a few years later as Breakthrough. In 1971, the book’s English publisher, Colin Smythe, arranged scientific tests of Raudive’s work, overseen by acoustics experts and recording engineers from Pye records, in which four tape recorders were shielded from radio interference and left recording for 18 minutes. The assembled listeners heard nothing while monitoring the recording through headphones, but on playback, some 200 voices were heard; one of them was recognised by Sir Robert Mayer as his old friend, the recently deceased Arthur Schnabel. 6
Breakthrough proved to be a major incentive to many later experimenters, who followed Raudive’s methodology with great success. (There are a number of accounts suggesting that Raudive – who died in 1974 – has been busy ever since making contact with other EVP researchers, his messages from beyond appearing not just on tape recorders but on videos and even computers).
In the same year that Raudive published his seminal book, the retired American businessman George Meek became interested in EVP and began developing the world’s first device for direct spirit communication, with the help of associate Bill O’Neil, who was himself ‘channelling’ the instrument’s design from ‘Doc Mueller’, an ex-NASA scientist who had died in 1967! (see FT104:29) The result of this collaboration between the Earthly and spirit worlds was the ‘Spiricom’ – and it promised direct two-way communication with the dead. Meek and O’Neil managed to make hours of recordings of these conversations, but it appears that Spiricom ceased to function in 1981 (as Mueller had warned it would) and despite the time and money Meek poured into his research he could never prove that he had actually made contact. 7
A Worldwide Phenomenon
But by this time EVP was beginning to intrigue people not just in Europe, but all over the world. By the early-to-mid-1970s, groups had been formed in Germany, Austria, France, Canada, Brazil, Italy, the USA and Russia. In Britain, two researchers – George Gilbert Bonner, a psychologist and artist from Hastings and Raymond Cass, a former hearing-aid consultant from Humberside – began to experiment using reel-to-reel recorders and battery radio, tuned to “white noise” to act as a carrier for the voices. Bonner carried out an experiment in October 1972, asking into his microphone: “Can anyone hear me?” but not expecting an answer. He received the reply: “Yes” in a rush and hiss of sound. Bonner went on to record more than 50,000 spirit voices over the next 22 years, although it took him five years to perfect his listening technique for spotting their fleeting presence. Despite his vast accumulation of recorded voices, and well researched theories on their origin and technical attributes, Bonner, who died in 1997, was unable to interest scientists in furthering his research. Ray Cass, who died in 2002, recalled: “There was great enthusiasm at that time, and many experimenters, but as it became clear that weeks or months of effort was necessary before a single voice came through, most people dropped out. Only a few survived – George Bonner and myself, amongst five or six others. We eventually assembled a body of objective voices, which clinched the case. However, the Establishment ignored the evidence. The Society for Psychical Research was frosty; the Spiritualists relied on mediumship, so the EVP people were pretty isolated.
But dedicated researchers in other countries had more luck. Hans Otto Koenig, like Meek, wished to get beyond the cumbersome method of playing back tapes in the hope of finding spirit voices, and instead developed his ‘field generators’, using ultrasound signals (see FT153:30-35) at 20-40 kHz, to ‘boost’ the ‘live’ voices which then came through a complex electronic system. In 1982, he carried out a well supervised experiment on live television, presented by major network RTL’s Rainer Holbe, who did much to increase European awareness of EVP. Koenig’s ultra-sound device was set up under the supervision of the station’s engineers, connected to speakers and switched on. After a few seconds, a clear voice was heard to say: “Otto Koenig makes wireless with the dead.” The engineers declared there was no evidence of fraud.
Since then, interest in EVP has shown no sign of abating, and the term Instrumental Transcommunication (ITC) has been coined to cover not just ‘traditional’ EVP but also other phenomena, including spirit telephone voices, ghostly pictures obtained from video sources and even mysterious communications appearing on personal computers, such as those famously described in Ken Webster’s book The Vertical Plane. 8 The USA has had its own American Association of Electronic Voice Phenomena (AA-EVP) since 1982, while I myself have formed a UK-based EVP & Transcommunication Society.
The Uninvited Guest
1994 was the year I accidentally discovered EVP for myself. My eldest son Paul had died totally unexpectedly two years earlier. I had resolved to find him wherever he was and through a series of chance meetings I had come across a man who organised a weekly psychical circle at his home, not far from where I lived.
It involved a traditional attempt to communicate with spirits by sitting in the dark and waiting for rapping on the table, levitations, spirit lights – all that sort of thing. Much as I enjoyed meeting everyone – between seven and 10 regular sitters each week – I couldn’t give much credence to the goings-on: all those table-raps, the tinkling chandelier and the table flying around. I assumed one of the sitters was doing it, but couldn’t imagine why – it’s not as if they could admit to it to get any glory.
One evening six months into the weekly sittings, I took my mini cassette tape recorder along and laid it on the table. I don’t know what I was expecting to pick up – perhaps some directional evidence as to where the raps were coming from. There were only four of us there that evening and I was the only woman. When I played the tape back I heard, in a tiny gap between two of us speaking, a woman whisper my name. It was soft, but clear and sort of one-dimensional, lacking the same room echo and resonance of the other voices on the tape. Who was this uninvited guest? I was highly intrigued.
I had never even heard of EVP at this point, but it didn’t take too long to find out about it and decide that this was what I had inadvertently tapped into. I had captured a communication that seemed to be intended specifically for me from someone who wasn’t present in the flesh. I played it over so many times, just to reassure myself that it was actually there, that I almost rubbed it from the tape.
After this, my surviving son and I decided to record regularly in our own house. Initially, we tried twice a week for an hour – far too gruelling a schedule, as it turned out. As the first disembodied voice had arrived in the dark, I replicated the séance room conditions, with all light rigorously excluded. This resulted in air being excluded too, and so for the next six months the experiment was carried out, twice a week, in a stifling room – and to no avail. Nothing happened.
About to give up, I played back what could easily have been my last recording, and we were both astonished to hear a man’s voice say: “I’ve been every week”. It was absolutely amazing, not to mention elating, and all the encouragement we needed to continue with our experiment.
After that, the voices began to arrive – not at every session, but most. We cut the recording times down, too – listening to an hour’s worth of tape, twice a week, takes an inordinately long time, and I always ended up with a headache. The disembodied voices were usually quite faint, fleeting and often seemingly banal. Quite early on, for instance, we recorded what sounded exactly like my son Paul’s voice saying just one word: “Reason”. But believing that if and when he communicated he wouldn’t limit himself to a single, repeated utterance, I dismissed it as not coming from him. However, with hindsight, it seems to me that it was Paul, and that he was attempting to tell us that he had gone for a reason – that everything, in fact, happens for a reason.
For five years we recorded and the communications gradually became stronger and more meaningful. Sometimes, they came from dead relatives. My half-sister, for instance, commenting on my extravagance on making two cups of tea with two separate tea bags: “Two cups of tea Judith!” She’d always made so many cups of tea from the same bag that my brothers referred to it as “gnats’ piss”. And then there was my mother-in-law, in response to my son’s question about whether or not it would snow, replying on tape: “It’s not cold enough for it”. These voices were unmistakeable, and seemed to have retained all of their personalities and vocal characteristics post mortem.
Other communicators were unknown to me, such as the man who, in response to my plea of “Where are you? I wish you’d tell me”, simply replied: “I’m praying.”
Speaking to the Dead
In 1999, I dropped and broke my tape recorder. It was not repairable, and, though I mourned it, I had to buy another. Digital was now the thing, so I bought one of those. On reaching home, I tried it and found it had a tinny, rather scratchy sound, even though it had been quite expensive. I recorded myself complaining about it, saying: “I don’t like it, I think I’ll take it back to the shops; but if you (discarnate beings) think it’s useful perhaps I’ll keep it”. On playback, I was amazed to hear a man’s voice – deep, sonorous, and joyful – replying to me. In response to my: “I don’t like it,” he said emphatically: “We do like it!” I then heard him ordering someone to “Go and find Hallam! He needs someone to know. He needs someone who can help him.”. Finally, he said firmly: “Keep the machine!”
This extraordinary communication was in a new realm – although it took me a while to make out – and the reference to ‘Hallam’ was particularly intriguing. Jack Hallam, who had died in 1986, was a dear friend and colleague of mine. The next time I recorded, there was Jack! And he has not ceased to be in contact with me from that moment on.
What strikes me most about my own experiments with EVP is the sheer volume of communication. Whenever I switch on, ‘they’ are there. I don’t have to be anywhere special – no hanging about in graveyards or haunted houses – they just speak all the time. Even if I switch on, leave the recorder by my bed and go to sleep, in the morning it is full from beginning to end (an hour’s worth) with a multitude of sounds: talking, arguing, whistling, clapping, clicking, singing. Sometimes there are direct references to me, like: “That’s Judith! Get her out of bed!” or “Let’s wake her up!” So, I only record for very brief periods, otherwise it’s just too much to listen back to.
The voices also now appear on my telephone answering machine, among the left messages. I don’t know who most of them are, unless they give their names, which they rarely do. They often give me advice like: “Don’t trust him” or “Ring him/her back”. The first phone call, on the first day I bought the phone, was not for me. I missed the call, but when I played the message back a voice at the end of it (after the caller had finished speaking) said succinctly: “Wrong number!” – which it was.
On another occasion, I had an Australian woman staying in the house for a month. She was quite frenetic, and I was rather relieved when she left, but shortly before she did so a discarnate male voice with an Australian accent left a message on the answering machine. He said just one word: “Insane!”
But I knew by his accent precisely to whom he referred. Incidentally, these voices are never heard by the ‘Earthly’ callers: I’ve checked this out many times.
Is Anybody Out There?
So how does EVP work? Frankly, I don’t know. It’s clearly a subject that needs controlled scientific research, but this is simply not happening, despite my and others’ best efforts. It may be, as I suspect, that the experimenter is very much a part of the experiment in EVP research, perhaps acting as some kind of ‘radio receiver’. On the other hand, maybe it is the equipment itself that somehow allows the voices to come through. As for attempting to get scientists in the UK to study and research the phenomenon as it deserves, I have had no luck whatsoever. For mainstream scientists, the idea of Earthly listeners picking up discarnate voices that appear to be those of the dead is so far off their radar, and in such contradiction to established thought, that it’s hardly surprising that they have shown no interest in the subject in recent years. It surprises me far more that even the Koestler Chair of Parapsychology at Edinburgh University showed a complete lack of interest in the subject, as did The Society for Psychical Research. I simply can’t understand the lofty disdain for EVP displayed by our two foremost parapsychological institutions, and I can’t help wondering what they are there for.
Perhaps, in these days of excruciating noise levels, the sometimes barely audible whisperings of the voices are simply drowned out and EVP is easy to ignore or dismiss.
Which brings me back to the film White Noise. I am glad it has been made. It shows at least an acknowledgment of this sadly neglected yet most evidential of all paranormal phenomena. It should serve to arouse curiosity, and now that EVP has ‘made it’ via Hollywood, perhaps my task of trying to get people to take it more seriously will be that little bit easier.
Fortean Times is one of the world's most individual and best loved magazines. FT reports on the stranger side of life, delivering a heady mixture of weird world news and fascinating features. Open-minded, well informed and always maintaining a healthy sense of humour, FT is the only place to go for a sensible look at our mad planet.
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