EVP & The Modern Spiritualist

The supernatural is a booming business.

Purported psychics, mediums, spirit communicators, and “ghost hunters” feature prominently on many television networks, and several stations air paranormal investigations “reality” shows. 

A common tool in such paranormal investigations, as “proof” of ghosts or otherworldly spirits, is electronic voice phenomena.

Electronic voice phenomena (generally shortened in paranormal jargon to “EVP”) are random ambient sounds recorded then played back and interpreted by a listener.  The sounds recovered are believed to be utterances of spirits from the Great Beyond.

EVP, though, is really nothing more than a technologically advanced version of 19th Century Spiritualism’s early, unsophisticated ghostly communications’ methods of crude spirit rappings and table tiltings.

Dead Man TalkingCredit: Vic Dillinger, 2011


Someone’s Rapping on My Door/Table/Wall
Two of three Fox sisters, Margaret and Kate (ages about 15 and 9 respectively) western New York State accidentally started the Spiritualism movement in 1848.  They had a much older sister named Leah (a grown woman of about 34 years).  A spirit allegedly communicated with the younger sisters by rapping on their home’s walls.

The whole business of a spirit in their home communicating by knocks and raps began as a prank on their parents.  The young girls bounced a ball against a wall and ceiling of their room at different times during the night while claiming innocence of any mischief when questioned by their mother and father about the nocturnal noises.

The noises were given a back story later by the sisters (after developing a rudimentary “yes/no” code for answering questions).  Allegedly, the raps were from a peddlar who had been murdered and buried beneath their cabin.  [Some time after the girls’ story grew in popularity a group decided to dig around beneath the cottage.  While some hair and bone fragments were found five feet below the cellar level—amid charcoal and quicklime—there was no way then to determine whether they were human, let alone those of a murdered peddlar.]

The prank ultimately got out of hand when neighborsFox Sisters (Margaret, Kate, and Leah)Credit: public domain learned of the “spirit” rappings, and soon these sisters were holding the first séance (a public affair).  Within 20 months of the rappings at the Hydesville cottage becoming a sensation a small group of people coalesced independently in 1849 and stared calling themselves Spiritualists.

Older sister Leah was brought into the business as well (and she actually was the first of the Fox girls to become a professional medium, giving private séances starting in November of 1849, six months before either of her younger siblings made such a move). 

An enthralled audience asked questions, answered allegedly by spirits through a code system of knocks and raps on a table. 

Kate Fox actually made a very lucrative career for herself for several years as a medium. 

Margaret Fox, also in the medium business, later denounced the phenomenon for what it was, a hoax.  The rappings heard were generated via cracking of toe and knee joints (making an audible popping sound in close quarters).  They later resorted to more elaborate, prop-driven theatrics, all trickery and nothing more.

As younger girls, however, their original intent had not been to defraud; once the publicity steamroller started, though, they were in no place to admit the truth.  Actual fraud occurred only when the sisters’ activities were later, knowingly, put forth as genuine.

Mediums at Large
The Fox sisters’ notoriety unleashed a flood of imitators and scam artists who improved upon their methods of producing spirit effects.

The “spirit” trumpet (a speaking horn much like a bullhorn) became a fixture of the séance; the trumpet magically floated through the air of a darkened room, and ethereal voices issued from it.  These floating trumpets, along with sailing violins playing music and levitating tables, improved upon the limited theatrics of the Fox sisters.

Spiritualism had many adherents in the early Twentieth Century.  Several prominent and influential people believed in The Afterlife and communications with the dead, among them the otherwise rational Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (creator of the greatest fictional detective ever, Sherlock Holmes).

Harry Houdini, the famous escape artist and mentalist, spent much of his later career debunking charlatans and cons among the Spiritualist movement.  He exposed manyHarry HoudiniCredit: Webster's Millenium 2000 CD-ROM false mediums and hucksters during his career, but he was not above overzealous trickery, either.

In one classic case Houdini found one medium particularly odious.  Yet, despite many attempts, he could not secure proof that her sessions were fraudulent.  In the end he planted evidence in one of her spiritual gatherings and then “exposed” her as a fraud.

After his death Houdini’s own chicanery in this case was revealed.  The medium in question, later in her life, said almost everything she had ever done had been faked, thus exonerating Houdini of his less-than-detached behavior in that instance.

“I Heard Something!”
The primary communications from Beyond during those early years of Spiritualism and psychic studies was in the form of sound.  The human voice, regardless of its source, can give comfort to a grieving loved one who may feel unable to sever emotional ties from the deceased beloved. 

Thus, the need to “hear” from the dead has popularized electronic voice phenomena.

The procedure is simple.  A traditional tape recorder or digital recorder is placed in a reportedly haunted environment.  The recording device is left running (or may be sound activated) to capture all sounds.  Later, when the device is retrieved, the playback will, likely, consist of white noise and ambient sounds (such as small animals scurrying, dogs barking, the structure settling, etc.).  Buried in these ordinary sounds, however, a listener may hear what he or she interprets as moaning, speech, or some other form of otherworldly vocalization.  The parts that are believed to be coherent speech are very short, usually a phrase of a few syllables or just a name (usually that of the listener or someone close to him or her).

The human brain is a truly wonderful instrument, filling in blanks as needed to interpret its surroundings.  This make-it-fit reaction to amorphous stimuli is called “pareidolia”.  [It is pareidolia that helps one “see” a cloud that is shaped like a camel or find a potato that “looks” like John F. Kennedy.]

And aural stimuli, such as EVP, are no different than visual pareidolia.  Any person placing a recording device in a house or other allegedly haunted locale is already predisposed to believe in a positive outcome.  No one would bother to place a recording device in an environment in which no results were expected (e.g., a house that, though perhaps old and empty, has absolutely no reputation for being haunted or possessed).

In other words, if someone is told a house is haunted, and that person installs a recorder, he or she expects results.  If technically there are no “results” on the playback the brain will fill in the blanks.  The level or clarity of “communications” any one person might hear or interpret on such tapes depends heavily upon that person’s belief in psychic phenomena and belief in other things, such as an eternal afterlife.  The more gullible, impressionable, or downright willing the subject is makes for a more receptive listener.

In today’s more technologically advanced world, the modern ghost hunter may scoff at the idea of people being taken in by swindlers using “spirit rappings” to relay messages from the beyond.  But, in a sense, today’s proponents of EVP (certainly the ones making a lucrative living espousing it) are no better.

And here’s why the modern Spiritualist, in the form of the “ghost hunter”, is no better than his/her charlatan antecedents: EVPs are not repeatable.  In other words when the “ghost hunter” asks a question of a “presence”, and hears an answer on a recording device he/she should be able to ask the exact same question and hear the exact same response immediately or at any reasonable future time if and only if there truly were some Netherworld presence there to speak into the metaphorical microphone.  However, this never happens; it cannot happen because the responses heard on EVP are not ghosts, they are the imaginings of the listeners.  

Most true believers in EVP probably are not intent upon defrauding anyone—they likely genuinely believe they hear voices on their recordings.

But, EVP is nothing more than the aural equivalent of a Rorschach blot: something is there, but it is not clearly defined, so the human mind twists and conforms it to fit something that makes sense to the subject.

Given a blank screen the human brain will project any image it desires to “see” upon it.

Likewise, given the hissing of white noise and ambient sounds on a recording the mind will fill in the blanks and process those captured sounds as human (or in this case, inhuman) vocalizations.

To the rational person EVP can only be perceived for what it truly is—the product of the human imagination and wishful thinking. 


(I only heard whistling noises such as an R2 unit might make myself

= Vic Dillinger)

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