Again, for those of you who - bizarrely - missed it, here's my latest piece for the Guardian.
It’s a suitable location for a seance. The leafless trees are full of crows, and drizzle is darkening the ancient gravestones. Putting our whirring tape recorder on the floor of this disused Cornish church, we walk away. For the next twenty minutes we will sit in the car, wondering. Can the voices of the dead really speak to the living - through a humble tape recording?
The quarry we are hunting is technically known as EVP, or Electronic Voice Phenomena. If you haven’t heard of it yet, soon you will: this week sees the premiere of a major Hollywood film dedicated to the idea.
The movie’s called White Noise, and stars Michael Keaton in his first serious role since Batman. Keaton plays a prosperous architect, Jonathan Rivers, whose wife Anna abruptly dies. In the midst of his grief and despair, Rivers hears from a mysterious man, who claims he has been receiving messages from Anna - via tape recordings, or EVP. Rivers’s initial scepticism soon turns to curiosity, and then to belief. Finally it turns to terror.
Is this just another serving of Hollywood hokum? Perhaps; we’ll only know for sure when the movie hits our screens on Friday [January 7]. What is undoubted, however, is that the film’s subject is well chosen. EVP seems to touch a sensitive nerve in the human psyche. Many people are fascinated by the idea that the cold mechanics of modern technology can do what man, alone, has striven unsuccessfully to do for centuries: make contact with the dead.
The genesis of EVP is contemporary with the origins of recording science itself. By 1920 American inventor Thomas Edison was already speculating that new ways of preserving and trasmitting noise might one day lead to devices for communicating with The Beyond. Through the 1920s Edison actually made some solitary, unsuccessful experiments to this end.
Edison’s words, if not his deeds, inspired plenty of disciples. Over the following decades various psychics, priests, phonographers and radio hams tried to get electromagnetic access to the spiritual realm. As far as we know none of them succeeded in any demonstrable way.
By the 40s and 50s the world was giving up on the idea. But then, in 1959, some concrete evidence finally emerged. It happened in a wood in Sweden, where film producer Friedrich Jurgenson was spending the day recording native birdsong. Replaying his reel-to-reel tape, Jurgenson was stunned when he supposedly heard - between the twitters of the blackbirds - the distinct voice of his mother. Jurgenson’s mother had been dead for half a decade.
Since Jurgenson’s groundbreaking experiments, many others have attempted to repeat his results - with various outcomes, not all of them laughable. In 1960s a Latvian philosopher, Konstantin Raudive, published books detailing his own EVP studies, in which he claimed to have recorded over 100,000 unearthly voices. Meanwhile in Germany whole societies were set up, dedicated to the phenomenon. Here in the UK, researchers like George Bonner and Raymond Cass claimed to have recorded strange etheric songs to go with the ‘usual’ ghostly chatter.
Recent technological advances have added to the intrigue. The first reports of a video equivalent of EVP, known as ITC (instrumental transcommunication) were made in 1986 - when Swiss engineer Klaus Schreiber detected ‘images of the dead’ on a TV screen unconnected to any aerial. Computers have also proved useful: new voice recording software has enabled EVP researchers to breakdown and analyse their data. Likewise, the Internet has helped people to share their EVP recordings: Google the words ‘EVP’ and you can find thousands of sound files online, all playable from the comfort of your own PC.
Listening to these recordings is an unnerving experience. A buzz of white noise turns weirdly to an old woman saying ‘yes I am here’. The desultory chit-chat of psychic researchers - or larking-about teenagers - is suddenly interrupted by the menacing hiss of someone saying ‘go away Sarah’.
Curiously, the most unsettling EVPs are often the most banal: dead voices wittering away to themselves and each other, or disembodied speakers chatting vaguely about a lost handbag, or the rainy weather. The very inanity of these etheric whispers gives them an oddly bloodcurdling quality: one fully exploited in the trailer for the film White Noise.
Bloodcurdlingness does not equal veracity, of course. Before we can even begin to believe that we have successfully contacted ‘the dead’, we have to rule out all other explanations. Unfortunately for EVP researchers, this has proved difficult.
One of the most obvious of problems with EVP data is its subjectivity. A lot of EVP evidence can be interpreted in many ways. Is that really a whisper from beyond the grave, or just a sharp breeze magnified by a microphone? What sounds like a ghostly singer to one listener (perhaps someone with their credulity reinforced by recent bereavement) can easily sound like a distant door-creak to someone more ‘objective’. Dismayingly for believers, a Society for Psychical Research investigation into EVP recently concluded that the vast majority of EVP recordings can be dismissed in this fashion: as over-enthusiastic interpretation.
But still, a hard core of evidence remains. Some very strange noises have been recorded: under rigorous conditions, by objective observers, in silent surroundings. With this kind of data, the objections are more subtle. Some say that corrupted tape is to blame - though this can hardly apply to digital recordings. Other sceptics, like US Professor of Psychology Terence Hines, have pointed to radio signals, or cosmic rays, even psychokinesis - i.e. the ardent wishes of the listener physically altering the recording. The last explanation seems as outlandish as the rationale it seeks to replace.
It’s therefore a confusing picture. But it’s a picture you can clarify for yourself - by having a go at your own EVP recording. This is what we are trying to do today, in Cornwall.
The location we have chosen for our first experiment is the disused church of Baldhu, near Truro. We’ve opted for this place as it has a serious local reputation for weirdness. Before the church of Baldhu went defunct a few years ago - due to the depopulation of the surrounding mining districts - a choir refused to sing here, as they found it too spooky. Since the church was made redundant, Satanic graffiti (‘suffer the little child that comes unto me’) has appeared on the planked-up church windows; some villagers even claim that there are covens which gather in the nearby woodland.
So what will we find? Rescuing our little dictaphone from the porch, we play back the tape. At first we think we hear laughter - then we realise that all those shrieking crows are to blame. Similarly, the weird feminine yell which at first seems so promising, turns out, on sober reflection, to be a woman who was walking her dog in a nearby field.
We’ve drawn a blank. Our next stop is at Britain’s ‘most haunted castle’, the Tudor tower of Pengersick, near Penzance. The place is certainly atmospheric, the owner charmingly eccentric. And this time we leave the tape recorder whirring in the ‘haunted Jacobean bedroom’ for a full half hour. But when we retrieve the recorder, there is nothing but quietness on our C60
By now I am happy to give up, having had my skepticism confirmed. But my fiancee thinks we should have one more go: this time in my 250-year-old family home, an old Cornish coach house. Who knows, maybe there is some spirit here, lurking amidst the Christmas rubbish and the turkey sandwiches.
The evening is dark and wet. To put us in the right mood, we light a few candles, then set to the task. For this final experiment, we are adopting a new method. Before the recording proper, we ask suitable questions into the tape. This is harder than it seems. When we start saying out loud ‘Is anyone there’? and ‘Can you please make your presence felt?’ we feel just a bit ridiculous. Our laughter is only stifled by several glasses of wine.
After a dozen questions, and about twenty minutes, we play the tape. At first there is nothing. Just our whispered giggles, and the glug of the Shiraz. But then we hear it. A voice. From nowhere, we can hear a dark, disturbing, old man’s voice, growling what sounds like my fiancee’s name. White-faced, we stare at each other. Then, without warning, the dog runs into the hallway and starts barking manically at the back door - barking at empty space, barking at nothing at all.
Have we really recorded a ghostly voice? Search me. All I know is that, as we finish off the rest of the wine, we both have shaking hands.
For more information on EVP, and how to make your own recordings, visit www.aaevp.com or www.ghostlights.co.uk