Within ghost hunting and parapsychology, electronic voice phenomena (EVP) are sounds found on electronic recordings that are interpreted as spirit voices. Parapsychologist Konstantīns Raudive, who popularized the idea in the 1970s, described EVP as typically brief, usually the length of a word or short phrase.
Enthusiasts consider EVP to be a form of paranormal phenomenon often found in recordings with static or other background noise. Scientists regard EVP as a form of auditory pareidolia (interpreting random sounds as voices in one’s own language) and a pseudoscience promulgated by popular culture. Prosaic explanations for EVP include apophenia (perceiving patterns in random information), equipment artifacts, and hoaxes.
As the Spiritualist religious movement became prominent in the 1840s–1940s with a distinguishing belief that the spirits of the dead can be contacted by mediums, new technologies of the era including photography were employed by spiritualists in an effort to demonstrate contact with a spirit world. So popular were such ideas that Thomas Edison was asked in an interview with Scientific American to comment on the possibility of using his inventions to communicate with spirits. He replied that if the spirits were only capable of subtle influences, a sensitive recording device would provide a better chance of spirit communication than the table tipping and ouija boards mediums employed at the time. However, there is no indication that Edison ever designed or constructed a device for such a purpose. As sound recording became widespread, mediums explored using this technology to demonstrate communication with the dead as well. Spiritualism declined in the latter part of the 20th century, but attempts to use portable recording devices and modern digital technologies to communicate with spirits continued.
In 1980, William O’Neil constructed an electronic audio device called “The Spiricom”. O’Neil claimed the device was built to specifications which he received psychically from George Mueller, a scientist who had died six years previously. At a Washington, DC press conference on April 6, 1982, O’Neil stated that he was able to hold two-way conversations with spirits through the Spiricom device, and provided the design specifications to researchers for free. However, nobody is known to have replicated the results O’Neil claimed using his own Spiricom devices. O’Neil’s partner, retired industrialist George Meek, attributed O’Neil’s success, and the inability of others to replicate it, to O’Neil’s mediumistic abilities forming part of the loop that made the system work. In 2020 Kenny Biddle wrote a comprehensive article explaining the origins of the Spiricom as developed by O’Neil and Meek. He was prompted to do so by the re-emergence of the device on the television series Ghosthunters. He comprehensively debunked the “science” behind the device in both the original development and the Ghosthunters episode.
Another electronic device specifically constructed in an attempt to capture EVP is “Frank’s Box” or the “Ghost Box”, created in 2002 by EVP enthusiast Frank Sumption for supposed real-time communication with the dead. Sumption claims he received his design instructions from the spirit world. The device is described as a combination white noise generator and AM radio receiver modified to sweep back and forth through the AM band selecting split-second snippets of sound. Critics of the device say its effect is subjective and incapable of being replicated, and since it relies on radio noise, any meaningful response a user gets is purely coincidental, or simply the result of pareidolia. Paranormal researcher Ben Radford writes that Frank’s Box is a “modern version of the Ouija board… also known as the ‘broken radio'”.
Explanations and origins
Paranormal claims for the origin of EVP include living humans imprinting thoughts directly on an electronic medium through psychokinesis and communication by discarnate entities such as spirits, nature energies, beings from other dimensions, or extraterrestrials. Paranormal explanations for EVP generally assume production of EVP by a communicating intelligence through means other than the typical functioning of communication technologies. Natural explanations for reported instances of EVP tend to dispute this assumption explicitly and provide explanations which do not require novel mechanisms that are not based on recognized scientific phenomena.
One study, by psychologist Imants Barušs, was unable to replicate suggested paranormal origins for EVP recorded under controlled conditions. Brian Regal in Pseudoscience: A Critical Encyclopedia (2009) has written “A case can be made for the idea that many EVPs are artifacts of the recording process itself with which the operators are unfamiliar. The majority of EVPs have alternative, nonspiritual sources; anomalous ones have no clear proof they are of spiritual origin.”
There are a number of simple scientific explanations that can account for why some listeners to the static on audio devices may believe they hear voices, including radio interference and the tendency of the human brain to recognize patterns in random stimuli. Some recordings may be hoaxes created by frauds or pranksters.
People want to believe.