Previously: Ouija Boards And The Ideomotor Effect.
Until fairly recently, I had no idea what a spirit box even was, let alone how spirit boxes actually work. After finding myself in close proximity to one during a night spent at a reportedly haunted house, though, I finally got the chance to witness one in action — and although I’d originally intended this “How Does It Work?” feature to focus on methods of divination, it occurred to me that it might be useful to expand the scope of it a bit. So, here we are: Spirit boxes, what they are, and how they work — depending on who you talk to, of course.
Spirit boxes fall under the heading of ITC, an acronym that can stand for either Instrumental Transdimensional Communication or Instrumental Transcommunication. (Coinage of the latter is usually credited to German physicist Ernst Senkowski.) You’ll see both terms used in reference to it out in the wild, but they both mean pretty much the same thing: Using electronic devices in order to communicate with or otherwise contact paranormal entities. As Karen Stollznow noted in the Skeptical Inquirer in 2010, these devices are typically “standard machines used in nonstandard ways”; anything from voice recorders to televisions might be employed in ITC. (Sound familiar?)
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Spirit boxes stand out from the crowd in that they’re specifically engineered to contact paranormal entities — that is, when you use one, you’re not using it in a “nonstandard” way; you’re using it for its intended purpose — but they’re built from components meant to be used in other ways, so in that sense, they can still be said at least partially to be nonstandard usage of a standard device. They’re radios, essentially — but modified radios. Radios that do things that regular radios don’t. Radios that purportedly allow the dead to communicate with the living.
As you might expect, spirit boxes are quite recent inventions; they rely on radios, and given that the first human voice wasn’t transmitted via radio until the early 20th century… well, let’s just say that it took a while for the technology that makes spirit boxes possible to become readily accessible — and even longer for someone to try to harness it as a method for contacting paranormal entities.
But neither do spirit boxes exist in a vacuum. Let’s start by taking a look at the history of the device.
A Brief History Of Spirit Boxes
In order to talk about spirit boxes, we need to talk about Electronic Voice Phenomena, or EVP. If you’re even just passingly familiar with paranormal investigation methods, you probably know what EVP is; it refers to audio recordings that claim to feature the voices of spirits or other paranormal entities, particularly when those voices weren’t audible to humans present in the space at the time the recording was taken. As with all things paranormal, there are believers and skeptics of EVP; believers are positive that what they’re hearing on the recordings are paranormal in nature, while skeptics are just as positive that it’s feedback, or radio interference, or simply the misinterpretation of a sound produced by perfectly natural means.
The first spirit voice recording was reportedly captured in the 1940s by Reverend Drayton Thomas. During a séance with medium Gladys Osborne Leonard, Thomas recorded the disembodied voices that emerged throughout the session; he later identified one of them as his deceased father. Voila: Spirit recording.
Around the same time, photographer and alleged psychic Attila von Szalay began experimenting with methods of recording the voices of spirits. With Raymond Bayless, he first tried using a 78 RPM Pack-Bell record-cutter and player; however, this method was difficult to carry off and failed to produce the results for the pair were hoping. When they created a sort of cabinet equipped with a microphone and speaker trumpet, with a line running out of the cabinet connecting to a tape recorder and speaker, though? That worked, they claimed. The person inside the cabinet couldn’t hear what the spirits were seemingly communicating, but when the recordings were played back, voices and messages seemed to appear there.
In 1959, Swedish filmmaker, opera singer, and bird-watcher Friederich Jurgenson found that several recordings he had made of wild bird songs also contained strange voices — human ones, he thought. He later admitted that he had been attempting to record EVP for some time, so the fact that these voices were allegedly present didn’t surprise him; regardless, though, he considered it a success and continued to explore the phenomenon for many years. In 1968, a Latvian psychologist Jurgenson had worked with, Konstantin Raudive, published the book Breakthrough: An Amazing Experiment in Electronic Communication with the Dead detailing many of the discoveries made since Jurgenson’s initial recording. EVP are sometimes called “Raudive voices” as a result.
But as fascinating as all of these spirit recordings were, they had one major limitation as a means of communication: They had to be performed on a delay. These recordings didn’t allow you to converse with any entities in the moment; you could only hear any messages they may have tried to give you later on as you played back the recording.
The spirit box, however, takes the whole idea a step further: It purports to let you communicate with spirits in real time.
The first device created that claimed to allow for real-time, two-way communication with paranormal entities is generally considered to be the “Spiricom.” Developed in the late 1970s and early ‘80s by William O’Neil and George Meek this device consisted of a radio transmitter and receiver with 13 tone generators that covered the range of an adult male voice. The evidence they presented as having been discovered using this device was extraordinary; however, many now believe the Spiricom to have been a hoax. Methodist minister Dr. Terrance Peterson, for example, reported a thorough debunking of the story in a 1987 issue of FATE Magazine. Scientific investigator Dr. Stephen Rorke remains similarly unconvinced, as covered by a 2006 episode of the long-running radio show Coast to Coast. Inconsistencies in O’Neil and Meek’s story, combined with evidence that O’Neil was skilled in ventriloquism, suggests that the “evidence” they gathered may have been fabricated. Even if they were telling the truth, though, the device seemed only to work for them: O’Neil and Meek made the plans for their device freely available, but no one else ever managed to replicate their results.
Then came Frank’s Box.
In 1995, the magazine Popular Electronics’ October issue included a piece titled, “Are The Dead Trying To Communicate With Us Through Electronic Means? Try These Experiments And See For Yourself.” So, in the early 2000s, Frank Sumption did just that — and he ended up DYI-ing the first version what’s now called a spirit box. Known as Frank’s Box, Sumption’s invention is basically a home-brewed radio receiver with the scan lock function disabled. Th result is that the box continually scans AM or FM radio frequencies without ever locking onto a specific station. Theoretically, spirits can then utilize these frequencies to communicate with the living.
As Tim Woolworth wrote at ITC Voices in 2010, early versions of Frank’s Box used “a white noise generator, which fed a random voltage generator, which in turn was connected to a pre-built AM/FM tuner from a car stereo system.” Woolworth elaborated, “As the random voltage was fed through the system, the frequencies on the tuner would jump all around in turn. The rate at which these frequencies jumped was later controllable by a rate knob.” In 2007, though, a member of Sumption’s EVP-ITC forum suggested using “a linear sweep with a rate adjustment,” thereby allowing the device to sweep tuner frequencies continuously — and with that development in place, the spirit box began to take off.
Since then, a wide variety of spirit boxes have been created, from “Shack Hack” models — simply modified Radio Shack radios — to custom-built devices. Over the past decade or so, they’ve become an essential tool for many paranormal researchers (although it’s also worth noting that even among the paranormal community, the boxes are somewhat controversial — not everyone buys them as legitimate ITC devices).
So: How do they work? Well, that depends on how you feel about ghosts. There are, as always, two sides to examine, so let’s take a look at both.
The Believer’s Argument
Frank Sumption called the noises his box produced “raw audio,” which he defined as “the raw material out of which spirits of the deceased and other entities … create their own voices” — essentially, he believed spirits could use the white noise and other radio noises provided by the box to “speak” to the living. He further elaborated that they “presumably” accomplished this feat by “re-modulating and remixing the raw audio to make the various noise fragments from words and voices of their choosing.” More from Sumption, via Skepticblog:
“In the box, the raw audio is created by sweeping the tuning of a radio electronically across its band, or tuning range, the resulting bits of speech music and noise are the raw audio. Radio is simply a convenient source of raw audio.”
He did, however, note that this explanation was only a guess; he acknowledged that there might be other ways the box works, too — an “RF component,” for example, or “an actual signal received,” or “some other method of getting an external voice into the radio in the box.” He added, “Some of the manipulation of the raw audio seems to take place inside the electronics, again, presumably ― they can manipulate the electrical signals,” but concluded, “I don’t have the equipment or know-how to be able to test these ideas.”
A user of Sumption’s EVP-ITC forum (via the Skeptical Inquirer) further noted that no one “really [knows] how the spirit box works”; they “only [know] that it does seem to work.” He had some theories, though:
“In EVP we have at least two major theories. In the EM (Electromagnetic) theory, we assume that the spirits are communicating with voice modulated EM waves — either via a kind of ‘radio technology’ or the ‘fact’ that sound waves from the other side are electromagnetic relative to our own universe. This explains why we often need a device like [an] electric sound recorder to hear the waves.
“The other major theory, and the one I subscribe to, is that the voices are made from existing background sounds. This is sorta like using an electronic [larynx] or holding an electric razor to one’s lips and ‘mouthing’ words. The vocal [apparatus] changes shape and resonance characteristics, making a sufficiently randomized sound (like a buzzing razor) sound like words. Spirits may do something similar, near an EVP recording microphone, either ‘semi-[manifesting]’ a vocal apparatus or by utilizing some of their own sound altering technology.”
According to this user, either the spirits are sending radio waves carrying messages from their own universe to ours through the radio in the spirit box, or they’re taking the sounds created directly by the spirit box’s radio and manipulating them — what I think Frank Sumption meant when he talked about the spirits using the “raw noise” to make voices for themselves.
Some paranormal researchers further divide the types of reception that might come though on a spirit box into different types. For example, in another piece published at ITC Voices in 2014, Tim Woolworth described what he believes to be the two primary types in detail. One, which he calls “fragmentative reception,” is apparently more common, although less desirable due to its vague nature; he describes it as follows:
“The time that a ghost box remains on a singular frequency is known as the sweep rate. As the radio passes over the frequency steps during a sweep, a sound fragment comes through; the box will remain on that frequency for a time determined by the box itself. Based upon the sweep rate of the box, that fragment can be a whole word(s), or it may just be a phoneme(s) or morpheme(s) (a phoneme is the smallest singular sound that is recognizable by the human ear, such as the “r” in rat; a morpheme is the smallest grouping of sounds that convey meaning, such as the “-ed” in “talked”). As the frequencies continue to scan at a rapid rate, these words, phonemes and morphemes can combine to form words and phrases that are direct communications.”
Important to note is that, with fragmentative reception, all the parts of a word, phrase, or sentence may not come from the same voice.
The second type according to Woolworth is “breakthrough reception.” Characterized by “the lack of fragmented syllables and radio sweeping noise,” breakthrough reception typically communicates messages that are “very clear and [stand] alone.” The voices heard “stand out above the sweep” and usually “formulate a comprehensible phrase”; additionally, the responses are often intelligent, as opposed to random.
There doesn’t seem to be a wide consensus among believers on exactly how spirit boxes work — but many are convinced of the devices’ efficacy all the same.
The Skeptic’s Argument
Remember pareidolia? We talked a lot about it last year in conjunction with the “Dear David” story. Get ready to revisit it, because it turns out to be relevant here, too.
In case you need a refresher, pareidolia refers to the tendency humans have to interpret random stimuli as significant — that is, we like to assign meaning to things that are actually meaningless. (If you’re familiar with the more general term apophenia — our tendency to find patterns in random data — pareidolia is a type of apophenia.) The Rorschach test, which asks us to describe what we see in random ink blots, relies on pareidolia; so, too, does the novelty Twitter account Faces In Things. It’s something we’re capable of doing almost since birth: According to one study, pareidolia has been observed in infants as young as eight months. According to Live Science, the word derives from the Greek para, or faulty or wrong, and eidolon, or image or shape — when we experience pareidolia, we’re literally seeing “the wrong shape.”
But pareidolia isn’t just limited to images or pictures; auditory pareidolia is a thing, too — and for those who remain skeptical of spirit boxes and other audio ghost phenomena, it offers a logical explanation for what might really be going on.
As Steven Novella wrote at Skepticblog in 2012, “two layers of pattern recognition” occur when we listen to a spirit box. “The first layer is hearing words, names, or phrases,” said Novella. “Sometimes the words are actual words coming through from a radio station. Sometimes, however, they are just noise that the brain tries to match to a word.” The second layer, meanwhile, is about ascribing meaning to the words people perceive from the first layer. “People are very good at inferring meaning, which is a useful skill in a highly social species,” wrote Novella, citing how people tend to “assign very sophisticated human understanding and intent to behaviors” from their pets “that probably have a much simpler explanation,” as well as in the research conducted around teaching apes to use sign language. “Like many such things,” said Novella, “we are too good in that we tend to over-infer meaning.” Thus, random noise or radio signals becomes “Dead. Tribute” and “Just get me out of this wall.”
Sounds don’t even need to be made by humans in order for us to perceive something human about them. A study published in the journal Science in 1981, for example, tested how well participants could understand synthetically produced speech stimulus that sounded nothing like the sounds humans actually make. The researchers found that people can understand linguistic messages even “in the absence of traditional acoustic cues for phonetic segments.”
When Philip Jaekl spoke to study lead Robert Remez for Nautilus in 2017 about exactly how it is that non-human noises might translate as human in our perception of them, Remez suggested that it might be a sort of “sensory activity ‘spill-over’” from the auditory system that recognizes specific sounds into the parts of the nervous system that process speech and language. “And that spillover doesn’t require similarity,” said Remez. “It just requires some kind of shared activity.” The example Jaekl and Remez focused on involved someone who swore they heard people talking in the noise coming from their air conditioner — but from there, it’s easy to make the same inference about white noise or radio sweeping sounds.
And, of course, it’s worth remembering that when we’re primed to expect something paranormal, we’re much more likely to experience something we consider paranormal. If you believe in ghosts and you listen to a spirit box, you’ll likely hear something that makes sense; however, if you don’t believe in ghosts, you’ll probably just hear noise.
What Do You Believe?
Here’s the thing: You don’t have to ascribe wholly to one argument or the other. You can believe both.
The anonymous writer behind the website The Spirit Box: My Spiritual Journey had something interesting to say about that subject. On their page about how to use a spirit box, they write that they “obviously … believe that we can indeed communicate with those who have crossed” through spirit boxes — but also stress the importance of learning about pareidolia before you conduct any spirit box sessions. “I do not believe that every sound that is heard on the box is spirit communication,” they write. Some of it could very well be, and indeed, they believe a lot of it is — but, they say, it’s also certainly possible that a lot of sounds ascribed to paranormal activity could very well just be pareidolia.
Me? I’m not sure where I fall. Regardless, though, I will concede that spirit box recordings are eerie as hell.