When TGIMM reader Feste mentioned the Zioptis Dial-A-Trip phone number, which can be found at 313-274-1111, in the comments of October’s creepy phone number roundup, my interest was… piqued. The fact that I hadn’t heard of it before was a big plus right out of the gate; I’m still not sure how I managed to miss a mystery this major, especially given how long it’s been going on. And then there’s what Zioptis actually is: “Their website purports to be a hotline for haunted attractions… but nothing on their hotline has anything to do with haunted houses,” wrote Feste (who also gets bonus points for having a fabulous username).
A weird phone number? A thing that appears not to be the thing it claims to be? Haunted attractions? That’s basically my kryptonite, so obviously I had to go digging for more.
What I found was that to describe the mystery as “haunted house hotline is mysteriously not about haunted houses” isn’t quite accurate; although they’re run by the same people working under the main umbrella of the Zioptis Foundation, the website and phone number are actually two separate and relatively unconnected projects. But even without that element, the whole Zioptis Foundation thing is so dang weird that it was well worth looking into.
[Like what you read? Check out Dangerous Games To Play In The Dark, available from Chronicle Books now!]
I still have a lot of questions about Zioptis and Dial-A-Trip; to be honest, a lot of my research not only didn’t answer the questions I already had, but also led to more questions to which I still don’t have a ton of satisfactory answers. I did reach out to Zioptis via the email address found on their website, but alas, I never received a response.
What I dig manage to find before the trail went cold is still pretty fascinating, though. Let’s take a look, shall we?
What We Talk About When We Talk About Zioptis
When we talk about the entity that calls itself the Zioptis Foundation, we’re actually talking about the two parts that make up the whole: The Haunted House Hotline and Dial-A-Trip. The two are often conflated, possibly as a result of their names both sounding phone-related; however, the Haunted House Hotline isn’t actually a telephone hotline at all. It’s a website — the main Zioptis website, in fact. Curiously, though, Zioptis.com’s focus isn’t, say, providing general information about what the Zioptis Foundation is or how its two projects connect, as you’d probably expect a foundation’s website to be; instead, it mostly consists of reviews of haunted attractions — that is, the main Zioptis website is the Haunted House Hotline, whose function is to review haunted attractions in the Detroit area.
That website, by the way, is truly a sight to behold. Consisting primarily of plain text of various colors on a white background and a somewhat convoluted navigation scheme, it’s a throwback to the early days of the internet — which makes sense a certain amount of sense when you look a little deeper into Zioptis.com’s history: It’s been around for roughly 15 years. Most of the more interesting info about the domain itself has been redacted from the publicly available WHOIS records, but a few useful tidbits do remain, including its original registration date (Dec. 8, 2003), its last update (Sept. 29, 2014), and its registration expiration date (Dec. 8, 2019). Additionally, WHOIS reveal that both the domain registration and the hosting were set up through Pair.
The haunt reviews themselves are a little casually written, but they’re still, y’know, haunt reviews. It’s clear what they are; they all refer to actual places (hi there, Erebus); and scattered amongst the reviews themselves are posts about other local events that readers who enjoy haunts will probably also dig. In case you’re having trouble navigating to the actual archives, you can find examples of the content that makes up the bulk of the website here and here.
Dial-A-Trip, meanwhile, is an actual phone number (unlike the Haunted House Hotline). If you dial 313-274-1111 at any given time, there’s a chance that you might hear something… really weird on the other end. The messages change from time to time, and sometimes, nothing happens at all — but that’s really all Dial-A-Trip is: A number you call to hear strange recordings.
Interestingly, Dial-A-Trip actually predates the Haunted House Hotline by nearly a decade and a half, according to Zioptis’ own lore. Zioptis.com states that Dial-A-Trip “started the ball rolling in 1986”; however, the haunted attraction reviews didn’t become part of the picture until “the mid-‘90s,” at which point the Zioptis folks “started adding stories at the end of Dial-A-Trip episodes in October about the coolest haunted houses we went to.” It turned out that listeners really enjoyed these haunted house stories, so in 1999, Zioptis launched a project focused entirely on them: The Haunted House Hotline that currently lives at Zioptis.com.
Now, you’ll note that there seems to be a bit of discrepancy here: Even though the Haunted House Hotline launched in 1999, the Zioptis.com domain name wasn’t registered until 2003. The discrepancy is easily resolved, though — as long as you’re willing to look deep enough. Several personal websites dating back to 1995 not only make mention of Zioptis, but also include a link to a site hosted through the University of Wisconsin. The site is no longer functioning, and unfortunately it was never archived through the Wayback Machine or Archive.org, so I can’t tell you what it looked like — but I bring this up not just to settle the issue of how Haunted House Hotline could have launched prior to its current domain being registered, but also to point out the fact that Zioptis had some sort of web presence some years before the creation of Zioptis.com.
I would bet money that, from 1999 until 2003, the University of Wisconsin-hosted site housed the Haunted House Hotline — and that, prior to 1999, that same site focused on Dial-A-Trip.
So, on that note: Let’s take a look at what actually happens when you call Dial-A-Trip.
Thank You For Calling Zioptis
I have some unfortunate news for you: At the time of this writing, Dial-A-Trip seems to be on a bit of a break. When I called it, it did nothing but ring for nearly three solid minutes (two minutes and 56 seconds, to be precise — I timed it) before disconnecting automatically. This isn’t the first time over the course of its history that it’s done that; a 4chan user who started a thread on the /x/ paranormal board in August of 2011 reported the same behavior back then. The upshot, though, is that I wasn’t able to record any audio for you about what you hear when you dial 313-274-1111, because, uh… there isn’t anything to record.
However! As you might expect, a few older recordings of previous messages remain scattered across the internet. They’re few and far between, as well as mostly dated from a specific period — early 2011 through the very beginning of 2016 — but it’s better than nothing. Content-wise, they’re all garbled monologues paired with surreal music and soundscapes. They frequently reference the Zioptis Foundation in a way that kind of make it sound like a cross between Boothworld Industries and Zombo.com.
Warning/disclaimer: They’re all pretty difficult to understand — and to be honest, they’re so nonsensical that I don’t really know that there’s much value in completely transcribing them, so I’m just going to give you the links to their YouTube videos so you can here them in their raw form. Personally, I think it’s more valuable to just kind of listen to them while letting your mind wander, anyway — it’s about the feelings they evoke, not the exact words they communicate or sounds they make.
Ready? Here we go:
Here’s the message that played if you called on Sept. 15, 2011; it’s about two minutes long. Sept. 25’s was much the same. Nov. 4’s message was a bit longer, coming in at about four minutes; then, interestingly, on Nov. 8, you were given the option of leaving your own message at the end of Zioptis’ message.
Fast forward to February of 2015, and you’ve got more of the same; Feb. 12’s message, however, was quite long, going on for almost five minutes. And on Dec. 11, 2015 and Jan. 24, 2016, Zioptis got a direct call-out right at the beginning of the messages. (Those last two videos are on Facebook, rather than YouTube, by the way. The page that posted them is called Zioptis: Dial-A-Trip. It’s not totally clear whether it’s officially affiliated with Zioptis, but my sense is that it’s a fan page. Just, y’know, for whatever that’s worth.)
According to other reports, the message has, at various other points, been “a completely bizarre survey,” a “Zioptis fashion show broadcast,” and a sort of… threat of a verbal virus. The exact quote is, “ONCE YOU’VE HEARD THE WORD ZIOPTIS, IT’S TOO LATE. THE ONLY WAY YOU COULD HAVE PREVENTED IT IS IF SOMEONE HAD NOT SPOKEN IT TO YOU. THEREFORE, ONCE ZIOPTIS, ALWAYS ZIOPTIS!”
It’s all extremely weird, equal parts unsettling and hilarious. But what does it mean? Does it even mean anything?
Lots and lots and lots of theories about what the heck is going on with Dial-A-Trip have been put forth over the years. Many people still think it’s part of the Haunted House Hotline; some have wondered whether it’s all a big ARG; and still others have called the whole thing a hoax, painting it as a manufactured urban legend. But is it any of those things?
I… don’t actually think so.
First things first: I definitely don’t think it’s a hoax. Some discussions of Zioptis have dismissed the whole thing as fake because something about the 1986 origin date doesn’t sit right with some people; the argument is that claiming Zioptis got its start in 1986 rings false due to the fact that A) the Zioptis.com website isn’t old enough, and B) the technology didn’t yet exist in 1986 for that date to be believable. (For the curious, HTTP was introduced in 1991.)
I think, though, that this argument makes a few mistakes. The biggest is assuming that the website and the phone line are the same thing, which we’ve already established isn’t the case. They’re run by the same people, sure, but they’re two different projects. The Dial-A-Trip phone number doesn’t require the Haunted House Hotline’s website to exist, so assuming that Dial-A-Trip couldn’t have existed prior to the Haunted House Hotline’s creation is an error in logic.
What’s more, while it’s true that electronic communication in 1986 still had a long way to go before it would become anything remotely resembling the internet we use today, Usenet and bulletin board systems were well established by 1986 — and indeed, according to some sources, knowledge about Dial-A-Trip originally spread throughout the Detroit area via newsgroups and BBSes, as well as through plain old word-of-mouth and business cards (remember when people used to just leave business cards advertising various services in phone booths?). Ergo, saying that Dial-A-Trip couldn’t be around in 1986 because HTTP wasn’t a thing yet is another error.
Also, if you look hard enough, you will find comments from people who claim to have called the number in the mid-to-late ‘80s. I know, I know — don’t ever just trust what randos tell you on the internet. But someone would have needed to create an awful lot of sock puppets across an awful lot of platforms over an awfully long time, all claiming that they called Dial-A-Trip back in the day, for all of those reports to be false. Per Occam’s razor, that just… doesn’t seem like the most likely solution.
While it is usually worth taking the personal narrative of a strange person, group, or entity with a grain of salt — they could very well be purposefully shaping their own narrative to appear a certain way — nothing about Zioptis’ history is so outlandish that it couldn’t be true.
I don’t think any of the other proposed explanations are what’s really going on, either. We know Dial-A-Trip is a separate project from the Haunted House Hotline because Zioptis has told us they are; also, Occam’s razor strikes again: The phone messages don’t appear to have anything to do with the haunted house reviews on the website because… the phone messages don’t have anything to do with the haunted house reviews on the website (other than the fact that they’re run by the same people). Nor do I think that Dial-A-Trip is a decades-old ARG that no one has successfully started, let alone solved, because again, that’s just not very likely.
Indeed, although I’m often a fan of digging as deeply as possible to uncover some sort of wider meaning for weird, seemingly inexplicable phenomena, I… don’t really think there’s any sort of deeper meaning to Dial-A-Trip. I think it’s just a random project created by some random people to give other random people a series of completely random experiences. It is called Dial-A-Trip, after all — emphasis on the trip. Sometimes, we really can take things at face value — and I think this is one of those times.
A few other sources support this idea, too. Remember those person websites from 1995 I mentioned talk a little bit about Zioptis? The pages Zioptis appears on are all pretty much link dumps — the kinds of pages that are just lists of other websites the owners of the sites like. One described Zioptis as “a bunch of [people] from Detroit who provide zany skit performances over the phone.” Put this way, Dial-A-Trip sounds kind of like a piece of performance art or a Happening.
Additionally, in 2014, a DeviantArt page that appears to be affiliated with Zioptis commented in response to another user’s memory of calling Dial-A-Trip many years ago, “The Zioptis Foundation Dial-A-Trip was started originally as a social consciousness experiment.” I haven’t been able to confirm whether this DeviantArt account really is affiliated with Zioptis — it’s one of the questions I fired off to the Zioptis email address and didn’t receive a response about — but it’s an interesting point all the same. If it really was a “social consciousness experiment,” what was it hoping to explore or achieve?
Speaking of the questions I still have about Zioptis…
Pay No Attention To The People Behind The Curtain
I still don’t know for sure who created the Zioptis Foundation or Dial-A-Trip, or why. I don’t know whether the phone number 313-274-1111 is still associated with it, either. But I do have a few… nuggets. Nuggets I haven’t been able to verify, true — but nuggets all the same.
Two names have widely been associated with Zioptis: William Godwin, often referred to as Bill, and Thomas Simpson, usually just called Tom. These two fellows appear to have created Zioptis and all of its associated projects — both Dial-A-Trip and the Haunted House Hotline. There’s also an address — 4171 Clippert St., Dearborn Heights, Mich. — which has been frequently cited in connection with Zioptis, and with which Godwin and Simpson are both associated.
Note: This address is not 4171 Clippert St. in Detroit, which has — erroneously, I believe — been determined by a few other armchair sleuths on various internet forums to be the Zioptis address. Every time I’ve seen the address 4171 Clippert St. paired with the name Zioptis, however, it’s been the one in Dearborn Heights — Dearborn Heights being a suburb of Detroit in Wayne County.
4171 Clippert St in Dearborn Heights is a single-family detached house located in a residential area; built in 1958, it’s got about 906 square feet of space, with the lot itself measuring a whopping 4,792 square feet. I’m not totally sure who’s living at it now, but both Simpson and Goodwin have been listed as residents at various points in time. For whatever it’s worth, the Spokeo entry for the address suggests that Simpson lives there currently, with Godwin having been a past resident. Listed along with Simpson as the current residents are several others, at least one of whom is probably one of Simpson’s relatives (they share the last name), and one of whom appears to be a relative of Bill Godwin (this person is also a Godwin).
Most reverse phone lookup services suggest that Tom Simpson owns the Dial-A-Trip number, 313-274-1111. However, this may or may not still be the case; 411.com currently has it listed as registered not to Thomas Bradley Simpson in Dearborn Heights, Mi., but to Eileen A. Puckett in Waverly, Tenn, with Simpson listed simply as someone who might be associated with the number. I’m not sure why that is — 313 is a Detroit area code, not a Waverly, Tenn. one, and as far as I know, the number has always belonged to a landline, not a cell phone — but, well… do with that you will.
When I reached out to the Zioptis email, I asked about all of these nuggets. And even though they haven’t responded in the months since I first attempted to make contact, I’m still hoping that maybe one day, they will.
My door’s always open, fellas. Let me know if you want to chat.
Once Zioptis, always Zioptis.
Follow The Ghost In My Machine on Twitter @GhostMachine13 and on Facebook @TheGhostInMyMachine. And don’t forget to check out Dangerous Games To Play In The Dark, available now from Chronicle Books!
[Photos via Alexas_Fotos, PublicDomainPictures, marcoreyesgt, Nachrichten_muc/Pixabay; Zioptis: Dial-A-Trip/Facebook]