The Truth Behind 'Ghost Recordings' On Ghost-Hunting Shows
We’ve had some laughs here, haven’t we? We learned about some supernatural stuff, we went to some extremely dark places for what is ostensibly a comedy website, and, together, I like to think the overall skepticism of this column has paradoxically made the world a more magical place. Aw, heck. Let’s do one more for the road, huh? It’s time to talk about electronic voice phenomena (EVP), or in layman's terms “ghost recordings.”
A Famous Case
In the absolutely bafflingly named Virginia City, Nevada, sits the Old Washoe Club, an unassuming brick building slowly collapsing in on itself. Currently unoccupied, it was at one time a favorite hangout for Wild West ne’er-do-wells. Cattle rustlers. Bandits. Doctors who prescribed opium-laced absinthe for hangnails. You know the sort.
Due to its sordid history, it soon grew a reputation of being haunted. The most notorious patrons, it seemed, didn’t let death get in the way of their crippling alcohol addiction. The crew of the show Ghost Adventures decided to do an all-night lockdown there, hoping to capture evidence of drunk cowboy ghosts, and possibly score with some ghost Wild West hookers.
The episode (one of many shot at the Old Washoe Club) yielded one of the Ghost Adventures fandom’s favorite moments. Upon leaving a recording device on the bar counter, they seem to have captured a disembodied voice saying “How about another one?” According to the Ghost Adventures fandom, it’s one of the scariest things the show has ever produced, although the caveat here is they’re likely omitting Zak/Aaron slashfic. I’m not looking it up. I just know in my gut it exists.
But What Is It, Though?
As I mentioned, “EVP” stands for “electronic voice phenomenon” or, if you want something darker and more sinister, “employee value proposition.” But we’re talking about the former: a belief that spirits of the dead can communicate verbally using electronic equipment. Anything from a common Zoom recorder, the bane of every budget filmmaker’s life, to specially-made equipment meant to be especially enticing to ghostmouths. I think. I’m not a Ghost Scientist. There’s an entire galaxy of ghost-hunting equipment. I even own some:
The idea that the dead might be able to communicate but our big dumb ears just aren’t sensitive enough to hear them goes all the way back to the early 20th century, when Thomas Edison, Science Jerk, said in an interview with Scientific American that he believed a sufficiently sensitive device could detect communiques from the afterlife. Since then, it’s become an integral part of ghost hunting.
The Obvious Explanation
As some of you may know, I have a deep interest in those who claim to communicate with the dead – or perhaps “obsession with” would be more accurate. It’s what led me to do stuff like voluntarily be locked in a haunted house on TV or make a pilgrimage to Zak Bagans’ The Haunted Museum. I have a lot more to say about people who claim the dead can somehow continue communicating, so feel free to give those columns a look if you’re still hankerin' for the comedy-and-paranormal-musings stylings of Ol' Sweet William after this.
Speaking of Zak Bagans, I’m going to be talking more about his show Ghost Adventures, because I have seen every episode plus their documentaries and I am completely obsessed with this show. The show, if you don’t know, is premised thusly: what if a bald middle-aged man got so scared that he started running, tripping and screaming, down a dark hallway like a frightened Kool-Aid Man?
EVPs largely fall into two camps: those based on traditional recording equipment and those based on radio waves. I’m going to talk about the former first. So, as I said earlier, generally the Ghost Bros will ask questions into a handheld record and then play it back to listen for messages. Often they’ll bump up the gain in the recordings to hear the ghosts, whom I guess are extremely soft-spoken. What this essentially does is increase the noise inherent in the recording, allowing any kind of subtle sounds to be interpreted as voices – be they wind, be they floor creaks, or even be they the humble fart.
This is known as audible pareidolia – the human brain is built to understand human voices, so we tend to hear them even when they’re not there. We just really, really want to believe there’s information where none exists. It’s also called apophenia, and surprise surprise, I’ve written about it before. It strikes me as particularly egregious in these ghost hunting shows, because the implication is that the departed have gathered the energy needed to cross the Abyss but then they don’t bother to elocute? Way to crap out at the eleventh hour, ghosts. And hey, if these EVPs are from ghosts, and ghosts are statistically more likely to be from the past, shouldn’t these messages be, like, significantly more racist?
One of my favorite things to do when Ghost Adventures plays one of these EVPs is to tell my wife that I think it’s saying something ridiculous, like Arbor Day Sale at the Old Dildo Factory, because as long as my nonsense vaguely fits the rhythm of the EVP she ends up hearing what I’m saying in it and getting mad at me: it’s hilarious! This is actually a fairly well-known phenomenon known by the misleadingly-spooky name ‘phantom words.’ You can test this yourself – just listen to this for a few seconds and tell me what you hear. I hear a voice saying “WILL WILL WILL WILL WILL” over and over again. Nice! These phantoms have good taste. I kid, of course: these aren’t real words. This is sort of an audio version of a Rorschach test. I had a friend named Brian, a true believer in the paranormal who was really into ghost hunting for a while, and while I was explaining EVPs to him (I’m a lot of fun, I swear) I played him this exact clip. He freaked out and slammed his laptop shut, claiming he heard that voice repeating “RED RUM RED RUM.” We hear what we’re expecting to hear.
When I was doing a lockdown with ghost hunters, they did this thing where they asked ghosts to turn their flashlight on and off to communicate. I later learned that ghost hunters use a specific type of old flashlight to do this trick specifically because it has poor wiring. With that in mind, I thought it was a little weird that Zak Bagans mostly uses a Panasonic RR-DR60 recorder to capture EVPs. Why would he use a recorder that hasn’t been commercially available since people were getting into fistfights over Beanie Babies?
The other kind of EVP the Ghost Adventures fellas get come from a family of devices that sweep through radio frequencies, often revealing a “ghost voice.” This is usually pretty spooky, and sometimes the responses are downright eerie, but just as often the guys are bending themselves into pretzels trying to make sense of a total non-sequitur they picked up. Look, radio waves are finicky. There’s information buzzing around us on radio waves all the time, from FM top 40 hits to AM conspiracy theories claiming that the Knights Templar genetically engineered cats to make men more effeminate, to cops on CB doing some light racial profiling, to truckers to HAM radio weirdos and much, much more. It’s not a surprise that randomly sweeping radio waves sometimes gives you a word or a phrase, and then Aaron does Aaron Face:
Radio is weird. I’ve had a little experience with this, having worked in broadcast myself. Under the right circumstances, even unpowered circuits can pick up radio waves. Not to mention that, in certain frequencies, meteors can carry and reflect signals from Earth back to us. Turns out when you zap a wire wiggling in a specific way so that it emits electromagnetic radiation at a very specific frequency that then bounces all around the world, well, that leaves some margin for error.
Let me give you some examples. Once, in my former life working for PBS, we had to interview a band. My grip got them all set up with their lavalier mics, which are those tiny microphones you see clipped to people’s shirts in interviews on TV. We did the interview, struck the lights, and left. Later that week, when I went to edit the footage, I found that the audio was useless. My grip didn’t check that the lavs were on a clean frequency, so the interview sounded like two howler monkeys stuffed in a dryer. Just this awful, earsplitting, vacillating FWEEEEEEE-FWOOOP-FWEEEEE sound. Had we been recording this in a haunted house and not a bar in Indianapolis I probably would have crapped my pants and started crying instead of what I actually did, which was try to salvage the interview by using audio captured in-camera and then crying.
One more example, then I swear we’re done. Once, in elementary school, I was hanging out at my friend Tyler’s house after school. We were playing video games in his room, because he had his own TV. This, to me, was the equivalent of him having his own functional jetpack. It was like a miracle. A TV in your bedroom? What will they think of next?! So we were playing Super Smash Bros.: Melee or whatever, when his TV starts buzzing and then we heard, clear as day, a man saying “Yeah, we got another report…just checkin in.” Tyler smacked the TV, seeming only vaguely irritated that it just talked. “Yeah,” he said, “it does that sometimes.” His TV would just randomly pick up police radio chatter. I’d eventually get used to it, too, then get mad when it interrupted the music in Kirby Air Ride. This isn’t even that uncommon! There are plenty of stories of people getting in legal trouble because their appliances started vibrating weird and ended up accidentally emitting emergency military broadcast signals.
There you have it. I’m being really generous and assuming the Ghost Adventures crew aren’t just pulling a hoax to sustain a quarter-century career in cable TV. I don’t think they’re faking. Honestly, they seem like good dudes, no matter how comical I find them. What we think of as ghost voices are just our extremely fallible brains trying to interpret sounds from extremely fallible equipment. That’s it.
And with that, we’re done. Thanks for sticking by me all week. Sorry if I ruined some of your favorite supernatural phenomenon. I’m not trying to ruin anyone’s fun – if I was, I wouldn’t have gleefully watched every episode of Ghost Adventures. Just remember to be skeptical if someone is trying to use the paranormal to sell you something. Unless that something is chupacabra repellant, which is distressingly necessary.
William Kuechenberg is a repped screenwriter, a Nicholl Top 50 Finalist, and an award-winning filmmaker. He’s currently looking to be a writer’s assistant or showrunner’s assistant on a television show: tell your friends, and if you don’t have any friends, tell your enemies! You can also view his mind-diarrhea on Twitter.
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