Electronic Voice Phenomena
This dossier is currently a work in progress. A more thorough version will be available on Dec. 15, 2010.
Electronic Voice Phenomena, or E.V.P. are noises, produced electronically, than can be interpreted as speech, but are not the result of intentional recording.
A belief in the possibility of communication with spirits from the afterlife can be traced to ancient civilizations the world over. Our fate after death is the central mystery of humanity. If we exist in some form-- spirit, soul, or ghost, after our last breath, then contact with those who have already made this transition could provide a first- hand answer to this question. Throughout history, mystics, mediums and average citizens have claimed to have accomplished such contact. Without evidence of such experience, most claims are dismissed. In the 19th and 20th centuries advancements in technologies of documentation provided the hope of scientific proof of these experiences, and evidence of life after death. Spirit photography provided the first hope for such substantiation in the late 19th and early 20th centuries with the possibility that the camera could see into dimensions invisible to the naked eye. With the invention of the phonograph and 20th century advancements in recording technologies, the possibility for auditory proof of the spirit world was awakened. Rumors of E.V.P. experimentation date to the 1920s, but it was not until the 1950s and 1960s that the first E.V.P. was recorded. E.V.P. found its place among paranormal hobbyists in the 1970s, but its popularity is generally attributed to two men, stemming from two separate traditions: psychic Atilla Von Szalay in a turn to auditory technologies where spirit photography had failed, and Dr. Konstantin Raudive, professor, philosopher, parapsychologist and student of Carl Jung in plans to stun the academic, spiritual, and scientific communities with the final empirical evidence of human communication with the dead.
- 1 The Spiritualist Movement
- 2 Spirit Photography
- 3 Atilla Von Szalay
- 4 Jung, Psychoanalysis and the Paranormal
- 5 Breakthrough
- 6 Detecting Techno-Spiritual Unity
- 7 Replacing Human Media: Mechanically Mediating Spiritual Communication
- 8 Liminal Consciousnesses
- 9 Backward Masking
- 10 Commodifying the Uncanny: Hell Awaits
- 11 Works Cited
The Spiritualist Movement
Spiritualism is a monotheistic religion rooted in the concept of continuous life, as evidenced by communication with the Spirit World through mediumship (Brandon 2). Though various beliefs in life after death and the possibility of communication with spirits permeate societies throughout the world, both ancient and modern, Spiritualism is unique in its dual position as both religion and science. The faith traces its 1848 origins to the home of young sisters, Kate and Margaret Fox in Hydesville, New York. Evidently, one day, the girls began to hear inexplicable tapping noises in their room. Before long, they created a modified Morse code by which they would communicate with the apparent source of the knocks: the ghost of a peddler who had been murdered in the Foxes’ home and buried in the cellar (Jung 108). Pamphlets quickly circulated attesting to the girl’s experiences. In the wake of grief over civil war casualties many Americans leaped at the possibility of communication with friends and relatives in the afterlife. Séances became commonplace in both public and private settings and mediumship proliferated (Jolly 9). At its peak in the 1890s the Spiritualist movement was said to have more than eight million members in the United States and Europe (McGarry 2). Believers and converts watched with rapt attention as mediums communicated with the dead through tapping, like the Fox sisters, or fell into trance-like states and spoke in the voices of the dead, proving the existence of life after death. As Carl Jung described the movement, “Because of its dual nature- on the one side a religious sect, on the other a scientific hypothesis- spiritualism touches upon widely differing areas of life that would seem to have nothing in common” (Psychology and the Occult 108). Spiritualism’s place at the intersection of religion and science laid the foundation for a unique and fascinating relationship between religion and technology. Throughout the 20th century, Spiritualists looked to emerging technologies as ancillary tools of the medium, whose aid could not only conjure the images and voices of spirits, but record them as well.
Widespread Spiritualism of the late 19th and early 20th centuries owes its proliferation to the Victorian notion that the camera not only captured reality, but might see more than the naked eye (Green-Lewis 232). The first official spirit photography was developed in 1861 by William S. Mumler in his Boston studio during an experiment with self-portraiture. Mumler reported the appearance of a diaphanous figure, next to his own, resembling a cousin who had died thirteen years earlier (Jolly 14). The photograph soon appeared in numerous Spiritualist publications as the first printed evidence of the existence of spirits. Soon average citizens were doling out large sums for portraits by Mumler, as well as the work of spirit photographers following in his footsteps around the world. Mumler’s most famous portrait presents a seated Mary Todd Lincoln with a ghost translucent image of her deceased husband, his hands on her shoulders (18). Spirit photographers took pictures of individual sitters with the translucent ghosts of deceased loved ones, but also captured spirit materializations during medium trances, psychics conjuring various spirit guides, and the emergence of paranormal material or ectoplasm from the bodies of female mediums. Before public understanding of photographic processes or the possibility of double exposure, Spiritualists, for a time, were given a vast body of seemingly scientific evidence proving the existence and proximity of a spirit world. The height of American and European Spiritualism is inextricably tied to the early years of photography. At a time when photographs were considered scientific proof, spirit photographs showed beings from the afterlife in contact with the living.
However, the foundation of this proof was slowly shattered. In 1869 William Mumler was tried for fraud. Though not convicted at the time, he admitted some years later that his body of work was largely the result of a simple process of double exposure (20). As more and more people became amateur or professional photographers and gained knowledge of photographic processes, it became easy to conceptualize how spirit photographs might be the result of certain practices or idiosyncrasies. By the 1920s double exposure became an established artistic practice in the works of Surrealist artists like Man Ray. Spirit photographs, once veritable proof of communication with spirits of the afterlife moved, to a position as kitsch objects of a time when mourners and dabblers in the paranormal were easily duped by the fresh magic of photography. Though the number of practicing Spiritualists dwindled when its chief “scientific” evidence was sullied, true adherents to the Spiritualist movement trudged on, cementing its existence to the present day. Throughout the twentieth century Spiritualist meetings and séances have been the main setting in which mediums proved the existence of continuous life-- mediums serving as conduits for the messages of the dead to the living. The life of spirit photography serves as a case study for the life of Electronic Voice Phenomena, but also likely provided inspiration for those who dreamed of scientific proof of the afterlife and desperately searched for it with new communication and recording technologies.
Atilla Von Szalay
Though the late 1960s work of Dr. Konstantin Raudive is widely credited as having founded the practice E.V.P. experimentation, the first published work on the phenomena was a collaboration between two men, Atilla Von Szalay and Raymond Bayless, in 1959 (Rogo 84). Von Szalay was a photographer and clairvoyant whose experiments with spirit photography had proved disappointing (Rogo 86). Von Szalay frequently heard disembodied voices in the air around him and his experiments were an attempt to find and document their source. He began audio experimentation with psychologist Raymond Bayless in Los Angeles in the early 1950s (86). At first the pair attempted to record Von Szalay’s voices with a Pack-Bell record cutter, but captured no results. Eventually an enclosed wooden closet was constructed for Attila to sit in and wait for the voices to occur. The men rented an empty studio in Hollywood where they positioned their construction (Ibid 87). Inside of the wooden enclosure, a microphone was placed inside of a speaker trumpet to pick up any voices inside of the closet. A tape recorder and a speaker, wired to the microphone, were positioned outside the walls, so that one could listen for and record any noise or voices emanating from the wardrobe (88).
In this case Von Szalay served the role of medium as it was the voices that had followed him, since long before the experiments, that he and Bayless hoped to record. Von Szalay was not only a participant in the work, but his thoughts were considered a key component of the closet- recording apparatus. His psychic mind was thought to channel any intelligible noises recorded during the experiments. His mediumship powered the machine (86). This second round of work was quite successful for the duo. Noises, whispers, and mechanical sounding voices were observed and recorded whether or not Von Szalay was inside the closet. The voices were interpreted as both male and female and spoke in short sentences, only a few words at a time (87). Eventually, Von Szalay stepped out of the cabinet and recorded the voices at different locations, constructing various cabinet-like devices, some of which were kept in his apartment. At times, the voices emanating from Von Szalay’s mind seemed to possess knowledge of distant thoughts and events. On September 30th, 1971, Bayless was having a private conversation with his wife at home about how he was becoming increasingly misanthropic and shunning social interactions. At the same time, across town, in Van Nuys, Von Szalay was experimenting with a machine that seemed to record the sentence “Bayless is virtually become a recluse” (88). While Von Szalay and Bayless were the first to experiment with E.V.P. extensively, as well as, to record and publish their findings, it is a European scholar who is credited with the birth of E.V.P.
Jung, Psychoanalysis and the Paranormal
Carl Jung was born into a fascination with the paranormal. Samuel Preiswerk, Jung’s maternal grandfather believed himself to be surrounded by ghosts, dedicating one day each week to conversation with his posthumous first wife, whom he kept a chair for in his study. Grandfather Preiswerk’s second wife, Augusta, was considered clairoyant. Jung’s mother, Emilie kept a diary dedicated to “strange experiences”( On Synchronicity and the Paranormal 2). Jung’s own paranormal experiences began at the age of seven or eight, as he described “One night I saw coming from (my mother’s) door a faintly luminous , indefinite figure whose head detached itself from the neck and floated along in front of it, in the air, like a little moon” (2). Jung’s doctoral thesis “ On the psychology and pathology of so-called Occult Phenomena” was a report on a series of séances conducted by his young female cousin. A partial reason for Jung’s initial break with his teacher, Freud, was likely the mentor’s inability to inability to consider spiritualistic phenomena in a “non-pathological light” (5). Jung’s public beliefs about the paranormal vacillated throughout his career, on occasion leaning towards a purely psychological explanation. Yet, Jung always seemed to return to the notion that it would be impossible for such widespread and disparate experience to be dismissed as a phantasm of the mind, as evidenced in a 1948 statement, “After collecting psychological experiences from many people and many countries for over fifty years…To put it bluntly, I doubt whether an exclusively psychological approach can do justice to the phenomena in question” (6).
Jung continued to observe séances, table turnings and Spiritualist gatherings throughout his career. He was also greatly influenced by the experiments of J.B. Rhine in the first parapsychology institute at Duke University, established in 1932 (15). Rhine and Jung carried out a thirty-year correspondence from 1934 to 1954. Their conversations were of great importance for Jung’s conception of the theory of synchronicity (16). Though Jung is not best known for his more eccentric works on parapsychology and the occult, his intelligence and education make his considerations of the paranormal the most scholarly writings on the topic. Jung carved the way for academics of the 1960s to further explore unusual aspects of the unconscious and search for empirical evidence of paranormal phenomena. Latvian, philosopher, and pre-eminent E.V.P. researcher Konstantin Raudive may have been one of Jung’s most unusual students, but could also be considered the ideal progeny of his lifelong battle, as a rational thinker, with his irrational experiences with the paranormal and his quest through family members, observation and Dr. Rhine to discern the physical veracity of his and all other psychic experiences.
The work of Konstantin Raudive, as documented in his 1971 work Breakthrough: An Amazing Experiment in Electronic Communications with the Dead is part culmination of Raudive’s thoughts as a philosopher and student of Carl Jung, espousing Raudive’s sentiments about the possibility of continuous life. As a scholar, the majority of his career spent at the Univeristy of Uppsala in Sweden, Raudive’s main preoccupation was with the afterlife; Breakthrough seems to be his only major publication. Raudive’s considerations are interesting, but wouldn’t be possible without the results of the experiments, which occupy the vast majority of the book and the accompanying recording. Raudive’s owes his original technique to a layman, his collaborator, Frederich Jurgenson.
Frederich Jurgenson was a Swedish renaissance man of the mid-twentieth century. He attended art school and trained as a musician (Rogo 85). As a painter he had been commissioned for two official portraits of Pope Pius XII (Raymond Bayless Foundation). Jurgenson was also a filmmaker and a psychic. One afternoon Jurgenson set out to document bird sounds in the woods. When he took the tape home and listened to it there were numerous voices recorded, which were inexplicable from his experience in the woods (Raudive 3). Jurgenson forgot about the bird-calls and commenced experimentation with E.V.P. and reel to reel tape recorders. He published his work in a 1964 volume titled Voices From Space (3). “He heard not only the voices of near relatives or friends, but also those of historical personages of the recent past, such as Hitler, Goring, Felix Kersten, the Yoga-author Boris Sacharow, the controversial Chessman…” (14). Raudive found Jurgenson’s small book shortly after publication in 1964 and the two began work together in 1965, culminating with the publication of Breakthrough. Raudive, with Jurgenson’s aid, experimented with tape recorders, microphones, and radio, documenting their work in great detail, with Raudive pondering its implications for humanity.
Breakthrough commences with Raudive’s analysis of the meaning of his experiments with Jurgenson. It is clear form this writing that Raudive was thrilled with his findings, which he considers world changing. Raudive believed that the tape, recorder, radio, and microphone, as mechanical devices provided empirical evidence, “…and their objectivity cannot be challenged” (1). Raudive also knew that audio technologies would soon evolve and gain new capabilities, allowing him to project a bright future for E.V.P. “The present stage of the investigation reveals this contact as, so far, only the delicate, fleeting pulse of a new reality, not more than vaguely discernible as yet, because of our lack of experience and inadequacy in our technical aids” (2). Raudive believed the experiments recorded in Breakthrough were just the birth-pangs of whole new set of realizations for mankind, which he could be credited with. “ Only someone who himself ventures to plumb these inaccessible layers of human existence, where we discern neither beginning nor end, only a forward compulsion of our selves and our lives, can assess the true position” (2). Raudive fancied himself a spiritualistic and parapsychological messiah, delivering the great realization of the existence of continuous life on LP recordings.
"My research has led me to the personal conclusion that apart from the biological-physical level on which we human beings here exist, there is a second level: that of the psychical-spiritual level, whose potentialities are only released after death. This psychical-spiritual being tried to build a bridge between its world and that of our earthly form of life, and it endeavors on its own initiative to make contact in order to guide those on earth into a new reality (2)."
Detecting Techno-Spiritual Unity
Electronic Voice Phenomena, as one facet in a diverse array of paranormal perceptions, exists within a centuries-old spiritualist traditions of contacting the dead, but uses recording technology alongside a 'sensitive' listener as media to interface with the dead. According to Lawrence Levan, the term 'sensitive' as a noun is used by many who study or pursue paranormal sensory phenomena to describe individuals who are exceptionally likely to experience paranormal states of awareness.
In many instances of contact with ghosts, a sensitive is the main medium between ghosts and lay people. Many media have used automatic writing or similar inscriptive techniques to record what they are told by a spirit, but the sensitive nonetheless occupies a central position in the reception of paranormal communication as well as its transmission in another, more commonly legible forms-- for instance, writing or speech. This model of paranormal communication could be described as direct transmission or single step communication between ghosts and their human media.
Since at least 1860, however, spiritualists have also located ghostly content in mechanically produced media like photography (See Spirit Photography for more information). When locating spiritual content in a mechanically produced medium, the role of a human medium is fundamentally altered.
The human medium that detects EVP in recorded sound, to apply Avital Ronnell's reading of technologically enabled spiritualism, is required to “take second place” (247), assuming the role of observer to the more frictionless transmission between spirits and a technical medium. The first step of this transmission occurs between a ghost and a machine, while the human interpretation thereof occurs afterward.
The human medium's second position in EVP is a notable departure from one-step transmissions between ghosts and media that takes place in direct spirit-human communication. Lawrence Levan, for example, observed that a sensitive's “will must be passive” (36) if s/he is to enter a subjectivity conducive to receiving direct spiritual communication, abstaining from activity of the body and mind so as to facilitate transmission of spectral information. The type of 'passivity' required by direct spirit communication is distinct from that required in the act of repeatedly playing or manipulating a sound recording in search of EVP, however. EVP sensitives, while passive at some stages of locating and interpreting transmissions, must engage directly with various recording and playback technologies at others.
The will-lessness of a sensitive in direct spiritual communication may, in certain ways, be one of the “pretechnological concepts” that Ronnell posits to be threatened with “unemployment” as it is replaced with newer, more technologically contemporary models. The technical expertise needed to produce, re-produce or find meaning in an EVP recording, for example, provides an alternative to the “high carelessness” (37) crucial in direct contact spiritualism, a passivity that allows information to be gathered without origin in a specific source or sense. The focus on one sense (hearing) and a very particular tool (recording/playback technology) is less will-less and careless than the unfocused sense needed to experience direct human-spirit contact. This shift requires a transition from unfocused reading of broad and diffuse sensory (and extra-sensory) application to the focused study of a technological 'lense' into the spirit realm. Thus un-focused perception is rendered 'unemployed' by the focused EVP-seeker.
EVP does not only replace old models of spiritualist subjectivity, however, it also enables new ones. John J. Kucich, for example, identifies a diverse range of American Spiritualist traditions as simultaneously “universal and culturally specific” (153). Spiritualist practices are universal in their effect of rendering receiver and transmitter (either ghost or ghost-as-mediated-through-technology) “part in the great pattern and harmony which includes all unique events” (Levan 44), as evidence in the consistency to be found within a given cosmology, as evidence a particular model of life and afterlife's pervasiveness. The distinctness between various spiritualist techniques subsequently reveals distinction between various cosmologies.
Whereas one-step spiritualism has historically 'empowered the disposessed subject' (Ronnell 249) that receives communication from ghosts through will-lessness, technical spiritualism and EVP replace the direct connection between spirit and life worlds with one that is mediated by technology. In effect, sound recordings are set up to make closer contact with the afterlife than their human listeners.
Replacing Human Media: Mechanically Mediating Spiritual Communication
Kucich asserts that spiritualist practices have significantly “mediated the power relations within and between cultures in the United States” (xiii), both empowering the dispossessed and also providing a popular target for discriminatory treatment of believers as “unlettered” and “provincial” (43). The use of recorded sound as a medium is a rebuttal of such critiques that mobilizes technical skill as a marker of media and technological literacy to remediate the classist conflict between spiritualism's believers and nonbelievers. By ascribing the power to contact spirits not to a human, but to a machine, the machine serves as a distancing tool, deflecting certain criticisms from the spiritualist to his or her machine.
EVP, by mobilizing socially acceptable skill sets like consumer electronic prowess and the purchase of recordings, casts paranormal subjectivities as reasonable technological and consumer behavior. In listening to a recording for EVP, humans may still need to enter a will-less subjectivity or other paranormal state of consciousness, but these altered states are historically seen within Spiritualist circles as neither less or more valid than other more normative states (Kucich 42). Rather, spiritualists typically believe that the utility of entering a particular state of perception “depends on what you are trying to do” (ibid). In terms of protecting one's self from the discrimination typical leveled against direct spiritual communicators, receiving transmissions from the dead secondhand via recording technology is often deemed preferable.
Because of the requirement that technological spiritualists remain conscious enough to operate their equipment, locating EVP in a recording may be best accomplished while occupying some liminal state of consciousness between complete paranormal receptivity and that of normal listening practices.
In entering a state of technological spiritualist consciousness, the EVP-seeker must observe a unity between the life and spirit worlds, locating its presence consistently in their sound technologies as well as in sound itself.
Commodifying the Uncanny: Hell Awaits
The sounds of EVP, existing in recorded format, are always available for circulation not only as spiritual information but also as commercial products. Consequently, the aesthetics of EVP are easily commodified, simulted, and sold as part of commercial recordings.
Reversed voices, which sound quite similar to many instances of EVP, are one example of this commodifiable uncanniness. Heavy metal band Slayer, for example, deployed reversed voice recordings in their 1985 album “Hell Awaits”. The voices are recorded saying “Join Us”, then reversed in order to convey an unnatural control over time and sound. By using the aesthetic of earlier EVP recordings, Slayer reposition themselves as the controllers of uncanny sounds. The privileged unity between technology and spirits is appropriated, manipulated and desecrated. Slayer's ability to reproduce EVP-like sounds at will contextualizes EVP as 'unemployed', just another spooky audio trick. A listener in the liminal state of EVP-seeking consciousness might believe he or she is being beckoned by a chorus of dead souls, while the musicians would likely take mephistolean glee at the notion that they manipulated such a 'sensitive' listener.
Brandon, Ruth. The Spiritualists New York: Knopf, 1983
Green-Lewis, Jennifer Framing the Victorians: Photography and the Culture of Realism Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1996.
Jolly, Martyn Faces of the Living Dead: The Belief in Spirit Photography. London. The British Library, 2006.
Jung, C.G. Psychology and the Occult. Princeton, New Jersey. Princeton University Press, 1977
Jung, C.G. On Synchronicity and the Paranormal. Princeton, New Jersey. Princeton University Press, 1997
McGarry, Molly. Ghosts of Futures Past: Spiritualism and the Cultural Politics of Nineteenth Century America. Berkeley, CA. University of California Press, 2008.
Raudive, Konstantin. Breakthrough: An Amazing Experiment in Electronic Communications with the Dead. New York. Taplinger, 1971
Rogo, D. Scott and Raymond Bayless. Phone Calls from the Dead. Englewood Cliffs, N.J. Prentice Hall, 1979