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It’s often said that ghosts can walk through walls, rattle chains, create cold spots and even throw objects, but do they also have the ability to transmit FM radio signals?
A spirit box is a popular ghost hunting gadget which scans through the radio spectrum in the hopes that spirits can make their voices heard amongst the white noise and fleeting snippets of radio broadcasts.
The idea of using what is essentially a modified radio to pick up the voices of the dead divides the paranormal community, with many thinking it is a valid way to communicate with spirits, whilst others think it is nothing more than our psychological tendency to hear what we want to hear within random radio noise.
The first of these devices was called the Frank’s Box, which was invented by Frank Sumption. His idea of a device that sweeps through radio frequencies has become commonplace in the paranormal field, and is now more commonly known as a spirit box or ghost box. Popular models include modified Radio Shack receivers and devices like the PSB-7.
They rapidly scan through the AM (535 to 1064 KHz) or FM (88 to 108 MHz) radio spectrum, or a combination of the two. These are the normal frequency ranges used by broadcasters to transmit radio programmes, so as the box sweeps through the spectrum you are likely to hear fleeting bursts of white noise and static, but also radio broadcasts.
Some spirit boxes have various settings which allow you to tweak which bands the device scans through and how much of each frequency step you hear, this usually ranges from a hundredth of a second up to a second or more. It’s believed that spirits are able to change or influence these bursts of audio in order to form sounds, words or even sentences. This is sometimes referred to as RVP, or Radio Voice Phenomenon.
It’s for this reason that many investigators use spirit boxes as a method of communicating with the spirits that haunt a location. The normal way to do this is to call out to any spirits that might be present and ask them questions, then listen for their answers within the noise of the spirit box. This should be meaningful words in the form of intelligent responses to your questions.
The idea of using radio to communicate with spirits goes back long before Frank Sumption’s invention in 2002. Konstantin Raudive was a Latvian parapsychologist and a pioneer in the field of electronic voice phenomenon (EVP). Over his career he made thousands of recordings of examples of EVP. One of the methods he used to capture EVPs involved a normal unmodified radio receiver that wasn’t tuned to any station so that it just produced white noise. He would record this sound and later analyse the recording for voices.
Around the same time an Italian medium named Marcello Bacci was giving public performances of his spirit communication method that also involved the use of an unmodified radio. He started out by using an old military radio, but eventually moved on to a larger vacuum tube radio receiver. In his demonstrations he’d tune the radio to an empty frequency and after a while the white noise from the speakers would die down and the voices of the spirits would come through.
As with many aspects of the paranormal, there is no agreed upon understanding of how radio voice phenomenon could work, but there are two possible processes through which spirits could generate speech through such a device:
1. Transformative – Spirits manipulate existing radio transmission in order to form their own words and phrases
2. Opportunistic – Spirits effect the device itself in order to force it to select existing sounds to form words and phrases
Let’s start by taking a look at the transformative process, the idea that spirits can manipulate existing radio transmissions in order to form the words they want to communicate. In this process the voice is made up of background noise that has been transformed and involves the manipulation of dissimilar sounds in order to produce sounds of a pitch matching a human voice that spontaneously appears amongst background noise or sounds of a differing pitch.
To a believer in this method, the idea might seem plausible, but to a skeptic there are a lot of problems with this. The biggest of these is how spirits can have the ability to manipulate something as complicated as a radio transmission. In order for a transformative process to occur, then a spirit must be able to take an existing burst of radio broadcast and transform the sound.
This would be hugely challenging for a spirit, or even a fully-trained broadcast engineer. Radio waves are very different to sound waves. Radio waves carry an encoded analogue signal which tells the speaker in your radio receiver how to vibrate in order to produce sound waves. This signal is encoded (modulated) in one of two ways, either using AM or FM.
So in order for a spirit to manipulate the transmission it would first need to know how the spirit box works. Specifically whether it is scanning through the AM or FM frequency bands. The way these two broadcast methods work are different and it would require the spirit to manipulate the original broadcast’s carrier wave in one of two ways:
AM: By affecting the height of the carrier wave
FM: By affecting how fast the carrier wave travels
Doing this without a transmitter would be an impressive feat even for a living person, let alone a disembodied consciousness without a physical form. If spirits could do this then there is no reason why we wouldn’t constantly hear their voices bleeding over radio programmes. It would be a huge issue for broadcasters who would have no way to stop this spirit interference.
There’s one further issue with this transformative method. If a spirit is altering an existing broadcast to produce the sound it wants to communicate, then it would have to do this at the exact moment that the spirit box scans to that frequency. This would require the spirit to know the exact frequency that’s audible through the device at any one time and keep track of that cycle. Bearing in mind that the device jumps to another frequency at least once per second, this would be very difficult.
Rather than broadcasting on a specific frequency, couldn’t the spirit just be altering the whole radio spectrum and effectively producing a wide-band transmission? Well, it would be much more difficult for the spirit to normalise every single frequency within that band and alter each of them. Plus if this were the case, then there would be no need to use a spirit box that scans through the frequency band, just tuning a radio to a part of the spectrum where there is no station broadcasting would be sufficient as a wide-band transmission would come through on this frequency clearly.
As mentioned previously, a spirit box scans through either the AM or FM frequency bands, if a spirit is able to effect the way the device scans in order to intentionally select existing voices in order to communicate, then this is an opportunistic process.
Essentially this would involve the spirit being able to influence the device’s circuitry in order to alter its normal scanning pattern. In the case of most spirit boxes, especially those devices built on modified radios, they normally scan sequentially through the frequency band starting at either 535 KHz or 88 MHz, depending on whether it is scanning AM or FM. When it reaches the top of the band it returns to the start and continues to cycle through in this way.
So in order for the spirit to change the sound that comes through opportunistically, it would need to force the device to break its cycle and jump to a specific frequency.
Some devices, instead of scanning sequentially, randomly jump to different frequencies within either the AM or FM band. In this case, the spirit would have to affect the random nature by impressing a number or value into the circuitry that relates to a specific frequency. What this value would need to be would depend on the device, it could be nothing more than the frequency, such as 99.5 MHz or it could be a number that relates to a frequency. For example 88 MHz = 1, 88.5 MHz = 2, 89 MHz = 3 and so on. Therefore, for our previous example of 99.5 MHz the related value would be 24.
As you’ve probably realised, assuming a spirit has the ability to affect the circuitry of a device in this way is quite a leap of faith, but that isn’t the only issue with opportunistic radio voice phenomenon.
Before a spirit can select a frequency and force the spirit box to momentarily jump to that frequency, it would need to know what options are available to it. This would mean they’d have to have the ability to listen to every radio station simultaneously. On FM where carriers are separated by 0.5 MHz, this would mean listening to 40 possible stations at once and selecting the one it wants the spirit box to jump to.
This still leaves the problem of actually selecting the word, it would require the spirit to predict and anticipate. For example, if the spirit wanted to say hello, it would need to listen for a broadcast and at the moment it thinks someone is going to say “hello,” it would need to cause the spirit box to jump to that station just before the moment. It obviously couldn’t do this after the word was spoken, it would need to be able to pre-empt this.
What makes this listening and selecting part of the opportunistic process even harder is that radio waves can’t be heard, they don’t translate directly into sound waves. Instead they instruct a radio set which vibrations to produce using it speaker in order to create the mechanical vibrations of air particles that we perceive as sound. Since sound requires a physical medium to pass through, it’s not clear how this could happen within a non-physical entity, even if it had the ability to decode the modulated carrier waves as they pass through them at the speed of light. Put simply, without having eardrums to pick up vibrations, how can you hear one radio station, let alone the whole spectrum at once?
So Which Is It? Transformative Or Opportunistic?
As you’ve probably gathered from the above, whether RVPs are transformative or opportunistic it seems near impossible that a non-corporeal consciousness could re-modulate radio transmissions, or have the ability to preemptively listen to all radio transmissions simultaneously and cause the spirit box to jump to one.
So, what’s really going on here? Well, a skeptic would tell you that it’s all down to a weird quirk of the brain. Pareidolia is our subconscious tendency to perceive a familiar or meaningful vision or sound in random patterns or noise. This could be seeing the image of a man on the surface of the moon, shapes in cloud formations, and even the image of Jesus on a piece of toast or the Shroud of Turin.
But pareidolia isn’t contained to vision, the brain also deals with sounds in the same way causing us to hear human voices in random noise. Probably the best-known example of auditory pareidolia is ‘backmasking’, which dates back to the 1960s when many believed they could hear secret messages in music. They believed that these words and phrases had been intentionally recorded backwards and hidden on records, but in most cases it was nothing more than the listener’s brain trying to find recognisable order in chaotic backwards music.
When pareidolia meets with expectation then it can be very convincing. Often a paranormal researcher will hear the word or phrase they are expecting to hear. For example if the researcher knows the spirit in a haunted location is called Fred, they might call out to the spirit, “what is your name?” and hear the reply “Fred.”
Any good paranormal investigator should bear in mind that audio pareidolia may be playing a part in what they’re hearing. It’s always a good idea to make an audio recording of a spirit box session. This will allow you to play the audio back later to someone else for a second opinion, ideally someone who is not interested in the paranormal or familiar with spirit boxes.
The best way to do this is to isolate the responses and play them out of context without telling them anything about when or where they were recorded. This will ensure that the person reviewing the audio will not be influenced by the question that was asked or any foreknowledge of names, words or phrases associated with the location where it was recorded. Don’t even tell them that you believe it to be a voice, just play them the sound and ask them to tell you what they hear.