Ghosts in the machine

WE’RE SITTING IN a small Dundee flat, waiting to converse with the dead. No Victorian-style seances with table rappings or hovering blobs of ectoplasm; just sporadic (human) conversation and the silent spooling of a microcassette recorder.

"Basically, I just ask for anybody on their side of the fence, on the spirit side, to draw near and leave anything on the tape," says Linda Williamson, as we both switch on our recorders. She raises her voice slightly: "Anything for Mr Gilchrist here and his family members? Anyone like to say a name that we might recognise?"

Williamson, a 47-year-old former cleaner, is a dedicated collector of "electronic voice phenomena", commonly known as EVP - the mysterious voices or voice-like sounds, often distorted amid other extraneous noise, which can crop up on tape recordings, broadcasts, even telephone answering machines. Some believe these are communications from the afterlife, others that they are simply random noise from electromagnetic or other earthly sources, in which believers simply hear whatever they want to hear.

However you may interpret it, and even if you haven’t heard of it up until now, EVP will have a much higher - and scarier - profile from 7 January when the film White Noise is released, starring Michael Keaton as an architect who becomes obsessed with EVP following the disappearance of his wife.

So far as Williamson is concerned, however, there is nothing scary about EVP, although her introduction to the phenomena was unsettling enough. In 1998, she and her friend, Irene MacIntyre, were working as early-morning contract cleaners in a factory on Dundee’s dockside, when a rash of odd occurrences - such as things being moved about and doors being slammed in their faces - prompted Williamson to bring in a cassette recorder, which she left running while she was working. She plays me an extract from that first tape, now stored along with hundreds of other EVP on her computer: there is a noise of what sounds like furniture being banged about, and of women laughing.

It wasn’t her and MacIntyre laughing in that otherwise empty factory at five o’clock in the morning, she insists. "We weren’t near the recorder at that point." On first listening to the tape, she was initially "petrified," then fascinated. She didn’t know anything about EVP at the time, but after watching a TV documentary, contacted the American Association of Electronic Voice Phenomena (AA-EVP). "They told me not to worry, that people round the world were getting things like this."

Williamson has recorded many snatches of disembodied speech, which she believes come from the afterlife - including deceased members of her family. She plays me some extracts - many of which I find unintelligible, including a brief snippet of a woman’s voice she says is her mother and, at one point, a snatch of singing from a man she believes to be a friend’s father who died some years ago. She thinks he’s singing "Remember your dad," but it doesn’t sound like anything to me.

Elsewhere, a breathy snatch of a woman’s voice appears to utter "Help!;" another appears to say "I’m impressed," but that’s my interpretation. One she made in the ruins of the Priory of St Andrews Cathedral certainly sounds, as she suggests, like distant monkish chanting. Too often, however, the EVPs sound like random gobbledygook, fleeting murmurs or harsh interjections couched amid industrial-sounding clangs and rumbles. Sometimes she has to reverse the tapes to make any sense of them.

You get the impression her relationship with the paranormal is at least partly tongue-in-cheek, going by the imitation skulls which leer from among the Christmas cards, her haunted-house screensaver and the cuddly little ghost clutching the word Boo!, stuck to the mirror. A recurring black-and- white cow motif marks her as a fan of the cartoonist, Gary Larson, creator of The Far Side.

On this occasion, though, the far side is declining to get in touch. Williamson, playing back the tape we make, thinks she may have heard some extraneous whispering over our conversation, but says she’d have to listen to the tape for a long time to get anything out of it. She is sincere, but I’m left with the feeling that, apart from what certainly sounds like distant chanting on the St Andrews tape, it’s all too easy to read anything into these distorted "soundbytes".

EVPs are sometimes referred to as "Rorschach audio," after the psychological test in which subjects read their own interpretation of inkblot images.

Professor Chris French, who heads the anomalistic psychology research unit at Goldsmith’s College, London, agrees on the ambiguity of the phenomena: "According to modern experimental psychology, and not just with the paranormal, you’ve got two different sources [of stimulus] coming in. You’ve got the raw sensory input, referred to as ‘bottom-up’ processing, but because that comes in at a hell of a rate and a lot of it is very ambiguous and hard to make sense of, you are also influenced by what are known as ‘top-down’ processes - your general knowledge and beliefs and expectations.

"The ‘top-down’ processing tends to have much greater influence if you’ve got degraded or ambiguous stimuli. In those situations, your own beliefs and expectations will tend to determine how you perceive them."

He often uses examples of so-called EVP to illustrate this, and stresses that it’s important to listen to it first without knowing what it is supposed to say: "You’ll find it’s open to all sorts of interpretations, but once you’ve read or been told the message, when you listen to it again, you can hear it quite clearly."

Dr Caroline Watt of Edinburgh University’s Koestler parapsychology institute, also comments on the ambiguous nature of the few EVPs she has heard. "It was essentially random hisses and pops and other noises but sometimes these might resemble a word. We’re programmed, almost, to impute language and meaning into something that’s quite random, and I think that’s what’s going on.

"We’re immersed in various forms of electronic noise, electromagnetic activity from the Earth, from power cables and television and radio. I suspect these apparatus are just picking up fluctuations."

Certainly, the phenomenon is only as old as the technology which seems to receive it. An early proponent was the artist and opera singer, Friedrich Jurgenson, who was recording birdsong near Stockholm in 1959 when he picked up what he believed was a greeting from his dead mother.

In 1971 Jurgenson’s protg, the Latvian psychologist Konstantin Raudive, published his researches into EVPs in a widely-read book, The Inaudible Made Audible, although he made no particular claims for the phenomenon. Much earlier, Thomas Edison, inventor of the phonograph, wrote: "If we can evolve an instrument so delicate as to be affected by our personality as it survives in the next life, such an instrument, when made available, ought to record something."

Tom and Lisa Butler, co-directors of the AA-EVP, have no doubt these "messages" are more than stray electromagnetic radiation or random noise. "We have a high degree of confidence that the voices and other forms of these phenomena are not able to be explained using currently understood physical principles," says Tom, an electronic engineer based in Reno, Nevada (his wife, Lisa, is a psychologist). "The one hypothesis that answers all of the evidence coming from EVP is the Survival Hypothesis - that is, that the personality of a person survives the death of the physical body."

Whatever the nature of the phenomenon, it continues to take people by surprise. A recent BBC Radio 4 programme, Speak Spirit, Speak, recalled how, last February, listeners reported hearing a "ghostly voice" 23 minutes into a live broadcast of the travel show Excess Baggage from Leap Castle - reputedly the most haunted castle in Ireland. Presenter Sandi Toksvig and company were unaware of the interloper until they played recordings later. "Lie down," the unsettling, sinister-sounding whisperer seemed to say - at least according to some listeners, "You liar," suggested others, while to this writer it sounded more like "hide out" or perhaps "wipe out".

Ian Ashbury, senior investigation engineer with BBC radio, opined on Speak Spirit, Speak that, so far as EVP on radio was concerned, he would always look for a rational explanation, and that microphones can pick up radio transmissions. Others, not necessarily believers, are intrigued nonetheless. Gordon McPherson, composer and head of composition at the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama, is currently working on a Creative Scotland Award project to create a multi-media piece incorporating recordings of EVP. White Noise, he jokes, has stolen his thunder: "I think at the moment there’s a huge interest in this kind of thing and it was just a matter of time before a film came out.

"My whole approach to writing this has been one of abstraction rather than involvement. I think what interests me most are the belief systems of the people involved. I have a very sceptical approach to it."

For his part, Niall Johnson, scriptwriter of White Noise, sees in EVP what he calls "a complex two-way relationship between the spiritual and the technological. I’m specifically interested in the effect which these messages have on an average person, who one day loses a loved one and suddenly wants to believe. White Noise is all about Michael Keaton’s character wanting to believe."

Many of us might also want to believe, but we are haunted by ambiguity rather than by restless spirits. Listening to what Williamson believes are voices from the afterlife, it is very hard not to conclude that if the dead are indeed talking to us, they don’t have a lot to say.