One of the most common things the paranormal investigators talk about on our interviews is how their audio recordings pick up eerie voices that no human ears in the room can hear. Hearing ethereal voices in audio recordings, known in the field as Electronic Voice Phenomena (EVP), strikes us as a fascinating, sometimes compelling, sometimes dubious, and always controversial topic. But who came up with the idea of EVPs? And why did they assume the voices were ghosts? 

When were EVPs first discovered?

The first purported EVP was recorded in those wondrous wasteland days between J.B. Rhine’s work at Duke University and the wacky Midcentury government psy research ala The Men Who Stare At Goats. Just when the world thought it was about to move on from attempting to scientifically research the paranormal, Friedrich Jürgenson accidentally recorded what he believed to be the speaking voice of his deceased father. 

Who was Friedrich Jürgenson, the Father of Electronic Voice Phenomena?

Now, Jürgenson was not a paranormal researcher before he began taping ghost sounds. He was a philosopher, painter, archaeologist, linguist, and singer. Since that résumé reads like a neat mixture of Becky and Diana, we know how easily those career paths can tip over into speculating about ghosts. Unlike Becky and Diana, he was also a court painter to Pope Pius XII and a documentary filmmaker​, so paranormal investigation was far from his original career plan.

Jürgenson caught his first EVP accidentally in 1959 while attempting to record birdsong in his garden. To his surprise, Jürgenson discovered mysterious voices on the recordings, which were not audible during the recording process. Intrigued by this phenomenon, he began experimenting. Over time, he claimed to have captured the voices of both his deceased parents, among others. He knew the voices were theirs because they addressed him by the same nickname as his parents did when they were alive. Also, he claimed that he straight up recognized their voices when he heard them, even through the warble of magnetic recording tape. 

At first, Jürgenson recorded his first EVPs on a reel-to-reel tape recorder, but this must not have been the easiest equipment for spirits to talk through. How do we know? Well, the ghosts told him. One of the very voices he recorded advised him to switch to radio static as a source of EVPs. Jürgenson’s extensive work in EVPs, encompassing hundreds of tapes, has been influencing paranormal research ever since.

Inspired by Jürgenson’s findings, psychologist Konstantin Raudive took up the reins. Raudive collected and analyzed over 100,000 EVP recordings. When he published his research in his 1971 book “Breakthrough: An Amazing Experiment in Electronic Communication with the Dead,” people started calling the ghostly phenomena “Raudive Voices.”

Why do spirits communicate through EVPs? 

The primary hypothesis we’ve heard from experts is that spirits of the deceased, or perhaps other beings from another plane of existence, use EVPs as a means to communicate with us because these entities exist in a state or dimension that doesn’t allow for direct physical interaction. The theory suggests that these entities can manipulate energy or electronic devices to imprint their voices onto recording mediums. This idea aligns with the broader concept that spirits are forms of energy and can interact with the electromagnetic spectrum or EMFs, which electronic recording devices capture.

How do EVPs actually work? 

We’ve heard several theories as to how spirits communicate through EVPs. But what is an EVP, at its core? What is the practical nature of how a voice shows up on a tape when it wasn’t audible while that tape was recording?

Energy Manipulation

This idea is based on a broader concept that spirits exist as energy, and can therefore manipulate electromagnetic fields and energies, which in turn affect electronic devices. This manipulation could result in the imprinting of voices onto recording mediums, such as tape recorders or digital devices.

Frequency Resonance

Another theory is that spirits operate at different frequency levels than the living. These frequencies might only occasionally align with our electronic devices, leading to the partial capture of these voices on audio recordings. The concept here is that EVPs occur because spirits communicate on frequencies beyond our normal hearing capacity but within the detectable range of recording devices.

Intent of the Spirits

Some paranormal researchers suggest that spirits might be in on the gig, speaking through recordings as an attempt to provide tangible evidence of their continued existence and the afterlife in general. One result of the spiritualist movement of the 19th century was the promises that many believers made to come back and provide proof of their existence as spirits. Their ghosts may be consciously speaking into microphones in an attempt to bolster evidence, whether it’s to reach out to loved ones and provide comfort, or to gloat over being right all along that ghosts are real.

Are EVPs really real ghost voices?

Jürgenson’s and Raudive’s findings and conclusions are still debated in the paranormal community. Many paranormal investigators consider EVP recordings to be direct, purposeful communications from the dead. But why do people assume that EVPs are ghosts? 

EVPs as evidence of life after death

We’ve heard accounts and evidence from many ghost hunters that really make us say “huh!” Investigators tell us about EVPs that include names and facts relevant to the haunted location’s history. They play us recordings where a (presumably living person’s) voice asks a question, then a quiet (presumably dead person’s) voice answers that question with a brief but sensible answer. 

What are EVP if they’re not the voices of ghosts?

Speculating on potential alternative paranormal theories is what we do best. What if EVPs are hard to hear because the message is intended for a specific person, or a certain kind of person? Could EVPs be recordings of the past, as in the stone tape theory? Could they be communication from aliens, elves, or trolls who speak in a different frequency that we cannot hear with our puny human ears? What if they’re part of a prophecy from a deity, but heard only in snippets? What if they’re actually a form of telepathy, picking up and amplifying subconscious thoughts? Could they be the voices of time travelers popping in for an unseen visit? What if ancient alchemists, druids, and witches created a message etched into the fabric of time, to be played in the future?

Are EVPs fake?

Skeptics, however, offer more grounded explanations. They suggest that these EVP recordings might be the result of radio interference, unintentional recordings of ambient noise, psychological phenomena like pareidolia (where the brain interprets random patterns as familiar objects or sounds), or simply hoaxes.

How do you control for errors in EVPs?

When presented with skepticism, EVP proponents often modify their techniques in an attempt to control for mundane explanations. It’s probably not ambient noise or radio interference if it can be replicated with the microphone sealed in a soundproof box. EVP interpretation probably can’t be subjective based on priming with a question if the investigators are using the Estes method, and the person interpreting the sounds has no awareness of the question. Electronically generated white noise can’t pick up stray radio signals or ambient noise.

Also, many paranormal experts started out as staunch skeptics, converted to believers only when presented with what they saw as incontrovertible evidence. They’re probably less likely to perpetrate hoaxes if they themselves needed—and found—sufficient proof to believe in ghosts.

Why are EVPs so hard to hear, until they’re not?

Yet it’s undeniably true that EVPs can sound like garbled gobbledygook to the uninitiated. The whole reason ghost hunters call clearer EVPs “Class A EVPs” is because most EVPs are largely unintelligible…until someone makes a suggestion as to what they might be saying. As soon as we know what we’re listening for, we can hear it. Does that mean that we just need practice our EVP listening skills? Or does that imply that we only hear what we want to? 

Just like the human predilection to see faces in random patterns, there are reasonable evolutionary reasons why our brain might hallucinate human voices in random sounds. People with prosopagnosia who cannot instinctually recognize faces, can often instinctually recognize the voices of their loved ones. Like faces, there’s some sort of subconscious emotional attachment to human voices that causes them to feel weighted with extra meaning. Similarly, an English speaker listening to a lecture in a language they don’t speak usually has no trouble at all instantly recognizing a random English word thrown into the blah blah. 

What are the dead trying to tell us? 

If we truly believe that the spirits of our deceased ancestors are consciously and intentionally using whatever skills they have (including EVPs) to send us supernatural messages from beyond the veil, we have to assume it’s an important message, no? So then, why are so many EVPs seemingly random and confusing?

Perhaps most importantly, why don’t spirits communicate important overarching generic concepts that we all wonder about? Why don’t they explain to us what it feels like to die? How to make the choice between going into the light, or another option? What those options even are, and who gives them to us? Things they wished they’d done more of before their time was up? 

What messages are important to ghosts?

Perhaps what’s important to the spirit is just different from what’s important to modern, living humans. We tend to think of ghosts as being obsessed with their unfinished business. So obsessed that they give up their chance at infinite enlightenment, eternal freedom, and limitless happiness just to stick around here and chat half-assedly with strangers about the money they hid under their basement floor that someone already found decades ago. Perhaps whatever random circumstance was weighing on their mind at the hour of their death became an echo throughout the rest of their existence when they passed on, its singular importance never to wane? Maybe the ghosts forget that they’re dead, and just want to shoot the breeze after being ignored for so long? 

Maybe the deceased just don’t want to be forgotten. Many EVPs are names. If the first time we die is our physical death, and the second is the last time a living person speaks our name, or when the last living person who remembers us dies, then shouting one’s own name into the abyss for all eternity might feel like a form of immortality to some reluctant ghosts. Like most forms of immortality, this one feels like it would get pretty tiresome. That could explain why EVPs sound so mumbled, and why only pieces of messages seem to come through. 

How can I capture and identify EVPs? 

Are you sure you want to? Capturing EVPs requires a lot of patient waiting around in haunted places that are often dark, cold, lonely, and dirty or unsafe. If you want quality EVPs that can’t be debunked, it also involves a lot of setup, attempting to sanitize your environment of extraneous sounds. Worse, analyzing the recording while listening for EVPs can be tedious, as it involves listening to long, boring clips over and over at a volume that might occasionally blast your eardrums. After all that, all you have is a seconds long recording of what you think might be a spectral message that sounds vaguely like “Davey loves to vacuum Marlboros,” and the collective disdain of the majority of the scientific community.

If the desire persists knowing all that, congratulations, you were likely always meant to be a paranormal investigator. After all, it’s not a job; it’s a calling. If you have a haunted location to record at, here are some of the tips our guest Cyn Shrader of Elk Valley paranormal shared with us. As the author of several books on the subject and being an investigator herself, Cyn’s advice is both mystical and practical.

If you don’t have a haunted location to record in, psychicscience.org has provided this guide on how to use random white noise generators to create reproducible EVPs. 

Do you think EVP are real?

EVPs continue to intrigue paranormal enthusiasts and researchers. Curiosity about and experimentation with the intersection of technology and the paranormal is only growing, despite an abundance of unclear evidence of uncertain importance and dubious nature. The allure likely lies in the possibility that these voices might provide a link to passed loved ones, and a hope for continued consciousness after death. 

So next time you’re listening to a recording and hear something unexpected, take a moment to wonder – is it just interference, or could it be a call from beyond? The answer might just cause you to have a spooky day.