Fear and Soldering, an excerpt from Peter Bebergal's Strange Frequencies

I posted some pre-release interviews with Peter Bebergal about his latest book, Strange Frequencies: The Extraordinary Story of the Technological Quest for the Supernatural. The book examines the frequent use of science and technology in pursuit of the otherworldly.

In Strange Frequencies, Peter gets up close and hands on with such tinfoil fun stuff as ghost boxes, spirit radios, EVP recordings, spirit photography, brain toys, and more. In the following excerpt, reprinted from Strange Frequencies and used with permission from TarcherPerigree/Penguin, Random House, Peter delves into the history of the "ghost box" and sets out to try and build one of his own.

Fear and Soldering

In 1995, the October issue of Popular Electronics offered the article "Ghost Voices: Exploring the Mysteries of Electronic Voice Phenomena (EVP)," and laid out a few methods for modifying radios to be able to answer whether "the dead are trying to break through the veil between the worlds." Various techniques are presented: a simple tape recorder with a microphone in a quiet room might record answers to questions that can be heard on playback (tried it, no luck); a circuit to build a small radio much like the Tesla radio I built; tuning a radio between stations and recording the static; and a white noise generator schematic to use instead of a radio to be sure stray transmissions are not being picked up. The tone of the piece is playful but not skeptical. The author takes no position, but Popular Electronics was written for the amateur hobbyist, and if any audience would be interested in such an article, it would certainly be this magazine's readers.

After the article was published, the magazine was overwhelmed with letters, and in the 1996 February edition, the editors published a number of examples. They range from rational insight ("The 'voices of the dead' theme is simply an example of the phenomenon known to engineers as audio rectification"), outrage ("This is indeed a low point for the . . . magazine"), and cautious belief ("I think that the EVP is something that can't be explained away"). But the letter from C.W. from Lee's Summit, Missouri, is the most revealing. The writer concurs that electronic hobbyists are "different from others because . . . we are curious about physical phenomena. We seek to know more and more about the physical nature of our universe. The article provides us with a means to delve into another aspect of our universe, namely the spiritual." Rather than amaze the editors with their experiments, the letter instead issues a stern warning. "Do not communicate with the dead," C.W. writes, "for it is written in Deuteronomy 18:10–12: 'There shall not be found among you anyone that . . . useth divination, or an observer of times, or an enchanter, or a witch, or a charmer, or a consulter of familiar spirits, or a wizard, or a necromancer." It's no surprise that a letter to the editor in an electronics hobby magazine would illuminate the tension at the heart of both the occult and the inventive spirit.

The occult, understood to be a set of spiritual and magical practices that are often at odds with normative religious customs, rarely aligns with the mainstream American ideal of the individual as a frontiersman, exploring the limits of what is possible in an effort to build and expand outward into the antipodes. Technology is also often at odds with religious values as well because similarly it places too much power in the hands of the human being, leaving little room for God. But, unlike the occult, technological innovation more readily can be understood as being a gift from God, a measure of salvation and the perfection of the soul. When we combine technology with the spiritual even when outside of accepted religious practice, the edges begin to blur. It becomes a realm not accepted by either religious traditionalist or scientists. The hobbyist, with a DIY engine in their heart, has always propelled these kinds of activities forward.

Frank Sumption, a ham radio enthusiast, was one of the many readers of the Popular Electronics article, and had always harbored an interest in the paranormal. He tried some of the experiments, and according to his friend Tim Woolworth—-author of the blog ITC Voices—-Frank wasn't impressed with the results. But in 2000, Frank tried again, this time going outside of the projects offered in the magazine. Spirits, according to EVP experimenters, cannot communicate in a vacuum. Bound, in some uncategorical way, by the laws of physics, spirits require a carrier of some kind to transmit their voices into our world. When a digital FM radio is set to scan, it "locks" as soon as it receives a strong frequency. Frank discovered that by modifying a radio so that it never locks on a station, the resulting effect is a constant stream of noise, bits of music, voices, and static. This raw material, Sumption claimed, could be used by spirits to form words. "It's been my experience that if one supplies something that the spirits/ entities can use to make voices out of," he wrote, "'they' will speak." The hacked radios came to be affectionately known within the EVP community as "Frank Boxes."
Sumption's experiments would take a strange turn. First, he became increasingly irritated by the people claiming to be ghost hunters. He started to assert that the voices he was receiving might be alien in nature. In an e‑mail correspondence with the writer Karen Stollznow, Sumption explained that the entities he spoke with believed that he was a missing intergalactic royal lady who they called the "purple princess." His boxes also became more sophisticated, and he eventually created a version with a small CRT screen in an attempt to pick up images of the entities he was in communication with.

Sumption's original ghost box has since been modified by others using the most recent electronic hobbyist technologies, such as microcontrollers—-small programmable devices that allow simple circuits to be easily hacked together and improved upon without having to change the primary circuit. Computer programming has essentially altered the basic design of the spirit radio in such a way that a once purely analog device—-little more than a coil picking up stray frequencies (and possibly a disembodied soul)— has become a digital node in the vast, and seemingly infinite, cyberspace. Software code is shared; EVP samples are uploaded to YouTube. The devices themselves are hooked up to personal computers, creating a virtual web of receivers drawing down these noises. My experiences with computer- based applications led me to become distrustful of methods whose designs are hidden. But it was not only that these digital ghost boxes could be fraudulent; they don't allow for the inventive experimental character of something like Frank Sumption's boxes. The supernatural imagination demands a special kind of activation, one that often requires breaking radios and making them do something they weren't intended to do but are more than capable of doing.

EVP hobbyists are particularly fond of RadioShack digital radios for their ease of opening and rewiring, but they are unfortunately no longer produced. Trying to procure one was daunting. I scoured Goodwill and other local thrift shops but was unable to find one that was included on various EVP "hackable" lists. A search on eBay returned only a few hits, most of which were upward of a hundred dollars. One that had been "prehacked" started at $225. Most listings don't promise that the buyer will actually hear spirits, but a recent listing confided that "At the cemetery or at my house it was getting great replies," and linked to a website with video evidence of the radio in use. I was intent on building one myself, and so I patiently checked eBay listings until I finally procured a RadioShack model 12‑589 "Extreme-Range AM/FM Weather Radio" in working condition. Its only flaw was a broken antenna, which was easily replaced. There was something satisfying about it being a RadioShack radio. The company once had a reputation for being hobbyist friendly, and I myself have a long history with them. My first electronics kit was their "150 in 1 Project Kit," and the first thing I ever soldered was a small multitester from their line of kits known as ArcherKit. I also worked for RadioShack in my early twenties when the stores were still the go‑to shop for electronic tinkerers. I had grown up in and around RadioShacks, and there would be nothing more natural than taking a screwdriver to the case screws of one of their radios, opening it up, and mucking around with the circuit. I was in unfamiliar territory making a ghost box, but with an intimately familiar map.

Read the rest in Strange Frequencies: The Extraordinary Story of the Technological Quest for the Supernatural, out today.