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Ghost Box

by Steven Novella, May 14 2012

The subculture of pseudoscientific ghost hunting continues to evolve. Have you heard of a “ghost box?” It seems all you have to do is put the word “ghost” in front of something and it becomes technical jargon for ghost hunters, and also a great example of begging the question. A cold spot in a house is therefore “ghost cold.” An electromagnetic field (EMF) detector becomes a “ghost detector.” And now a radio scanner has been rebranded as a “ghost box.” Of course no one has ever established that any of these phenomena have anything to do with ghosts, so they are putting the cart several miles ahead of the horse.

A more scientific and intellectually honest approach would be to declare such phenomena as anomalous (although I don’t think that they are). Ghost cold would more properly be termed anomalous cold, or a regional cold anomaly, or something like that. One hypothesis for the alleged cold anomaly would be some sort of supernatural entity (call it a ghost) that acts as a heat sink generating cold spots. First, however, researchers should endeavor to find a mundane explanation for the cold. In fact before declaring it an anomaly they should thoroughly rule out any possible explanation. Only when that has been adequately done would they have a tentative anomaly.

It would then be reasonable to generate a hypothesis as to what is causing the anomalous cold, but such hypotheses are only useful if they lead to testable predictions. If the regional cold anomaly phenomenon is the result of “ghosts”, then what might we predict from that and how can we test it? I don’t know of any way to definitively test it, as ghosts are not a well-defined phenomenon, but perhaps there are some preliminary tests that could be done. For example, is there at least a correlation between cold spots and experiences often interpreted as ghosts or hauntings? Perhaps cold spots are just as likely in homes without other such “ghost phenomena.” Such a correlation would not prove the ghost hypothesis, of course, but it would at least be a start, and the lack of correlation would seriously jeopardize the hypothesis.

Ghost hunters, however, skip over all of this scientific methodology and reasoning and simply declare cold spots “ghost cold” and then use them as evidence for ghosts. They are then puzzled when scientists and skeptics don’t accept what they consider to be compelling evidence for ghosts, but what is really compelling evidence for the complete lack of scientific understanding on the part of ghost hunters.

All of the tools of the ghost hunting trade are the same as cold spots – they are common phenomena one might encounter in any location that are simply being declared ghost phenomena without ever a hypothesis being generated or tested. EMF meters, for example, simply detect the ubiquitous EMF in the modern world, which is then declared to be a ghost phenomenon. EMF is particularly satisfying because you can make the little needle move along the gauge, or (if you are digitally inclined) you can make numbers appear on the screen. You can wave around your EMF meter, without having the slightest idea how it works, and see stuff happen. Why are EMF associated with ghosts? There is no logical basis for this notion. It seems to be entirely based upon the fact that EMF is something you can encounter in alleged haunted locations, because you can encounter them almost anywhere.

We can now add the “ghost box” to the list of such equipment. This one is particularly humorous because it seems to be deliberately designed to generate false positive results. The inventor of the ghost box (sometimes called a spirit box) is Frank Sumption (who initially called it “Frank’s box). Here is his own description of the device.

The purpose of the ―box, as it is now referred to, is simply to provide a source of audio bits made up of fragments of human speech, music and noise. This noise is known as ―raw audio, it is the raw material out of which spirits of the deceased, and other entities use to create their own voices out of. ―Presumably by remodulating and remixing the raw audio to make the various noise fragments from words and voices of their choosing. In the box, the raw audio is created by sweeping the tuning of a radio electronically across it’s band, or tuning range, the resulting bits of speech music and noise are the raw audio. Radio is simply a convenient source of raw audio. However, that’s only a guess as to how the box works, there does seem be an RF component, or at times an actual signal received, or some other method of getting an external voice into the radio in the ―the box. Some of the manipulation of the raw audio seems to take place inside the electronics, again, presumably ―they can manipulate the electrical signals. I don’t have the equipment, or know how to be able to test these ideas.

What you hear, then, is what you would hear if you had an old radio with an analogue dial and you simply moved the dial quickly up and down the frequencies. You get a mix of static with snippets of speech or music. It is a perfect set up for generating audio pareidolia. The practice emerged out of electronic voice phenomenon (EVP), in which ghost hunters listen to hours of audio recorded in an allegedly haunted locations and listen for noise that their brains can interpret as words. They then impose meaning on the random words. The ghost box just speeds up the process by generating “raw audio” for the pareidolia.

There are two layers of pattern recognition that are occurring when we have an eager ghost hunter sitting in front of a radio scanner (sorry, I mean “ghost box”) listening for the ghosts. The first layers is hearing words, names, or phrases. Sometimes the words are actual words coming through from a radio station. Sometimes, however, they are just noise that the brain tries to match to a word. Here is a great example - most of the words and phrases “heard” by the ghost hunter in this video are more imagination than anything else. I suggest you listen to the audio without the video and write down any words that you think you hear. Then watch the video and see if they match what the ghost hunter thought he heard.

On the video the alleged words flash up on the screen, so that suggestion will kick in. This is a well-known phenomenon – when a word or phrase is suggested to you, your brain will hear what is suggested. Here is a funny example  – the “O Fortuna” lyrics misinterpreted as funny phrases. (Perhaps ghosts are trying to communicate through the lyrics of foreign-language music.)

There is also a second layer of pattern recognition, however – the meaning of the words. People are very good at inferring meaning, which is a useful skill in a highly social species. Like many such things, we are too good in that we tend to over-infer meaning. I see people do this all the time with their pets. They assign very sophisticated human understanding and intent to behaviors that probably have a much simpler explanation. We saw this also when researchers tried to each apes to communicate with sign language. The researchers were very good at inferring what the apes meant even when signing essentially randomly. Sometimes, for example, the animal would try to be funny or playful by signing the opposite of what he meant.

We see the same thing in the ghost box video. The ghost hunter is good at taking the random words and phrases an inferring some meaning from them. He is then very impressed by the pattern of responses, concluding that there must be some intelligence behind them. Of course there is an intelligence at work, but it is at the receiving end of the words. Any apparent meaning to the alleged words  is coming from the minds of those making the connection. In this way it is similar to a cold reading. The person making all the connections in a cold reading is not the reader but the subject. They are finding meaning in the questions and fragments (I see a letter “J”) that the cold reader is throwing out.

This general phenomenon is very common – seeing patterns in randomness and then being overly impressed at the connections. The naive premise for the believer is that if there were not a real external phenomenon going on (in this case, ghosts) then the apparent connections would not be there. This premise, however, is false. Humans are good at finding connections anywhere, and in that way we often deceive ourselves into thinking there is something there when there isn’t.


The “ghost box” phenomenon is no different than the ghost hunting tools that have gone before it – it is a method for generating positive apparently anomalous findings that can then be assumed to be a ghost phenomenon by eager ghost hunters. At no point, however, is any actual scientific research going on. The obvious control experiments are never done – we can, for example, compare the noise generated by a radio scanner in allegedly haunted locations vs control locations. We can also have blinded evaluators listen the audio and see what they hear. We can then perform inter-rater reliability testing by having different people listen to the same audio and see if they hear the same thing.

If you read the comments to the ghost box video I linked to above you will see the occasional skeptic pointing all this out. You will see more true believers declaring this stunning “proof” of the paranormal. Right there is the disconnect between the various believer groups and skeptics. Ghost hunters simply do not understand scientific methodology, they do not understand the nature of scientific evidence nor the pitfalls of generating false positive results. This is, perhaps, an example of the failure of education to teach the fundamental of science. It is also an opportunity to do some remedial education. Understanding why these ghost hunters are not doing science is a great way to teach what science is, and is not.

28 Responses to “Ghost Box”

  1. Trimegistus says:

    It’s interesting (and by “interesting” I mean “symptomatic of either blatant fraud or batshit insanity”) that the guy who built the box doesn’t actually seem to know how it works. He outright says that his explanation is “only a guess.”

    How the heck does anyone build a device without understanding its operating principles? Unless he’s lying about having built it, he must know that he’s constructed what amounts to a random noise generator. Even if ghosts actually are manipulating the output, _he should know how this happens_. The fact that he doesn’t suggests very strongly that this is all nonsense.

    But we knew that already.

    • Max says:

      “How the heck does anyone build a device without understanding its operating principles?”

      Trial and error can do wonderful things, but you need a way to tell how well the device works.

  2. Sharon Hill says:

    When I researched paranormal investigation groups, I was actually shocked at the complete misunderstanding of science. I had hoped for a little but it was worse than I thought. They so poorly understand basic concepts of science but played pretend very seriously, spouting quite a lot of misinformation. (See article in Mar/April 2012 Skeptical Inquirer)
    But, when called out on their “sciencey” stuff, they almost immediately back down because they KNOW they don’t know what they are talking about in terms of research methodology; they are simply faking it. (“I’m not a scientist, but I play a paranormal investigator in my spare time.”) They can fool the public quite well. Look at all the newspaper pieces that lable them “experts”.
    I suggest that skeptics go to presentations by these paranormal teams (given at local libraries, schools and for fundraisers) and observe how the audience buys into their explanation of the gadgetry. By asking some pointed questions (play dumb), you might be able to get them to reveal their hand to others listening.

  3. Mark Edward says:

    In addition to this excellent blog, Please read mine I posted here back in May 2009 on this hogwash: “Ghost in a Bottle.” There’s a curious history of listening to boxes, tea kettles…. sea shells too.

    IIG is in the midst of protocal negotiations with a claimant who wants to go for our $50,000 with a EVP claim based on this rubbish. More later.

  4. Max says:

    I was reminded of EVP when I heard all the speculation about what George Zimmerman mumbled under his breath when he called 911. In context, I thought he said, “…The back entrance. He’s fucking close.”
    CNN and others thought he said “coons” even though it’s anachronistic. Then, CNN cleaned up the audio so it sounded like, “It’s fucking cold.”
    Another expert said it was “clothes.” Zimmerman’s friend said it was “goons.”
    The arrest affidavit quotes Zimmerman as saying, “These fucking punks,” and Zimmerman’s lawyers agreed.

  5. Paul Ruggeri says:

    Tangential and anecdotal, but somewhat humorous: I recently got in an argument with someone at a camp-out over some night-time photos of ‘ghost orbs’ they had just taken and were very excited about. When I tried to explain that the orbs were caused by the flash reflecting off particles of dust, floating seeds, insects or even pollen, I was indignantly interrupted by “Pollen!? There’s no pollen at night!”

    All I could do at that point was sigh resignedly and rejoin the sea-shanty sing at the campfire… and giggle over the occasional sound of people with pollen allergies sneezing.

  6. Phea says:

    Think about how wonderful it could, and probably would be if ghosts did exist, and could actually manifest themselves in our physical world.

    The spirit world would undoubtedly contain individuals and even groups with certain axes to grind. It would be extremely difficult for people to plan and commit, let alone get away with crime.

    The potential for a great new “reality” show would also be possible. The opening could be: “Who knows what evil lurks in the hearts and minds of men… the spirits do!” Tonight, 3 murders, and 2 rapes are solved, and a pedophiles home is burned down…

    • tmac57 says:

      Hey!!! Don’t give the crazies any ideas!They dream enough up on their own.

      • Phea says:

        It’s funny, tmac. I’ve used this argument on more than one true believer, and all they can say is, “but, but, you just don’t understand how it works.” My response is that they really don’t understand how it WOULD work, if true.

    • Max says:

      Stupid ghosts haunt the victim’s home when they should be haunting the criminal’s home.

    • John K. says:

      Of course, the dead would outnumber the living by hundreds to one. It would be ridiculous pandemonium.

      • tmac57 says:

        Oh,well apparently you have to be a famous figure or die tragically to make the ghost team. It’s like an afterlife country club…very exclusive.

      • gdave says:

        You don’t just need to die tragically – you need to die in a manner that makes a good ghost story, almost always as an individual. I’ve heard a few ghost stories associated with battlefields, but never the Holocaust or other horrific large-scale massacres.

        Queen beheaded so the King can remarry? Totally a ghost. 700,000 soldiers killed at Verdun? No ghosts. 1.3 million killed in horrific conditions almost beyond imagination at Auschwitz? No ghosts.

        One person with a cool back-story who dies a gruesome death makes an entertaining story. Huge masses of nameless and faceless victims of industrialized evil are just overwhelming.

        I propose a Law of Ghost Formation: the probability of a deceased individual appearing as a ghost is directly proportional to the entertainment value of the story about how that person died.

      • tmac57 says:

        How about ‘Ghost Haunting Occult Uniform Law’?

  7. Chris Howard says:

    It always amazes me how many would be ghost busters point to their “research” without having the faintest clue
    as to what true scientific research entails. How one has to study, and practice the methodology, for years to become good at it. How scientific research isn’t like doing research for English lit., or that one really tough history paper that they had to do back in their freshman year of college.

    Yet most of these very same people have no difficulty understanding that in order to become a great artist, musician, or anything else for that matter one not only has to practice, but one must practice correctly. Why the disconnect I don’t know?

    It’s like that old saying goes, “If science were easy it’d be your mom.” ;-)

  8. noen says:

    The reason that this is popular now is because kids tend to push back against their parents. UFO mythology has been so dominant among the baby boomers that their kids, wanting something to distinguish themselves from their parents, have turned to ghosts and parapsychology instead. And their children will pick something else to believe, god only knows what.

  9. says:

    You can hear your own simulated ghost-box like EVP with the EVP-maker! It’s a kind of rough granular synthesizer. Actually it’s quite fun to play with. I’ve used it for experimental sound art.


  10. Rob Martin says:

    I think the problem lies with the supposition that better (or more, or ANY) science education would put these folks right. My sister, no child at 49 years old, belongs to a ‘paranormal investigations’ team. I’ve accompanied them on investigations and spent a few evenings listening in on their meetings.

    The bottom line is this: they believe their ghosts lie outside the purview of science, wherein science is for the ‘normal’, and they are investigating the paranormal. Science is for chemists and astronomers and geologists and the like, and has zero to say about ghosts, ESP, etc. And you know what? They are 100% correct.

    What are essentially religious beliefs (ghosts = disincarnated souls/spirits/energies) formed without the benefit of science, nor of scientific values such as reason, logic, etc., are impervious to persuasion by science, logic, reason, methodology, etc. The pseudoscientific trappings of their tech gear serves merely to quantify what they already know, that ghosts are real and exist quite despite the failure of Science to accept them as such.

    Spending time with them reveals the attraction: if ghosts exist, typically identified as the disincarnated souls, spirits or energy of deceased persons, the implications are glorious. Two in particular bear the majority of the weight:

    (1)It implies that we can still communicate and connect with people who have died, that loved ones are not really and truly gone, and…

    (2) that when I die (meaning the ghost hunter/believer), I likewise won’t be totally gone, that I can maintain a connection with loved ones left behind on the ‘plane of the living’, as I heard one true believer refer to it.

    Tertiary and lesser values include the fun of it, the social and recreational aspects of it: spooky-place nvestigations, ‘debriefing’ meetings afterwards, writing it up for the group’s website, and telling the tale to curious others. Plus, there is notoriety among their peer group for being in an ‘offical’ paranormal investigative outfit (though you’re offical the minute you say you are, for no more reason then having said you are).

    Science disagrees? Scientists do not approve? so what? Why should ghosties give a hoot? Ignorance is bliss, none so blind, etc., etc.

    Who are the silly ones, the ghost hunters for believing the palpably untrue on so little, or the set of scientific-minded well-intentioned who have for centuries fought a losing battle to educate them?

    We point out that hundreds of years of ghost investigations (or UFO, or bigfoot, etc.) have produced nothing in the way of actionable evidence, while missing the fact that hundreds of years of pointing that out has reduced the prevalence and depth of paranormal not one whit.

    We’ve beaten the pig for hundreds of years and still it refuses to dance! Stupid pig!

  11. Jose the Paranormal Skeptic says:

    These people are hearing voices form a device that performs a linear scan of AM/FM frequencies? Who’d a thunk it?

  12. Visara says:

    It’s good to be skeptical, but some people are just ignorant and too close-minded.
    I turned on my ghost box tonight and asked, in my friend’s house if there were any spirits who are able to communicate. I immediately got a “yes” from a female and a “yeah” from a male. I then asked if they could tell me what their names are. “Justin” and “My name is Sandra.”

    Justin and Sandra were husband and wife and both passed away in my friend’s house in the 1980s. At the time I used the ghost box, I DID NOT KNOW THIS INFORMATION. I only learned it after my friend called his landlord and asked if anyone had ever died in his house. This is too much of a coincidence.

    Their voices came immediately and were crystal-clear. Before I ask questions, I always listen for a few minutes to nothing but the scanning of the stations to get a baseline idea of the regular noise is as the stations flip. These answers were not snippets of any radio station. They were responding to my questions.

    Accept it or not, there is more to this world than what you can see with your human eyes. There IS a spirit realm and it’s as real as anything around you. You just can’t see it because you’re living.

  13. Hester says:

    spirit boxes can scan through 9 channels per second. any audio from a radio station would only be 1/9 of a second long. The words coming from these machines are longer than that, and often directly answer questions or even say the names of the ppl using it. How do u explain that?

  14. David Evans says:

    You cannot admit that using a spirit box, asking a question to repeat your words and the spirit box coming back with the same word is not paranormal. Check it out on you will be very surprised. Or look up Contact/Mortis on Youtube.

  15. Edwin W. North says:

    As a skeptic and magician I never seem to get invited to these events by hunters.

  16. Matt Gibb says:

    Contact/Mortis on youtube really is quite interesting to say the least. I didnt believe in any of this spirit box crap to begin with but I have to admit after watching their “The Dead Shall Rise” video and a few others I was really blown away with their evidence.

  17. Jeff Kirk says:

    I’m quite on the fence here. All the points originally offered debunking why cold spots, the spirit box, etc, could be invalid and unscientific, I agree. For all that, no one has scientifically proven the existence of God, Heaven, Hell, or the human soul, either.
    However, one thing that would really invalidate the point is actually debunking stuff by explaining not just what it’s not, but by actually defining what it is.
    Much of what is being portrayed as paranormal really is just fodder, I’ll agree with that. But being a skeptic doesn’t mean you’re basing your opinion on scientific data any more than the person you’re being skeptical about.

  18. Hugh Munn says:

    These were never originally just for ghosts and have been commercialized and recognized to be such. What if one doesn’t
    believe in ghosts but does in aliens? UFO fanatics do use these and believe they are hearing from extraterrestrials — and a ‘ghost hunter’ using the same device couldn’t prove they are wrong.

    It’s merely a broken radio.

  19. scott says:

    yeah contact mortis evidence is the real deal and blows the audio matrixing effect out of the water. It’s not normal for the radio to talk back regardless if the closet minded conundrums will acknowledge it, I just get more of an insight in to the effect brainwashing can have on people even when irrefutable evidence not supported by there indoctrinators is there. The spirit realms exist and I feel so much happier for knowing, be good to each other because it really does matter. contact mortis the dead shall rise, like they said above look it up, life’s an experience, the answer to your question. It’s where we come to learn, morality, empathy, love, controlling our desires, the evolution of your consciousness. Some people fail at this. the truths stranger than fiction guys.

  20. Ben says:

    I’ve been pouring over the available evidence for about five years now and I have gone from a total unbeliever to having a very open mind, the truth will be found (eventually)!