The days of the ouija board are all but over. There are now there are dozens of high tech ways to try to talk to ghosts. I decided to go looking for some in the VICE Media offices with the help of a spirit box, one of the many apps and devices on the market promising to help you communicate with other-worldly entities.
The spirit box is an ITC device, short for Instrumental Transcommunication, which is said to work by sweeping through AM or FM radio to pick up messages from beyond. The first model was developed in 2002 by Frank Sumption, a paranormal investigator who believed the spirits could manipulate the sounds coming over the airwaves into their own forms of communication. Since then, several brands of "ghost boxes" have been created, ranging from the $19.95 Ghost Meter EMF Sensor to the to the $138.90 Spirit Box SB11.
I settled on the mid-priced P-SB7 Spirit Box for $69.90, which is recommended by several paranormal experts on YouTube. The device has apparently been popularized by Ghost Adventures, a show on the Travel Channel in which two ghost hunters explore haunted locations and attempt to communicate with spirits.
I figured 116 positive reviews couldn't be wrong and decided to test it for myself. The reviewers, many passionate ghost hunters themselves, gave me a lot of useful information to work with—for example, did you know ghosts communicate at any hour of the day? They also have no preference in terms of AM or FM radio for communicating. I also learned that the speaker on the spirit box device doesn't work well, so made sure to use headphones.
Other reviews were more ominous:
"I give this review 5 stars, because this is a fantastic radio for spirit communication, and it does exactly what it claims to, so long as you're willing to devote time to using it," one reviewer wrote, before adding, "I wish that I had been warned about the potential side effects of making contact with a negative entity, but to my own dissatisfaction, I had to find out through direct experience."
"Very SOBERING!!! Be so very careful and really think about it before you use it," another reviewer said. One review warned users to "prepare yourself with prayer and protection."
I took these warnings into consideration, and decided for the purpose of this article, I wouldn't mind making contact with negative entities. I fired up the spirit box at the VICE Media HQ. Following the advice of a YouTube tutorial, I set my sweep rate at 250 milliseconds and put it in reverse. I asked the theoretical ghosts in the room, "are you there?" and listened. Most users on Amazon suggested sessions of about 20 minutes for maximum effect, so I waited, and waited, but heard nothing but static and random voices on the radio, which sounded like standard voices on the radio, not "ghosts" answering my questions like some customers detailed in their reviews.
Maybe I wasn't hearing ghosts because there aren't any in the office, I thought. To adjust for this possibility, I tried the device at a nearby restaurant known for being haunted. The chatter seemed to pick up (or maybe I was imagining that) but the "ghosts" didn't answer any of my questions. I referred back to the Amazon page where I purchased the spirit box, where I found others apparently had more success than I did.
Steve Huff is perhaps the top spirit box user on YouTube.
"i now know the name of the man spirit living in my house," one five-star review said. "The spirit box really works I was able to contact my Brother that passed away a little over a year ago," another wrote. Many commenters linked to their YouTube profiles with videos of them testing the products. One video uploaded claims to hear a man's voice saying, "I'm here. And I'm dead." Another user, who did not use the Spirit Box but a different brand using similar technology, claimed to communicate with spirits including Robin Williams, and Joan Rivers.
To what do these five star reviewers owe their ghost communication success? As neurologist Steven Novella explained on blog Neurologica, the answer is in our brain function. The radio device flips through stations at a quick rate and sometimes voices pop out, making it easy for the brain to generate audio pareidolia, the tendency of the human brain to create meaning and structure out of chaotic data.
"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," he wrote. "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."
He added that the videos of people "proving" they are talking to ghosts would become much more unintelligible if they did not have the captions below them, and that many of the supposed responses to questions are just short words or phrases that make little sense on their own.
"People are very good at inferring meaning, which is a useful skill in a highly social species," he wrote. "Like many such things, we are too good in that we tend to over-infer meaning."
Inferring meaning into random snippets of radio has resulted in hundreds of positive reviews on Amazon, dozens of incredulous YouTube videos, and a ghost tourism industry in supposed haunted areas. While some of the proof seems convincing at first glance, all signs point to these devices being just as reliable of the ouija boards of the past. And in the VICE office, at least for now, the ghosts aren't talking.