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Scientific American

Telephone to the Dead

published January 2009 | comments (44)
Talking to the dead is easy. Getting the dead to talk back is hard. Why not phone them?
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“Is Matthew there?” asked Cheyenne, directing her voice toward the box on the table in hopes that her brother would come through from the other side. “Yes,” the reply came. With the connection “validated,” Cheyenne shakily continued: “Was the suicide a mistake?” The speaker crackled, “My death was a mistake.” With tears cascading down her cheeks, Cheyenne asked to speak with her mother, and when the connection was made she sputtered out, “Do you see my children, your beautiful grandchildren?” Mom replied, “Yes. I see the children.”

Cheyenne’s life-affirming messages were coming out of Thomas Edison’s “Telephone to the Dead” — or at least a facsimile of a rumored machine that the great inventor never built. It was just one of many readings that day (at $90 a pop) conducted by Christopher Moon, senior editor of Haunted Times magazine, and part of the spectacle that is Univ-Con, a paranormal conference organized by Ryan Buell, the telegenic host of A&E’s television unreality series Paranormal State. I was invited to provide some scientific sensibility.

I couldn’t hear Cheyenne’s brother, mother or any other incorporeal spirits, until Moon interpreted the random noises emanating from the machine that, he explained to me, was created by a Colorado man named Frank Sumption. “Frank’s Box,” according to its inventor, “consists of a random voltage generator, which is used to tune an AM receiver module rapidly. The audio from the tuner (“raw audio”) is amplified and fed to an echo chamber, where the spirits manipulate it to form their voices.” Apparently doing so is difficult for the spirits, so Moon employs the help of “Tyler,” a spirit “technician,” whom he calls on to corral wayward spirits to within earshot of the receiver. What it sounded like was the rapid twirling of a radio dial so that only noises and word fragment s were audible.

“Are the dead in that little box?” I asked Moon. “I don’t know where the dead are. Another dimension probably,” Moon conjectured. “Well, since we know how easy it is for our brains to find meaningful patterns in meaningless noise,” I continued, “how can you tell the difference between a dead person’s real words and the random noises that just sound like words?” Moon agreed, “You have to be very careful. We record the sessions and get consistency in what people hear.” I persisted: “Consistency, as in what, 95 percent, 51 percent?” “A lot,” Moon rejoined. The Q&A ended there, because the next session was about to start, and I didn’t want to miss the lecture on “Quantum Mechanics: Is It Proving the Existence of the Paranormal?” by another paranormal speculator with the uni-name of Konstantinos.

That evening in my keynote address I explained how “priming” the brain to see or hear something increases the likelihood that the percepts will obey the concepts. I played a part of Led Zeppelin’s Stairway to Heaven backwards, in which one can hear an occasional “Satan,” and then played it again after priming their brains with the alleged lyrics on the screen. The auditory data jumped off the visual cues (the funniest being “there was a little toolshed where he made us suffer, sad Satan” — see it in my lecture Skepticism 101 (36MB Quicktime). I also played a number of auditory illusions produced by psychologist Diana Deutsch of the University of California, San Diego (http:// deutsch.ucsd.edu/), in which a repetitive tape loop of a two-syllable word educes different words and phrases in different people’s minds.

These are examples of patternicity, the tendency to find meaningful patterns in meaningless noise (a concept I introduced in my December 2008 column), and the next day I put it to the test when Moon gave me a personal demo. With the Telephone to the Dead squawking away, I tried to connect to my deceased father and mother, asking for any “validation” of a connection — name, cause of death … anything. I coaxed and cajoled. Nothing. Moon asked Tyler to intervene. Nothing. Moon said he heard something, but when I pressed him he came up with nothing. I willingly suspended my disbelief in hopes of talking to my parents, whom I miss dearly. Nothing. I searched for any pattern I might find. Nothing.

And that, I’m afraid, is my assessment of the paranormal. Nothing.

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44 Comments to “Telephone to the Dead”

  1. Dr Mark A. Smith Says:

    You just weren’t trying hard enough! There is so much verifiable proof out there. I mean come on, didn’t you see the film “Ghost”? Or the Amytiville Horror? Maybe the “Sixth Sense” will convince you of the truth behind paranormal happenings. In my younger days as a med student I spent hours talking to Cadavers and let me tell you after a while they spoke back!!!!!
    You skeptics! Next you’ll be telling me the Tooth Fairy and Santa Clause are myths!!!!
    Keep up the great work!
    Mark Smith. MBBS FRACS

  2. judith dwiggins Says:

    I think P.T. Barnum was wrong. There is apparently one born every second. People will always hear what they want to hear and believe what they want to believe no matter how much evidence, or lack of, to the contrary. Why aren’t these people {Moon, Edward, etc} ever charged with a crime? A fraud is a fraud is a fraud.

  3. ROBERT KECK Says:

    Michael

    do you suppose this pot will ever stop boiling?

  4. dan Says:

    the dead can be contact with the living especially for period of some days after passing. most people do not have such encounters and its pointless trying to convince them
    of such things. most folk just do not have that extra facility that some of us have and they often become the skeptics maybe it allows them to cope with such a loss.

  5. Ronald M. Wade Says:

    If there was no profit or noteriety from such things, they would disappear from the scene. My rule is, always follow the money! It turns up all kinds of “spooks.”

  6. Kevin Says:

    - Why aren’t these people {Moon, Edward, etc} ever charged with a crime? A fraud is a fraud -

    Because a frauds lawyer will demand a jury trial and it’s impossible to find twelve people who don’t believe in the paranormal. It’s the same reason that the bunko squad can’t touch the religious rackets.

  7. Chris Says:

    On the fraud issue – I think there is a more important reason these hucksters are not prosecuted. Mediums and others who profess to have some control over other-wordly or supernatural issues or beings use the fact that there is no way to definitively prove what they are doing is a sham. As with religion, the burden of proof falls to anyone desiring to prosecute or otherwise disqualify these…well, people. So, in this instance, unless it could be shown that Moon and Tyler are purposefully deceiving their customers (say, Tyler is actually spinning a radio dial), then it cannot be proved that they aren’t really providing the service they claim they are.

  8. Edward Says:

    As an RF engineer, I’m interested in why “spirits” would require an amplitude modulated receiver signal from presumably a US broadcast band to be fed into an echo chamber for them to manipulate. Is it possible that aids in them having random snippets of voice to “manipulate”? Can the spirits manipulate the audio from a non-broadcast band signal? Can they work with frequency modulated signals? With Gaussian Minimum Shift Keying? I rather doubt the effect would be as amazing. I would love to have a schematic of the “machine”.

  9. Youssef51 Says:

    The problem here is with the device itself (Frank’s box).

    I’ve been using an old garbage compactor to communicate with the dead for years and it works perfectly. The one thing I just can’t grasp is the message I keep getting from the dead.

    The only message I’ve ever received is:

    “Take out the garbage.”

  10. Edward Says:

    I have since looked at Frank’s info and the answer is yes, the “spirits” need random voice audio to manipulate. They apparently can’t make any noise themselves, only manipulate snippets of real audio made by living people. I suspect Frank moved to this system because his previous EVP expirements weren’t as satifying as these. Of course not, in traditional EVP you need to strain your brain to make out patterns from white noise. No need to make your brain work that hard when you can have real audio snippets for your brain to shuffle about. Why not just listen to a recording of the Oxford English dictionary being read aloud and pick out the words you want the dead to say to you?

  11. John Says:

    This is a very clever way to generate Hollywood special effects type ‘voices’. And the excuse, I mean, explanation is also quite clever: the ghosts cannot *generate* sound but they can *manipulate* sound. Whereas they don’t make as much money as Hollywood, their upfront costs are much lower.

    But I still have to ask myself – “Why don’t they just learn to pick pockets or get elected into public office? Those occupations are so much less sleazy than this.”

  12. jose ma. espinos Says:

    trying to communicate with some i only get
    garbled unintelligible sounds, and they are
    not even dead . perhaps
    i should wait till that is so and use this
    box with the aid of “moon” or whoever
    facilitates.

  13. Greg Amann Says:

    Mikey: You still got it. My favorite thing to say to someone at parties is:

    “We live in Canada. We have access to information in volumes and quality that is the envy of the world. You are educated at one of Canada’s leading universities. And you refuse to even consider that psychics are frauds?”

    This is ALWAYS followed by their assertion that I need to keep an open mind.

    I then point out the difference between an open mind and a leaky brain. I typically don’t get invited back. ;-)

  14. Robert Elessar Says:

    To Mike, comment #11:

    Please don’t be cruel and compare pickpockets to (crooked) public servants and these wack-jobs. Pickpockets are honest thieves (so to speak). They take the risk of being immediately caught and they almost NEVER claim to be doing you a service, let alone something as ridiculous as talking to the dead via radio. ^_^

    (I’m speaking tongue-in-cheek…mostly)

    It does seem ridiculous that the spirits would have the capacity to manipulate the very complex process of picking the right noises out of radio signals but couldn’t just generate signals themselves in one way or another. That’s GOT to be simpler than the radio idea. Oh, never mind, I know that it’s all just bull s**t.

  15. Ahuramazdah Says:

    [...] Por Michael Shermer Traducción: KC “¿Está Mateo ahí?”, preguntó Cheyenne, dirigiendo su voz hacia la caja de la mesa con la esperanza de que su hermano viniese desde la otra parte. “Sí,” la respuesta llegó. Con la conexión “validada”, Cheyenne continuó temblorosa: “¿Fue un error el suicidio?” El orador respondió, “Mi muerte fue un error”. Con lágrimas en cascada sobre sus mejillas, Cheyenne pidió hablar con su madre, y cuando la conexión se hizo ella farfulló, “¿Puedes ver a mis hijos, tus nietos hermosos?” Mamá respondió: “Sí. Veo a los niños “. [...]

  16. Dale Says:

    I guess we have forgotten the Shaver Mystery and all that went with it in the early 50′s…Richard Shaver was a welder and heard “messages” in the random noise of the arc. The same thing is going on with this box and the Ghost Hunters’ recordings: aural pareidolia…What next, reverse speech of the recorded results of this “box”???? No doubt revealing the truth at last….

    Dale

  17. Kevin Says:

    If you record the spirit voices and play them backward, you can hear Led Zepplin

  18. Rick Says:

    I tried to keep an open mind one time but my brains kept falling out!

  19. Kevin Says:

    I think the trick to keeping an open mind is like having a good spam filter on your email. There’s not enough time to consider everything that pours in. An evidence test engine is a good start. Then one that keeps track of ideas already proved wanting to filter those.

  20. Bruce Halliday Says:

    For anyone that would like to read the truth about chris moons con game, you can visit my IAH page to read in depth blogs and listen to audio examples of his fraudulent sessions with Frank’s box

    my IAH page http://www.iamhaunted.com/bhali333

    Bruce Halliday

  21. Zongida Says:

    Haunted hospital calls in exorcist–Headline in the Sun: http://www.thesun.co.uk/sol/homepage/news/article2189230.ece

    Michael, do you suppose that you might get the good folks at Derby’s new Royal Hospital in touch with Frank Sumption so that they can ring up the Roman soldier and ask him to desist? Of course, they would need someone with a good grasp of Latin, but surely the priest could fill this requirement.

  22. Phil Roslaniec Says:

    The spirit of my great aunt Bertha lives in my colon. She speaks to me a lot after I eat Mexican food.

  23. Bryan Says:

    Hello….

    There is a new TV show coming out about the Telphone to the Dead featuring Chris Moon. This should turn out to be an interesting show considering Alison Smith of JREF is a co-star.
    The initial posting put on the Tru-TV website claimed that Alison was a “Skeptic turned beleiver” but now it states that she is a professional skeptic.

    Anything with the word Skeptic and “team must identify, evaluate, and eliminate harmful energies from the haunted home and help any trapped souls ‘cross-over’ into a more peaceful state.” seems to already have jumped the shark and it has not even aired yet.

    From the TruTv site:
    Door to the Dead
    NEW!
    Premieres Fri, Feb. 13 at 10P
    Door to the Dead follows psychic medium John Oliver as he investigates a Virginia family beset by ghosts and on the verge of leaving their property for good. John is joined in his mission by Chris Moon, an expert in all things paranormal and possessor of Thomas Edison’s mysterious ‘telephone to the dead’, and Alison Smith, a one-time private investigator and professional skeptic. Using all the spiritual, scientific, and investigatory means available to them, John and his team must identify, evaluate, and eliminate harmful energies from the haunted home and help any trapped souls ‘cross-over’ into a more peaceful state.

  24. faithless Says:

    ‘univ.con’ wouldn’t be short for ‘universal con-trick’, would it?

  25. lilbunnyfoofoo Says:

    Please tell me that Allison is involved with the woo at such a level because she is going to expose these idiots…..

  26. kabol Says:

    LOL! fancy running across you here, lilbunny!

    i am a fan of michael shermer and wanted to read / hear more about his “univcon” experiences.

    what a pleasant surprise that shermer actually was able to meet Moon (aka christopher edward huff) and experience the woo action first hand.

    so now the show has aired, and the moonies are out and about at the TRU tv forum.

    i’m off to share this site with the moonies over there if lilbunny didn’t already beat me to it…

    PS – i’m also very interested in finding out alison smith’s take on the TRUtv show.

  27. H. Quiron Says:

    Getting a response from the dead is more easy if tou ask the living.

  28. Frank sumption Says:

    Ahhhh, the mysterious box! Actually, it’s Chris Moon that claims it was invented by Edison, and calls my device “The Telephone To The Dead”, personally, I don’t use the stuff like that, and I have yet be able to dial up someone on the otherside. Back in 2000 I got interested in EVP by re–reading an article in Popular Electronics about ghost voices. I tried the “expereiments” a second time in 2000, and that time got voices, and to be sure, not my imagination, and not some mysteriously misplaced radio broadcasts. This eventually lead to the development of the box as a system of providing “raw” audio, or somehtign the entities use to form voices. I am a ham operator with an extra class license, so kinda familar with radio. Anyway, I remain intrigued with the voices, and how to do it better, I don’t really have an interest in the so called paranormal, or any of the seeming circus side shows. I know something talks, and it ain’t radio fragments, mind matrixing, or imagination. Moon got involved as a “tester” of the box for so called paranormal investigations, and I don’t agree with everythign he does, although it’s out of my control. I’m just a techno-geek, I build the boxes because the process/results are intriguing.

    Frank

  29. Diego Says:

    Does it work? “Nobody can tell” is a answer in order to be an honest salesman. So, you can sell this “dead-phone” devices in E-Bay …

  30. Skip Alan - Drums Says:

    I love your taxi blog and had to comment, all the best.

  31. This is a Scam Says:

    I have seen Chris Moon in person during one of his session with the telephone to the dead. What a load of BS. He is a simple con artist. He is like any charlatin. He talks to the person finds our a few details and then lets the person being scammed talk to their “loved” one. All this thing is is radio frequency hopper. It is unfortunate that this guy gives the field an even worse wrap than it already has.

  32. Gary Says:

    It seems to me the proper reply to the credulous who demand that skeptics be “open-minded” is to ask them to follow their own advice and consider the possibility that THEY might be wrong and the skeptical point of view to be right.

    In a few cases this might provoke the realization that they are not willing to reconsider their position no matter what the evidence because it is not based on reason (paraphrasing Shermer here ;-) and is indeed a quasi-religious belief

  33. Maun Says:

    My wife has gone through a session wherein a “professional hypnotherapist-past life regression therapist” has put her in touch with her “Sub-Conscious” and she was able to see her past lives. As a die hard skeptic and non believer in reincarnation I am taking her challenge and going to see the lady over the weekend..

    The issue is that after reading this post am not sure if my conscious mind will suggest to me what I am ultimately going to see during the session..

    I mean where is the proof that any such hypnotherapy / past life regression sessions don’t show you what your mind actually wants to see..

    By the way the lady is a wonderful person and does not charge for these services.. so another part of me is trying to reason out her motives..

  34. Occam's Spork Says:

    Unfortunately, I seriously doubt that a single individual simply sitting in on two sessions with this TttD device hardly counts as scientific grounds to either prove or dismiss the effectiveness of the device.

    I also have to question what makes Shermer himself immune from the effects of pre-session priming: If someone is predisposed to hearing voices in the the chaos, then it stands to reason that someone predisposed to not hearing said voices has the potential to fall victim to the same effect. Scientifically, one must eliminate both beliefs before such an experiment could be considered valid.

    Con games do abound, but if Shermer plans to out these individuals as fraud, he’ll need some actual evidence to hang them with, rather than just his own personal opinion of the device’s performance.

    Maun: Perhaps the therapist you’re going to see has no other motive than to actually help, she just has a methodology that doesn’t fit with your own belief system. Remember, not everyone out there is trying to take you for a ride. ;)

  35. Frank sumption Says:

    Arguing and name calling is pointless. I don’t know exactly how the box is used out in the world, I don’t do “investigations” or ghost hunting, and I don’t believe in hauntings. I don’t sell this stuff, although a couple “users” have paid for parts–like $200, which doesn’t even cover labor. The point is, personaly, I’m not out here ripping off people, I do this work for my own curiosity. I get “voices” that should not exist, and I use a veriety of EVP methods, the box being just one method that supplies a”raw” audio.

    I am offended by people that stand up all smug, laughing at the rest of us as if they know anything, as if science has discovered everything, and everything is known. Seems like they made that claim at the turn of the 19th to 20th centuries, everything was known and all inventions had been made. It’s the same pompus story in the 21st century. It’s always ignore all evidence, close the ears and eyes and proclaim there is no evidence.

    Y’ll are so smart, why don’t you build your own box to experiment with?

    Frank Sumption

  36. susan Says:

    Well, as long as we do not know the limits of the human mind, and I guess we never will do, such things will always be open to speculation and argument.
    Even some of those ITC pictures look like meangingless abstract shapes to me. I see no faces of spirits in them at all, even though some ITC researchers obviously do.
    I believe the human brain can fool us all greatly.
    However, there may be some knock down evidence out there for survival of the human spirit yet. I shall have to keep looking. I may find it one day.

  37. Baloney Detective Says:

    I ate two bean burritos about an hour ago and i think the dead are talking out of my butt. However, all they can say is “brrroppp!”.

  38. allen Says:

    Yes the ghost box works for a fact I am not sure with Chris but i know I can talk to the dead on it. I have talked to multiple past love ones and friends for people I know. They all call me the ghost whisperer. I can prove that spirits exist and there is a heaven and hell. Please check out my videos and you will see what I mean I only have a very small percentage of any of the evidence I have posted any where online. If any one would like me to talk to some one for them please send me message on youtube. Well that is all I have to say looking forward to some responses.

  39. Mariel Says:

    My session with the Frank’s Box was full of surprises, from the awe in my dad’s voice when we contacted him to specific answers to questions answered only in a way what was typical of my dad.

  40. Joe Says:

    I have personally witnessed Chris Moon using Frank Sumption’s box on two occasions. It is total crap. it’s just something that cycles through the radio stations really fast and he has to sit with you and interpret what the “spirits” are saying. I was sad to see he was charging suckers $90 a session. When I saw him a few years ago he was “only” charging $40. I think a few people took him up on it.
    This was at a ghost hunting class where he still talked about orbs, AKA dust, as being spirits. He also kept saying he had all this evidence like pictures of scratches on him from spirits, but did not show us this evidence. He’s a total hack and I wouldn’t go near him.
    My uncle is looking for a way to make some money. I told him to buy a run down house and spread rumors that it is haunted. Then he can do like the shuckster in Villisca Iowa does and charge $300 to spend the night in a “haunted” house.

  41. Joe Says:

    Oh and one thing I forgot. I wasn’t surprised to see Chris Moon on Paranormal State. Cause those guys are a bunch of idiots too. EVERY single episode they say, during dead time (Which they ripped off of the Exorcism of Emily Rose) “IF there’s someone here give us a sign. Then there’s a Knock. there’s no frickin way!

  42. Allen Westmoreland Says:

    Hello I am a true psychic medium I can actually talk to the dead and prove it. I do use a ghost box also or regular recoding but the results I get are just plain mind blowing. I have a youtube site it is youtube.com/lunaticn2006 check it out every thing on there is 100 percent real nothing I have is faked or edited. I do not charge people to talk to any one also that is another major difference between me and him.I have evidence of any thing from orbs to rods to aliens to spirits to Heaven and Hell. If any one would really like to contact a past love one or just some one that has passed away then please get in touch with me off my youtube site. Thank you all for reading and God bless have a wonderful day.

  43. Kyle Says:

    There’s no need to be disrespectful about the existence of spirits. What I find hard to believe is that more people believe in God than they do spirits. Hate to break it to you but there’s more evidence of spirits than there is God.

  44. Steve Says:

    Yes, this is 100% real. I feel sorry for those who are so close minded about it. Chris Moon is a joke though…sorry to say. I not nay actively use these boxes and get jaw dropping responses and sentences that are clearly heard but I also get full voice EVP’s intreating with me without any noise or radio on. These are all recorded on video and I have many of them. I hear it, friends hear it, family hears it and it’s real. Denying this exists is like saying we do not exist. Proof is out there, just don’t look to scammers to find it. Also, if you want to see 100% real evidence of the boxes and EVP, take a look here and I urge you to watch the full video and listen closely… some of the responses are simply incredible. EVP’s are at the end.

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TO0lVYywfPE&feature=plcp

    Skeptics will be skeptics unless they experience something for themselves. I was always a skeptic until not so long ago when I had an experience that threw me and my family through a loop. LIke Allen, i do not charge and never will – I make zero money from this and fit it into my hectic super busy schedule as it is. Why? Because it is absolutely incredible and life changing.