INTRODUCTION: Paracoustics: Sound & the Paranormal
Our sense of hearing is one of the first senses that we develop; even before we are born we are listening to the sounds of our Mother and the world around us. From around 16 weeks of gestation it is likely that the foetus is capable of hearing.
Our sense of hearing continues when other senses have shut down; a simple example is our daily alarm clock, which wakes us even when we are oblivious to other sensory signals such as touch or smell. When someone is in a deep state of unconsciousness or coma they retain their sense of hearing, as many people report upon regaining full consciousness.
It is therefore hardly surprising that sounds are some of the most commonly reported features of paranormal experiences. The realm of the paranormal is not a silent realm, ghosts rarely glide silently along empty corridors; they are frequently accompanied by the swish of a spectral dress or the sound of ghostly footsteps treading the empty floorboards. Poltergeists are, as their name suggests, inherently noisy affairs. In Ireland, the Banshee is said to wail or scream in lament as an omen of a forthcoming death. Communicating spirits knock and tap during séances, they ring bells, play musical instruments and speak with disembodied voices to the living. Writing in first century BC Athens, Pliny the Younger gives us one of the earliest accounts of a haunting and it is complete with a fearful noise of rattling chains:
It happened that Athenodorus the philosopher came to Athens at this time, and reading the bill ascertained the price. The extraordinary cheapness raised his suspicion; nevertheless, when he heard the whole story, he was so far from being discouraged, that he was more strongly inclined to hire it, and, in short, actually did so. When it grew towards evening, he ordered a couch to be prepared for him in the forepart of the house, and after calling for a light, together with his pen and tablets, he directed all his people to retire within. But that his mind might not, for want of employment, be open to the vain terrors of imaginary noises and apparitions, he applied himself to writing with all his faculties. The first part of the night passed with usual silence, and then began the clanking of iron fetters; however, he neither lifted up his eyes, nor laid down his pen, but closed his ears by concentrating his attention. The noise increased and advanced nearer, till it seemed at the door, and at last in the chamber. He looked round and saw the apparition exactly as it had been described to him: it stood before him, beckoning with the finger. Athenodorus made a sign with his hand that it should wait a little, and bent again to his writing, but the ghost rattling its chains over his head as he wrote, he looked round and saw it beckoning as before. Upon this he immediately took up his lamp and followed it. The ghost slowly stalked along, as if encumbered with its chains; and having turned into the courtyard of the house, suddenly vanished. Athenodorus being thus deserted marked the spot with a handful of grass and leaves. The next day he went to the magistrates, and advised them to order that spot to be dug up. There they found bones commingled and intertwined with chains; for the body had mouldered away by long lying in the ground, leaving them bare, and corroded by the fetters. The bones were collected, and buried at the public expense; and after the ghost was thus duly laid the house was haunted no more.
In addition to the noisy attempts of Athenodorus’ spectral visitor it is interesting to note that even 2,000 years ago some individuals were aware of our human characteristic of fear linked to imagination. More often than not, sounds are benign and unlikely to have a paranormal origin; some would argue that all sound must have a normal explanation, as there is no such thing as the paranormal. Be that as it may, for many, sound is inexorably linked with ghosts, hauntings and other similar anomalous experiences.
Sounds have been recorded and presented as evidence, from modern day Electronic Voice Phenomena (EVP) to the earliest attempts by psychical researchers. In the 1890’s a group, including members of the Society for Psychical Research, spent some months investigating an alleged haunting in a Scottish hunting lodge. Their experiences were published in 1899 in The Alleged Haunting of B-House written by Ada Goodrich-Freer and the Marquess of Bute. The book is full of references to peculiar and unexplained sounds; shrieks, raised voices, footsteps and loud explosions. Some sounds were inaudible to anyone except a single individual, others were heard collectively:
Monday, August 15th. Father H—— went away after luncheon.
Lord Bute recalls that Father H—— told him that he had been at B—— for the purpose of giving a Retreat [a series of sermons and meditations] to some nuns, who were charitably allowed by Mr S—— to take a sort of holiday, at a house called B—— Cottage, which had been originally built and occupied by the late Major S——, when he first took up his residence at B——, which at the time was let.
Father H—— told Lord Bute that in consequence of the disturbance his room had been several times changed, and he expressed surprise that the sounds did not appear to be heard by anybody except himself. He also said that he had spoken of the matter to Mr S——, who expressed an idea that the disturbances might be caused by his uncle, the late Major S——, who was trying to attract attention in order that prayers might be offered for the repose of his soul. The sounds occurred during full daylight, and in a clear open space between his bed and the ceiling. He did not know to what to compare them, but as he said they were explosive in sound, Lord Bute suggested that they might be compared to the sounds made by petards, which are commonly used in Italy for firing feux de joie. Father H—— answered, “Yes perhaps, if they were continuous enough.” He said that the sound which alarmed him more than any other was as of a large animal throwing itself violently against the bottom of his door, outside. A third noise which he had heard was of ordinary raps, of the kind called “spirit-raps.” He mentioned a fourth sound, the nature of which Lord Bute does not remember with the same certainty as the others, but believes it was a shriek or scream. Such a sound is described by other witnesses during the subsequent occupation of the house by the H—— family. The fact that the sounds appear to have been inaudible to everyone except Father H—— is a strong argument in favour of their subjective, or hallucinatory, character. It will be found that this was very often the case with the peculiar sounds recorded at B——, and even when they were heard by several persons at the same time, there does not appear to be any ground for refusing to recognise them as collective hallucinations.
The group were aware of seismic activity in the area and made use of a seismographic instrument in an attempt to record any vibrations due to localised tremors. They also planned to use a phonograph in order to record the sounds, but this plan was forestalled by the early end of the investigation due to a very public quarrel in The Times newspaper with the owner of the property.
In compiling this book, the editors and contributors are not seeking to write a complete history of sound and the paranormal, nor are we trying to write a definitive work dealing with every aspect of sound and the paranormal. Such a book would be prohibitively long winded and ultimately not needed. The accounts of psychical research, ghost investigation and paranormal study (historical and modern) are bursting at the seams with descriptions of sound related phenomena and the reader is urged to seek out these accounts and read widely of these experiences, be they real or imagined. We have provided some suggestions for further reading but they cannot ever hope to be complete – such a book of reference would exceed the limits of modern printing. Instead, we have sought to consider several of the key aspects of sound and its relationship with paranormal experiences. In addition, we have included within the appendices additional guidance gained from our own and others work.
It is our hope that ‘‘Paracoustics’’ will provide the foundation for further work and research by those who are studying sound and the paranormal for themselves and that it will go at least part-way toward answering some of the questions that will be raised by those who are merely interested in discovering more about this fascinating aspect of our human experience.
Publisher: White Crow Books
Published June 2015
Size: 229 x 152 mm