Tag Archives: Lisa Langood

Knocking away the poltergeist evidence? A follow up on Dr. Colvin’s JSPR paper


It’s been a long time since JG posted comments on the piece I wrote on Dr Colvin’s JSPR paper that started me thinking about running some tests to attempt to falsify the hypothesis offered in that interesting article. I emailed Dr Colvin who very kindly sent me a selection of .wav files so I could look at them. My earlier piece examines Dr Colvin’s paper in detail; however essentially he postulates based on recordings from a number of purported poltergeist cases that the waveform characteristics of sounds made by poltergeists are unusual, with a slow attack and slow decline. Have a look at my earlier post if you don’t follow, and all should become clear. In this post I describe a simple test we did on this idea, and the results…

I had become intensely interested in the issue while debating Campermon over at Rational Skepticism forum. He raised an interesting possibility – if the sound were in fact anomalous, the sustained attack/delayed decline might be due to them not being raps at all, but two surfaces rubbing together – abrasion. As he pointed out, that would produce a waveform similar to that we were looking for, similar to recordings of seismic activity which are after all abrasion on a vast scale.  So I downloaded a 30 day trial of Adobe Audition (I don’t have the money to purchase a full copy, so don’t expect much more from me on this!) and started experimenting…

As you can see, this looks a lot like the waveform we are looking for – Campermon’s scratching hypothesis was vindicated. However there was a problem — it sounded wrong, nothing like a “rap”, and nothing like the recordings I had been sent.

So then we started experimenting in earnest. I made a number of control files, simply by banging furniture in my basement: one was Lisa jumping on the floor above, and one was the abrasion of a coffee mug along the desk. Then with 12 wav files total, including the anomalous ones, I submitted them to Campermon, GrahamH and Twistor59. I wish I could use their real rather than forum names but I would have to ask their permission  (and what they actually are)  so they can reveal themselves if they want).

The Test Files

All of the waveforms for these twelve files can be viewed here on Campermon’s site. I may as well reproduce them here!

waveform from experiment

CJ1

waveform

CJ2

waveform

CJ3

waveform

CJ4

waveform

CJ5

waveform

CJ6

waveform

CJ7

waveform

CJ8

waveform

CJ9

waveform

CJ10

waveform

CJ11

waveform

CJ12

Can you spot the four “genuine poltergeist raps” from the files???  We couldn’t. Well I could, because I created the other eight and prepared the blind test, but the others were not so sure.

Interpreting the Results

The problem was that several of the waveforms created by banging furniture by me look like the supposedly anomalous waveforms. Number 6 is just me scraping a coffee mug on the desk – we removed that from most of our analysis, as it sounded so different.   Just for the record the “genuine poltergeist”  files (in that they were recorded at poltergeist cases) are 1,4, 9 and 12. We decided the only way forward was a less subjective numerical analysis of the data.

A problem now arose, in how one measures what constitutes a slow attack, which Dr Colvin does not mention in his paper. Twistor59 suggested “time from first instance of 10% max amplitude to first instance of max amplitude”. Assuming sample rate = 44.1kHz for all files, we then measured these – well Twistor did.   I then noticed something – the attack is always a ratio of the total length of sound, or so it appeared to me. Twistor then recorded the length of each sound, and Campermon tabulated it thus —
The test results:table showing duration and attack time

I had proposed that the percentage of total duration of sound in the attack was the important factor. Campermon however found a more useful way to graph this —

As Campermon suggests, there are too few data points and our sample size is too small for this to be meaningful, but our very informal tests show no striking confirmation of the hypotheses that the poltergeist raps have unique or indeed particularly unusual characteristics.  We would like to see larger tests done, with more poltergeist samples included, but remain very grateful to Dr Colvin for his assistance in supplying the wav files these tests.

So what causes the odd waveform?

Campermon in the debate raises some interesting questions —

“One thing that has nagged me from the Colvin paper was this statement from the abstract;

‘Differences in low-frequency wave properties between the two classes of sounds have been noted.’

OK, this has bugged me because in the body of the paper he doesn’t mention much about this. He doesn’t explain in any detail how he treated the recordings, for example, did he filter out the low frequencies only for his analysis? If so, what band of frequencies? Colvin does not make it at all clear, which is one of my original criticisms of the paper.

One explanation for any anomalous low frequency waves observed on the poltergeist recordings may lie in the fact that they were originally recorded on analogue gear and then digitized. Colvin states that he did digitize some himself, but other, digitized sources, were provided by others. Perhaps these recordings suffered from ‘aliasing’? Aliasing occurs in the digitization of a signal when the input signal frequency is higher than the sampling rate. It results in the addition of low frequency signals appearing on the digitized copy. More here; http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Aliasing”

Yesterday I hazarded some thoughts on the subject. What was interesting is that all my original experiments had produced, as you can see from my earlier piece and the debate, the characteristic “normal rap” waveform.  However when I recorded my controls, I found some fairly “polt-like” characteristics.

I think two factors are involved, a) the presence of blank wall space that ‘reflects’ the sounds, creating a sustained rise – but I cant be sure that is a factor, I just think it possible b) the transmission of the sounds through two mediums (as demonstrated by the wav file of Lisa bouncing above me through the floor). In most cases my final success in replicating the noises came from hitting an object some distance from the mc stand which rested on my desk – I suspect but do not know that the varying rates of propagation of the sound waves through two different mediums (the air and the desk) led to attenuation of the sound and the waveform characteristic displayed.

This morning just as I was writing this up JG wrote to me describing his experiments on the subject. I am not sure if he intends a more formal publication, but I would very much like to post them on this forum. I have emailed him with details of what we have been up to, and look forward to hearing his thoughts.

Final Thoughts

Assuming I do not have a poltergeist in my basement, or did not use mysterious PK power to alter my recordings 😉 I am afraid that at the moment our attempts to test the hypothesis poltergeist raps are in some way anomalous has proven only that they do not appear in a very small sample to stand out: I suspect the raps are perfectly normal sounds, which is NOT to say they are not caused by a poltergeist. Dr Colvin’s hypothesis they are internally generated in the structure of a substance is supported by the recordings; unfortunately they could just as well be an artefact of large bare walls, recording sounds from the other side of a wall, or many other quite normal factors?  Sadly we do not know enough about the conditions in which they were recorded to judge – but further research is clearly required on this fascinating line of inquiry.

Acknowledgements

I’d like to thank firstly and most of all Dr. Barrie Colvin who has offered a quantifiable and fascinating hypothesis, and supplied the four sound files we used; my colleagues in “beer mat parapsychology” and “beer mat physics” Campermon, GrahamH, Twistor59, and everyone who has commented from RationalSkepticism.org, JG for his invaluable comments on this blog, and Becky Smith and Lisa Langood for their tolerance of my loud thumping in the basement and helpful suggestions, and finally Anthony McCann for his hilarious poltergeist rap he composed and recorded to amuse Wendy Cousins and myself!

cj x

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A Poltergeist in Cork: Part Two


OK I was interrupted yesterday and was unable to finish my comment, so I will continue it now. Part one of this article can be found here – read that first! Continuing to look at the Irish Independent piece…

“It’s an evil spirit — I don’t believe it means us well,” said Laura.

Well I can see why she would come to that conclusion! The great debate over whether ‘poltergeists’ are living or dead continues but seems largely unknown outside of parapsychology: though again I think there is a third possibility, often overlooked, but traditional to religions – it does not have to have a ‘dead guy’ or a living human agent behind these things, it could be that a discarnate intelligence shares the planet with us – Angel, Demon, Leprechaun, call it what you will. I will discuss this idea in future posts i’m sure — I’m not saying it is my preferred hypothesis, but it certainly appears to be an option.

“We tried saying prayers in the house and the next thing all you hear is banging furniture upstairs or clothes being fired out of wardrobes.”

Interesting, and classic poltergeist behaviour in terms of the furniture banging around and clothes moving – “being fired” suggests quite violent dramatic movement too.

However, I can’t help a brief theological digression here. The ‘polt’ starts with disrupting ‘holy pictures’, and now it responds what I presume can be interpreted as  negatively to prayers (I’m resisting a joke about the shade of Richard Dawkins here…) Now I have seen comments like this about prayers making poltergeists worse before: I have of course seen the converse, with aperiod of calm following a blessing or prayer. If the prayers had been silent and the beastie had reacted, well that would have been more interesting, but I suspect the prayers were spoken out loud. A fraudster – and yes I know I have not even mentioned that possibility up till now – could react just as much as a ‘polt’ to such.

Still, why does the polt not like prayer? A running joke between me and my housemate Lisa about the American series A Haunting is that it should come with a Papal Imprimatur (loosely, ‘authority to publish’) as the Catholic priests so often end up solving the alleged disturbances by prayer or blessings. Actually this is a non-denominational tendency: other Christian denominations likewise seem to be able to help in some cases. So in fact can the intervention of research scientists, people chanting made up shopping lists in Welsh backwards, and all kinds of other interventions. I suspect the key word here is ‘intervention’: someone with authority and apparent expertise (yes, even me in a couple if cases) comes in and it all quietens down.

The question remains though – why does the poltergeist not like prayer? In the medieval era ghost wanted prayer — in fact I think that was the case right the way through till the Reformation, and probably long after. Ghosts were percieved as here to address needs: unfinished business like getting their bones buried, bringing someone to justice, sorting out an injustice like a Will that had been lost or similar, or simply asking for prayers to help them find rest, move out of Purgatory, or similar.

Yet this entity, whatever it is, does not like prayers. Um… That could tell us something: the obvious conclusion is that it is just what Laura believes “an evil spirit”.  Alternatively, and this is just as much a possibility to my mind, it shows us the polt is acting in the way the cultural expectations of the witnesses would expect it to.  I don’t know why modern ‘ghosts’ are so purposeless; what I do know is that these phenomena often appear to have a reflexive relationship to the expectations of the living human witnesses. If that is true then poltergeist phenomena will be culturally conditioned: and it might suggest that somehow human agenst are involved in creating or at least shaping the phenomena. While the poltergeist phenomena  has been manifesting for a couple of thousand years, and seems to have a set of “core” phenomena, it could be that we need to study more the differences rather than concentrating on these similarities. This reminds me of something I heard at SPR Study Day No.58: Poltergeists: Then and Now, but I will leave that for now…

OK, so what else? Clairvoyant John O’Reilly said felt “a presence”, adding: “There is someone here — someone who is very angry.”  I don’t think one has to be clairvoyant to guess that though!  He added “I get (a feeling) of a younger man who would have hung himself.”  Now this is actually quite useful: assuming the fellow in question was supposed to have hanged himself in this house, or on the property, we have an identity for the spook and a purpose of some sort – an angry, ‘earthbound’ entity… I wonder if there is anything else he said though, not reported in the press? I am still unsure if John and the shaman are one and the same person:  but whatever my doubts about mediumship I am glad fi he helps the family move on in some way I guess. Unfortunately as the headline says the family are planning to flee the property it seems more may be required, hence presumably the “exorcism”?

Again more questions than answers. Imagine for  a moment that the entity behind events really was the ghost of a young chap who tragically took his own life. Why would his spirit act in this way? He may well have a grudge against holy stuff I guess, that might explain some of it, but tipping the son out of bed? Banging around? Appearing as glowing balls of light? Shooting clothes out of a wardrobe?   It seems peculiar behaviour: the only possible purpose I can see is to draw attention to his plight, using whatever means are at his disposal. Yet that leads to even more questions – why pick out ‘holy pictures’? Are there no other pictures? Do holy items show up better wherever he is?  If so why the clothes in the wardrobe and the furniture banging? The clothes were almost certainly not there in his own time, so how and why does he interact with them?

I’m trying to imagine another set of dimensions. This chap is in “Flatland“; not occupying our three dimensional space. OK, maybe some of his actions would appear very odd to us? Yet he clearly has some perception of three dimensional space to fire the clothes out of the wardrobe: or in fact does he just somehow imbue them with some kind of kinetic energy? How??? Whose clothes moved, and what clothes were they? How far did they move? Maybe that would tell us something?  A ghost who hurls the father’s wellington boots would have a different character to one who hurled the lady’s lacy underwear. The Irish Independent notes —

However, locals remain dubious about the haunting claims and said nobody recalls previous incidents at the house or any tragedy fitting the descriptions being cited.

Two separate claims really: one wonders what local information they have about the witnesses that makes them sceptical of their claims, or is this just stolid Irish common sense? As to the no one remembering a tragedy fitting this description, well if there was such a tragedy then I would have thought some one would have dug it out by now. I await developments with interest.

However, the furniture moving is very interesting. In the past I have noted that in these cases gravity or the acoustics seems strangely effected: small objects or tiny movements of furniture result in thunderous crashes, large items move with almost no force, and heavy items crash to the floor silently. That was probably the realisation that kept me interested in all this, and seeking solutions… The physics of the poltergeist remains the most interesting aspect of these cases to my mind. The boy being tipped out of bed is certainly commensurate with the other reported motion of objects in the upstairs – rather than being hurled out by an invisible beastie, we can imagine the bed rising at one side, and him sliding to the floor.

The balls of light reported fascinate me as well. Were they three dimensional? I’d live to imagine them as ‘holes’ to somewhere else, but they are described as orbs, so I’m guessing they were 3D, though as I noted before that could just be the adoption of modern ghosthunting jargon. Plasma? Some plasma phenomenon could theoretically cause a ball shape I’m guessing – ball lightning springs to mind.  My own father reported seeing this odd phenomena in 1930’s Denmark, when what he assumes was ball lightning came in through a window, travelled round a room where the family were seated at dinner, and left buy the kitchen door. I’ll get a full account this weekend when i see him for his birthday.

OK, but why would a plasma be associated with the other phenomena? Another possibility would be a very small object radiating an intense light, but what it might be I know not. The statements given in the paper are simply not detailed enough to speculate.  Equally frustratingly we don’t even know the ages of the witnesses, or anything about them.

So where now? I’d love to hear from anyone with information, but particularly the family, Ralph Riegel who wrote the sensible and interesting piece, the shaman or John O’Reilly. I’ll try making enquiries, and see what we can find out!

cj x

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