FEATURES The Inquisitive Beauty of Paranormal Sound By Louis Pattison · February 26, 2024

Through a fog of tape hiss, two voices can be heard engaged in conversation. One of them, belonging to the medium Jack Sutton, speaks calmly and clearly with the crisp pronunciation of a BBC newsreader. The other voice is barely intelligible, speaking intermittently in a rasping whisper. It identifies itself as the voice of a pilot whose plane was involved in a crash-landing in France. After giving the names of itself and its comrades, it cries out for help. Sutton commands the disembodied voice to leave the Earth behind and “look towards the light”—and with that the recording abruptly ends.

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This fragment of audio, recorded at an airfield in Norfolk, England in 1980, is just one of many collected on Spectra Ex Machina: A Sound Anthology Of Occult Phenomena: 1920-2017, a compilation series collecting examples of paranormal sound. Whether you’re a believer, a skeptic or somewhere in between, there’s something unsettling about a recording like this that demands further engagement. Is it a hoax? A joke? A malfunction of technology? Or something genuinely otherworldly? Listen more closely and you may find yourself questioning not just your ears, but the nature of sound itself.

As anyone who’s been startled by a bump in the night can attest, there’s something about a mysterious sound that is inherently spooky. As the series’s curator, Phillippe Baudouin explains in Spectra Ex Machina’s liner notes how in its infancy the mechanical reproduction of sound was not just viewed as a natural feat of scientific progress, but as something uncanny, an occult act. “When Thomas Edison patented the phonograph around 1877, its first users thought they were in the presence of ghosts and were unable to conceive of the mechanical possibility of reproducing the human voice,” says Baudouin.

The phonograph wasn’t unique in this regard, he continues, citing the philosopher Walter Benjamin, who showed how the public also invested mediums like photography and cinematography with notions of the paranormal. But while examples of supposed spirit photography (black and white images of blurry phantoms or billowing ectoplasm) are widespread, Baudouin notes that commercially available audio documentation of supposed paranormal activity is somewhat rarer.

Baudouin, a radio producer, author, and lecturer at the University of Paris-Saclay, has long had a passion for unusual sound recordings. His interest in haunted audio was piqued by a 2007 compilation called Okkulte Stimmen that collected audio recordings of mediums, exorcisms, and supposed poltergeist activity. Intrigued, he contacted the compilation’s curators, Thomas Knoefel and Andreas Fischer, and proposed the idea of an expanded set. “The idea for me was to add equally original and intriguing sound archives, notably from French-speaking private collections,” explains Baudouin. He has now curated two volumes of Spectra Ex Machina with a wide range of paranormal audio documents culled from published media, sound archives and private collections.

The growing availability of portable magnetic tape recording devices in the early 20th century ushered in a boom time for paranormal research, and recordings made with such devices make up the bulk of the material on Spectra Ex Machina’s first volume.

Themed around spiritualism and haunted places, its 20 tracks gather a variety of attempts to capture proof of a world beyond our own. We hear a live séance conducted on the mainstream French radio station RTL; a genuinely harrowing recording of a Catholic exorcism; and numerous examples of ghostly phenomena, from spooky knocking and rapping to audio documentation of the so-called Enfield Poltergeist, a famous case of possession and telekinetic phenomena that took place in a London council house in the late ‘70s, later to be dramatized in the 2016 horror film The Conjuring 2.

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It’s tempting to dismiss this sort of material as the work of hoaxsters. But those who captured this kind of material were often earnest in their intentions, and there is little evidence that many set out with the intention to profit from the material they captured. “It was very rare to find this type of sound document in your local record shop,” says Baudouin. “More often than not, these recordings were private and served only to establish evidence for investigators.”

Volume two of Spectra Ex Machina takes a somewhat different tack, its subject being “musician mediums”—those who proposed their music came from somewhere otherworldly. There are recordings from some of the big beasts of the occult: a suite of Enochian incantations from Aleister Crowley; a black mass performed by Anton Lavey, founder of the Church of Satan. Alongside is footage that is undeniably rather comical. Speaking through the American psychic David Behr, the ghost of Elvis Presley discusses his untimely death and the nature of the afterlife. A track from Uri Geller’s eponymous 1974 solo album finds the renowned spoon-bender reciting cod-mystic poetry over sumptuous choral jazz.

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If there is a subtext to the curatorial approach here, it is that strange beliefs occasionally go hand in hand with remarkable talent. Before the performance of her composition “Grubeleï,” the medium Rosemary Brown explains how the music was dictated to her by the late composer Franz Liszt, whom she claimed communicated with her from beyond the grave. The piece itself is beautifully played, its melodies stirring and more than a little haunting; Brown briefly became a media sensation, and some, including the composer and Liszt biographer Humphrey Searle, believed her gifts might be genuine.

Baudouin also points to the London-based audio engineer Joe Meek, who is represented here by the eerie interstellar exotica of “I Hear A New World.” Meek chalked up a handful of UK number one records in the early ‘60s and his productions were groundbreaking in their day, advancing now-common studio techniques like overdubbing and the application of echo and reverb. But Meek also was also an eccentric and recluse who placed tape recorders in cemeteries, hoping to record the sound of ghost activity. His struggles with paranoid schizophrenia led to a tragic end when he murdered his landlady with a shotgun before taking his own life.

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“Meek was a deeply troubled person, but I think he was also a true visionary in the field of musical composition,” says Baudouin. “I think that his ‘outsider’ side and his interest in the occult are inseparable from the musical creations that he helped to bring to light. For him, madness was not at all a way of shutting himself away from the world, it was a way of perceiving reality differently.”

A third and final volume of Spectra Ex Machina is due later in 2024, which Baudouin says will focus on the phenomena of extrasensory perception and electronic voice phenomena. “There will be extracts from curious records of methods for developing psychic powers, accounts of astral travel, telepathy experiments and old magnetic tapes that an elderly gentleman entrusted to me, on which he believes he managed to capture the voice of his deceased son,” he says.

And what of Baudouin himself? Has his deep dive into occult sound turned him into a believer? Not quite. He describes himself as “an open skeptic…I’m interested in this type of phenomena while trying to be cautious and critical.” The intention with Spectra Ex Machina, he says, is not to prove—or to disprove—the phenomena collected on these recordings. “On the contrary, what fascinates me about the so-called ‘paranormal’ is more the human side—our attempts to investigate, using a method adapted to these unexplained manifestations, like audio recorders,” he explains. “There’s something very poetic about the desire to capture the sound of phenomena that are not understood.”

Come to Spectra Ex Machina hoping for evidence of the paranormal, and you will be left wanting. But you will learn something about the seekers: driven, sometimes deluded, holding a microphone out in the darkness in the hope of capturing something profound about the nature of reality.

“None of the recordings contained in Spectra Ex Machina represent definitive proof of the authenticity of unexplained phenomena, otherwise we’d have changed civilization,” says Baudouin. “These documents should be seen as an opportunity for those who listen to them to question the world around them.”

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