Phone calls from the dead: some possible technical explanations

I recently encountered a case that included strange phone calls in the night from a disused number. It made me wonder what possible technical causes we would need to eliminate before resorting to a paranormal explanation.

Phone Calls from the Dead (1979), the ground-breaking study by D. Scott Rogo and Raymond Bayless, appeared too long ago to take into account features of modern telecommunications. Callum E. Cooper, in Telephone Calls from the Dead (2012), explores some more recent cases, but, where he considers natural explanations, seems more focused on psychological rather than technical causes.

Contemporary mobile phones now have more in common with computers than the analogue land-line telephones of yore. Software on the phone increasingly plays a greater role in how calls are processed and presented. It seems to me that, like ‘orbs’ in digital photography, anomalous mobile calls may often arise through misinterpretation of artefacts produced by the technology itself.

I searched on-line for resources offering investigators a list of possible technical explanations for anomalous calls, but found to my surprise there was nothing like this available. So I have made a start at compiling one of my own.

The following, tentative list arose from conversations on-line with Steve Parsons, Andrew Oakley and C.J. Romer, to whom I am very thankful. The help-desk at Tesco Mobile also offered some useful information in response to a query I sent. Personally, I avoid mobile communications devices, and am very far from being an expert. I would be grateful to hear from anyone willing to point out any technical inaccuracies in what follows, or making suggestions for further items that could be included.

1. Reallocation of numbers

Telephone numbers are frequently reallocated. When a person dies, someone else will probably be assigned the number after an amount of time that varies between companies, but is shorter for mobiles than for landlines. The turnover will vary according to the amount of dialling codes that the company has been allocated. (Tesco Mobile and Giffgaff have a relatively small number of these.)

This was the explanation in the widely-publicised case of Sheri Emerson, who received text messages from someone who had acquired her deceased grandmother’s phone number.

2. Cloned SIM card

The call history and contact information associated with a number is routinely deleted by the phone company when a number is reallocated. However, some contact information can be stored on the SIM card of some phone models. Some kinds of SIM cards are vulnerable to illegal cloning by people intent on making free calls, or eavesdropping on the owner of the original phone. If the SIM card of a phone were cloned, the user of the clone could present as the original owner and could send messages to the original owner’s contacts.

This could be an explanation for the case I encountered recently. A person was receiving silent calls in the night from a friend, but on a number he knew his friend no longer used. The recipient had attributed a paranormal significance to these calls.

3. Caller identification apps

Certain phone apps, such as Truecaller, collect contact information from their subscribers and upload it to a database. The purpose is to inform the user who is calling them, even when the caller is not one of the user’s contacts. However, accuracy depends upon the database being up-to-date. A newly reallocated number could present as a former owner of that number to the user of the app.

It is unlikely that this scenario would generate many cases, because it would require the coincidence of a call from a newly reallocated number, and the recipient’s acquaintance with its former owner. However, coincidences do occur, so it remains a possibility.

4. Caller identification matching

The standard method for matching contact names to the identity of a caller looks only at the last six digits of the number making an incoming call. This is because the incoming dialling code may be different depending from where the call originates. For example, if you were abroad and called someone in the UK, the prefix might be 447, 00447, 19447, etc. Only the last 5-7 digits can be trusted, so if someone from Timbuktu had the same last 6 digits as a person in your contacts list, your phone would register that call as coming from your contact. Personalised numbers increase the chance of a false positive. If you pick a number ending 007 (for example), your chance of a wrong number identified as someone you know is higher, because other people on different prefixes will also consider that suffix desirable. With a personalised number the chances may come down to one in a thousand, rather than one in a million.

Could an international wrong number, erroneously identified as a contact, be an explanation for a case reported by Charles Waterstreet, who received text messages apparently from a dead friend?

5. Pocket dialling

So-called ‘pocket-dialling’ – when physical pressure applied to a phone inside a pocket or bag causes it to activate – can also produce strange calls. It might result in muffled sounds on the recipient’s voicemail, which may be subject to misinterpretation. It can also leave entries in call logs, creating the impression that a person intended to call when, in fact, they did not.

Can pocket-dialling be ruled out as a cause in the tragic case of Charles Peck, whose phone made calls to various members of his family for over an hour after he died in a train crash?

6. Caller identification spoofing

False identification of calls can also be inflicted intentionally, either by someone with advanced knowledge of phone systems, or through the use of apps specifically designed to allow a user to make a call that presents as if it were from someone else (‘spoofing’). This activity is illegal in the UK, and in the US is illegal where the intention is to defraud or exploit. Some of the apps that facilitate it can be expensive and risky to use, but this would probably not deter a determined fraudster.

In ‘post-mortem’ calls that include sustained conversation between the recipient and the deceased, the hoax hypothesis is perhaps the first that needs to be ruled out. It may seem hard to believe that someone could do such a thing. ‘That would be very cruel’, comments John L. Randall in Callum E. Cooper’s Telephone Calls from the Dead. ‘Unfortunately,’ Randall adds, ‘some people are naturally cruel’ (p. 167).

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Taps that run by themselves

In the past we have encountered cases in which witnesses were confronted with bathroom or kitchen taps found running after having been securely turned off.

Although not common, a possible natural explanation is the formation of ‘a hydraulic lock’. This can happen in a tap with a corroded washer, or which is otherwise faulty, when water leaks upwards into the mechanism. When the tap is closed by hand the water stops and it feels as though it has been firmly turned off, but, because of water in the mechanism, it is only water-pressure that is holding off the flow; the tap itself is still physically open.

A household tap in cross-section, illustrating a hydraulic lock.

Hydraulic lock in a household tap. The blue area represents water, which is leaking upwards into the mechanism.

This is the situation shown in this photograph of a modified tap with its mechanism exposed. The blue area represents water. It can be seen that water is leaking slightly upwards past the point where it is usually confined by the mechanism of the tap. There is enough downward-pressure on the water to hold it back for now, but the mechanism is actually open right the way to the spout.

Time passes and, often, the temperature changes, which affects the density of the water – at which point there is nothing to stop the water from flowing again. Typically the tap is turned off in the evening, the temperature drops overnight, and then the water will be discovered running in the morning.

If you are experiencing self-running taps, a simple experiment can determine whether a hydraulic lock might be the cause. Place a piece of coloured tape on the affected tap, so that you can see the exact position the tap was in when you turned it off. If the phenomenon does not appear every night, it might be possible to get into the habit of turning off the tap always with the piece of tape in the 12 o’clock position, for instance.

If the hydraulic lock hypothesis is correct, then, when the tap starts to run, the tape will register zero or only a very tiny amount of rotation. But if there is significant rotation, this suggests the tap has been physically turned and another theory is required.

The strange lights of Shirley Street, Hove

In Haunted Brighton [1] Alan Murdie discusses a case of odd optical effects reported by residents of Shirley Street and Clarendon Street in Hove, 2002-3, which some commentators attributed to ghosts and others to UFOs or extraterrestrials.

The phenomena took the form of ‘Xs and bars which flicker along… [the] street’ [2], or ‘perfect circles of light with a pronounced X at the centre’ [3]. Murdie reservedly remarks that ‘interpretation of the light markings… [was] very much in the eye of the beholder’ (p.44), but concludes: ‘no single explanation has yet conclusively accounted for all the sightings’ (p.45).

I was intrigued by how this case defied the usual categories of paranormal experience, so I spent a morning in the library digging for the original reports. Sure enough, there they were: photographs of odd lights on the walls of houses along the affected streets, although much detail had been lost in the conversion to microfilm.

Concluding that there was nothing for it, except to organise a team and stake out Shirley Street, to see if the lights would show up again, I was making my way across town when a possible explanation for the case loomed up right before me.

X-shaped reflections of sunlight (some within circles) cast onto the exterior of a house.

Robert Street, Brighton. 16th September, 2014. 0900.

What could possibly be causing this? Spectral forces from beyond the grave? Space brothers from Venus? Crossing over the road and making the daring experiment of putting my head in the place where the lights appeared, I saw the following.

The sun's reflection shining brightly in a multi-panelled window.

What I could see when I put my head in the place of the reflections.

The circles and crosses were caused by the reflection of sunlight from a paned window across the street. Ironically, I was on Robert Street, Brighton, and the building whose windows cast the reflection was formerly the offices of the very newspaper that had seen fit to print the reports.

For the lights to appear the sun would need to be at an low angle to and parallel with one side of the street, so that its light could hit that side and be reflected onto the other. This meant that the effect could only occur in the morning or evening and would not be observable during the bulk of the day.

Of course, I could not be sure that this fully explained the rumours of spooks and aliens in Shirley Street. Strictly speaking, I should have made the effort to make the same observation on the actual site. Yet it now seemed to me highly likely that this simple phenomenon was indeed the cause. Wondering why no one else had been bothered simply to put their head in the way of the lights and see their source, I continued on my way, wiser and sadder.

References

[1] Alan Murdie, Haunted Brighton (Stroud: Tempus Publishing, 2006), p. 44-45. Further references are included in the text.

[2] The Argus, January 14th (2003), p. 13.

[3] The Argus, December 20th (2002), p. 3.

In Search of Ghosts

3 out of 5 stars
In Search of Ghosts
Ian Wilson (London: Headline, 1995).

Book cover, showing a sinister female figure in white.Well-written, substantial, and packed full of cases, what first leapt out at me from this book was its bravery in stripping away certain kinds of experiences in order to define what a ‘true’ ghost is. Unusually, Wilson will have nothing to do with poltergeists and crisis apparitions; in his view, a true ghost haunts, and the nature of haunting is very much the focus of this study. After a single chapter on each, poltergeists (because they seem to originate from the living) and crisis apparitions (because they appear anywhere, and generally only once) are quietly laid aside.

Every writer has their personal quirks. Wilson’s seem to include issues of status and identity. He will not present a case without soon mentioning what the witness does for a living (preferably an architect, psychiatrist or bishop), what titles and qualifications he or she has collected, and how big their house is. For instance, Roy Jenkins becomes ‘the former Roy Jenkins, now Lord Jenkins of Hillhead’, and even plain old Mrs. Dobbs is not spared the soubriquet of ‘humble cleaning lady’ (p. 64).

Wilson is charged with the need to know who people are, ‘since… any ghost book in which the names and locations have been changed might as well be a work of fiction’ (p. ix). Consequently, most of the cases in the book are attributed to named witnesses and specific places and dates. To me, this seemed admirable at first, until a case linked to the suicide of a young man (p. 69).

Wilson not only provides the full name of the man, and a version of events leading to his suicide, but also attributes the phenomena experienced on the site to him, so that: ‘we confront a ghost who, though he may have expressed himself only by sounds, emerges as a person with whose plight we can identify’ (p. 93).

Evidently, Wilson regards this as a compassionate stance, but, given that alternative explanations for the phenomena surely are possible, is it reasonable to identify strange noises in a house as the post-mortem intentions of an actual person? I wonder how the victim’s family and friends would receive the idea that after his death he remained in some kind of ‘plight’?

Wilson opens the book with an intriguing ghostly experience of his own, during which his impulse to pray for the ghost seemed to enable it to depart (p. 4). As the book proceeds, the impression grows that Wilson’s personal experience has very much coloured his attitude toward ghosts in general.

Much as he likes to firmly identify people in this life, Wilson seems drawn to assume that survival of that same identity beyond life is the best explanation for ghostly phenomena. Next, he marshals the anecdotal evidence at his disposal to advance the notion that rituals or prayers should be used where possible to relieve the condition of ghosts.

For him, the way that ghosts respond to prayer suggests: ‘something sentient, something capable of understanding the words and sentiments behind them. In other words, a human mind, a mind continuing on beyond death’ (p. 239). But what Wilson does not explain is, assuming that the ghost understands, why does prayer seem to work so much more powerfully for people who are dead? Is it not more likely (given Wilson’s own spontaneous need to pray whilst in the presence of a ghost) that the effect of prayer says less about the dead and more about the living?

This is a substantial book, and is brave in its attempt to get back to the old-school notion of the ghost as an ex-person in distress. But the evidence on offer never reaches the velocity required to escape from what seem the author’s personal preoccupations.

Things that Go Bump in the Night

3 out of 5 stars
Things that Go Bump in the Night: How to Investigate and Challenge Ghostly Experiences
Emily Peach (London: Aquarian Press, 1991).

'Things That Go Bump In The Night', by Emily PeachA commendatory aside in Hilary Evans’s Seeing Ghosts drew me to this book. What quickly becomes evident is how much Evans’s book owes to it: there are similarities in both format and method, although maybe this is because of the debt that both owe to the SPR material from which they draw their case material.

Peach takes a phenomenological approach, arguing that – to the extent people report them, and those reports share certain characteristics – therefore ghosts ‘exist’. She spends the first third of the book marshalling some classic cases and organising ghosts into five categories, all of which challenge the common notion of ghosts received from fiction and folklore.

This first part, for me, was the most rigorous and compelling. In the second part, on theories, niggles set in. Due to her phenomenological approach, the sceptical theory of misperception does not receive the attention it deserves; and – although she tries to insist otherwise – Peach is obviously partial to what she labels ‘the occult theory’ (‘a hypothesis regarding a subtle environment that underlies the physical’ [p. 115]), which trumps the four other theories she pits against it by consistently explaining all the ‘facts’ about ghosts.

The third section deals with how to investigate cases. It is a little dated, but most of the advice it gives seems sound. Yet now that we are down to practicalities, a host of factors become relevant that were not given consideration in the earlier sections. We are suddenly obliged to consider whether witnesses have been boozing, or if their mental health is not good (p. 133); and urged to consult geological survey maps (p. 147) before citing ghosts as the cause of creaks and bangs.

‘Some intestinal ailments have been linked with telekinesis’ (p. 132), Peach asserts, in a startling aside that calls out for a supporting reference (but in vain). It was the rare lapses like this that made me wonder whether the reasoned voice in which the book is written is entirely Peach’s own. So too does the decision to include the section on investigation. The title of the book promises to ‘challenge’ ghostly experiences, yet this was always going to sit uneasily with the phenomenological approach espoused in the first two thirds.

Nevertheless, this is mostly a compelling and useful book. Second hand copies are cheap and easy to obtain, and are worth seeking out.

The Poltergeist Prince of London

5 out of 5 stars
The Poltergeist Prince of London: The Remarkable True Story of the Battersea Poltergeist
Shirley Hitchings & James Clark (Stroud: The History Press, 2013).

The Poltergeist Prince of London by Shirley Hitchings & James ClarkSome chocolate is left for a poltergeist, then found broken up a few days later with an accompanying note: ‘VOUS CAN HAVE A BIT’ (p. 216).

Question: would this note seem to you more likely to have been written by (1) the spirit of a former king of France; or (2) a fifteen year-old girl from Battersea, who had never learnt French at school, but was known to own a French dictionary?

Perhaps the oddest thing about the case of the Battersea poltergeist (1956-1964) is that its investigator, Harold Chibbett, devoted so much time and energy towards establishing whether the phenomena were caused by a spirit formerly King Louis XVII of France. Reconstructed from notes rescued from Chibbett’s posthumous papers, there is more than enough detail here (I think) to suggest that teenage angst and dissociative states probably played a far greater role in the happenings at 63 Wycliffe Road than any alleged spirits.

But, as with many poltergeist cases, it would be too glib to write it all off as due to psychological causes. The happenings certainly centred around Shirley Hitchings, co-author of the book, yet there were numerous witnesses and a range of phenomena that included movement of objects, voices without evident physical cause, apparent telepathic and precognitive phenomena, and highly frequent (but elusive) knocking and tapping sounds, on occasion so loud they could be heard in the street.

Like the classic Enfield case, it’s a huge mess: a melange of psychological disturbance, possible hoax, and lack of investigative controls, but with just enough nuggets of what seems genuinely inexplicable to string along everyone involved in the case, and also to engage the reader of this account. James Clark does a great job of laying out the material in a more or less chronological order, whilst imparting a vivid sense of its main protagonists: the feisty Shirley, the avuncular Chibbett, and the imperiously parochial poltergeist himself, ‘Donald’.

But despite the mayhem of the surface narrative there are serious issues at stake, such as the possibility of collusion between investigator and witnesses, because Chibbett evidently provided Shirley with opportunities and contacts she could not have enjoyed otherwise, and he in turn was provided with material for his spiritualist-oriented researches. In the latter half of the book it becomes especially apparent just how much of Chibbett’s interaction with the poltergeist boiled down to a power struggle, a bargaining for information that the polt never quite delivered.

And then there is Ethel, Shirley’s grandmother, whose death was perhaps tragically hastened by the happenings in the house. Understandably, this angle is not highlighted by the authors, but it’s clear that Ethel of all the householders took the firmest stand again ‘Donald’ and most assertively laid the blame at Shirley’s door. I couldn’t help feeling that maybe she paid the ultimate price for her resistance, although I would not want to imply that anyone was intentionally culpable.

The book has all the hallmarks of a classic in its field. It is rich and detailed and captures the flavour of the era in which the case took place. It also raises a question common to every classic poltergeist case: if only strict experimental controls had been in place, would anything have been reported at all? One day, I hope, there will be a case that provides the answer.

Seeing Ghosts: Experiences of the Paranormal

4 out of 5 stars
Seeing Ghosts: Experiences of the Paranormal
Hilary Evans (London: John Murray, 2002).

Hilary Evans, Seeing Ghosts: Experiences of the ParanormalA well-organised and thoughtful book that bases its analysis on almost 200 cases, which are interspersed throughout the text and incorporated as the argument develops.

Evans builds on the ideas of previous researchers, especially the SPR, but his interpretations take a slightly different trajectory from theirs. Unable to accept that all ghost cases are misperception or coincidence, but agreeing that the mechanism must be some form of hallucination, Evans pushes into the possible causes of these hallucinations, having to account for their veridical content in many cases.

Two hypotheses are offered: (1) super-psi, an as yet unknown ability of the subject of a ghost experience to access information otherwise unknowable; and (2) the extended self, an as yet unknown vehicle by which the object of a ghost experience can influence the subject, in some instances perhaps from a point beyond death.

Evans suggests either hypothesis is adequate to explain the ghost experience, but evidently favours the parsimony of the latter, given the difficulties that arise when we consider the motivation for the percipient’s supposed use of super-psi. In other words: why see ghosts, unless ghosts are there and willing to be seen?

I was surprised by my own doubt concerning Evans’ even-handed and Fortean approach to his case material. The Chaffin case, for example, in which a dead father appears to reveal the location of his revised will is co-opted by Evans as support for his ‘extended self’ hypothesis (p. 104, 237). Yet this case has been satisfactorily resolved by Mary Roach, who has produced evidence that the ‘revised’ will was actually a fake by the dead man’s son, who therefore probably invented the story of the ghost.

Another case (p. 65) similarly bugged me (although I have no explanation). It concerns an investigator who arrives at a location and leaves the door unlocked for a delayed colleague. The householder soon after reports that she sees a ghost; the investigator sees nothing; but then the delayed colleague steps into the house and asks where the ‘other man’ has gone. Evans takes this tale at face value, partly because he is acquainted with the investigator concerned. Me, I was too suspicious not to feel this story too hokey somehow, nor to avoid wondering if the householder and the delayed colleague weren’t in collusion.

Evans seems averse to coincidence. ‘Surely this is stretching chance too far!’ (p. 225), he says, and makes similar remarks elsewhere. But improbable things can and do happen. My own hunch is that coincidence plays an important role in ghost experiences. Evans style of thinking is scientific in the respect that even though he posits currently unknown mechanisms, his are nevertheless mechanistic theories, envisaging a discrete chain of causes in the production of ghost experiences. Personally, I like the weirder option that ghosts are synchronicitous experiences, perhaps beyond causality. This is territory that Evans only begins to confront when considering the implications of his ‘extended self’ hypothesis for the relationship between ghosts and time (p. 265).

On the one hand, then, I found Evans not sceptical enough, whilst on the other, too mechanistic. What I suspect this might mean is that he is probably doing a better than average job of finding a useful middle ground between inflexible scepticism and irrational belief.