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).

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.

The city council’s policy on haunted homes

In October 2013, the social housing magazine Inside Housing ran an article on its website about how social landlords deal with complaints from tenants concerning ghosts and other allegedly paranormal activity. Far from ridiculing such reports, the investigation revealed that:

[S]ocial landlords have frequently contacted exorcists and spiritual mediums, in some cases moved people up the housing list, and even transferred tenants into alternative accommodation to deal with the problem.
(Nick Duxbury, ‘Haunted Houses‘.)

The large majority of councils and housing associations approached by the magazine were unable to respond to an FOI request concerning their policy towards ghosts. Brighton & Hove City Council was among these, so I decided to make a quick, informal call to see what I could find out.

I spoke with someone in the Housing Customer Services Team, who gave a polite and distinct impression that ghosts were not something they had dealt with very frequently (if ever). In response to my question whether the council would investigate such a complaint, I was advised that the service team would probably first ask for evidence that the property was haunted, and then — on the basis of the response — pass on the request to whatever team was equipped to deal with what seemed the underlying issue.

Like many of the landlords cited in the Inside Housing article, the staff member at Brighton & Hove assured me that a complaint of this kind was too serious to be lightly dismissed, but would be addressed in some form, even if this might not entail taking it at face value.

Personally, I felt encouraged by the way that exorcists and mediums were not mentioned during our conversation. (Judging from the contents of the Inside Housing article, housing associations seem more prone to resort to these; councils may be more conscious of having to account for how they spend public money.) But the request to the tenant to provide evidence for the haunting struck me as a little daunting, considering the absence from mainstream science so far of any generally accepted proof.

For a tenant confronted with the task of convincing their landlord that a disturbance is genuine, or for a landlord requiring more substance before deciding on a course of action, an ethical and evidence-led local investigation team (such as ourselves) might prove a useful resource. If you think we could help, contact us.

Conference Report: Seriously Staked Vampire Symposium (2014)

Seriously Staked Vampire Symposium at Goldsmiths College, 8th March, 2014.There was some controversy among ASSAP members when the idea of a conference on vampires was first mooted. After all, no one seems in much danger of running into one. But on the day itself I was surprised to discover that the topic of vampires can still produce some interesting ideas, even though (with the exception of a single speaker) these do not seem to lie in the question of whether vampires exist.

Deborah Hyde opened the conference with a very accessible historical overview. She summarised classic historical cases of vampirism, and some of the most frequently offered (and probably most likely) explanations for them: epidemics, faulty assumptions concerning how bodies decompose, and night visitations caused by sleep paralysis. Deborah presents herself as an enchantingly glamorous witch, but is also a high-profile skeptic, which put my mind at rest somewhat when members of the audience accepted her challenge to take drinks from a goblet of ‘blood’.

Fans of dark and brooding masculine archetypes had their jollies next from Jessica Monteith-Chachuat, whose focus was the changing image of the male vampire. The original vampire of folklore was far from attractive; it was the Romantics (Byron and Polidori) who first sexed him up. Bela Lugosi was fairly personable, in a posh but stuffy kind of way, yet from Christopher Lee onwards the vampire has enjoyed total sex-appeal. In Buffy Jessica identified an ingenious balance between girl power and the desire to be seduced by a monster, but she drew the line at Twilight, in which the heroine seems overly passive and the vampire also has lost his bite. Jessica’s hope was that the vampire will rediscover his fangs in future transformations.

Scott Wood’s talk was a freestyle drift through stories and legends of the undead, most of them not strictly ‘vampires’ as such, but all of them returners from beyond the grave. Teasing out the themes that many of these stories had in common, he highlighted how the undead seem always to be heralds of disaster and are never the livers of innocent or blameless lives. What is criminal, heretical or cast out from society threatens to return in these tales as an undead monster.

The New Academic Building at Goldsmiths, University of London.

The New Academic Building at Goldsmiths, University of London.

The London vampire community from 2006 to 2014 was the highly specialised topic of Maria Mellins’s presentation. Noting the overlap between vampire and steampunk subcultures, Maria explored the effects upon them of the credit crunch and social media, which encouraged cultivation of alternative celebrity and upper-class personas. The explosion of mass media interest in vampires led by True Blood and Twilight sounded the death-knell, however. With vampires gone mainstream, vampire subculture had less to say. The community is waning and it seems likely that steampunk and fairy-tale subcultures will fill the vacuum. Although it seemed churlish to ask out loud, the question I couldn’t repress internally was, ‘Why does any of this matter?’

In contrast, John Fraser’s talk was very much preoccupied with the core of reality in the vampire myth. Noting the probable lack of substance in the UK cases reported at Croglin Grange and Highgate Cemetery, he focused on Transylvania and the role of the Romanian Tourist Ministry in developing the commercial aspects of vampirism. Yet if we penetrate more deeply into these legends, John suggested, we uncover stories of supposed ‘vampires’ that sound to us very much like ghosts or poltergeists. As paranormal investigators, he suggested, we should avoid cultural snobbery and peer through cultural trappings into the genuine mysteries that may lurk beneath.

It wasn’t quite a complete return to fiction that followed in Stacey Abbott’s talk, because of her focus on the association between vampires and science. In recent films we have seen vampires as another race, as genetic mutants, and as the carriers of pandemic disease. Vampires have been used as a convenient symbolic vehicle for dramatising contemporary concerns regarding globalisation, genetics and the threat of disease. In this sense, Stacey argued, Dracula has become Frankenstein: the vampire can inhabit the role of both monster and scientist. Instead of banishing the vampire along with everything else that is unscientific, the vampire in contemporary film seems instead to have effected a gothicization of science itself.

After a survey of methods for killing vampires, from folklore and archaeological evidence, Jonathan Ferguson turned his attention to his speciality: so-called ‘vampire slaying kits’, a number of which have appeared in auction rooms, museums and other historical collections. Were they really issued to gentleman scholars undertaking the Grand Tour of Europe in the 18th century? John’s research suggests not. The first vampire killing kit on film appeared in the 1967 movie, The Fearless Vampire Killers. Indeed, the only kit to have been scientifically tested so far was dated to the 1970s. Nevertheless, argued John, the kits stand on their own as curios and art objects. Indeed, the one that John purchased for his museum soon found itself on loan to the British Library for a major exhibition on Gothic art.

Next up, the science bit, in which Kathryn Harkup explored the medical perspective on vampires. Presenting a scientific account of two diseases, porphyria and rabies, she weighed up the cases for these as the origins of the vampire myth, but showed how neither quite fits the bill. In an age when the revenge of the dead had a far greater explanatory power than microbes, she concluded that another, unspecified disease was probably the cause of vampire folklore. In the questions that followed, however, she acknowledged the oddity that porphyria and rabies fit the profile of recent vampires in film and television far more closely than their folkloric counterparts.

Bela Lugosi as Dracula

Ooooh, Bel-aah. Bel-aah’s undeeeead!

Despite consideration of some lesser princes of darkness, Hannah Gilbert’s focus was largely on the changing face of Dracula. Initially, she suggested, Dracula represented the moribund past, pitted against young and progressive heroes and heroines. In the Hammer films it was Dracula’s violence that became more prominent; and then, in the hands of Coppola and other film-makers, Dracula shapeshifted once more into a Romantic anti-hero, a moral character capable of great love as well as cruelty. Hannah concluded by examining how, as vampires have become more moral, their slayers have become more ethically problematic. In a multi-faith, multi-cultural world the ethical framework of a Van Helsing no longer offers the moral certainties it once did.

Two final contributions to the conference came via Skype. The first, from Brent R. Myers, was a dense and intense perusal of vampire etymology through some ancient and extremely obscure source documents. Brent argued that blood-drinking does not feature in vampire myths until almost 1,000 years after they first appeared. Tracing etymological roots and usages of the word ‘vampire’, he made a case for ‘vampire’ as originally a term meaning ‘excessive feaster’, and that ‘feast’, in its ancient Eastern Orthodox and Slavic context, was not only a religious celebration, but also had a strong sexual connotation. The original vampires, Brent suggested, were a cult of multi-orgasmic men with a sexual capacity so great they could exhaust their female partners.

Last up was John Michaelson, who appeared via the Skype link wearing a rather scary ‘Nosferatu’ mask, in order to protect his identity. John is the author of the London Vampires website, which alleges that a conspiratorial group is at work in the UK capital, trafficking young men and women for the purpose of killing them. The members of this group are not reanimated corpses, but were described by John as ‘infected’ and like ‘ants’. Neither are they psychopaths, but work together in well-organised groups, have regular jobs, and are often very wealthy. When they give into the thirst that characterises their condition, then they commit murders. Thankfully, there seemed little in the way of hard evidence to support John’s allegations, but he promised that he would soon be in a position to publish a full exposé.

Personally, I prefer a hands-on approach to the paranormal. The topic of vampires was never going to provide me with that, and I hadn’t expected it to. Of all the ASSAP conferences I’ve had the pleasure to attend, this one felt the most academic. Yet even though the vampire these days has been relegated to cultural history and media studies departments, and even though it has been pretty much usurped in popularity by the zombie, the conference was a reminder of how much vigour remains in this most mesmerising of supernatural archetypes.

‘Ghostly figures’ in St. Nicholas’s Churchyard

I was passing St. Nicholas’s churchyard, one night this week, when I glimpsed a procession of sinister-looking hooded figures moving quickly through the darkness in the middle distance.

In local folklore, the churchyard is associated with sightings of a ghostly ship out at sea and the apparition of a horse and rider (Murdie, pp. 85-7). I’ve not come across any reports of cowled figures in the churchyard, although it was the prospect of miscreants in hoodies that sprang more readily to my mind than any ‘phantom monks’.

optical illusion

‘Moving’ shapes and their ‘trajectory’.

After stopping for a moment to investigate, it became clear what the cause of the ‘figures’ had been: an optical illusion caused by railings around one of the graves.

As I had walked downhill, the change in perspective had caused ‘interference patterns’ between the railings on the near and far-side of the grave, creating an impression of dark shapes moving in the same direction as myself. The proximity of a street-lamp had heightened the contrast between the illuminated railings and the dark areas in-between. My mind had done the rest, interpreting the moving shapes as human figures scurrying through the middle-distance.

The grave of Martha Gunn.

The grave of Martha Gunn, Church of St. Nicholas, Brighton.

When I took a closer look the following morning, I realised the grave earns its railings from bearing the name of Martha Gunn, a famous character from Brighton’s Regency heyday. On passing the cemetery again the next evening, I noticed that the optical illusion was still visible, so I decided to attempt a video.

Although the result from the video footage, below, is not as stark as the illusion appears in real-life, it is good enough to give a general idea. The effect is more apparent when the image is at a smaller size, rather than full-screen.

I doubt that anyone will view this and see what I saw originally – a procession of sinister-looking black figures hurrying across the churchyard – but I think it’s good enough to stand as an interesting example of how a simple optical effect can be seized upon by the mind and transmuted into something otherworldly.

And if I ever do encounter any eye-witness reports of black-robed monks in St. Nicholas’s churchyard, then I’ll have a hypothesis ready to hand.

Reference

Alan Murdie, Haunted Brighton (Stroud: Tempus, 2006).

Paranormal Brighton Documentary

Lillie Strong are Constance Venn are the makers of this well-balanced and nicely-produced film on the paranormal scene in Brighton.

As well as Brighton Paranormal, the film also includes contributions from Rob Marks (Ghost Walk of the Lanes) and paranormal researcher Hayley Stevens.