Electronic Voice Phenomena
Electronic Voice Phenomena, as one facet in a diverse array of paranormal perceptions, exists within a centuries-old spiritualist traditions of contacting the dead, but uses recording technology alongside a 'sensitive' listener as media to interface with the dead. According to Lawrence Levan, the term 'sensitive' as a noun is used by many who study or pursue paranormal sensory phenomena to describe individuals who are exceptionally likely to experience paranormal states of awareness.
In many instances of contact with ghosts, a sensitive is the main medium between ghosts and lay people. Many media have used automatic writing or similar inscriptive techniques to record what they are told by a spirit, but the sensitive nonetheless occupies a central position in the reception of paranormal communication as well as its transmission in another, more commonly legible forms-- for instance, writing or speech. This model of paranormal communication could be described as direct transmission or single step communication between ghosts and their human media.
Since at least 1860, however, spiritualists have also located ghostly content in mechanically produced media like photography (See Spirit Photography for more information). When locating spiritual content in a mechanically produced medium, the role of a human medium is fundamentally altered.
The human medium that detects EVP in recorded sound, to apply Avital Ronnell's reading of technologically enabled spiritualism, is required to “take second place” (247), assuming the role of observer to the more frictionless transmission between spirits and a technical medium. The first step of this transmission occurs between a ghost and a machine, while the human interpretation thereof occurs afterward.
The human medium's second position in EVP is a notable departure from one-step transmissions between ghosts and media that takes place in direct spirit-human communication. Lawrence Levan, for example, observed that a sensitive's “will must be passive” (36) if s/he is to enter a subjectivity conducive to receiving direct spiritual communication, abstaining from activity of the body and mind so as to facilitate transmission of spectral information. The type of 'passivity' required by direct spirit communication is distinct from that required in the act of repeatedly playing or manipulating a sound recording in search of EVP, however. EVP sensitives, while passive at some stages of locating and interpreting transmissions, must engage directly with various recording and playback technologies at others.
The will-lessness of a sensitive in direct spiritual communication may, in certain ways, be one of the “pretechnological concepts” that Ronnell posits to be threatened with “unemployment” as it is replaced with newer, more technologically contemporary models. The technical expertise needed to produce, re-produce or find meaning in an EVP recording, for example, provides an alternative to the “high carelessness” (37) crucial in direct contact spiritualism, a passivity that allows information to be gathered without origin in a specific source or sense. The focus on one sense (hearing) and a very particular tool (recording/playback technology) is less will-less and careless than the unfocused sense needed to experience direct human-spirit contact. This shift requires a transition from unfocused reading of broad and diffuse sensory (and extra-sensory) application to the focused study of a technological 'lense' into the spirit realm. Thus un-focused perception is rendered 'unemployed' by the focused EVP-seeker.
EVP does not only replace old models of spiritualist subjectivity, however, it also enables new ones. John J. Kucich, for example, identifies a diverse range of American Spiritualist traditions as simultaneously “universal and culturally specific” (153). Spiritualist practices are universal in their effect of rendering receiver and transmitter (either ghost or ghost-as-mediated-through-technology) “part in the great pattern and harmony which includes all unique events” (Levan 44), as evidence in the consistency to be found within a given cosmology, as evidence a particular model of life and afterlife's pervasiveness. The distinctness between various spiritualist techniques subsequently reveals distinction between various cosmologies.
Whereas one-step spiritualism has historically 'empowered the disposessed subject' (Ronnell 249) that receives communication from ghosts through will-lessness, technical spiritualism and EVP replace the direct connection between spirit and life worlds with one that is mediated by technology. In effect, sound recordings are set up to make closer contact with the afterlife than their human listeners.
Kucich asserts that spiritualist practices have significantly “mediated the power relations within and between cultures in the United States” (xiii), both empowering the dispossessed and also providing a popular target for discriminatory treatment of believers as “unlettered” and “provincial” (43). The use of recorded sound as a medium is a rebuttal of such critiques that mobilizes technical skill as a marker of media and technological literacy to remediate the classist conflict between spiritualism's believers and nonbelievers. By ascribing the power to contact spirits not to a human, but to a machine, the machine serves as a distancing tool, deflecting certain criticisms from the spiritualist to his or her machine.
EVP, by mobilizing socially acceptable skill sets like consumer electronic prowess and the purchase of recordings, casts paranormal subjectivities as reasonable technological and consumer behavior. In listening to a recording for EVP, humans may still need to enter a will-less subjectivity or other paranormal state of consciousness, but these altered states are historically seen within Spiritualist circles as neither less or more valid than other more normative states (Kucich 42). Rather, spiritualists typically believe that the utility of entering a particular state of perception “depends on what you are trying to do” (ibid). In terms of protecting one's self from the discrimination typical leveled against direct spiritual communicators, receiving transmissions from the dead secondhand via recording technology is often deemed preferable.
Because of the requirement that technological spiritualists remain conscious enough to operate their equipment, locating EVP in a recording may be best accomplished while occupying some liminal state of consciousness between complete paranormal receptivity and that of normal listening practices.
In entering a state of technological spiritualist consciousness, the EVP-seeker must observe a unity between the life and spirit worlds, locating its presence consistently in their sound technologies as well as in sound itself.
The sounds of EVP, existing in recorded format, are always available for circulation not only as spiritual information but also as commercial products. Consequently, the aesthetics of EVP are easily commodified, simulted, and sold as part of commercial recordings.
Reversed voices, which sound quite similar to many instances of EVP, are one example of this commodifiable uncanniness. Heavy metal band Slayer, for example, deployed reversed voice recordings in their 1985 album “Hell Awaits”. The voices are recorded saying “Join Us”, then reversed in order to convey an unnatural control over time and sound. By using the aesthetic of earlier EVP recordings, Slayer reposition themselves as the controllers of uncanny sounds. The privileged unity between technology and spirits is appropriated, manipulated and desecrated. Slayer's ability to reproduce EVP-like sounds at will contextualizes EVP as 'unemployed', just another spooky audio trick. A listener in the liminal state of EVP-seeking consciousness might believe he or she is being beckoned by a chorus of dead souls, while the musicians would likely take mephistolean glee at the notion that they manipulated such a 'sensitive' listener.