The Truth behind ‘White Noise’ Part I: Expert describes Electronic Voice Phenomena (EVP)

Tom Butler explains EVP, the science behind the supernatural thriller, 'White Noise' starring Michael Keaton.
Tom Butler explains EVP, the science behind the supernatural thriller, ‘White Noise’ starring Michael Keaton.

In January, the supernatural thriller White Noise not only thankfully ended Michael Keaton’s maddeningly long absence from the screen, it also introduced the very real concept of EVP — otherwise known as Electronic Voice Phenomena.

To launch the DVD, which includes several special features in which experts not only explain the phenomena, but give instructions for recording the afterlife at home, Universal brought Tom and Lisa Butler, the directors of the American Association of Electronic Voice Phenomena to the famously haunted Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel to demystify EVP for a gathering of curious, if skeptical, press.

Tom and Lisa Butler are an unassuming couple. When they said that before they got into EVP they were upper level corporate managers living in Kansas it came as no surprise. As opposed to the name of their book, There is No Death and There Are No Dead, which if nothing else gives entirely new meaning to the term “undead.”

Lisa took the floor first, and explained the fundamentals of EVP. In a nutshell: EVP postulates that the “dead” communicate via quickly spoken, very faint, two second, three or four word “messages” that can be left on any recording device, the cheaper the better. However, she said, you can’t hear the messages when they’re being left, but only later, when you play the tape back and run it through a computer program that renders it intelligible. She played several such messages, always after first repeating it several times, while projecting it on an overhead slide. Intelligible, I guess, is in the ear of the listener — and I couldn’t help thinking that “Get back, Dear” sounded an awful lot like “You’re fat, bear.” That is, if I had to say it sounded like anything at all. Other than, well, modulated static. It was also a little puzzling why so many of the messages were of the “get out, now!” variety, when the listener wouldn’t be able to hear them until they got home, anyway. This isn’t to say that some of them weren’t spoken in what sounded like a real voice. However, Lisa’s heartfelt rhetorical question, “How can someone be dead and their voice sounds the same?” stated as proof that, as she says, “the personality doesn’t die, but lives forever,” had the resounding ring of wishful thinking.

Not that you can blame her, there is little that is more terrifying than the looming thought of that long goodnight. It’s hard to believe that even the most hardcore skeptic, if presented with absolute proof of life after death, wouldn’t be in some small way relieved. It is a universal human desire, and no doubt had a hand in begetting the bulk of the world’s religions. But religion is fueled by faith, proof is something altogether different.

Unfortunately, when Tom then took the stage and played the raw transmissions they’d collected, all I could think of were those times when you forget to turn off the video camera off, and end up with ten minutes of jittery shots of the ground, random bits of conversation, and the sometimes whispery, sometimes raspy swish-swish of your legs rubbing together as you walk. It is this that, unfortunately, before it is slowed and enhanced, much of EVP’s raw data sounds like. Which isn’t to say that there might not be a ghost in the machine. Or a glitch. Or your imagination. In fact, as Tom pointed out, one of the tenants of EVP is that you don’t hear it solely with your ears, but also with your “inner sensing”. I was trying hard to be objective, but for the life of me, all I could think was, how convenient.

A pretty young hotel employee, who was clearly not used to public speaking, but which made her all the more endearing, then told stories about her experiences with the Hotel’s resident ghosts, including hearing a female voice singing a Forties style song coming from an empty room, having a previously locked door suddenly jerk open by itself, and receiving a phone call from a mysterious male voice that originated from a cabana room without so much as a phone line in it, asking her if she was wearing tights.

And with that, we broke into two groups and were taken up to one of the hotel’s most well known haunted rooms, the once elegant two-story Gable Lombard Suite. The suite itself was a disappointment. The downstairs walls were dark brown, and everything in it looked ersatz, scuffed and shabby, any authenticity it may have had being long since sacrificed to lowest-bidder remodeling. The only evidence of its original grandeur was the panoramic view.

Then an interesting thing happened. Tom turned on his small hand held recorder, and after invoking whatever ghosts might be in the room and giving them a moment of silence in which to imprint their voices on the tape, he asked if anyone had someone they’d like to communicate with. After a brief pause, one man asked to talk to his mother, Eunice, who had recently died. It was surprisingly moving. Next, a woman asked to talk to her Aunt Mary Ann, and as we were getting ready to go upstairs, a determined but shaken young woman approached Tom, asking if she could say something to her friend, Brad, who’d committed suicide a year and a half ago. It was abundantly clear that this moment meant something to each of them. Even though if Eunice, Mary Ann or Brad did say something into the tape recorder, they would not know it.

We then filed upstairs into the huge bedroom, with it’s two story vaulted ceiling of carved, painted beams, the only original touch left in the entire suit, a stark contrast to the pealing brown wallpaper, and the white air vents coated in soot. There, Lisa took over, and after asking everyone to envision the room full of white light, tried to coax Clark Gable into “taking this wonderful opportunity to give one last interview.” He didn’t. I know, because she then looked at her recorder and said, “That’s funny, I have to admit, there’s nothing, no vibration. Yesterday, there was.” Okay. I have to confess right now, it might have been my fault. I was not envisioning white light. I was trying too hard not to laugh. Along with several other staff members, I couldn’t help noticing. But a moment later, as Lisa stood there, earnestly holding out the tape recorder, trying to record the silence, a voice bled through one of the staff’s headphones. “One more minute” it said. Everyone jumped. Belief is a funny thing, even when you’re in the midst of denying it.

So let me be clear: I am not denying the existence of phenomena that can’t be explained. Rather, it is the very specific explanation that the proponents of EVP harness to these particular phenomena that is difficult to believe. As we filed into the elevator to go back to the room where the presentation was being given, I found myself reflecting on the irony that while for the living EVP is a comforting theory, for the dead, it sounds a bit constraining. Hanging around in rooms and closets, giving three word often irrelevant, unintelligible “messages” to strangers does not sound like a particularly appealing ever after. It is as if it hasn’t occurred to EVP advocates that some time soon they, too, will be on the giving end of these messages, a thought that might make even the most stalwart believer think twice.

Which brings us back to White Noise, and the evening’s most surprising twist of all: the movie’s version of EVP ultimately comes across as far more compelling, credible and thought out than that of the experts.

Whereas, according to Lisa Butler, the worst thing you have to worry about with EVP are “pesky” ghosts who leave salty three word messages on your tape recorder, the moviemakers realized that genuine evil is never going to be satisfied with making schoolmarms blush. What’s the point of being undead if you can’t shake things up? The ghosts in White Noise do just that, with increasingly dire consequences. And what good is evil without, well, good? Here, good takes the form of blonde angel Anna (Chandra West), the beautiful young wife of Jonathan (Michael Keaton) who is tragically killed early on. Anna’s spirit, wanting to thwart the evil ghosts from doing to others what they did to her, reaches out to Jonathan via EVP. Being on the other side, she knows what they’re planning, and is able to crudely telegraph this to Jonathan in the hope that he’ll be able decipher it in time to stop them. Given what we know about human nature, this scenario is far more believable than the rather toothless EVP version of the afterlife, and certainly vastly more entertaining.

Then again, who’s to say that the Butlers are wrong? Or that you can’t channel your beloved Aunt Matilda from the comfort and safety of your Lazy-boy? So after you watch White Noise, why not click onto the special features, and give it a try. Or better yet, turn it off and watch the static for a while. Maybe White Noise got it right. And remember, it could be worse. It could be The Ring.

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