In my new book Investigating Ghosts: The Scientific Search for Spirits I dedicate a lengthy chapter to electronic voice phenomena (EVP), the supposed attempts of the dead to contact the living through recorded audio media.
After surveying the efforts and results of ghost hunters over the years it’s clear that, in their opinion, by far the strongest evidence for ghosts they have found has been in the form of EVPs. Perhaps the biggest reason that EVP is so widely embraced is that (unlike static and impersonal ghost photos) it promises a real-world (or otherworldly) personal interaction. Most other ghostly evidence is inherently ambiguous–things that could have ordinary explanations–but virtually all the ghost hunters I’ve met were impressed most by the ghost voices they discovered.
Some ghost hunters try to re-enact scenes from history in order to provoke ghostly activity or voices. The stars of the Discovery Channel TV show Ghost Lab, Brad and Barry Klinge, went to Deadwood, South Dakota, to search for ghosts–including that of Wild Bill Hickok, who was gunned down while playing poker in a saloon (the “Deadwood” episode, airdate January 22, 2011). According to Brian Wierima of the website The Paranormal Files,
“The Klinge Brothers recreated Hickok’s murder precisely by bringing in actors, who relived the scene, along with having freeze frames, while the investigators conducted EVP sessions….’ We provoked the hell out of Wild Bill, like telling him you never sit with your back to the door and things like that,’ Barry said. ‘When we got to the part where the gun was to the back of his head, we froze it and asked, ‘Bill, do you have any last words?’ They received an answer. ‘The guys out in the truck heard some words and just went crazy,’ Brad said. ‘We re-listened to the EVP and heard the words, ‘Tell my wife I love her.’
To the Klinges–and their TV audience–this must have been a remarkable achievement: They had actually recorded the voice of Wild Bill Hickok, over a century after he died, and he gave them a seemingly meaningful response to their questions.
Or did they?
It’s disappointing to see high-profile “expert” ghost hunters using such embarrassingly flawed methods–fooling both themselves and their audience in the process. First of all, since the details of Wild Bill’s death (like all historical events) are imperfectly known and contain many myths and legends, there’s no way to “precisely” re-create his murder, as Brad Klinge claims they did. Different eyewitnesses reported different details about his 1876 murder, and you could spend days or weeks trying to re-enact the event (including the correct dialogue, the people present, the locations of the furniture, the costumes, weapons, props, etc.) and never get very close to how it happened.
Second, there’s no evidence that “historical” re-enactments like this lead to increased ghostly activity or better evidence for ghosts. Ghost hunting TV shows like to do it because it makes for interesting visuals, but it has no basis in science or reality. This sort of playacting is what folklorists call ostension and it is similar to when teenagers stand in front of a mirror with a candle in a dark room and call “Bloody Mary” three times to evoke a ghost. It’s fun (and sometimes scary), but has nothing to do with reality; it’s pretending to play a role in a ghost story, half-believing that the participation will make it become real.
And, of course, the “tell my wife I love her” phrase, like most EVP phrases, is faint and ambiguous, and it could be interpreted in many other ways, including “there’s a tamale on the floor” (perhaps Wild Bill spied an errant tamale under the poker table as he lay dying on the saloon floor).
Perhaps the most damaging aspect to this “amazing” TV ghost hunting evidence is that the EVP doesn’t make sense. By most historical accounts, Wild Bill Hickok didn’t have any last words: he was killed instantly by a bullet to the back of the head. In one common legend Hickok’s last words were said to have been “The old duffer–he broke me on the hand” (an unlikely comment from someone just mortally wounded by a gunshot to the head). But there’s no evidence that his last words were “tell my wife I love her.” If the “voice” the Ghost Lab crew recorded really was the spirit of Wild Bill, it seems he didn’t even know what his own last words on Earth were!
Even if the ghost hunters try to claim that Wild Bill’s ghost was addressing them with a final message–and not describing what his actual dying words were–that still doesn’t make any sense: Why would a spirit tell two TV show ghost hunters to pass along a message to his wife–who (like him) had been dead for over a century? As a ghost dwelling in another realm with other dead souls, presumably Wild Bill would be in a much better position to pass that message along to his wife himself. The Ghost Lab crew’s whole Wild Bill Hickok ghost investigation fiasco, from re-enactors to random EVP messages, is completely illogical and unscientific.
Unfortunately, as is typical, these ghost hunters–who claim to use valid scientific investigation techniques–are seen as role models for many amateur ghost hunters who don’t know any better and can’t distinguish good science from nonsense.