8 April 2013


Callum E Cooper. Telephone Calls From the Dead: A Revised Look at the Phenomenon 30 Years On. Tricorn Books, 2012.

As new technologies arise they give rise to new stories of the paranormal surrounding them. The invention of the telegraph was one of the major spurs behind the development of spiritualism, with the idea of the 'Spiritual Telegraph'. So it is not surprising that the telephone, the means par excellence of communication at distance should be the centre of stories of paranormal communications, especially communication with the dead.
This idea developed originally in the context of mediumship, but in 1979 two now deceased American psychical researchers D. Scott Rogo and Raymond Bayless published a book called Phone Calls from the Dead. This was an intriguing work, which personally I found very interesting, but it received a rather short shift from scientifically minded parapsychologists, and had become rather forgotten.

Now British psychologist Callum Cooper has taken on the task of re-opening the question, in a very different environment, one of mobile phones, texts, the internet etc. In doing so he obtained the files of, and support from, the family and friends of Rogo and Bayless. He reviews some of their cases, presents some new ones, and sees the phenomenon (or phenomena) as falling into the following broad categories:
  1. Someone hears the phone ring, they answer and they hear the voice of a person they know is dead. The call then ends abruptly.
  2. The phone rings and the person answering has a more or less prolonged conversation with someone they do not realise is dead. They either remember this when the conversation is over or are told subsequently
  3. Someone telephones a friend or acquaintance and gets a reply. They later find out that the person was dead at the time
  4. Mixtures of one and two, particularly where they have prolonged and sometimes repeated phone calls from someone they know is dead
  5. Not phone calls from the dead, but from the living, where someone claims to have received a call from a person who is adamant they never made the call.
Cooper examines examples of each of these types and looks for common features. For example category one is often associated with sounds of static or a rushing wind on the phone. He examines various normal explanations, such as hallucinations, pareidolia, errors in chronology, cruel pranks etc. Different categories he suggests will require different explanations.

Pareidolia (the seeing or hearing of patterns in random stimuli) and hallucination are more likely to account for the first category, while errors of chronology (i.e. the call was made before the person died, but is remembered as occurring afterwards, or a call made by/to a person still living is remembered as one from/to someone who had died the second and third. The fourth might suggest a nasty prank.

I would agree with Cooper as far as it goes, but I think he underestimates the role of dreams or dream-like phenomena in the production of such experiences, by assuming that people only dream when lying prone in bed. In fact so-called REM intrusion events, micro sleep, micro REM, micro ASP etc. can occur in almost any situation, particularly when people have disturbed sleep patterns. The various episodes of virtual banality discussed by John Rimmer include a couple of phone examples. I also note that the 'sound of wind', 'static' etc. in some of these reports bares a strong resemblance to the (presumably hallucinatory) noises reported in aware sleep paralysis.

The stories are dreamlike on other respects, for in dreams we encounter the dead, forget they are dead, or try to rationalise why we thought they were dead (they had been very ill but have now recovered perhaps), and some of the calls have the surreal quality of dreams.

Another possibility which should not be overlooked is that the presumed dead person is not dead at all, the information on their demise might be wrong, or the person giving the memorate has confused who has died. I have a personal experience of this. A few years back I felt quite outraged at what I thought was the cruel joke of someone using the name of a dead British ufologist on UFO Updates, I was convinced that Andy Roberts had written to me with the news of his death. It took quite some time for John Rimmer to persuade me I was wrong. What had happened was that this man, Mr X, had been taken seriously ill some time back, but recovered, however someone else, Mr Y, had suddenly died shortly before Mr X’s illness, and it was about Mr Y that I received the letter from Andy Roberts, I had muddled these two events in my mind. Of course that might be easy to do with people who weren’t even acquaintances, but much harder to do with close friends and family.

None of these explanations of course explain the case of the woman who had repeated phone calls from her deceased lover. This might have been a cruel hoax, or perhaps she just got a friend or call back service to ring from time to time and put the phone down so she could continue her conversations with her lover in her head. Or perhaps the whole story was made up by the narrator, her son. A good rule in all of this is that the more complex, circumstantial and prolonged the alleged experience is reported to be; the more likely it is to be the work of the crafted imagination. For many people, “stories of the supernatural” are simply exercises in creative writing, after dinner speaking or simply as way of making themselves seem interesting.

This is true even more of tales of emails from the dead, or 'Thomas Harden' and the haunted computer of Doddelston, which contained a number of errors, anachronisms and howlers, and was almost certainly a hoax. Cooper speculated about a number of possible paranormal explanations of these events, which strikes me as premature (and even if some of these events are truly anomalous, unlikely to be anything like the real explanation).

That should not detract from the value of studies like this, as studies of anomalous personal experiences, and of our ambivalent relationship with the technology which surrounds us, but which few of us have any real idea of how it works. Soon there will be Skype from the dead, haunted Facebook sites; people will see phantom television programmes on the static on old analogue TV channels. Will virtual worlds be haunted by virtual ghosts?

We don’t need the paranormal to understand that technology haunts us, the faces of the dead stare back at us from old photographs, they play on old cine-film and video that no-one watches any more, their voices on tapes and cassettes that no-one listens to, their voice last recovered on a telephone answering machine, X isn’t at home at the moment, or ever again. Web sites of the dead still haunt the vaults of cyberspace. -- Peter Rogerson.

1 comment:

Phil said...

people will see phantom television programmes on the static on old analogue TV channels

Cf. "Candle Cove" (fictional).

Web sites of the dead still haunt the vaults of cyberspace.

Indeed, when someone dies it can seem like a positive duty to their memory to keep their pages 'live' (I can think of four examples off the top of my head). On one level this makes perfect sense - when somebody's put together an online resource that people use, it would be wrong to let it go dark - but I think there's also an element of wanting to deny the person's death.