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The Haunted Tape Recorder

Investigative Files

Joe Nickell

Volume 5.3, September 1995

As most people who own them know, tape recorders sometimes malfunction, occasionally spewing forth a wayward length of tape that becomes hopelessly entangled in the machine’s works. This can occur even with the tiny cassettes used in pocket recorders and telephone answering machines, as I can attest. But it is especially likely to happen with reel-to-reel models. So says CSICOP’s media expert Tom Flynn, upon whom this particular phenomenon has often been inflicted.

What prompted me to describe these common occurrences is an article in the May 1995 issue of The Psi Researcher, a British quarterly. Written by David Fontana, president of the Society for Psychical Research, it discusses how those troublesome spirits called poltergeists may actually follow investigators home and even haunt their tape recorders. Such an occurrence, Fontana speculates, may have happened to Maurice Grosse, one of the investigators in the notorious Enfield poltergeist case. (The case takes its name from a northern suburb of London where an outbreak of spooky disturbances occurred in 1977. Actually, British parapsychologist Anita Gregory concluded that many—if not all—of the incidents attributed to a poltergeist had been deliberately produced by the two girls in the household (Clark 1981).)

As Fontana tells the somewhat less-than-spine-tingling story of the haunted recorder, Grosse was speaking at a “Mensa at Malvern” conference where he played some tapes from the Enfield case, treating his listeners to the rough voice of a particular entity: allegedly that of a deceased man which “came from the throat of Janet, one of the young girls around whom much of the poltergeist phenomena revolved.”

Suddenly, the disembodied voice was silenced when the recorder, “a large, reel-to-reel machine” malfunctioned. This in itself was not strange, Fontana concluded, except that the tape “had jammed itself in a manner which appeared to defy the laws of mechanics.” Without breaking or becoming detached from either reel, it had unaccountably jumped upward, seemingly threaded itself through an aperture (big enough for the tape but not the 7” reel to pass), and wound itself around a pressure plate and its left rod in the opposite direction from its normal (left-to-right) travel. The resultant winding could only be undone, Fontana suggests, by cutting the tape. He states:

The determined critic will suggest there may have been an accomplice up to no good under the desk who removed the tape from one of the reels, wound it some forty times around the plate and the rod, and then wound the free end back onto the reel. Alternatively, he or she might suggest Maurice faked the whole thing, having rigged his tape recorder beforehand, and used another (hidden) machine to play the tape, stopping it dramatically at the point where he claimed the jamming occurred. Or the same critic might suggest that Maurice and I dreamt the whole story, or that we were the rather obtuse victims of as (unspecified) practical joke.

Point by point, however, Fontana explains how “None of these suggestions is tenable.” He says of the event, “There may be a normal explanation for it, but if so, we have been unable to find it.”

Reenter Tom Flynn. At my request, he read Fontana’s article, studied his accompanying diagrams, and reported to me as follows: “Occasionally, especially with older tape and under humid conditions, as the tape travels it can adhere to one of the guide posts. When this happens on a deck where both supply and take-up spindles are powered, the tape continues to feed, creating a fold.” It was such a loop of tape, Flynn theorizes, that threaded its way amid the works of Grosse’s recorder so as to create the previously mentioned illusions. Explains Flynn: “The fold pushes forward and as it has twice the density of plain tape, it can gather considerable momentum, arch through the mechanism, and wind tightly [from either direction, depending on how the tape is impelled] around one or more of the objects it encounters. The result can be exactly the sort of impenetrable mess Fontana spoke of.” (See Figure 1.) (“However,” Flynn adds, “if one understands that one is dealing with an ordinary crimping event in the 1/4 inch tape, and one takes about 20 minutes with a penknife, it is often possible to unwind the tape without cutting it.”)

Having witnessed such an effect himself, Tom Flynn concludes: “No movement of the 7” reels through tiny spaces is required. All we're dealing with is ‘worming’ behavior by a doubled-over length of 1/4” tape.” He has convinced me that his is the probable explanation for the “haunted” recorder. Of course, neither of us believes in poltergeists either.

References

Joe Nickell

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Joe Nickell, Ph.D., is Senior Research Fellow of the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry (CSI) and "Investigative Files" Columnist for Skeptical Inquirer. A former stage magician, private investigator, and teacher, he is author of numerous books, including Inquest on the Shroud of Turin (1998), Pen, Ink and Evidence (2003), Unsolved History (2005) and Adventures in Paranormal Investigation (2007). He has appeared in many television documentaries and has been profiled in The New Yorker and on NBC's Today Show. His personal website is at joenickell.com.