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Frank’s Box: The Broken Radio

The Good Word

Karen Stollznow

January 28, 2010

One person’s broken radio is another’s groundbreaking invention that enables human contact with aliens, angels, and the dead.

The Ghost in the Machine

Instrumental Transdimensional Communication (ITC) refers to the use of electronic devices such as tape recorders, fax machines, television sets, and computers to attempt to contact nonhuman entities. These are usually standard machines used in nonstandard ways to collect “paranormal” images and sounds. Auditory data are the most common types of ITC, known specifically as Electronic Voice Phenomena (EVP, also known as Raudive Voices, named after early proponent Konstantin Raudive). This communication is believed by some to be evidence for the existence of an afterlife.

Unlike the machines listed above that are built with more orthodox purposes in mind, the Frank’s Box is designed specifically to capture EVP. It was invented by amateur radio enthusiast Frank Sumption, who was inspired by a “How To” hobby article about recording EVP that appeared in the now defunct Popular Electronics magazine.1 Upon receiving design instructions from the spirit world and the article, Sumption built a radio receiver that reputedly facilitates real-time communication between the living and the dead, not to mention extraterrestrials, angels, spirits, and assorted entities from other dimensions.

The Frank’s Box device is one of several incarnations. It is also known as the Ghost Box, Joe’s Box, the Spiricom, the Mini-Box, the Telephone to the Dead, or the Shack Hack, according to the design, the manufacturer, and the faction.

How Frank’s Box Works (or Doesn’t Work)

The Frank’s Box is a homemade radio frequency receiver. However, this radio isn’t designed to find your favorite religious radio station; it’s built to be broken.

Frank's Box - Rocky Mountain Paranormal Research Society, 2010

Frank's Box - Rocky Mountain Paranormal Research Society, 2010

The scan-lock mechanism is disabled on this “radio.” Therefore, the machine continuously scans radio frequencies at a predetermined rate. This is like twisting the knob on a radio backwards and forwards quickly, producing random noise. This “sweep method” creates an untunable radio of erratic white noise. The rushing sound of unused frequencies is punctuated by mostly unintelligible fragments of speech or music when the scanner momentarily picks up a station. It is Sumption’s belief that “spirits” and other entities from beyond manifest in an “echo chamber” built into the unit and harness the random signals to create messages intended for the mortal listener.

The Association TransCommunication explains that the Frank’s Box is like a radio for alien DJs.

“Radio-Sweep” is a technology that involves rapidly changing the tuning of a radio receiver to produce a sound track composed of bits of sound from whatever radio programming is on the air and from whatever radio station is detected by the radio at the time. In theory, the communicating entity somehow arranges for the radio programming of local stations to have the needed sounds and that the sweep will detect that sound at the right time to produce the desired message.2

Inside the Box - Rocky Mountain Paranormal Research Society, 2010

Inside the Box - Rocky Mountain Paranormal Research Society, 2010

Sumption describes how he believes his device works as a medium. (Nb: all quotes in this article are unedited.)

[This is] Simply another method of supplying “raw” audio that spirits and other entities can use to form voices. Raw audio is a sound source that contains bits of human speech, music and noise, and a convineint source of raw audio is a radio with it’s tuning swept across the entire band, AM, FM, or shortwave. The sweep can be random, linear, or even done by hand.3

On his discussion group EVP-ITC, Sumption expands on his belief that the Frank’s Box channels spirits, not channels.

It’s been my experience that if one supplies something that the spirits/entities can use to make voices out of “they” will speak. That something is called “raw audio”, and contains bits of speech, music and noise. The entities re-modulate this raw audio to form voices. At least I think that’s how it works, and who really knows? A swept radio is a convenient source of raw audio, and that is all the Ghost Box is, and we are spirit as well-hint hint..and it alsoseems to be a form of quantum communcation, allowing instantaneous communication over stellar distances.”4

Sumption added in personal correspondence:

“I think it’s no more unbelievable than the so called thought experiments of quatum physics. If I had a Ph.d, maybe what I say would be accepted without question as well.”

EVP-ITC list member “Tom” explains his theories of how the Box may be powered by electromagnetic waves, Sumption’s remodulation hypothesis, or psychic powers.

We Don’t really KNOW how it works, but only that it DOES seem to work.

In EVP we have at least two major theories. In the EM (Electromagnetic)theory, we assume thatthe spirits are communicating with voice modulated EM waves--either via a kind of “radio technology” or the “fact” that sound waves from the other side are Electromagnetic relative to our own universe. This explains why we often need a device like a electric sound recorder to hear the waves.

The other major theory, and the one I subscribe to, is that the voices are made from existing background sounds. This is sorta like using an electronic larynix or holding an electric razor to one’s lips and “mouthing” words. The vocal appratus changes shape and resonance characteristics, making a sufficiently randomized sound(like a buzzing razor) sound like words. Spirits may do something similar, near an EVP recording microphone, either “semi-manefesting” a vocal apparatus or by utilizing some of their own sound altering technology.

The third theory involves the listener putting the background noise together somewhat selectively--in one’s own mind, so to speak. The noise itself which forms which is called a “random field”--- One of the “psychic levers” which effectively enhances one’s psychic abilities to useful levels.

Wiring - Rocky Mountain Paranormal Research Society, 2010

Wiring - Rocky Mountain Paranormal Research Society, 2010

Since radio stations provide the fodder for any “speech” heard, the broader, unspoken claim is that the “entities” are controlling the airways in general, on the off chance that a human is using a Frank’s Box through which “they” can communicate.

The Light Bulb Goes Off

In a contentious claim popular among the paranormal community, prolific inventor Thomas Edison is credited as the father of EVP and real-time spirit communication. There is an urban legend that while Edison was inventing the phonograph, the motion picture camera, and the electric light bulb, he was also in the process of creating an apparatus enabling communication with spirits. This belief appears to be traceable to an 1890 interview in which Edison spoke about the fringe idea of communicating with the “life units” or atoms of the deceased.5 In an article published in a 1920 issue of Scientific American Edison speculated about the possibility of building a device that could communicate with the dead, and he was quoted as saying:

“If we can evolve an instrument so delicate as to be affected by our personality as it survives in the next life, such an instrument, when made available, ought to record something.”6

There was also gossip that Edison held séances and endorsed the abilities of several psychics. Some believe the talk of spirit machines was a marketing prank. Edison was apparently agnostic, although he lived during the height of the Spiritualism movement, when belief in an afterlife and the ability to communicate with the dead were common. However, with over one thousand patents, he never registered any machine for contacting spirits, and there is no evidence to suggest that he built or was building such a device.

Most damning to the claims is the refutation on the Edison National Historic Site:

Did Edison make a machine that could talk to the dead?

This seems to be another tall tale that Edison pulled on a reporter. In 1920 Edison told the reporter, B.F. Forbes, that he was working on a machine that could make contact with the spirits of the dead. Newspapers all over the world picked up this story. After a few years, Edison admitted that he had made the whole thing up. Today at Edison National Historic Site, we take care of over five million pages of documents. None of them mention such an experiment.7

Unfortunately, the rumors have given credence to the concept of electronic spirit communication and to the Frank’s Box. Moreover, claims that Edison pioneered spirit communication have further mutated to assert that he dictated the design of the Frank’s Box to Sumption, and that he actually communicates through the device. Sumption has made, withdrawn, and denied these claims over the years. His latest statement on the matter was:

“I have in fact heard a voice that said ‘Edison here’ there was no real information conveyed that I could understand.”8

However, Sumption added that these spirits could have been “mimicking” Edison’s voice.

Frank’s Assumptions

Sumption initially e-mailed me in response to a series of articles I published in which I mention the Frank’s Box as a tool for collecting EVP.

I make those boxes. What you say about it/me is highly exagerated. I don’t even use it for the usual paranoraml BS, as in Ghost Hunting. I don’t buy the usual Hollywood/TAPS paranormal crap that’s mostly urban legend. “skeptic” usually just means your mind is made up, and no other evidence is required, sought, or wanted. I don’t sell this shit, I don’t do ghost investigations, and don’t believe in hauntings. Something talks that is not radio broadcasts, often addresses people present by name, and sometimes cusses and swears.

He extended an invitation to demonstrate his invention should I ever be in the area. And so, accompanied by Matthew Baxter of the Rocky Mountain Paranormal Research Society, I recently met Sumption in his hometown of Littleton, Colorado.

Sumption told us that he is in frequent communication with a number of “higher-level spirits” via his Boxes. These regular contacts include “Otto” and “about ten women with German names.” Because he wears a purple-striped shirt and a purple earring, Sumption explained that “the guys” deem him to be royalty and have dubbed him their “Purple Princess.” He refers to himself as Purple, the Purple Space Friend, the Purple Princess, and the Purple Alien Girl. Sumption’s original e-mail explains: “I use the name ‘purple alien girl’ cuz ‘they’ claim I’m their long lost Purple Princess from some other planet. The only actual voice I heard in my head was ‘Kiera(key-ra), it’s time to come home,’ the name of the Princess.”

Purple's Ghost Box - Rocky Mountain Paranormal Research Society, 2010

Purple's Ghost Box - Rocky Mountain Paranormal Research Society, 2010

He has maintained this claim all along, stating on his EVP-ITC list:

“They” claim I’m their long lost Purple Princess, kidnapped from my home planet long ago when Earth had space flight by the ancient Egyptians. I couldn’t be rescued at that time, so I was transported forward in time, to now, at the end of the current Earth cycle when I could go home. It gets wierd from there. Other entities that talk though the box claim they see a woman where I should be.

Sumption also claims his Boxes have provided doomsday prophecies and predicted world events and disasters, including the May 12, 2008, earthquake in China.

They have told me I go home at the end, and Earth is doomed since day one, but who knows really? Besides, the main message of EVP is life is forever. I get stuff that seems to be talking about 2012, like they talk about the “Monster,” or gioant asteoid of comet thats supposed to hit. They also say “Earth goes Boom.”

When the predictions fail, the spirits are to blame for their dishonesty.

You can’t take this shit like it’s written in stone, or some kind of friggin’ gospel, as most seem prone to do. So far, irregardless of how clear the voice is, or what method is used, the only thing that can be said with certainty is that they consistently lie!

You can ask questions of the box, and many get direct, and immediate answers, as well as names and other information. I don’t ask questions because “they” always seem to turn deceptive and misleading to me.

Sumption’s followers claim they can assist the deceased victims of catastrophes to “cross over.” A group of users are trying to contact the victims of the Haiti earthquake that struck January 12, 2010.

My guide David just came back for a few hours tonight Bruce, then he just now left again, had to go back, seems they have now over 400,000 coming in, either to the light or going to lower plains, he says they are “not all Christian” it’s because they have a bit of the Voodoo religion mixed in with it I guess He says, “it’s a mix of Christianity and Voodoo.”9

Sumption’s cronies also claim that the Frank’s Box can be used for solving crimes, finding missing persons, medical research, and in the diagnosis and treatment of disease. One user reports: “I asked about Autism and I heard: ‘MAN MADE’ and when I asked about vaccines (being a cause) I heard ‘YES.’10

Sumption believes that the Frank’s Box is not the sole means by which he is contacted by entities. He believes he has psychic abilities, revealing that he has “visions” and also hears “voices” through his television, through running water, and that he even hears messages in his head, such as his wife calling him to dinner. He also invented the Video-Box, a device made from a VCR tuner module, with which he claims to have captured an image of a “Man In Black.”

Sumption contends that his devices provide “proof of an afterlife.” However, he insists that the phenomenon is “not paranormal,” which to him refers to magic and witchcraft. To Sumption, Frank’s Box is technology. “It functions on the quantum level,” he explained.

“What do you mean by ‘quantum’?” I asked.

He shrugged his shoulders and admitted, “I don’t know.”

Sumption’s beliefs and claims are inconsistent, and once he announced on his site Frank’S Boxes: “The box does not work… But I will leave the site up for people that would like to tinker with it.”11

Sumption explained that making the Frank’s Boxes is a hobby that he does not profit from. He has made over sixty of these devices, but they have not evolved considerably in design except in size and one recent addition. The spirits told him to add crystals but did not explain what kind to use or how to attach them; they are not connected to the wiring in any practical manner, “But they seem to help clarify the voices for some entities, as do magnets used in the same way.”

Sumption has posted his schematics online so anyone can build a similar device from scratch. But apparently, the most “effective” boxes are the Sumption originals.

Sumption brought along a Frank’s Box Number 63, a compact unit stored in a Rubbermaid container. We each took turns using the device. Sumption suggested we select the AM band as these channels feature more speech than music, but none of us could produce more than a string of unintelligible noise.

Sumption suggests users record their sessions and try techniques to elicit messages:

For me, it works better to announce out loud I’m doing an EVP recording, and just record a few minutes, then I give a five second count down to indicate I’m stopping--just to be polite, and don’t forget a “thank you.” I don’t do any protection BS, and no prayers, that just seems to tell yourself there’s something to fear. I prefer to listen off tape--analog tape. I use tape recorders that have the “que” and “review” functions. Digital recorders work ok as well, and have the que and review function, but they tend to lack a large speaker. Curiously, I have on rare occasion been able to ask a question, or make a comment while listening to a recording and get a meaningful-instant response from tape. I can’t tell if the recording changed, they made it like that ahead of time, or it’s just perception.

For those wondering about the nature of these miraculous messages, Sumption lists some recent examples on the EVP-ITC list: “This is from tonight, start out ‘crystals inside the box’—‘Frank Sumption is keeping this’---‘C’mon Purple--Keep This –box’—‘we love you Princess,’, and ‘this is Otto.’”

Sample recordings of messages such as “Purple - Good Morning” and “Purple Bitch – We use the radio” can be downloaded at Frank’s Boxes. Sumption is also a proponent of Reverse Speech and believes some messages are hidden in the data but are revealed when played backwards.

At the end of the meeting Baxter asked, “Can we take a photo of the Frank’s Box?”

“You can borrow it,” Sumption offered.

Testing, Testing, Testing…

Sumption has a history of loaning Frank’s Boxes to interested parties to “test.” These loans have often resulted in bitter battles about ownership and application.

Despite Sumption’s generosity in making his devices available for “research” purposes, he is resistant to experimental research and the critical evaluation of his claims. Sumption and his biased believer beta testers are not interested in testing their hypotheses but in collecting data that is confirmation bias for their beliefs. They also have a suspicion of science and misunderstand the scientific method. In e-mail correspondence he states:

I opened it up to all experimentors in and attempt to verify my results, which is in fact an application of scientific method, known as peer review.

I am open to honest box discussion, however, believe it or not I am not a true believer. I don’t buy anyone’s dogma- religeous, newage or scientific. I don’t sell anything, I share all information freely, I do this work strickly out of curiosity, and I don’t have an agenda to prove or disprove.

Sumption seems to believe that as the builder of the Boxes only he knows how the devices truly work and how they are to be used: “What really chaps my hide, as maker of the box, is to have someone who knows nothing of electronics, and technology completely ignore everything I say about the box, and presume to tell me how it really works, how it should be used, and what is acceptable from it.”12

Sumption claims that any results are private messages intended for the listener only, and that subjectivity is the strength of his device.

Testing is irrelavent! It’s not the device, it’s the user. The messages received are for the user, and rarely does anyone hear the same thing as the original listener. You test it by use, you judge it by what comes through and what it means to you, you can’t play the sound snipets to a panel of numbnuts(objective listeners)) and expect to get an unbiased/honest test. No two people hear the same, so an “objective listener” is an insult to most people doing this work.13

In personal correspondence, Sumption denied the existence of objective fact, saying “There is no objective hard physical truth or universe. We all create what we want to see, and everyone thinks their truth supersedes everyone else’s truth.”

However, some users claim that the occasional recording of a word, identifiable to some listeners, means that the results are objective. If there is no consensus, the operator is psychic. “Tom” explains:

The fact that the operator CAN and DOES make recordings and files of understandable words and phrases shows that we are dealing with an OBJECTIVE rather than a subjective phenomenon here. Two things appear to be going on though. First there is an actual voice modulated signal. Different people who listen to it often hear the same thing. The sound is not perfect and is very noisy, so that would explain others who cannot hear the message. The second thing is that some people can listen to the noise as a “random field,” and with a slightly altered state of mind, this field will induce latent “mediumship” ability in the operator and he or she will get a lot more information and voice material than another listener.14

There are no consistent claims about the Box. Different users have conflicting theories and agendas.

That Which We Call A Frank’s Box By Any Other Name… Wouldn’t Work Either

After Sumption, Christopher Moon is the biggest advocate of the Frank’s Box. Moon is a “professional paranormal investigator,” senior editor of Haunted Times magazine, and founder of Ghost Hunter University. He was once a “primary tester” of the Box, spurring Sumption to remark that Moon was the only person who understood how the device “should” be used. That is, until Moon turned the Box into a business. He permanently borrowed a few Frank’s Boxes from Sumption, installed the device in a fancy display case, rebranded it the “Telephone to the Dead,” and fashioned himself as a necromancer who “summons the dead.” Haunted Times tells the story as Moon sees it.

Skeptical, Christopher met with Mr. Sumption at his workshop for a demonstration. Christopher was astounded to find that the device that Frank Sumption had built was actually designed through the EVP of deceased scientists. It quickly became obvious to Christopher what Frank Sumption had done; he had completed the infamous Thomas Edison Telephone to the Dead.15

Sumption retorts: “I did not make a ‘telephone to dead,’ I don’t kow what the f--- that is, and I don’t endorse it! Nor do I appreciate my name being connected to the so called ‘Telephone to dead’ on every friggin’ ad for Moon’s public appearances.”16

If it was even possible, Moon exaggerates the wild claims. Further to Sumption’s belief that he has regular spirit contacts such as Otto, Moon developed the idea that each Box has an operator assigned on the other side, known as a “Spirit Technician.” Contrary to Sumption’s belief that the message is intended for and meaningful to the user only, Moon claims that he can decipher the “messages” like an oracle with the assistance of his Technicians. Thomas Edison is one of these spirit operators, but the dependable “Tyler” is his favorite Technician. As Engineer Paul Turner explained in personal correspondence: “Mr. Moon claims to be one of the few who can interpret these random noises and claims to be making direct real-time contact with the dead using Thomas Edison’s spirit as some type of cosmic switchboard operator.”

Sumption responds to the Spirit Technician theory but in doing so contradicts his own view that the messages are personal and intended for the listener only. “Even if anyone else could hear the voices, why do you need someone to interpret what’s veing said. I say if not many can hear it, of something similar, it ain’t real!”17

Confusingly, he told me in person that there “may be something to the idea of Spirit Technicians.” However, Sumption disputes Moon’s claim that Edison is a contact with the persuasive EVP, “Grandpa Edison never spoke to Chris,” as evidence.

Moon further claims there are only thirty chosen people who can correctly hear and “translate” the messages received via the Box. The spirits told him so. Unsurprisingly, Moon is a chosen one, as is his psychic mother and theatrical medium Chip Coffey. Foolhardy amateurs who are not chosen run the risk of encountering evil entities and opening portals to demons.

Unfortunately, Moon has a cult-like following. With his assistants Dina Everling and Michelle “Babs” Babiarz in tow, Moon provides a (dis)service with the glorified Frank’s Box. He conducts private consultations and public readings, charging $100 per fifteen minutes. For an additional fee he offers his spirit translation and third-party expert analysis of the “messages.” Unlike the inane “phrases” and “words” that Sumption receives, Moon’s messages include whole sentences—that only Moon can hear. His machine produces an incomprehensible snippet of sound, but his translations suddenly decode long-winded messages featuring complex concepts and complete sentences.

Like a magic wand, rabbit, and hat, Moon has featured the Telephone to the Dead as his gimmick in productions such as TruTv’s patently ridiculous Door to the Dead, a television show following a team of credulous ghost hunters in their investigation of a Hollywood hired “haunted” house.

Herein lies the most poignant criticism of the Frank’s Box and all other forms of spirit “communication.” Using these devices to provide a service is a scam; while using them at all is futile, charging money from vulnerable, grieving victims is unconscionable.

Moon’s ploy is to carry out personal or public readings and then to leverage this client list by contacting these people and promising, “The telephone is calling for you.” But you’ll have to pay for a session to receive the message.18 Turner adds:

Many of Moon’s customers or victims have spoken out against him saying that they were not happy with the session, then weeks after the session he contacts them again saying he has talked to their loved one and that he has the information they were looking for. But it will cost an additional fee.

A YouTube video shows Moon giving a public performance of the device at a college. It is distressing to watch. In this cold reading, a young girl asks the tragic question, “I love you, and I want to know…was it an accident?” We hear nothing but white noise as Moon announces flatly, “No.” The girl bursts into tears, and Moon adds, “But you knew that.” He tries to console her with feigned sympathy, “He said it’s okay. He said it’s okay. He said it’s okay.”19

Jeannette Osborne, a former client of Moon’s, is a guest on the Reap Sow Radio episode “Dark Side of the Moon.” Seeking “something tangible” to prove there is life after death, Osborne spent thousands of dollars having sessions with Moon. During these readings she was told her family was plagued by demons, and she underwent two exorcisms via the device, which she calls “Boxercisms.” She received unsubstantiated warnings about her son, a soldier stationed in Iraq, and she even exposed Moon’s deception by planting bogus information, which he fed back to her as fact. She also recounts the heartbreaking story of nursing her dying brother, and how she created a code word for him to send from beyond the grave via the Telephone to the Dead.20

Sumption has publicly criticized Moon’s methods and ludicrous theories, but his complaints often center around the fact that Moon has neglected to return, or pay for, the Boxes Suption has loaned to him, with which Moon turns a considerable profit. While Sumption’s assumptions are scientifically ignoble, he believes his “personal research” and noncommercial use of the device are somehow noble compared to Moon’s money-making schemes. Neither position makes the public use of Frank’s Box any more ethical or the device any more legitimate.

Both Sumption and Moon exploit the public with their claims and practices.

Opening a Pandora’s Box

I was very fortunate to be able to enlist the assistance of a number of skeptics with backgrounds in engineering and electronics to assess the Frank’s Box. Because I would have had difficulty getting the Frank’s Box through airport security, the device remains in Colorado. Project Engineer Paul Turner examined a series of photographs of the device, and after originally commenting that it was an “elementary school class project,” he provided the following technical explanation of the model.

The Frank’s Box Model 63 that you possess is an alleged Instrumental TransCommunication (ITC) device, the term would imply a two-way communication between the spirit world and that of the living. However, after examining the photographs you provided and the builder’s own schematics, I fail to see where or how this two-way communication occurs as the device itself is nothing more than an AM/FM receiver with modifications. Without a personal examination it is of course difficult to unlock any great secrets the box may contain. The results that the builder claims would be a matter of personal belief in the metaphysical.

The First Circuit in the chain is a salvaged RCA AM/FM tuner card. It would appear to have come from an older tabletop style radio. The first thing that struck me as unusual about the card is that the builder placed two quartz crystals on the tuning coil using antenna lead and silicon to secure them between the coil and the housing. It is not possible for these crystals to interact with the tuner, except for the slight possibility the crystals, acting as spacers for the excess antenna lead, could slightly change the characteristics of the reception of the tuner, perhaps reducing its selectivity. Or this is an attempt by the builder to make the device seen more magical.

There are two hand wired circuit boards, which again seen to be populated with a combination of new and salvaged parts. These parts are wired to a proto-board, normally used for prototype circuits. One containing the modifications necessary to linear scan the tuner, this is accomplished using the XR 2206 function generator integrated circuit. This IC generates the sawtooth wave which enables the modified tuner to scan frequencies from top to bottom then back again. This is the same process as spinning a tuner knob on an old-style radio up and down the dial. The adjustment for the rate of scan is controlled by an attenuator on the front face.

This board also contains the preamps and microphone amplifier for an external echo box which is optional. The speaker for the echo box is driven by the RAW speaker output on the front panel, the volume being controlled by the RAW drive attenuator on the front panel. The return microphone from the echo box when the switch is engaged would only feed the line output jack, which then could feed a recording device.

The workmanship of the device is sloppy, it would appear to be an effort of trial and error as opposed to a well-thought out design. While some of the circuits are clever it is in no way elegant or innovative; perhaps a better classification would be haphazard. I speculate that the builder has a rudimentary knowledge of electronics, perhaps at a ham radio level or late 1970’s trade school. So if entities indeed gave him the knowledge to build the device as he states in his schematics apparently they did not keep up with the technical journals.

In conclusion, the Frank’s Box Model 63 does an adjustable linear sweep of the AM or FM band depending on which is selected. The result is a random noise generator. It does not have the capability of receiving any signals except that of the AM or FM broadcast band. It does not have transmit capability. Its sole function is to linear sweep the broadcast band producing bits and pieces of audio from those broadcast stations. Since the claim is that spirits speak through the random noise, I could well see that after a few moments of listening to this random audio, the sensory trait of pareidolia would come into play creating false positives. This is the only logical explanation to the builder’s claims.

You Say Potato; I Say Gobbledygook

The supposed efficacy of the Frank’s Box hinges on its output. However, these results are unconvincing. The communication is incomprehensible, subjective, and incapable of being replicated. Most of all, it isn’t actually communication.

The recordings made by the Frank’s Box and similar devices include random words, word fragments, language-like sounds, music, and radio noise. They do not exhibit the features that characterize natural language. There is no grammar; the “messages” are pieced together, and they do not produce authentic utterances. The most important distinction to make is that these collective sounds do not constitute “speech.” The data from the Frank’s Box may contain bits of speech, but it isn’t speech.

The alleged messages are construed to suit the agenda of the listener. The claim that “I love you” is heard confirms the bias that the believer has contacted Uncle Bruce, while the skeptics laugh when their question, “Is Chris Moon a fraud?” is answered by a car salesperson-like “Guaranteed!”21 This kind of evidence is anecdotal only.

Frank’s Box aficionados listen to their devices obsessively to acquire “Class A” recordings (that are still very poor). For them it is addictive like a psychic slot machine, and they are convinced by the pay-offs: the subjectively more intelligible sounds. But these are merely better quality gibberish.

Moreover, the “messages” are nonsensical and do not contain information. They are meaningless from a pragmatic perspective, but they are infused with meaning by the listener. This is idiosyncratic meaning based in personal experience; it is individual but not shared meaning.

However, sometimes this meaning can be shared artificially. Listeners are suggestible and want to hear something meaningful. As believers, they are often expecting to hear something. They are selective listeners who mark the hits and ignore the misses, sometimes even “recognizing” the “voices.” In this mindset they have a tendency to be lead and to conform their perception to what others think they hear. Michael Shermer calls this “priming” the brain to see or hear something.22 Having others hear what you hear seems to legitimize the results. However, even if more than one person arrives at the same interpretation, it is still subjective.

Indeed, many believe there is a special way to “hear” the messages and that this ability requires practice, sensitivity, training, and time. Tom explains, “In some cases the ‘impression’ is not as ‘clean’ and one has to develop ‘an ear’ so to speak, to hear them (like sea legs, but for EVP).”23

To make the results more persuasive, some users edit the recordings, ostensibly cleaning up the ambient noise, but often affecting the result. It’s not that the messages are garbled or inaudible to begin with, it’s that they aren’t messages at all. As Baxter put it to me in conversation, “The longer you listen to it the more it seems to make sense, like looking for patterns in clouds.”

In personal correspondence, Sumption states:

When I first started making the linear sweep boxes, at first all I could hear was gibberish, then all the sudden I could hear “the guys” talking to me. It seems not everyone can hear it, especially just starting out. It takes time to tune in the ear, and maybe develop some intuition. The box is extremely complicated, and talking about it for a mere two hours just is not enough time, two years would be better. It takes time to develop a feel for the communications. I get very frustrated when I get voices that seem perfectly clear, and no one else can hear it. I don’t know the mental mechanisms involved, maybe a new brain circuit has to be created, or maybe the the possibility of the box function has to be “allowed.” I don’t think the skeptic allows this possibility, there fore they are stuck on “it doesn’t work.”

The best explanation for this phenomenon is that listeners are experiencing a form of pattern recognition known as apohenia, a kind of audio pareidolia. Shermer prefers the more user-friendly term patternicity, which he explains in this instance as “finding meaningful patterns in meaningless noise.” The “messages” are perceptual errors.

The Frank’s Box and similar devices have even been debunked by promoters of EVP. In a listening test of the Mini-Box made by Paranormal Systems, the author determines that the radio sweep method for collecting EVP only produces pareidolia. The paper concludes: “While we have not been able to find reason to think the technology produces EVP, we have found substantial reason to think it does not.”24

One theory down, one to go…

The Frank’s Box is used as a cold reading tool. The meaning is supplied by the reader, the listener, and the client. The responses are coincidental, like finding water when dowsing, randomly selecting a “prophetic” reading from the Bible, and all other forms of divination. These devices are tarot cards for the technological age. The Frank’s Box is no more “technology” than a Parker Brothers Ouija board…but with its underlying malicious intent and mental instability, it’s no game.

Ironically, the natural explanation for the data acquired from the Frank’s Box can be found in a quote from Sumption himself: “It’s not ‘picking up’ the dead, presummably. As I understand it’s operation ‘they’ use the existing bits of speech, mucis and noise to remodulate inot their own voices. Of course, that remains a guess as to how it works.”25

As he admits, his “remodulation” theory is a guess, and the alleged messages are simply composed of ordinary speech, music, and noise.

We’ll allow Sumption to have the final say about his broken radio: “EVP is useful only to the experience, I guess. Yet another reason why I hesitate to build more boxes, there’s no way to determine if it works, or is it just imagination/perception.”26

Acknowledgements

Sincere thanks to Paul Turner, Matthew Baxter, Bryan Bonner, and Stu Hayes for their invaluable assistance in researching, examining, and testing the Frank’s Box.

Notes:

  1. Konstantinos. 1995. Ghost Voices: Exploring the mysteries of electronic voice phenomena. Popular Electronics. October issue, pp.37–41.
  2. Association Transcommunication. Available at atransc.org. Accessed 1/21/10.
  3. Frank’S Boxes. Available at purplealiengirl.tripod.com. Accessed 1/17/10.
  4. EVP-ITC. Available at tech.groups.yahoo.com. Accessed 1/19/10.
  5. History Detectives. PBS. Season 7, Episode 1. Available at pbs.org.
  6. Museum of Hoaxes. Available online at museumofhoaxes.com. Accessed 1/19/10.
  7. Thomas Edison National Historical Park. Available a www.nps.gov/archive/edis/edifun/edifun_4andup/faqs_fables.htm#talk. Accessed 1/20/10.
  8. Bonner, Bryan. In print. The History of the Frank’s Box. Modern Paranormal Investigator.
  9. Inside the Box/Ghost Box Research. Available at tech.groups.yahoo.com. Accessed 1/20/10.
  10. Speaking to the Dead with Radios. Available at tech.groups.yahoo.com. Accessed 1/16/10.
  11. Frank’S Boxes. Available at purplealiengirl.tripod.com/. Accessed 1/18/10.
  12. EVP-ITC Yahoo Group. Available at tech.groups.yahoo.com. Accessed 1/20/10.
  13. EVP-ITC Yahoo Group. Available at tech.groups.yahoo.com. Accessed 1/19/10.
  14. EVP-ITC Yahoo Group. Available at tech.groups.yahoo.com. Accessed 1/18/10.
  15. What is the Telephone to the Dead? Haunted Times. Volume 4, Issue 3, Winter 2010, p.28.
  16. Bonner, Bryan. In print. The history of the Frank’s Box. Modern Paranormal Investigator.
  17. EVP-ITC Yahoo Group. Available at tech.groups.yahoo.com. Accessed 1/19/10.
  18. Dark Side of the Moon. Reap Sow Radio. Available at reapsowradio.podomatic.com.
  19. You Tube. Available at youtube.com. Accessed 1/19/10.
  20. Dark Side of the Moon. Reap Sow Radio. Available at reapsowradio.podomatic.com. Accessed 1/19/10.
  21. Ibid.
  22. Michael Shermer. Telephoning to the dead. Scientific American. January 2009. p.46.
  23. EVP-ITC Yahoo Group. Available at tech.groups.yahoo.com. Accessed 1/20/10.
  24. Butler, Tom. Radio Sweep: A Case Study. Association TransCommunication. Available at atransc.org. Accessed 1/20/10.
  25. Skeptic Blog. Box of Fiends. Available at skepticblog.org. Accessed 1/19/10.
  26. Ibid. Accessed 1/19/10.

Karen Stollznow

Karen Stollznow's photo

Karen Stollznow is an author and skeptical investigator with a doctorate in linguistics and a background in history and anthropology. She is an associate researcher at the University of California, Berkeley, and a director of the San Francisco Bay Area Skeptics. A prolific skeptical writer for many sites and publications, she is the “Good Word” Web columnist for the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry, the “Bad Language” columnist for Skeptic magazine, a frequent contributor to Skeptical Inquirer, and managing editor of CSI’s Scientific Review of Mental Health Practice. Dr. Stollznow is a host of the Monster Talk podcast and writer for the Skepbitch and Skepchick blogs, as well as for the James Randi Educational Foundation’s Swift. She can be reached via email at kstollznow[at]centerforinquiry.net.