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Spooky Rocks

Sharon Hill

Skeptical Briefs Volume 27.3, Fall 2017

The “stone tape theory” (STT) is frequently used as a sciencey-sounding quasi-explanation to explain hauntings. Amateur paranormal investigators use the idea to account for appearances of images, sounds, and apparitions that do not interact directly with people. Instead, they play out like a movie or recording. This is most commonly labeled a “residual haunting” to suggest something was left behind in the past to account for the current effects perceived. The premise of the stone tape concept is that bedrock or building stone of the location “captured” emotional energy from a traumatic event. The preferred rock type is said to be quartz, but limestone is mentioned nearly as frequently. The sound and visual representations of an event are “recorded” into the rock media in a process analogous to a magnetic tape recording data. At a much later date, a person sensitive to this energy can receive the “playback,” or the playback can be initiated by certain conditions. The recording/playback sequence has been used as an explanation for noninteractive apparition sightings and haunted places.

As with many cultural products, inspirations and influence for a widely known idea originate from a variety of places and in alternative forms. It’s unpredictable what bits and pieces will glom on to the original idea or which paths will be taken that result in propelling an idea (good or bad) into mainstream popularity. Then, the popular idea takes on a life of its own. Many people who later adopt it don’t know of its long history. This convoluted evolution of an idea applies to the “stone tape theory.”

Before moving forward, a clarification must be made regarding the word theory, which is sometimes invoked in the name. A theory in science is not a guess or a supposition. It is a well-tested model of the way something in nature works. Therefore, the stone tape isn’t a theory; it’s speculation. The following questions remain unanswered resulting in a hollow idea:

How do things get recorded?

What gets recorded and what doesn’t?

How is it preserved?

How can it be played back?

Initially, the stone tape idea requires an assumption that there is a real phenomenon where people experience a “playback” related to a certain location. The individual may perceive this event as a ghost encounter or haunting, a place-memory, a particular reaction to or sense about the location, or a feeling of time travel. Those who have assumed this location-specific phenomenon occurs invoked an explanation for it.

Modern paranormal media frequently state the stone tape idea originated in the 1970s. The proper name did but not the concept, which goes back over a century before. Ideas of events or information imprinting on the environment for later retrieval have a long history. In fact, the concept that apparitions were created in or by the human mind was part of early scientific thinking about the subject.

Building the Theory Block by Block

The Stone Tape was the title of a 1972 BBC drama by Nigel Kneale directed by Peter Sasdy. In the movie, a team from an electronics company move into an old house to work on a new project. Renovations that include busting up the paneling reveal a very old stone stairway and strange phenomena occur in the room. Not everyone can hear the screams or see the apparition of a young woman on the stairs. The physical equipment does not record it. The playback is dependent upon another human who has the ability to perceive it in their own brain. The story centers on the only woman on the team, Jill, who has this ability. The success of the movie popularized the idea that old stone blocks can store sounds and images that possibly could be the mechanism for hauntings.

With the popularity of the concept, the stone tape label was retroactively imposed on the ideas of Thomas Charles Lethbridge, a controversial and colorful archaeologist who left academia for paranormal research. Lethbridge’s 1961 book, Ghost and Ghoul, is frequently cited by amateur paranormal investigators as the origin of the stone tape concept. Lethbridge, however, never referenced the term stone tape in this or subsequent books. He died in 1971 before the movie aired. So, it is incorrect to say he coined the term stone tape. In his book, though, Lethbridge hints that some memories may be connected with inanimate objects via “a sort of surrounding ether.” He also stated that all cells resonate, and he uses examples related to psychometry (the ability to read psychic impressions from objects) to speculate that shared vibration frequency could explain memory transferences. His often-repeated story about experiencing an apparition near a stream is repeated in his later book, Ghost and Divining Rod (1963). For this book, he develops this idea more thoroughly. Lethbridge does not contend that ghosts are supernatural but argues they are attributable to invisible fields that recorded an image of a person. He states these various fields of energy—around forests, mountains, and streams and even from the earth—are “scientific fact.” They aren’t, but Lethbridge was characteristically arrogant in his presentation of parapsychological speculation, assuming that if he said they were solid that would make them so. Lethbridge’s ideas were around during the time that Kneale was working. It’s almost certain that they influenced the plot device in The Stone Tape, but I haven’t found any direct connection.

A confounding factor in the history of the concept is that plenty of other people had similar ideas, and it’s difficult to trace whether they borrowed from each other or came to such thinking independently. Lethbridge cited the work of H.H. Price on place-memories. Price was a professor of logic at the University of Oxford and a former president of the Society for Psychical Research (SPR). In his presidential address for the SPR in 1939 titled “Haunting and the ‘Psychic Ether’ Hypothesis,” Price asserts that objects carry memory traces. If a suitably sensitive person comes to the place or handles the object, these memory traces will cause him to have a retrospective experience. In this loose set of ideas, Price contends that “psychic ether” is an intermediate medium between spirit and physical matter where images and memory traces are held. Crediting Raynor C. Johnson, Price connects these to hauntings saying ghosts (as people describe them) are not supernatural but that they are “traces . . . [a] result of the emotions or other experiences of some person who formerly inhabited the room, much as finger-prints result automatically from our handling of a wine-glass or a poker.” They were like photographic negatives that would be “developed” by those who were endowed with the ability to perceive them. Jill, from the movie, was so (un)lucky.

The traces and the “psychic ether” are not independently observable, though, making them unmeasurable, a serious drawback for scientific acceptance. Price remarked that if these traces were real, “they must consist in some more or less permanent mode of arrangement of the molecules or atoms or infra-atomic particles, of which the walls, furniture, etc., are composed. And in that case, it ought to be possible to verify their existence by the ordinary methods of physical Science—by physical or chemical tests of some sort or other. But so far as we know, this cannot be done.”

This “residua of past experiences” was also explained by Price as a form of “deferred telepathy” as the impulse was stored (in some unknown way by an unknown method) until a person could experience the anima loci or place memory. Lethbridge’s idea for this recording/playback was different. He rejected Price’s “psychic ether” mechanism for his own special “fields.” Lethbridge instead thought that the potential of these natural “fields” was high, and persons who had low personal “psyche-fields” of their own would receive the existing imprints on the field because higher potential flowed naturally to a lower potential. This would explain why some could experience the imprints (those with this “sixth sense”) and others could not.

The concept of the environment or fields recording impressions from humans was elucidated even earlier by mathematician Charles Babbage in 1838. He believed that words made permanent impressions on the world and that “the air itself is a vast library, on whose pages are forever written all that man has ever said or woman whispered.” In The Ninth Bridgewater Treatise (1838) he stated:

The pulsations of the air, once set in motion by the human voice, cease not to exist with the sounds to which they gave rise. Strong and audible as they may be in the immediate neighbourhood of the speaker, and at the immediate moment of utterance, their quickly attenuated force soon becomes inaudible to human ears. The motions they have impressed on the particles of one portion of our atmosphere, are communicated to constantly increasing numbers, but the total quantity of motion measured in the same direction receives no addition.

“Place-memory” was considered in the early days of the SPR as a hypothesis to account for apparitions that seemed distinctly associated with a location. Eleanor Sidgwick suggested in 1888 that there was “something in the actual building itself” to account for the experiences reported. Edmund Gurney, a few years later, also iterated that survival of an image, generated by the mind of a person, was later perceptible by certain other sensitive minds (also open to other anomalous mental communication). Frederic Myers and Oliver Lodge also expressed similar ideas (See Heath 2005).

Proposed Mechanisms

The crucial problem with the stone tape concept is that there has never been demonstrated a way to record, preserve, or play events in natural environmental substances as proposed. The mechanisms for the recording of these psychic imprints are diverse—relating to invisible “fields,” molecular architecture of crystalline quartz, energy fields from dead organisms that make up limestone, resonant frequencies, encoded of iron oxide crystals, inductive electromagnetism, and quantum entanglement.

Unlike fossils, in which a physical record is preserved as an impression in sediment, or sea-floor spreading ridges that freeze crystals in molten rock to reflect the prevailing magnetic declination of the earth, the stone tape idea relies on emotional “energy,” which is nonmaterial. Emotion is not physically recordable outside of the body because nothing related to emotion leaves the body. Emotional “energy” is a term specific to human experience of feelings. There is nothing to record. However, paranormalists invoke a handy trope to get around this problem—“quantum.” Paranormalists are quite fond of using Einstein’s view of “spooky action at a distance,” which he used to describe quantum entanglement. They also assert (from laws of thermodynamics) that energy can be neither created nor destroyed. But the concept is grossly misapplied. There is no evidence that this concept is relatable to human events in the past being replayed in the present. Go ask your resident quantum physicist if he or she has explained ghosts.

The idea of memories captured in rock is older than the concepts of quanta and the invention of magnetic tape. Former geologist William Denton (1863) was enamored with the promise of psychometry, believing that the sciences of geology and archaeology would be revolutionized by psychically “reading” the impressions and memories of the objects. Psychometry is the kernel of the idea of stone tape.

Lethbridge assumed that special fields that capture the memory were recharged by ions in the air and enhanced by additional imprints by a person’s own field (psyche-field). Lethbridge thought some places would accumulate these thoughts in sort of a snowball effect. Bad thoughts produced more bad thoughts, which were then imprinted onto the field. After a while, “thought forms” would be produced at these notorious spots. Humid conditions enhanced conductance of the fields because of the benefit of conductance of water molecules. Because the imprint was on the “field” not on the individual molecules, the memories would remain at a place, even those around a flowing stream. Modern ghost hunters sometimes invoke a “water tape” idea where the water molecules are thought to retain the memory (they sometimes link this to unsupported ideas related to homeopathy). But this is absurd since the water molecules in a stream flow away to be replaced by other molecules (presumably with their own memories). Rocks and building stones can remain for hundreds, even thousands of years, but they do weather and erode. How deep would a memory be encoded into the rock? What happens to the old memories of the rock, such as its origin story often told in psychometry readings?

In Secret Language of Stone (1988) by Don Robins, a solid-state chemist, we find one of the most technical-sounding attempts to explain the capture and storage of memories in stone. Robins supposes that defects in the crystal lattice of minerals (the array of atoms that make up a mineral that is shaped by electrical forces) allow for reservoirs of energy. The crystal architecture creates a “vortex of energy at the heart of the crystal” where memory traces could be stored (he mainly focused on sound). These traces could be accessed directly by the human brain later by producing a resonating sound wave or physical pressure such as walking on the ground. Robins also does not use the term stone tape but calls the energy network of stone a “macrochip” and associates this network with sacred places where paranormal events are said to occur.

Heath (2005) updated Price’s place-memory with a modern tech attitude by putting forth that passive place-memories were stored in the electron cloud or molecular structures. She did not cite Lethbridge even though she remarked on the importance of memories associated with water and even mentioned his early favored concept of resonance—vibration at the same frequency. However, “quantum” was applied. She stated when resonant frequencies are equivalent, then the objects can maximally absorb energy. Heath connected resonance to ESP (a commonly made connection). And, like in The Stone Tape movie, the traces can be erased, disrupted by heat or magnetic fields, or otherwise overwritten.

Persinger and Koren (2001) take the “field” ideas in a different direction by considering the Earth as a photographic exposure plate. Matched inductance between geomagnetic activity and the local static field, they say, creates a representation recorded in the crystalline structure of the rock—a geologic hologram to be replayed directly to the brain when conditions are just right.

In the most extreme and metaphysical explanation for hauntings, a few parapsychologists or speculative paranormalists say that we create our own reality. Based on Roy Frieden’s (1998) invocation of the concept of “observer participancy,” information can be imparted by just observing. That information can flow from one object to another.

The amateur paranormal investigator commonly cites the “recording” onto local materials such as quartz, limestone rock, building materials, or rust on metal objects, such as nails, screws, wires, and structural components. It sounds superficially plausible that high emotion events, such as violent death, can release emotional “energy” (akin to electricity) that gets recorded onto these mineral crystals or coatings as sound or images are recorded onto magnetic tape in a tape recorder. (The idea of recording onto a magnetic wire [via Smith and Poulsen’s work in 1888–89] only became a usable technology with magnetic tape recorders around 1930.) This concept, like all the others, is flawed. There are specific technical components of these systems (like magnetic heads on recorders) that do not have a natural analog. The Earth’s magnetic field may be strong enough to align the polarity of newly produced rock from mid-ocean ridges, but it is not strong enough or precise enough to imprint a distinct sound or image into random existing crystals in surrounding materials. Emotion is not an energy like electricity (a stream of charged particles we can measure). Also, humans do not have a sophisticated response to magnetic fields (regardless of what alternative health gurus tell you); So, how are we to “read” such tapes? Can we perceive the content of recording tape by running our fingers over it? Nope.

Popularity of the Theory

This concept of environmental recording of human feelings, sounds, and images that can be stored and retrieved is useful in different contexts. Yet, there is no current reasonable mechanism to accomplish it. All the “theories” are imaginative speculation or suppositions. They have not been tested or confirmed to any degree. And those that have some basis in scientific theory have not been shown to be applicable to real-world situations or the claims of hauntings reported. But because the concepts sound sciencey and plausible to those without scientific backgrounds, they have become popular and carried through the decades by paranormal advocates.

I contacted Alan Murdie of the SPR, expert ghost historian, to ask him about the history and popularity of the stone tape. He confirmed that the “tape” recording idea came far later, spurred by the movie, but the general ideas predated the invention of magnetic tape. He confirmed Lethbridge was critical to reinforcing and popularizing the notion, but his ideas “have got rather muddled in being recycled over the last forty-five years through various authors.” Curiously, Murdie opines that Lethbridge might have been forgotten after his death, strange ideas and all, if not for popular paranormal writer Colin Wilson. Wilson reinjected Lethbridge’s ideas into popular discussion, particularly in his book Mysteries (1978) “where he linked dowsing with then fashionable ideas about ley lines supposedly flowing through prehistoric and haunted sites.” (Lethbridge invoked his special “fields” for all things paranormal.) Wilson’s books were immensely popular with paranormal enthusiasts from the 1970s to the 2000s. Thus, Lethbridge’s poorly formed speculation about location-specific fields as an explanation for hauntings was discovered by a new generation who were not going to dig through the SPR archives to find the historical precursors to it.

Psychology professor Terence Hines messaged me with a personal story of his own regarding the pop culture influence of the stone recording idea. From 1955 to 1957, a half-hour syndicated TV show called Science Fiction Theatre aired. Hines recalled specifically an episode titled “The Frozen Sound” (aired July 30, 1955). The plot concerned something called “sonic saturation” used by devious Communist spies to steal our research secrets. A slow-hardening synthetic crystal recorded surrounding voices making for an elusive spying system. The story also included the discovery of an ancient piece of lava rock from Vesuvius that had recorded human voices when it hardened thousands of years previously. The opening sequence included a demonstration of the piezoelectrical properties of quartz and the emphasis on research into crystals. Thus, the idea for recording in stone and crystals was around decades before it was incorporated as a plot device in The Stone Tape.

Conclusion

The explosion of amateur ghost hunting groups around 2000 and the continuing popularity of contemporary hauntings has placed the stone tape theory squarely into the paranormal patois. It’s frequently noted on paranormal investigation websites as a “scientific” theory that has some evidentiary support. As I’ve documented here, it doesn’t have empirical support. Professional parapsychologists and the SPR (still considered to be the foremost investigation body of paranormal claims) do not rely on it and hardly even mention the term in their professional literature. In Investigating the Paranormal (2002), Tony Cornell reiterated that the STT still is unconfirmed with no plausible mechanism and the theory has not been developed any further. Murdie (2017) declared it was “a hypothesis yet to be tested.” Even though we have been talking about this general concept for over a century, we are no closer to having it make sense, and it remains an unsupported, but appealing and convenient, notion to apply in paranormal discussions with the public.

The stone tape does not make sense in whichever context it is implemented. Not only do we still not have a reasonable mechanism to record, store, and retrieve traces, but there remain many vexing questions about the idea: Why is just one event recorded and not a jumble of events? Why does the “recording” last for decades or centuries instead of getting overwritten? Why do only certain places have place-memories? It’s disingenuous of paranormal researchers to utilize STT as an explanation—or even to suggest it because it sounds sciencey. It’s easy to find several people speaking authoritatively about the properties of bedrock (they have assumed exists under a location) that triggers hauntings. There are those who expound to ghost tourists that the quartz in the “granite” at Gettysburg, the world-famous Civil War battlefield, is responsible for preserving the ghostly phenomena that people constantly report there. Ironically, the rock at Gettysburg is not granite. It is diabase, a different type of intrusive rock, which is quartz-poor. The mudstone/siltstone rocks among the famous diabase dike ridges (Seminary and Cemetery) and exposed boulders (Devil’s Den and Little Round Top) have no special properties either, with many other minerals making up the bedrock that lacks any abundance of quartz (and no limestone at all). But the place recording/stone tape idea is so enticing to use as an explanation for the spooky legends there that the scientific facts don’t matter and aren’t even checked.

There you have it on the Stone Tape theory: it’s not a theory, it doesn’t make physical sense, and there is no known mechanism for how it works at all. It was simply a good fictional movie.



References and Further Reading

Sharon Hill

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Sharon Hill is a scientific and technical consultant for the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry and creator of DoubtfulNews.com. Read more at SharonAHill.com.