Poltergeist's medium lady or the actual O.G. of paranormal research

On cyberspirituality and the era of the paranormal AI

How social media, apps, and gadgets such as spirit boxes are using artificial intelligence to put us (back) in contact with the dead

Lidia Zuin
8 min readSep 28, 2023


In a previous article, I discussed the intricacies of advanced technology, religion and magical thoughts. Today, I would like to talk specifically about how spiritualism has taken over social media platforms such as YouTube and Tiktok, or rather how ghost boxes (or spirit boxes) have become a trendy gadget among enthusiasts.

Spirit or ghost boxes are basically a portable radio device, but tweaked to be able to detect EVP (electronic voice phenomena). As mentioned in the linked article, this is a kind of paranormal investigation approach that was proposed by Konstantin Raudive and Hans Bender in the mid-1960s. It extended the phenomenon of “radio bugs” or DX fishing that Jeffrey Sconce details in the book Haunted Media, also previously mentioned here.

Spirit boxes shuffle and scan multiple radio stations at once, which is basically the same thing you would do if you kept changing the frequency on the radio, but quickly. It tries to detect noises, audio, and voices, thus highlighting words, sentences or even melodies. That is because, among paranormal investigators, it is believed that spirits can communicate with us, the living (I would guess), via white noise and manipulating radio frequencies to build whatever message they want to relay.

While information wants to be free in the hacker world, that is not much true in the spiritual realm as spirit boxes can cost around US$200. But as much as international calls were absurdely expensive, they have become cheaper these days, so who knows what the future holds?

On a more serious tone though, paranormal research is just as expensive as any other field research, since it relies on instruments that can detect and record activity. Many of them are tools that are used in other scientific researches, since they can take measurements such as temperature, electromagnetic fields, and movement sensors. These could supposedly filter and translate whatever manifestations are unleashed via portals such as the white noise of radio shuffling a detuned TV set, as seen in Poltergeist.

Sconce details in his book how the very invention of the telephone and the radio ignited superstitious thoughts as it was unbelievable at that point that voice could travel the world via electronic cables or even just through plain air. The dematerialization of presence via technology was therefore not simply an opportunity to connect the world and break geographical barriers, but also to dissolve the frontier between this and other worlds or dimensions.

As it has been already observed, technological innovation and spiritual beliefs may walk together hand in hand. You might have heard about the explanation for why our contemporary image of a ghost is translucent and how this is related to image projection technologies used in magic shows — such as the Pepper’s Ghost. It is thus no wonder that some of us believe spirits are talking to us through white noise and by manipulating the order of sounds and/or words streamed on the radio to convey a message.

Besides a source of entertainment for paranormal enthusiasts, Pepper's ghost is also the grandparent technique behind holograms.

For those who already believe or have faith in something, there is not much need for sophistication in the means. While certain unconscious biases turned some people into denialists and fake news spreaders, others only favored people’s desire to believe in something extraordinary. That’s roughly what the concept of confirmation bias means, and this is an important element in paranormal research, as there is not much scientific proof or even documentation on how to use certain devices, such as the ghost box, properly.

But at the same time, this takes me back to a situation in which my husband shared the laboratory with another researcher who wanted to formulate some theory using quantum physics (always!) and fate. I don’t even know if he ever made it, but my husband’s supervisor said he didn’t care much about this guy because he would need to calibrate the instruments all the time to show he had real, precise results and proofs. At the end of the day, this was just helpful for other researchers who were working on something else and using the same tools.

As much as Thomas Edison once thought that his telephone could build a bridge to the world of the dead, we have not quite made it yet, but from the telephone came the mobile phones, and the internet, and virtual reality, and so forth. The trick is how to make real sense of the data you gather and not just believing that a spirit is really communicating with you because you are called “Ann” and you heard some grunt that slightly sounded like that coming from the ghost box.

This TikToker is known for visiting the tombs of famous people and trying to communicate with them using ghost boxes.

Ashley Villar and Alex McCarthy have published here on Medium the article “The statistics of ghost boxes” in which they discuss how likely it is to get answers from spirit boxes that phonetically may sound correct. More specifically, they mention an occasion in which the hosts of Buzzfeed’s Unsolved heard the right answer of “brown and white” when they asked the spirit box what was the color of someone’s shirt.

To understand how likely such a scenario is, Villar and McCarthy created a model of a spirit box using Python and a phonetic dictionary which contained about 130,000 words and their pronunciation based on phonemes. They came to the conclusion that “a phoneme takes roughly a twelfth of a second to pronounce, so if Ryan and Shane (Buzzfeed's Unsolved hosts) are scanning the radio at 1/5th of a second, they will hear about two phonemes from any one radio station.”

Thus, assuming that “every frequency the spirit box scans through is actually a radio station and that every radio station has a talking head”, then you could get some phonemes and make sense out of them. However, the very possibility of a spirit box tuning to an actual radio station on every attempt, and having someone actually speaking at that time (instead of, let's say, a jingle or a song) is quite unlikely.

Still, the duo’s code detected that, among those 130,000 analyzed words, quite a lot of them are not even typically used in day to day conversations. So they cross-referenced this list with another one of the 1000 most common words in the English language and, guess what, “brown and white” is there. But how likely is it to hear different words that might make sense and in sequence?

Well, depending on how much you enjoy poetry and surrealism, these chances increase quite a bit, but Villar and McCarthy arrived to this probability formula:

For those who are from the humanities spectrum of nerdities like me, the duo explains that this means that there is “a 0.38% chance of hearing two words in a row”, which, “from a statistical point of view, this isn’t quite a 'significant' anomaly.” Now, when it comes to three words on a row, they came up with this formula:

That means there is a 0.01% chance of that happening, a conclusion that the duo affirms to be statistically significant, and not likely to occur randomly. In other words, you would need to spend many hours and days (around 200 days, according to Villar and McCarthy) listening to a spirit box until you get to hear three words in a row which, furthermore, make any sense.

Luckily (?), many of us have plenty of time to spend DX fishing and ghost hunting and this is what has been popping up on TikTok recently. Even if you don’t believe it is true and scientific, it’s still entertaining. And if it’s making numbers on social media, it’s going to make numbers on the app store and in the tech industry.

That is why we happen to have initiatives such as GhostTube, which offers cheap subscriptions or limited free access to apps that act like spirit boxes and movement scanners that use artificial intelligence (always! The ultimate paranormal technology) to find patterns such as human figures. Here is their full catalog:

Personally, the VR and the generative art solutions are the most astounding to me. I only had the chance to try the SLS and VOX versions of the app at home and, unfortunately, I didn’t see any walking stick men or hear anyone saying anything. However, some people do.

Funny enough, most of the users of these apps are based in the US or the UK, thus English-speaking countries, so it makes sense to hear words in English coming from the spirit box. But that doesn’t make much sense to me, living in Sweden. Ok, it is true that GhostTube provides an option to change language or even use a different dictionary, but you would still get words in English coming from the app VOX and you are not quite sure if that's not already pre-recorded.

Still, this situation is similar to Konstantine Raudive’s, who was Latvian and could catch words in German, Latvian and French while DX fishing in the 1960s. However, the most impressive sentence was pronounced by a woman’s voice that said “Ve a dormir, Margarete” or “go to sleep, Margarete”.

Turns out that, at that point, Raudive was profoundly shaken by the loss of someone called Margarete, so that made a real impression on him. Same thing happened to me when I was a child and we were playing the “compass game” and a colleague of mine was sure to have received a message from a recently deceased classmate who she had a crush on. So we meet again, confirmation bias… or is it not?

While I do not compactuate with scams and profitting over people's pain, this is one area that I am likely to keep an eye from now on. If they are already using AI models to translate what chickens are saying, we might not be that far from having a robotic medium that will translate and channel the words from the ether. Actually, this is an absolutely huge step, but as much as Scully and Mulder, I want to believe one day we might have a new wave of podcasts, though this time hosted by dead people — at least they would have something truly new to say, I think.



Lidia Zuin

Brazilian journalist, MA in Semiotics and PhD in Visual Arts. Researcher and essayist. Technical and science fiction writer.