Residual hauntings are often explained by the “Stone Tape Theory.” We delve into the history and thinking behind this theory on this week’s edition of Unpleasant Dreams.
Cassandra Harold is your host.
EM Hilker is our principal writer and researcher with additional writing by Cassandra Harold. Jim Harold is our Executive Producer.
Unpleasant Dreams is a production of Jim Harold Media.
You can find EM Hilker’s original article HERE.
Sources & Further Reading:
The Ninth Bridgewater Treatise by Charles Babbage http://www.victorianweb.org/science/science_texts/bridgewater/intro.htm
Manual of Psychometry by Joseph Rodes Buchanan: https://amzn.to/35p9uws
Sharon Hill’s excellent articles on the topic:
The “Stone Tape Theory” of hauntings: A geological perspective
Confusing speculative “language of stone” (Book Review)
Ghost and Ghoul by TC Lethbridge: https://amzn.to/3mhkova
Haunting and the Psychic Ether Hypothesis by HH Price: https://doi.org/10.1007/978-1-349-24108-8_2
Secret Language of Stone by Don Robins: https://amzn.to/37G0Bl7
For Your Viewing Pleasure:
Strangeries’ Youtube video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=91nVUot4RcI
Sharon Hill’s Spooky Geology video on the topic : https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=a32y-vTmhE8
Edge of the Rabbit Hole’s episode discussing Stone Tape: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=N5d0rEJ0iSE
Stone Tape (1972): https://amzn.to/37zePUF
A mystery man. Neither interacting with the environment around him nor being affected by it. Almost as if the world around him was merely being replayed. Seen, but not truly there. Such a mysterious figure has all the hallmarks of a residual haunting. The oft-cited Stone Tape Theory is the proposed mechanism behind residual hauntings. The idea is that emotion unleashes energy that is then saved to the most common mineral on earth, quartz crystal. That emotional energy behaves as if it were being recorded on video tape; a recording which can then be replayed under the right conditions. This suggests that apparitions are not classic ghosts in the way that we usually think of them, but a replay that has been imprinted on the objects or atmosphere surrounding the original events.
While it was not always known as “the Stone Tape theory,” the basic framework for this kind of imprinting was in place for nearly 200 years. In tracing this framework, we begin with Charles Babbage, a mathematician known primarily as “the father of computing” and the inventor of the first programmable computer. In 1817, Babbage suggested that each spoken word leaves an everlasting imprint on the air itself. It can only be heard for a short period of time, but the word itself remains there, hanging silently in the air, forever. This suggests nothing about replay, as in the Stone Tape Theory, but brings the idea of events being “stored” into the conversation.
In 1842, physician and physiology professor Joseph Rodes Buchanan introduced the world to the concept of psychometry, or the reading of the past from physical objects. Buchanan felt that all objects radiate an energy, which can transfer the object’s history to a properly sensitive person if they touch the object. He would go on to write in the Manual Of Psychometry in 1893:
The discoveries of Psychometry will enable us to explore the history of man, as those of geology enable us to explore the history of the earth. There are mental fossils for psychologists as well as mineral fossils for the geologists; and I believe that hereafter the psychologist and the geologist will go hand in hand
The linking of geology to psychic phenomena, the persistence of history through physical objects, all seem a clear predecessor of the Stone Tape theory.
An investigative group called The Society for Psychical Research (also known as SPR) was founded on the 20th of February in 1882 , and it continues to this day. Within a few years of its creation, founder and investigator Edmund Gurney, alongside fellow investigator and eventual president of the society Eleanor Sidgwick, suggested that there were materials that could cache real world events. These events could be replayed under the correct circumstances or for the correct individual, harkening back to Buchanan’s theory.
The concept appears to have been forgotten for a period of 60 years or so until then-president of SPR, HH Price, resurrected it in the early 1940s. He suggested that “psychic ether,” the dimension existing between the physical and the spiritual, could allow corporeal materials to retain the remains of remembrances and long-ago emotions.
Archeologist Thomas Charles Lethbridge expanded on this idea, spurred on by his time living in the notoriously haunted Hole House, suggesting that it was the energy fields that surrounded objects which stored memory and events, resulting in the appearance of ghosts or residual hauntings. His first true paranormal writing, 1961’s Ghost and Ghoul, spread this theory far and wide.
Lethbridge is popularly credited with originating the term “Stone Tape Theory”, which renowned investigator Sharon Hill points out is quite impossible. The term itself originates from a 1972 television movie, The Stone Tape, which wasn’t released until well after Lethbridge’s death in 1971. The film dealt quite closely with the theory that Lethbridge had put forward, though it’s unclear whether Lethbridge’s work was directly influential on the film or not.
Sharon Hill further traces the evolution of Stone Tape Theory in her article The Stone Tape Theory of Hauntings through a 1988 book called The Secret Language of Stone in which the author, Don Robins, suggests a mechanism for Stone Tape Theory (a term not used in the book, but the concept is clearly the same.) He posits that memories and events are stored as energy, and that energy is stored within irregularities found in crystals. The correct physical or psychic pressure triggers a playback of these memories or events. Hill, herself a geologist, finds this theory unconvincing.
Hill then brings the evolution of Stone Tape Theory into modern day. She points out authors who believe the earth to behave as a photographic plate, and those who involve quantum physics in their theories, bringing the most modern scientific notions into play.
What this complex and varied history of thought leaves us with is the present version of the Stone Tape Theory: that residual hauntings are created by the impression of memories within stone, the very bones of the earth, which can be replayed in a similar manner to video or audio tape.
Youtube user Strangeries has claimed to have experienced this personally. He describes the incident in his video The Stone Tape Theory. When he was a teenager, he and several of his friends were hanging out and listening to music in his bedroom. The room faced an extremely busy highway. He heard a woman’s blood curdling screams accompanied by a dog howling, followed by the sound of gunshots and then silence. His friends had heard the same thing, which ought to have been impossible to hear from their location, given both the traffic and their music. He ruled out the possibility that they had overheard a literal murder, and has come to believe that what they heard was a replay of a past event.
Stories like Strangeries’ are common. Ghosts all over are reported going through the same actions over and over. Many people report seeing the same apparition carrying out the same task, such as the Winchester Mystery House’s Wheelbarrow Ghost, wherein a spectre continues his work with his wheelbarrow, endlessly. Similarly, the St. Louis Ghost Train famously rolls along the tracks, shining a bright white light and startling passersby, through eternity..
In terms of modern day science and the plausibility of the various theories behind the Stone Tape theory Sharon Hill feels that they’re entirely implausible. Hill says –
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.)
Perhaps one day science will discover a means by which the Stone Tape Theory might operate, but until then it’s all anecdotes and speculation, as believers continue to search out what might be behind the phenomenon of residual hauntings.