We were living in New Jersey. I was riding in our car with my husband when the oddest thing happened. It was a normal, sunny day and we were in a bit of a traffic jam. Cars were backed up in both directions on the road where we were traveling. While we were sitting at a stop light, further down the road I noticed a man standing on the opposite side of the road on the curb.
Nothing unusual happened until the light changed and the traffic started to flow. The next thing I knew, this man stepped off the curb directly into traffic. I was completely stunned. I thought, “Oh my gosh, what’s he thinking?! What’s he doing?!” I couldn’t believe my eyes. We were approaching the area where he stepped off. I completely expected to see a dead body lying in the street. Just as I looked over, I noticed that my husband had turned his head to look at something. I hadn’t said anything about the man.
I asked him what he was looking at. He said, “I just saw this guy step out into the street.” I told him I’d seen him as well. We’re both looking and the strange thing was, no one slammed on their brakes and the guy didn’t crouch down like he was going to jump into a car. Even if he had, the cars were moving where he stepped out into traffic. My husband and I were trying to make sense about what we had seen.
It was a head scratcher. He wasn’t there and there was nobody laying on the street injured. When he stepped off the road, his posture was perfectly straight and tall. Had he been getting into a car, he would naturally duck down to crouch into it. He didn’t do that. He stepped out like there was no traffic to be concerned about. We talked about it the whole way home and neither of us could really make sense of it. My husband said, “Well, maybe he jumped in the back of a truck.” I didn’t buy it because the man wasn’t moving like that, he just stepped out straight into the road.
He went in between the vehicles that were blocking our view, so I just assumed he’d been hit or he got into a car. Looking back on it, he couldn’t have possibly gotten into a car. If I’d just seen it myself, it might not have made the same impression on me, but my husband saw it as well. That day we fully expected to see blood or a body laying on the ground, but there was nothing. The common sense thing seems that it had to be a ghost or a time slip, I don’t know. It was strange.
-Jane, South Carolina
The mystery man of Jane’s experience, neither interacting with the environment nor being affected by it as if it were merely an event being replayed, has all the hallmarks of a residual haunting. The oft-cited Stone Tape Theory is the proposed mechanism behind residual hauntings such as the one that Jane and her husband experienced. The idea is that emotion unleashes energy that is then saved to quartz crystals (the most common mineral on earth) as if it’s magnetic tape, which then replays under the right conditions. This suggests that apparitions (or at least a portion of them) are not ghosts, in the sense of the spirit of a dead person which is sentient and acting of its own will, but the replay of events, imprinted on the objects or atmosphere surrounding the original events.
Well before it was known as “the Stone Tape theory,” the basic framework for the theory had been in place for nearly 200 years. In 1817 Charles Babbage, known primarily as “the father of computing” for his invention of the first programmable computer, published the Ninth Bridgewater Treatise in which he suggests 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, in the air, silently 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, 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 who touches 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 (source)
The linking of geology to psychic phenomena, the persistence of history through physical objects, all seem a clear predecessor of the Stone Tape theory.
The Society for Psychical Research (SPR) was founded on 20 February 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 about for a period of 60 years or so until then-president of SPR Henry Habberley 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. Thomas Charles Lethbridge expanded on this idea, spurred on by his time in the 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 was released 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 excellent 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 the irregularities found in crystal. 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, pointing out authors who believe the earth to be as a photographic plate, or who involve quantum physics in their theories, bringing the most modern scientific theories 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 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, which faced an extremely busy motorway. 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, regardless, 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 or the St. Louis Ghost Train.
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. Quoting Hill –
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.
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:
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