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From Spirit Boards to Ghost Boxes- 20th Century Evolution in Paranormal Investigation

Updated: Oct 13, 2022

“If our personality survives, then it is strictly logical or scientific to assume that it retains memory, intellect, other faculties, and knowledge that we acquire on this Earth. Therefore ... 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.” Thomas Edison


Theory suggests that World Wars I and II spurred a rise in the Spiritualism movement. Grieving families were anxious to speak with loved ones on the other side. Additionally, they longed for reassurance that their loved one still existed and was well. In the 1920’s Thomas Edison began work on an invention that would help the living communicate with the dead. Mr. Edison said, "I believe that if we are to make any real progress in psychic investigation, we must do it with scientific apparatus and in a scientific manner, just as we do in medicine, electricity, chemistry, and other fields. “Furthermore, he felt that making a scientific device to communicate with the deceased, or those in other spheres of existence, was far more dependable than séances, rapping noises and mediums.

He never divulged the specifics of the apparatus only that it was a sensitive valve system. Sadly, Edison did not live to see his invention made. It was not until twenty years later that the first EVP’s, or electronic voice phenomena were heard. Electronic Voice Phenomena’s are spirit voices captured on a recording device. In 1949, in Grosseto Italy, a man by the name of Marcello Bacci began recording voices on an old tube radio after sitting with a medium in London.

Ghostly Voices

Similar to the process involved with modern ghost boxes, he would set the radio between 7 and 9 MHz, characterized by static. After ten to twenty minutes, voices of the departed would come through the speakers. An interesting aspect of these experiments is that the voices referred to Bacci in the third person. People soon came to his home in order to speak with their departed loved ones.

Three years later, Italian priests, Father Augustino Gemelli and Father Pellegrino Maria Ernetti were collaborating on musical research. Father Ernetti, a music lover, was a well-respected scientist, philosopher, and physicist while Father Gemelli was President of the Papal Academy. In 1952 the two priests were attempting to record a Gregorian chant on a magnetophonon, a reel-to-reel recorder, but a wire kept breaking.

Exasperated, Father Gemelli looked up and asked his deceased father for help. To the priest’s amazement his father’s voice answered over the partial musical recording “But Zucchini, it is clear, don't you know it is I? Of course I shall help you. I am always with you.” No one knew the nickname his father had for him when he was a boy. It was then that Father Gemelli realized that his father spoke to him. The priest was both joyful and fearful over what he had experienced. Did he have any right to speak with the dead?

Eventually the two men visited Pope Pius XII in Rome. Father Gemelli who was deeply troubled, told the Pope of the experience. To his surprise the Pope patted his shoulder and said, “Dear Father Gemelli, you really need not worry about this. The existence of this voice is strictly a scientific fact and has nothing whatsoever to do with spiritism. The recorder is totally objective. It receives and records only sound waves from wherever they come. This experiment may perhaps become the cornerstone for a building for scientific studies which will strengthen people's faith in a hereafter.”

This statement is so impressive especially in contrast to the admonitions of many modern religious figures of such devices and experiences. And what a beautiful idea Pope Pious had of a building for such scientific research which would in turn strengthen humanity’s faith in the hereafter. Most certainly it is a concept worth pondering. The early 20th century was a time rich with new inventions and making a better mouse trap.


Time may change me, but you can't trace time. Strange fascination, fascinating me.

Ah changes are taking the pace I'm going through. David Bowie

As the 20th century progressed, so did our ways of thinking. The men had come home from the front and women left the workplace. On the surface it would seem that life had returned to normal. Dad goes to work, mom stays home, kids are clean cut and fresh faced, and people are living the American dream. But storm clouds were gathering. The 1950's began decades of tremendous change and ushered in innovative ideas and new ways of looking at each other and the world around us. 1954 marked the beginning of desegregation. On the home front, battle lines were being drawn. Suddenly, the rules had changed, and it turned our world upside down. Not only were we at war with ourselves and our neighbors, but there was also a growing problem overseas and in 1959 we entered the Vietnam War. Now those men that were fighting each other for so long had to band together in order to survive.

Even the music had changed. It went from clean cut melodies to rhythmic African American influenced music. Elvis and Jerry Lee Lewis were the devil for many parents. As the 1950's ended and a battle raged on a foreign shore, we made another giant leap and landed on the moon. This has become a normal part of today's world but in the 1950's this was something to be marveled. And with the rapid changes in society so came changes in ideals. People began to look for a higher consciousness. Something that would raise them above what was happening in the world. There was a new interest in yoga with even well-known bands having their own guru. With the desire for enlightenment came an interest in ancient wisdom from the far east.

Pop Culture of Horror and the Unknown

As society progressed into the 1970's the attention naturally turned to paranormal phenomena. Taking cues from those in the early 20th century, new methods were explored to contact the other side for enlightenment. With the invention of portable recorders and video cameras, more people took to the field to record EVP's, electronic voice phenomena, and ghostly happenings. The first paranormal television show was In Search Of, hosted by none other than Leonard Nimoy. The purpose of the show was to investigate paranormal phenomena. As reel-to-reel recorders gave way to cassette recorders going into the field was more accessible. A leading paranormal researcher by the name of Sarah Estep founded the American Association of Electronic Voice Phenomena (AA-EVP) in Severna Park, Maryland. This association is still in existence today.

Of course, there was a large-scale push back from society and even the church in regard to the advances in paranormal research. Movies highlighting everything that can go wrong dealing with the supernatural began to be made. Some were in the hopes of returning people to the church. Movies such as the Exorcist, the Omen, Carrie, the Amityville Horror, and anything else that could be construed as paranormal. As is often the case with such tactics, it only fueled the interest.


As society moved through the late 20th century, talk shows featured psychics. Further, their abilities utilized to solve missing persons cases. Hotlines advertising psychic readings brought in millions of dollars. A renewed interest in the paranormal was growing. Television featuring paranormal investigations further spurred interest in the afterlife. Equipment thankfully shrank in size becoming more portable. Gone are the huge video recorders of the past, and all the large cumbersome equipment is now handheld. Digital voice recorders are now a popular tool of the trade as well as digital cameras. As technology progresses so do ghostly investigations.

Today everyone is connected to technology. Video doorbells, surveillance cameras, and the fad of recording every moment of our daily lives has led to interesting footage. What will be next? As we continue to go out and explore in a scientific manner perhaps proof will be found of life after death. With this proof we may find our loved ones never leave us and even lessen our fear of what lies beyond.

Thank you for reading. If you have a story, we'd love to hear it!

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