Haunted rocks: The Stone Tape theory

The “stone tape theory” 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 termed “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 crystalline rock (bedrock or building stone) 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 fabric of the rock media in a process analogous to a magnetic tape recording of 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 long been used as an explanation for apparition sightings and haunting. Thus, the stone tape idea is the ultimate example of “spooky geology”.

 A “theory” in science is not a guess or a supposition. A theory is a well-tested model of the way something in nature works. Therefore, the “stone tape theory” (STT) isn’t a theory at all in a scientific sense, it’s speculation. Basic questions about the premise include:

How do things get recorded?
What gets recorded and what doesn’t?
How to preserve it?
How to play it back?

The mechanisms proposed for the environmental recording/playback loop include invisible energy 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.

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

The official label of “Stone Tape” derived from the title of a 1972 BBC drama by Nigel Kneale. In the movie “The Stone Tape”, a team from an electronics company move into an old house to work on a new project. Renovations reveal a medieval stone stairway that is the focus of strange phenomena in the room. One character, Jill, can hear the screams and see the apparition of a young woman who apparently had fallen to her death here in the past. The company’s physical equipment can not record it as it is perceived only in the brains of those “sensitive” enough. The success of the movie popularized the idea that stone blocks can store sounds and images that possibly could be the mechanism for hauntings.

Jill encountering the force unleashed from the stone in The Stone Tape.

With the popularity of the concept, the STT name was then 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 (1961) is also frequently cited by amateur paranormal investigators as the origin of the STT. Lethbridge, however, never used the term “stone tape”. Lethbridge thought some memory may be connected with inanimate objects through “a sort of surrounding ether” or a “resonance” between them. His creepy story about experiencing an apparition near a stream is repeated in his later book, Ghost and Divining Rod (1963). In this book, he develops this idea more thoroughly. Lethbridge does not contend that ghosts are supernatural but argues they are attributable to invisible fields he named after Greek mythology – around water bodies (naiad), forests (dryad), mountains (oread) and even in the earth itself (ge) – that record the imprints. These fields are recharged by ions in the air and enhanced by additional imprints by a person’s own field (psyche-field). Lethbridge thought some places, such as those notorious for suicides or uneasy feelings, would accumulate these thoughts by a snowball effect making a spooky site even more dramatic. He also supposed that humid conditions enhanced conductance of the fields and paranormal effects because water molecules helped recharge the fields which could keep recording imprints forever. It’s probable that Kneale used concepts based on Lethbridge’s ideas for The Stone Tape movie.

Modern ghost hunters also may invoke a “water tape” idea where the water molecule itself retains the memory. This doesn’t wash (excuse the pun) since the water molecules in a stream flow away to be replaced by other molecules (presumably with their own memories). Rock doesn’t have this problem to the same degree. Building stones remain for perhaps thousands of years and bedrock for millions.

Plenty of other paranormal scholars had similar ideas during the time when psychical research was at its peak in the UK.  H.H. Price was a professor of logic at the University of Oxford and a former President of the Society for Psychical Research who promoted the idea of place-memories. In his presidential address in the Proceedings of the SPR (1938-1939), Price asserts that objects carry memory traces. If a suitably sensitive person come to the place or handles the object, these memory traces will cause him to have a retrospective experience. The traces were not measurable, a serious drawback for scientific testing and acceptance. However, Price remarks that if they existed, “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.”

Lethbridge rejected Price’s psychic ether mechanism for his own “fields” that had various potentials. Lethbridge thought that the potential of the earth “fields” he favored was high, and that some persons had personal “psyche-fields” with low potential. These gifted people would receive the recorded imprints as the higher-potential fields flowed naturally to their lower potential. This would explain why some could experience the imprints, like Jill in the movie, and others would not.

Mathematician Charles Babbage in 1838 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”. The human voice, once uttered, was recorded by the atmospheric particles forever but this was inaudible to us. In the 1880s and beyond, the SPR researchers also proposed there was “something in the actual building itself” that acted as a mechanism for hauntings (Heath, 2005).

While all these ideas sound superficially plausible as a handy way to explain location-related hauntings and phenomena, the crucial problem with the STT is that there has never been demonstrated a way to record, preserve, or play events via the natural environmental as proposed. Unlike fossils, where a physical record is preserved as an impression in sediment, STT relies on emotional “energy” records, which are non-material. Emotion is not a physically recordable “energy” outside of the body. Nothing related to emotion leaves the body. Emotion does not create an energy like electricity. Some paranormalists invoke “quantum” entanglement spookiness to account for experiences. However, there is no evidence that this concept is relatable to events on the human scale or relevant to past events being replayed in the present.

The idea of memories captured in rock is closely related to and derives from the belief in psychometry, where a gifted person could psychically “read” the impressions and memories of the objects.

In Secret Language of Stone (1988), Don Robins, a solid state chemist, attempts to explain the capture of memories in stone via defects in the crystal lattice of minerals (the array of atoms that make up a mineral which is shaped by electrical forces). He asserted these were reservoirs of energy where memory traces (sound) could be stored and later accessed by a human brain when conditions were right. Robins does not use the term “stone tape” but called the energy network in stone a “macrochip”.

Can building stone play back a historical event like a movie? No.

Heath (2005) took Price’s idea of place-memory and supposed that the memories were stored in electron cloud or molecular structures. She stated that when resonant frequencies of the media were equivalent, then objects could maximally absorb energy. Later, the resonance would also transmit the memories to the next person open to receiving them. Persinger & Koren (2001) take the “field” ideas in another direction by considering the earth as a photographic exposure plate. Matched inductance between geomagnetic activity and the local static field creates a representation recorded in the crystalline structure of the rock – a geologic hologram. Several paranormal investigation websites will refer to the “space weather” forecast to note if solar activity is high which is assumed to be conducive to experiencing paranormal activity.

The amateur paranormal investigator commonly cites (often in a factual tone) the “recording” of highly emotional events onto local materials such as quartz or limestone building materials, or rust on metal objects, like nails, screws, wires and structural components. It sounds superficially plausible to non-scientists that traumatic events, like violent death, can release emotional “energy” that does not get destroyed but gets captured by crystals in minerals or mineral coatings just like sound or images are encoded onto magnetic tape in a tape recorder. However, random crystals of iron oxide or magnetite in the environment are not suitable media for recording anything.

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 crystals. Humans do not have a sophisticated response to magnetic fields (regardless of what alternative health gurus tell you), therefore, how are we to “read” such tapes?

It’s abundantly clear that this concept of environmental recording of human feelings, sounds, and images that can be stored and later retrieved is useful in different contexts. It’s also obvious that there is no current reasonable mechanism to accomplish it. The “theory” is imaginative speculation or supposition. None have been tested or confirmed to any degree. And those that have some basis in scientific knowledge have not been shown to be applicable to real-world situations such as apparitions. Because the concepts sound sciencey and plausible to those without scientific backgrounds, they are popular and have spread in paranormal contexts, especially TV shows. You can find STT mentioned in Ghost Hunters, Most Haunted, and Ghost Adventures shows.

Even decades ago, this was an intriguing notion. The TV show “Science Fiction Theatre” aired an episode on July 30, 1955, titled “The Frozen Sound” in which “sonic saturation” was used. This involved a synthetic crystal that recorded complete conversations. The story also included the discovery of an ancient piece of lava rock that had recorded human voices from Vesuvius at the time of its hardening. But this was science fiction, not fact.

A very popular location where STT is invoked is the Gettysburg battlefield, widely rumored to be remarkably haunted. STT is frequently mentioned in the ghost stories and tours of the park as a probable explanation with “quartz” crystalline rock and “granite” being the source of the place-memories. An obvious flaw in this explanation is that the rock there is not granite; it’s quartz-poor diabase with some very normal mud/siltstone of mixed mineralogical content in the valley. The use of “granite” as an overly generalized term meaning intrusive rock may have contributed to this misinformation. I’ve never heard from one geologist who supports the STT idea, at Gettysburg or anywhere else, as a plausible hypothesis. As is often the case, those out of their area of expertise misuse scientific concepts and can effectively deceive lay people by acting authoritatively.

STT makes no sense in whatever context it is implemented. Not only do we still not have a reasonable mechanism to record, store, and retrieve traces but why is just one event recorded? Why 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? The Stone Tape theory is science fiction. When it is used to lend credibility to residual haunting, it is pseudoscience.

For a more extensive version of this article go to SharonAHill.com.

 

Bibliography

Babbage, C.  The Ninth Bridgewater Treatise. 1838.

Callis, N. “Stone Tapes”. The Bent Spoon No. 7. 2012.

Cornell, T. Investigating the Paranormal. 2002. p. 391.

Denton, W. The Soul of Things. 1863. 

Fleeger, G. Geology of the Gettysburg Mesozoic Basin and Military Geology of the Gettysburg Campaign. Guidebook for the 73rd Field Conference of Pennsylvania Geologists.

Heath, P.R. “A New Theory on Place Memory.” Austr J. of Parapsychology. 2005. 5:1:40-58.

Hines, Terence. Personal Communication. May 2017.

Kneale, N. The Stone Tape [movie] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vtvJWKaDI9s&t=2s

Lander, K. Stone Tape Theory – Light, magnetic fields and the mind?  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xta__gsUpug

Lethbridge, T.C. Ghost and Ghoul. 1961.

Lethbridge, T.C. Ghost and Divining Rod. 1963.

Murdie, Alan. Personal Communication. April 2017.

Persinger, M. and S. Koren. “Predicting the Characteristics of Haunt Phenomena from Geomagnetic Factors and Brain Sensitivity: Evidence from Field and Experimental Studies” 2001. In Houran & Lange’s Hauntings and Poltergeists: A Multidisciplinary Perspective.

Price, H.H.  “Haunting and the “psychic ether” hypothesis; with some preliminary reflections on the present condition and possible future of psychical research” Proceedings of the SPR (1938-1939) Vol 45.

Robins, D. Secret Language of Stone. 1988.

Ventola, A. “Anomalous Experiences Primer: Theories and Perspectives on Apparitions”. 2010. http://publicparapsychology.blogspot.com/2010/01/anomalous-experiences-primer-theories.html.

Yohe, T. Limestone and Its Paranormal Properties: A Comprehensive Approach to the Possibilities. 2015.

Giant dust devils with crystal blades

This is very cool news, although you would be wise to steer very clear of one of these awesome spectacles – flying blades of gypsum in tornadic hot winds.

Gypsum crystals coat the ground of the Atacama desert in Chile. In this picture from Kathleen Benison, you can see how large they are.

Geologist Kathleen Benison was working in the Atacama desert in Chile where the harsh environment creates large bladed-habit gypsum crystals due to evaporation. The crystals can also be found broken, heaped into piles or scattered around. How did this transport happen? The wind would have to be very strong, tornado force, to move the large crystals. And giant whirling dust devils are exactly what she saw.

Psychometry in geology

The geologist will meticulously measure and sample an outcrop to discern information about it. What if there was a much easier, speedier way to discern the history of a formation or a fossil or rock sample? In the mid-19th century, a few people thought the science of geology would be revolutionized by a technique called psychometry.

It’s a simple, elegant idea: the past is entombed in the present. That is, everything holds an essence or trace of influence or memory of its history. Certain skilled people are sensitive enough to touch the object and “see” this history. Psychometry – or measuring the soul – was an idea by Joseph Rodes Buchanan. He was sure that this concept would change humanity and the pursuit of scientific knowledge. William Denton was one of Buchanan’s disciples. A spiritualist, Denton had some radical ideas at the time. Along with his wife and sister, who had also been influenced by Buchanan, he conducted many experiments to show that psychometry for geology was genuine and useful. In his 1863 book, The Soul of Things, Denton blatantly states he has no doubts this technique works. In it, Denton says that, in nature, “each movement is infallibly registered for coming ages … Not a leaf waves, not an insect crawls, not a ripple moves, but each motion is recorded by a thousand faithful scribes in infallible and indelible scripture.”

Witching for water

Dowsing or water divining doesn’t work any better than chance or through surface clues. So why is does it still create heated arguments and skeptical converts even today? Does it still have a place in modern well drilling?


Of all the superstitious and seemingly mysterious effects related to geology, dowsing ranks up there at the top. People swear it works and you just need to try it yourself to be convinced. A forked twig is held, palms upward, with tension, and the diviner walks purposefully around the field until the sticks or rods twist violently in his hands to indicate the desired material is under foot. Right there. Dig there. The instructions are quick, decisive, and inexpensive. It is a triumph of folk knowledge over science. And that is exactly why dowsing remains in use today after being discredited countless times.

Fairy Stones (natural crosses)

Almost all minerals, gemstones and rock types are associated with some superstitious or supernatural motifs. A common twinning habit of the mineral staurolite guarantees it will be perceived as magical. It is prevalently found twinned at a 90- or 60-degree angle forming a stunning cruciform shape. “Stauros” is the Greek word for “cross”. Because of this shape, it was historically considered a protective charm, especially by Christians. Fine-shaped crystals are made into jewelry and “good luck” charms.

The “Hellmouth” Batagaika crater

If the land around you was sinking and falling at this rate, you’d be worried too!

Villagers of Batagay in Yakutia (Sakha Republic, Siberia) reportedly believe that a mouth to hell is nearby. Recent news stories tell of the sinking and mass wasting (“megaslump”) of the nearby land area that continues to grow and change the landscape, creating new hazards.

The Batagaika crater is the result of melting permafrost land. In the Quaternary Ice Age, the ground was permanently frozen. In the 1960s, a forested area was cleared, allowing sunlight to reach the ground surface and warm it. Without heavy vegetation, the cooling effects of transpiration were lost as well. As the ice in the soil melts, the ground compacts, slumps, and subsides. With increasing average earth temperatures, we may be seeing an increase in melting permafrost worldwide. Thanks to the internet, we can all see and share the odd and frightening phenomena that can result from it.

Leylines: From the old straight track to the Ghostbusters vortex

A few years ago, a paranormal investigator acquaintance who knew I was a geologist asked me what I thought about ley lines related to paranormal phenomena. I wasn’t familiar with this association or the history of ley lines then. After consulting several references and poking around the Web, I am now! Take a trip with me traveling down some spooky paths to make sense of ley lines.

Ghostbusters 2016

Last month, I finally got around to watching the new Ghostbusters movie (with the all-female team). There they were: ley lines at the crux of all the paranormal trouble in town! It is indeed past time to deal with these pesky ley lines – a larger-than-life, distorted, misrepresented concept that manifested like the Stay-Puft marshmallow man in paranormal circles.

Death scenes, geologically preserved

Spider with its last meal preserved in amber.

For inducing fear and unease, dead things are big-time spooky. Geological factors can result in recording death in particularly captivating ways, freezing the animals’ death throes across enormous stretches of time. Preservation can mean bones replaced by mineralization to give us skeletal remains, impressions in fine sediment retaining incredible detail, or entire animals trapped in the resin of a tree, that later hardens into a transparent time capsule.

The earth doesn’t care about us or other life forms on it. Death is part of life and probably shouldn’t freak us out as much as it often seems to. (An example is the hubbub and outrage over the #bestcarcass tag on Twitter, it’s pretty educational. OK, not so “pretty” but still educational.) Remnants of death provide us with extremely valuable information about how an animal LIVED.

Cracked, baby, cracked: The earth is splitting up with us humans

Sometimes the earth splits open for no apparent reason. It’s pretty frightening to witness a giant, miles-long gash that makes the surface feel unstable and us humans feel rather small and vulnerable to be swallowed up by the ground. Many “mysterious earth” websites and those who believe that the End Times are upon us will focus on these happenings as if they are unprecedented, unexplainable, and worthy of panic and prayers.

Not quite. A recent example of a ground crack scaring the bejeezus out of people was a giant fissure reported in Arizona by LiveScience and Science Alert a week ago. The opening in the soil was up to 3m across, 25-30 ft deep and 2 miles long, not too shabby. A drone dramatically traced it from the air.

Coastal erosion reveals human remains on spooky Kent island

Rising sea levels and coastal erosion are revealing old wooden coffins and skeletal remains on Deadman’s Island in Kent, U.K. It’s not a pretty site. A river island seems to be a particularly bad place to bury people just for this sort of reason. It did allow the bodies to be isolated but, as we see, they are being gradually and gruesomely freed from their muddy graves.

According to this BBC article, the Isle of Sheppey, which is now a protected wetland area for wildlife, was where the dead from prison boats were buried in the 19th century. The remains are visible at low tide but it’s likely they will continue to be naturally exhumed, making this a very creepy place indeed. The island, opposite Queensborough, is off limits to landing but trips via kayak are allowed.

A Trip to Hell: Mysterious tunnel system and underground river at Baiae, Italy

Many people are familiar with the Oracle of Delphi, where Pythia, the priestess of Apollo was said to relate messages from the god to the temple visitors. The specialness of this place was recognized prior to it being a sacred place of Apollo. The Delphic fault emits hydrocarbon gases that affect animals and humans. But, the spookiness of Delphi will be reserved for another time. In this piece, I discovered what sounds to be likely another location of an Oracle, this time, an Oracle of the dead, and geology has everything to do with its origin.

In the December 2016 issue of Fortean Times [1], the article entitled “A Visit to the Underworld” by Mike Dash describes the Oracle of the Dead proposed at Baiae (Baia), a village on the northwest shore of the Bay of Naples in Italy. Baiae flourished due to its geographical location near Naples, the coastal setting, and its connection as part of Campania, a volcanic complex that includes the Phlegraean Fields and Mount Vesuvius. The Greeks settled the area, naming it Campi Flegrei or “burning fields” (now referred to often as the Phlegraean Fields) [2] – more details about this after I tell you about why a discovery at Baiae warranted its own piece in FT and my interest in declaring it “spooky”.

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The location of Baiae is pinned. Vesuvius is directly east.

The Earth doesn’t care about you

Geology is the study of the earth. It can be a little unnerving. The world was not made for us. Or was it? The many stories of creation are allegories for how nature creates, changes, and destroys the planet by water, wind, heat and cold. Scientific research can tell us how this likely comes about, but Nature is mischievous. The puzzle is often not readily solved and the explanation remains mysterious.

The Earth will kill you. It splits, shakes, sinks, shifts, melts and erupts. It exhales a suffocating breath. If you are lucky, it may preserve you. Of course, these are only records of death that we place in museums to examine and contemplate  – desiccated, eyeless, skeletal. Or, the unlucky are entombed. Sometimes, they survive, trapped, like the strange out of place artifact. Lithified.

It holds secrets, some people think it holds memories. The rock and water act like a tape, they say, preserving outbursts of emotion and pain to play back later.

Certain locations have an eerie “sense of place” due to, at least in part, the special geological conditions. The phenomena sometimes are frightening. The Oracles, prophetesses, breathed the fumes issuing from the fissures, entered a frenzied state, and heard the Gods. The sky booms, balls of light rise like specters and float away.

Does the earth have a guiding or healing energy?

Does the devil favor certain places? Do spirits live in the black caverns and mines?

Is there really a gate to hell? According to legend, there are many, and certain spots feel, look and smell like it.

The rocks ring, glow, burst into flame, and explode. Nature doesn’t always make sense; we can’t see all.

Some say it is the end of time. The poles will flip, the catastrophes will worsen. In the end, we all become dust and return to the earth from where we came.

My intent with this blog is to explore the haunted earth, mysterious natural phenomena, and the strange anomalies. From ancient geomythology to modern “signs of the times”, from the atmospheric to the center core, there are hundreds of topics that fit under this spooky label. Let’s have some fun.

Dr. Tom Holtz’ talk on paranormal concepts in geology

Dr. Thomas Holtz of the Univ. of Maryland presents at Balticon 50 on May 30, 2016 his talk about paranormal concepts on the nature of our planet featuring discussions on Atlantis, Lemuria, the hollow Earth, sunken continents, a concave Earth, and everything made of Nummulitids (forams).

Holtz points out that many of these ideas were not crazy at the time but seemed plausible based on the science of the time. He connects all the idea with their founders and popularizers as well as with famous science fiction and fantasy literature that borrowed them.