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.
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”.
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.
The video lecture:
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