As with many cultural products, inspirations and influence for a widely-known idea originated from a variety of places and in alternative flavors. It’s unpredictable what bits and pieces will glom on to the original idea or which paths the notion (good or bad) will take that results in propelling it into mainstream popularity. Then, the idea can take on a life of its own whereby many people who later adopt it don’t know of its long history. This convoluted evolution of an idea applies to the “Stone Tape Theory” of hauntings often invoked by amateur paranormal investigators or mentioned on ghost hunting TV shows.
For years, I have heard of the “stone tape theory” as a potential explanation for residual hauntings but was not able to track it to an explicit source. It seemed to just exist in paranormal culture. The current premise of the stone tape concept is that crystalline rock (bedrock or building stone) at a time in the past 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 rock media in a process analogous to magnetic tape recording of data. At a much later time, a person sensitive to this stored recording can receive the “playback” or, the past event can be replayed when triggered by certain conditions. The recording/playback sequence has been used as an explanation for apparition sightings, hauntings and negative feelings associated with a location. Thus, the stone tape idea is the ultimate example of “spooky geology”.
The stone tape idea was actually the first idea I had for my Spooky Geology blog. (A condensed version of this post will appear there for a different audience.) I have been seeking out references for a few years now. I found different information about the origin of the stone tape. For non-geologists, and, hopefully, the paranormal researchers, who are looking for additional information on the topic, this will be a good primer and provide a foundation for the further use (or not) of it as an explanation (or as a non-explanation). But geologists (or any scientist for that matter) will recognize the obvious flaws with this proposed mechanism to explain hauntings. Finally, I will explain why it’s still popular with ghost hunters today.
Initially, the stone tape theory (STT, since I’m going to be typing that a lot) requires the assumption that there is a real phenomenon where people repeatedly experience an anomalous event explicitly related to a certain location. The individual may perceive this event as a ghost encounter or haunting, a place-memory, a reaction to or sense about the location, or a feeling of time travel. Paranormal researchers who have assumed this location-specific phenomenon occurs look for an explanation. A popular modern explanation for this is the STT.
Let’s be clear about one more term: “theory”. A “theory” in science is not a guess or a supposition. It is a well-tested model to describe how something in nature works – evolution, gravity, relativity, etc. Therefore, the STT isn’t a scientific theory, it’s speculation and the word “theory” is used to connote “guess”. The following questions remain unanswered:
How do things get recorded?
What gets recorded and what doesn’t?
How does it get preserved?
How does it get played back?
Therefore, we have an incomplete concept far from being a worthwhile explanation. There are many psychological and physical explanations for perceptions of hauntings and a sense of spookiness that should rationally be applied before suggesting the STT. But my goal here is to drill down into the idea of the stone tape to see where it came from and its place in paranormal discussions.
Modern paranormal media frequently states the STT originated in the 1970s. The STT proper name did, but not the concept which goes back over 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 early scientific thinking about the subject.
To fully explore the evolution of the STT idea, we must take several leaps back in time. As I said, the name “Stone Tape” was first used in the 70’s. It was the title of a 1972 BBC drama by Nigel Kneale directed by Peter Sasdy. In the movie titled “The Stone Tape”, a team from an electronics company move into an old house to work on a new project. Renovations that include busting up the paneling reveal a very old stone stairway and strange phenomena occurs in the room. Not everyone can hear the screams or see the apparition of a young woman on the stairs. The physical equipment does not record it. The playback is dependent upon another human who has the ability to perceive it in their own brains. The story centers on the only woman on the team, Jill, who has this ability. The Wikipedia entry for this film describes the plot along with the previous and subsequent connections to other entertainment products. The success of the movie popularized the idea that old 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 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 referenced the term “stone tape” in this or subsequent books. He died in 1971 before the movie aired. So, it is incorrect to say he coined the term “stone tape”. In his book, though, Lethbridge hints that some memories may be connected with inanimate objects via “a sort of surrounding ether.” He also stated that all cells resonate and he uses examples related to psychometry to speculate that this vibration frequency could explain memory transferences. His often-repeated story about experiencing an apparition near a stream is repeated in his later book, Ghost and Divining Rod (1963). For this book, he develops this idea more thoroughly. Lethbridge does not contend that ghosts are supernatural but argues they are attributable to invisible fields that recorded an image of a person. He states these various fields of energy – around forests, mountains, and streams and even from the earth – are “scientific fact”. They aren’t, but Lethbridge was characteristically arrogant in his presentation of parapsychological speculation assuming that if he said they were solid, that would make them so. Lethbridge’s ideas were around during the time that Kneale was working. It’s almost certain that they influenced the plot device in The Stone Tape but I haven’t found any direct connection.
A confounding factor in the history of the STT concept is that plenty of other people had similar ideas and it’s difficult to trace if they borrowed from each other or came to such thinking independently. Lethbridge cites the work of H.H. Price on place-memories. Price was a professor of logic at the University of Oxford and a former President of the Society for Psychical Research. In his presidential address in volume 45 of the Proceedings of the SPR (1938-1939) titled Haunting and the “psychic ether” hypothesis, 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. In this loose set of ideas, Price contends that “psychic ether” is an intermediate media between spirit and physical matter where images and memory traces were held. Credited to Raynor C. Johnson, Price connects it to hauntings saying ghosts (as people describe them) are not supernatural but that they are “traces … [a] result of the emotions or other experiences of some person who formerly inhabited the room, much as finger-prints result automatically from our handling of a wine-glass or a poker.” They were like photographic negatives that would be “developed” by those who were endowed with the ability to perceive it. Jill, from the movie, was so (un)lucky.
The traces and the “psychic ether” are not independently observable, though, making them unmeasurable, a serious drawback for scientific acceptance. However, Price remarks that if these traces were real, “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.”
This “residua of past experiences” was also explained by Price as a form of “deferred telepathy” as the impulse was stored (in some unknown way by an unknown method) until a person could experience the anima loci or place-memory. Lethbridge’s idea for this recording/playback was different. He rejected Price’s “psychic ether” mechanism for his own special “fields”. Lethbridge instead thought that the potential of these natural “fields” was high, and persons who had low personal “psyche-fields” of their own, would receive the existing imprints on the field because higher potential flowed naturally to a lower potential. This would explain why some could experience the imprints (those with this “sixth sense”) and others would not.
The concept of the environment or fields recording impressions from humans was elucidated even earlier by mathematician Charles Babbage in 1838. He 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”.
In The Ninth Bridgewater Treatise (1838) he stated:
“The pulsations of the air, once set in motion by the human voice, cease not to exist with the sounds to which they gave rise. Strong and audible as they may be in the immediate neighbourhood of the speaker, and at the immediate moment of utterance, their quickly attenuated force soon becomes inaudible to human ears. The motions they have impressed on the particles of one portion of our atmosphere, are communicated to constantly increasing numbers, but the total quantity of motion measured in the same direction receives no addition.”
Babbage is called the “father of computing” as he conceived of the first concepts of a calculating machine, or computer. Curiously, in The Stone Tape movie, anomalies start coming in through the onsite computers.
The place-memory idea rolled around the early days of the SPR as a hypothesis to account for apparitions that seemed distinctly associated with a location. Eleanor Sidgwick suggested in 1888 that there was “something in the actual building itself”. Edmund Gurney, a few years later, also iterated that survival of an image, generated by the mind of a person, was later perceptible by certain other sensitive minds (also open to other anomalous mental communication). Frederic Myers and Oliver Lodge also expressed similar ideas (See Heath, 2005).
While all these suggestions sound superficially plausible, the crucial problem with the STT is that there has never been demonstrated a way to record, preserve or play events in natural environmental substances as proposed. There have been hoaxes and fictional accounts of it, however. (See the Popularity section below.) The mechanisms for the recording of these psychic imprints are diverse relating to invisible “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.
Unlike fossils, where a physical record is preserved as an impression in sediment, or sea-floor spreading ridges which freeze crystals in molten rock to reflect the prevailing magnetic declination of the earth, STT relies on emotional “energy”, which is non-material. Emotion is not physically recordable outside of the body because nothing related to emotion leaves the body. Emotional “energy” is a term specific to human experience of feelings. This scuttles the STT idea at square one. There is nothing to record. However, paranormalists invoke a handy trope to get around this problem – “quantum”. Paranormalists are quite fond of using Einstein’s view of “spooky action at a distance” which he used to describe quantum entanglement. They also assert (from laws of thermodynamics) that energy can be neither created nor destroyed. But the concept is grossly misapplied. I’ll refrain from delving into quantum physics here but will simply point out that there is no evidence that this concept is relatable to human events in the past being replayed in the present. Go ask your resident quantum physicist if he or she has explained ghosts.
The idea of memories captured in rock is older than the concepts of quanta and the invention of magnetic tape. As I described in my post about psychometry, it was a temporary fad to think that geology and archaeology would be revolutionized by psychically “reading” the impressions and memories of the objects. Psychometry is the kernel of the idea of STT.
As described above, Babbage thought that the particles in the atmosphere kept moving with sound forever. But as with natural substances, they don’t last forever. Molecules move away from a location or change, rocks erode, the wind blows, energy dissipates. Price relied on the psychic ether to hold the imprints later experienced as a hallucination by a lucky observer. Lethbridge assumed there were other specific fields that capture the memory. These fields were recharged by ions in the air and enhanced by additional imprints by a person’s own field (psyche-field). Lethbridge thought some places would accumulate these thoughts in sort of a snowball effect. Bad thoughts produced more bad thoughts which were then imprinted onto the field. After a while, “thought forms” would be produced at these notorious spots. Humid conditions enhanced conductance of the fields because of the benefit of conductance of water molecules. Because the imprint was on the “field” not on the individual molecules, the memories would remain at a place, even those around a flowing stream. Modern ghost hunters sometimes invoke a “water tape” idea where the water molecule retains the memory (they link this to unsupported ideas related to homeopathy). This is absurd since the water molecules in a stream flow away to be replaced by other molecules (presumably with their own memories). Rocks don’t have this problem to the same degree. Building stones can remain for hundreds, even thousands of years.
In Secret Language of Stone (1988), by Don Robins, a chemist, we find one of the most technical-sounding attempts to explain the capture and storage of memories in stone. Robins supposes that defects in the crystal lattice of minerals (the array of atoms that make up a mineral which is shaped by electrical forces) allow for reservoirs of energy. The crystal architecture creates a “vortex of energy at the heart of the crystal” where memory traces could be stored (he mainly focusing on sound). These traces could be accessed directly by the human brain later by producing a resonating sound wave or physical pressure such as walking on the ground. Robins also does not use the term “stone tape” but calls the energy network of stone a “macrochip” and associates this network with sacred places where paranormal events are said to occur.
Heath (2005) updated Price’s place-memory with a modern tech attitude by putting forth that passive place-memories were stored in the electron cloud or molecular structures. She did not cite Lethbridge even though she remarked on the importance of memories associated with water and even mentioned his early favored concept of resonance – vibration at the same frequency. However, “quantum” was applied. She stated when resonant frequencies are equivalent, then the objects can maximally absorb energy. Heath connected resonance to ESP (a commonly made connection). And, like in The Stone Tape movie, the traces can be erased, disrupted by heat or magnetic fields, or otherwise overwritten.
Persinger & Koren (2001) take the “field” ideas in a different direction by considering the earth as a photographic exposure plate. Matched inductance between geomagnetic activity and the local static field, they say, creates a representation recorded in the crystalline structure of the rock – a geologic hologram to be replayed directly to the brain when conditions are just right.
In the most extreme and metaphysical explanation for hauntings, a few parapsychologists or speculative paranormalists say that we create our own reality. Based on Roy Friedan’s (1998) invocation of the concept of “observer participancy” information can be imparted by just observing. That information can flow from one object to another.
The amateur paranormal investigator commonly cites the “recording” onto local materials such as quartz or limestone rock or building materials or rust on metal objects, like nails, screws, wires and structural components. It sounds superficially plausible that high emotion events, like violent death, can release emotional “energy” (akin to electricity) that gets recorded onto these mineral crystals or coatings as sound or images are recorded onto magnetic tape in a tape recorder. The idea of recording onto a magnetic wire (via Smith and Poulsen in 1888-9) became a usable technology with magnetic tape records around 1930.
This concept, like all the others, is severally flawed. Just because it sounds good does not mean that the proposed mechanisms are possible. 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.) Also, humans do not have a sophisticated response to magnetic fields (regardless of what alternative health gurus tell you), so how are we to “read” such tapes? Can we perceive the content of recording tape by running our fingers over it? Nope.
It’s abundantly clear that this concept of environmental recording of human feelings, sounds, and images that can be stored and retrieved is useful in different contexts. It’s also obvious that there is no current reasonable mechanism to accomplish it. All the “theories” are imaginative speculation or suppositions. They have not been tested or confirmed to any degree. And those that have some basis in scientific theory have not been shown to be applicable to real-world situations or the claims of hauntings reported. But because the concepts sound sciencey and plausible to those without scientific backgrounds, they have been popular.
I contacted Alan Murdie of the SPR, expert ghost historian, to ask him about the history and popularity of the STT. He confirmed that the “tape” recording idea came far later, spurred by the movie, but the general ideas predated the invention of magnetic tape. He confirmed Lethbridge was critical to reinforcing the popularizing the notion but his ideas “have got rather muddled in being recycled over the last 45 years through various authors”. Curiously, Murdie opines that Lethbridge might have been forgotten after his death, strange ideas and all, if not for popular paranormal writer Colin Wilson. Wilson reinjected Lethbridge’s ideas into popular discussion, particularly in his book Mysteries (1978) “where he linked dowsing with then fashionable ideas about ley lines supposedly flowing through prehistoric and haunted sites.” (Lethbridge invoked his special “fields” for all things paranormal.) Wilson’s books were immensely popular with paranormal enthusiasts from the 70s to the 2000s. Thus, Lethbridge’s poorly formed speculation about location-specific fields as an explanation for hauntings was discovered by a new generation who were not going to dig through the SPR archives to find the historical precursors to it.
Psychology professor Terence Hines messaged me with a personal story of his own regarding the pop culture influence of STT. From 1955 to 1957, a half-hour syndicated TV show called Science Fiction Theatre aired. Hines recalled specifically an episode titled “The Frozen Sound” (aired July 30, 1955). The plot concerned something called “sonic saturation” used by devious Communist spies to steal our research secrets. A slow-hardening synthetic crystal recorded surrounding voices making for an elusive spying system. The story also included the discovery of an ancient piece of lava rock from Vesuvius that had recorded human voices when it hardened thousands of years previously. The opening sequence included a demonstration of the piezoelectrical properties of quartz and the emphasis on research into crystals. Thus, the idea for recording in stone and crystals was around decades before it was incorporated as a plot device in The Stone Tape.
The explosion of amateur ghost hunting groups around 2000 and continuing even today has placed the STT into the paranormal patois. It’s frequently noted on paranormal investigation websites as a “scientific” theory and one that has some evidentiary support. As I’ve documented here, it doesn’t have empirical support. Professional parapsychologists and the SPR (still considered to be the foremost investigation body of paranormal claims) do not rely on it and hardly even mention the term in their professional literature. Cornell (2002) reiterated that the STT still is unconfirmed with no plausible mechanism and the theory has not been developed any further. Murdie declared it was “a hypothesis yet to be tested”. Even though we have been talking about this general concept for over a century, we are no closer to having it make sense and it remains an unsupported, but appealing and convenient, notion to apply in paranormal discussions with the public.
STT does not make sense in whichever context it is implemented. Not only do we still not have a reasonable mechanism to record, store, and retrieve traces but there remain many vexing questions about the idea: Why is just one event recorded and 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? It’s disingenuous of paranormal researchers to utilize STT as an explanation, or even to suggest it because it sounds sciencey.
Even more egregious are those paranormalists who geologize without having suitable knowledge of what they speak about and promote a pseudoscientific foundation for it. You will find several people speaking authoritatively about the properties of limestone bedrock (they have assumed exists under a location) that triggers hauntings. And there are those who publish or relate to tourists that the “quartz” and “granite” at Gettysburg, the world-famous Civil War battlefield, is responsible for preserving the ghostly phenomena that people constantly report there. To shut the door on the STT at Gettysburg, the rock there is not granite. It is diabase, which is quartz-poor. This is not in dispute. The mudstone/siltstone rocks among the famous diabase dike ridges (Seminary and Cemetery) and exposed boulders (Devil’s Den and Little Round Top) have no special properties either, with many other minerals making up the bedrock that lacks any abundance of quartz (and no limestone at all). There are other empirical factors involved in why people say they perceive spooky things at Gettysburg but I’ll leave that for another time.
There you have it on the Stone Tape theory. It’s not a theory, it doesn’t make physical sense, and there is no known mechanism for how it works at all. It was simply a good fictional movie.
Tell your friends.
Note: A different and condensed version of this piece is available at SpookyGeology.com
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Fleeger, G. Geology of the Gettysburg Mesozoic Basin and Military Geology of the Gettysburg Campaign. Guidebook for the 73rd Field Conference of Pennsylvania Geologists.
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Lander, K. Stone Tape Theory – Light, magnetic fields and the mind? https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xta__gsUpug