Monday, 6 February 2012

Ghostly Guitars

Listening to the CD Dunninger: Airwave Mentalism, I found one track rather intriguing, an extract from a We, the People show broadcast on 6 February 1940.*   It features a story which frankly sounds fictitious.   According to Dunninger it took place in May 1938, when Tom and Eleanor Carpenter came to spend the summer in the old Carpenter homestead near Keeseville, in the Adirondacks.   The house, empty since Tom’s father’s death ten years before, was reputedly haunted, and Eleanor was uneasy, feeling that Tom’s father was there, watching them.

Tom’s father’s old guitar was still hanging over the fireplace, and in the night the couple was disturbed by the sound of it seemingly being strummed.   Yet when they investigated, nobody was there, the guitar was in its usual place, and the sound stopped when they struck a light.   Suddenly though, Eleanor saw something white which touched her face, causing her to scream.

For the next week they were disturbed each night by the sounds coming from the guitar until, in desperation, they called on Dunninger to help them.   He visited, and in short order established the cause of the unearthly playing: giant moths living inside the guitar, and striking the steel strings as they flew about.   It seems remarkable that Tom and Eleanor never managed to work this out for themselves, but kudos to Dunninger for busting the non-existent ghost.

This is not the first ghostly sound-emitting guitar in the annals of psychical research. George Albert Smith, an early figure in the Society for Psychical Research, and later film pioneer, lived in a supposedly haunted house in Brighton with his wife Laura from August 1888 to September 1889.   Their bedroom was separated from the sitting-room by curtains.   In the sitting-room was a piano and above it on the wall hung a guitar.   Smith says in his account that on Saturday 15 December 1888, at 11.35pm, there was a strange incident.   He had gone to bed, leaving Laura in the sitting room saying her prayers by the fire, as it was cold.   Suddenly, the guitar strings sounded:

–  pung, pang, ping –  pung, pang, ping –here my wife called out in a loud, awe-struck whisper, “Did you hear that?” whilst even as she spoke a third pung, pang, ping sounded clearly through the rooms.   I immediately sprang out of bed and rushed in to her, finding her kneeling upon the hearth-rug by an armchair, staring with astonishment at the guitar upon the wall.

They sat by the fire for over half an hour but no further sounds were heard.   The cat (”an extremely lazy Persian”) slept through it all.   Laura said that she had been distracted a couple of times during her prayers by odd sounds, like someone sweeping a hand over the wallpaper.   She said that when the guitar sounded for the second and third times she was looking at it and saw no movement, nor was anything near it.  On 13 January Smith came in at about 10.30 and Laura said that the guitar had again produced a note.  Later a visitor, Margaret Verrall, when alone in the sitting-room, heard the guitar, not knowing that it had happened before.

The sound was definitely not caused by the pegs slipping and a note sounding as a result, leaving the Smiths with no explanation how it could have happened.  It is safe to assume that moths, giant or otherwise, were not involved; in fact Smith actually mentions the insect:  “How to account for the fact I do not know.  I can only record it as it occurred, and leave it to others to estimate the probability of such a feat being accomplished by mice (in a house where mice were unknown), or by a moth (in December), or by something similar which escaped our observation.”  One is left wondering if Dunninger was a reader of the SPR’s Proceedings, and adapted the report.  

There are a number of similar accounts to be found of guitars mysteriously playing themselves.   John Fahey, in ‘Spooky tales of a haunted Hyndburn’, which appeared in the Accrington Observer in 2003, wrote:

Meanwhile, a house in Queensway, Church, has terrified residents for years. Just 10 years ago a terrified mother of four abandoned the semi-detached home, begging the council to be re-housed. An exorcist was called after a guitar played itself, family members were grabbed by invisible cold hands and the bath filled itself rapidly. But the council refused to release the family from their horror.

Someone called ‘Beefy’ reported in 2005:

My apartment was haunted. I think the whole building was, but the ghost seemed to like to mess with me. I nicknamed it "Pink" after several occurances (sic) with it and Pink Floyd. It didn't like the name so it left me alone.

Some things it did to me where banging on my bedroom door. I was the only one home. My room mate wasn't staying there at the time. My hallway light would turn on by itself. So would my bathroom light and my dining room light. My guitar played itself one day. My room mate heard it as well. We checked it and it had fallen off of the wall and onto the floor and the pick was still stuck in between the strings, yet we heard every string be plucked.

‘Nepenthes’ wrote in 2008:

There were many odd experiences that happened to individual family members (including myself), but the next weird experience to happen in front of a group, was a couple years later when I was in high school. It was me and 2 friends sitting in my room watching a movie. I had a pretty large room back at my parents' house and there was a guitar resting on top of a sofa on the other side of my room. During one of the quiet scenes in the movie, completely out of nowhere, the guitar played itself. Usually when I tell this story, people think that the guitar strummed a chord or two, as if something bumped up against it. This is not what happened. It literally played a 5 second tune, that had some melody to it. My friends and I looked at each other and what they said can't be repeated here. I calmed them down and told them that weird things happen in that house but one of my friends wasn't having it. He is a huge guy too, literally 6'8" 300lbs, and he wanted to go home like a little girl lol. We finished the movie uneasily and then they bolted.

‘Anon’ asked a question in 2011:

Every night I go to bed at around 10 pm and I wake up at 2 to the sound of a guitar strumming. When I open my eyes, I no longer hear it. Then I look at it and get closer and it's like it never made a sound in the first place. This guitar used to be my great grandfather's and he died while playing it. I think his ghost possessed my guitar and taunts me every night because he didn't like me. What should I do?

Responses were generally helpful: “Set up a digital recorder and see if you can record it playing. If you can, then there's your mysterious noise. If you don't, then most likely its (sic) your subconscious playing tricks on you. Also, try multiple nights if you don't catch the noise. Rome wasn't built in a day, nor is catching paranormal noises.”   “Put it in a different room so you can get some sleep.”   “Your (sic) dreaming obviously. if you feel emotionally attached to your great grandfather then that could be why. Or it could simply be you dreaming for no apparent reason. If this is really disturbing you then you should move the guitar into annother (sic) room but I guarantee there is no ghost”

A woman in her early fifties produced this account in 2011, though it is unclear whether she possessed a real guitar or whether the sounds were heard without one present:

I was only 17 or so. I remember going into my bedroom to go to sleep.  I got into bed, as soon as I laid my head down I couldn't move.  I felt a cool, tingeling sensation come over my body, I got goose bumbs.  All of a sudden I saw boots, I couldn't move or look all around, only floor level.  My twin bed wasn't on a frame, it was the "hippie daze" and the mattress was on the floor.  It was the dead of night and quiet in my room. I at first heard the sound of celepane from a cigarette pack maybe, but I heard the sound of it being crumbeled up. I couldn't move..........I hadn't even fallen asleep yet so I knew it wasn't a dream.  I couldn't lift my head or move my body, but I could see these cowboy light tan colored boots walking across from my bed.  It was still, then all of a sudden I heard this quitar music. The strumming of the song was like nothing heard before.  It was sooooo slow, sad, melodically maybe? I can't even be sure of a word to discribe the music I heard.  I lay there in my room listening untill the guitar music stopped. I sat up fast in my bed looking around, nothing there?!  As soon as I laid back down in my bed the same thing repeated itself?! I've never heard the melody before or since. But I could feel the cords being played on that guitar all the way to my was sad and sweet. Just beautiful, wish to hear it again. (sic throughout, ellipses in original)

Kim Haruko wrote, also in 2011:

I absolutely believe in the spirit world including angels and demons etc. I've had encounters with demons eg. one time I was reading the Bible to my brother at night before he went to bed and in the middle of reading, the door handle started turning as though someone was trying to get in ... that freaked us out quite a bit. I've had countless other experiences like a time my brothers (sic) guitar was playing itself ... and I also know my grandmother and my friend whose (sic) experienced things like that. Both happen to be very spiritual people. (ellipses in original)

Some stories can be discounted as hypnagogic hallucinations, despite what the experient claims, but that does not cover instances where people were wide awake.  A theory involving sympathetic vibrations of strings would not account for the hearing of tunes, nor would a theory involving amplifiers account for the phenomenon involving an acoustic guitar.  A radio playing somewhere else is unlikely to be confused with sounds in the same room.

There is certainly something rather eerie about a guitar sounding by itself, and it is worth noting that guitars, along with other musical instruments, have long been staples of the séance room.   If it plays something approaching a tune, that strongly suggests an intelligence behind it, one able to interact with its environment and potentially with the witness.

A self-playing guitar is going to seem a robust encounter with life after death so it is no wonder the hearers find it unsettling.   Also, in most cases the playing appears to happen spontaneously in a domestic setting with no warning.   G A and Laura Smith were in an apparently haunted house, in Tom and Eleanor Carpenter’s case the house already had a reputation, and they would have had a framework in which to locate the experience; but someone settling down to watch a film does not expect ghostly guitar strumming to occur, making it all the more uncanny.

* Dunninger: Airwave Mentalism is available from The Miracle Factory, based in Los Angeles.

Update 2 December 2015

The December 2015 issue of Fortean Times (FT334, p.12) has a sidebar snippet entitled ‘Sibling hell’ about a woman named Donna Ayres, aged 33, who said in early 2015 that she was being terrorised by the ghost of her brother Paul.  The various elements of poltergeistery she reported included the ghost playing a guitar.  A search for further information threw up a number of videos of ‘ghostly’ activity which Donna had recorded using her camera phone.  The videos had generated a large amount of discussion about her claims, some of it supportive but mostly unflattering.

Donna is originally from Burnley but now lives in Blackpool.  She said that her brother, with whom she had a troubled relationship when he was alive, had been creating chaos since shortly after his death in 2009.  Her distress had forced her to move five times, but she was unable to escape his malign attention.  Filming the various manifestations had increased the intensity of the activity, which Donna thought indicated that Paul had been angered by her films (though it could have been he was vexed by the publicity).

Among her YouTube videos – one of which is ‘I have a real ghost demonic in my home’ (an unusual usage of ‘demonic’ as a noun), suggesting either that she doesn’t think that Paul alone is tormenting her or that they had a really bad relationship – there is footage of the guitar, uploaded to YouTube on 17 February 2015 (‘Guitar playing by spirit ghost’).  Despite the sound of a single string being manipulated the strings on the guitar being filmed do not move, as far as one can tell from the low-quality shaky footage, so if the sounds are paranormal it would indicate they are coming from some ethereal instrument.

However, even though Donna states specifically ‘before you say it, there’s no-one behind me’, that explanation cannot be ruled out, especially as the camera is kept firmly on the (non-vibrating) guitar and she does not attempt to support her assertion by showing the rest of the room while the sounds continue.  As threads have been suggested for other activities she has filmed, and would seem a plausible explanation, the chances are the guitar sound also has a non-paranormal explanation.

Further, Donna certainly does not sound scared as she gives her commentary, even laughing at one point when she says ‘it’s singing’.  It is difficult to square this film, and the others she has uploaded, with the claim that her brother is terrorising her.  In fact her attitude conveys the impression that she is rather enjoying herself.  Interest in her ‘plight’ seems to have waned dramatically since the spring so it looks like her moment of fame has passed.