Haunt (2004)

Using humidity, temperatures and electromagnetic and sonic frequencies that parapsychologists have associated with haunted spaces, this project aims at building an environment that feels "haunted" - a non-visual architecture.

Haunt is a collaboration with Professor Chris French (Goldsmiths College Psychology Department). We would like to thank Rob Davis (Systems Developer, Goldsmiths College) and Rosie Bunton-Stasyshyn (Research Assisant, Goldsmiths College) for their enormous contributions to the project. We would also like to thank Vic Tandy, Dr Paul Stephens and Dr Jason Braithwaite for ongoing technical advice during development and design of the experiment. The project was made possible by a Sciart Engaging Science Research and Development Award from the Wellcome Trust.

A full write-up of the findings of the experiment can be found in The "Haunt" project - an attempt to build a "haunted" room by manipulating complex electromagnetic fields and infrasound published in Cortex 45, May 2009 and available for download here. The project was also written up from the perspective of a participant by Nicola J Holt in the April 2006 issue of Paranormal Review, the Journal of the Society of Psychical Research, available for download here.

A circular featureless chamber was built inside a standard row house apartment in North London, measuring approximately 3m x 3m, and 4m high. The temperature was approximately 18 degrees celcius and the light level was about 1 lux. A purpose built infrasound cabinet and two electromagnetic coils provided varying stimuli.

The objective of the experiment was to determine whether infrasonic frequencies and magnetic field fluctuations similar to those found in supposedly "haunted" spaces can elicit physiological or psychological effects similar to those experienced in "hauntings". During participation galvanic skin response of the participants was measured and they were required to note down any unusual phenomena they experienced, marking where these occured on a map of the room, and at what time. Each session lasted approximately 50 minutes. Participants were randomly placed in one of 4 groups though they were not informed of their group until the end of the experiment – those subjected to infrasound, those subjected to magnetic fields, those subjected to both and those subjected to neither.

Haunt chamber overhead

Responses from participants included a "sense of presence", "chills on the spine", "uneasiness in a particular part of the room", "dizziness", "glowing ball" hallucinations, seeing flies in the chamber, auditory hallucination of somebody coughing in various parts of the chamber and sensations of mist. As expected, it appears that belief plays an important role in eliciting "haunt" sensations.

Inside the Haunt chamber

We have a feeling that something is "out there". Are our senses playing tricks on us? Or is the space that we exist in constructed by our senses? Parapsychologists have undertaken rigorous analysis of haunted spaces in order to measure empirical quantities of observable phenomena. Some do so in order to prove that there is something "otherworldly"; others do so in order to prove quite the opposite. What is not in question, however, is that people have sensations that lead them to believe that there are ethereal presences in the vicinity.

To talk about haunted spaces is to talk about two things that are explicitly psychological - the sensation of haunting, which is clearly subjective; and the sensation of space, which again depends on the perspective of the particular occupant of that space. Objective analysis of these perceptions always seems to give conflicting results. However, there are some observed spatial phenomena that tend to correlate with a haunted sensation in a space":"

  • infrasound - humans can hear sounds in the range of approximately 20 Hz to 20000 Hz. Infrasound (below the threshold of hearing) has featured in some apparently haunted spaces. Frequencies of 18 or 19Hz are just outside our ability to hear, however our bodies can feel these low rumbings subliminally. Such frequencies have been shown to elicit feelings of unease and to upset the sense of balance.
  • humidity - air quality tends to be fairly consistent in most inhabited spaces -- if air is moist in one area then it tends to disperse throughout the space. However, in apparently haunted spaces, one often encounters wide fluctuations in humidity from bone dry to uncomfortably muggy.
  • temperature - one would expect in most spaces for temperature to be fairly consistent throughout a space, given good air movement -- though there is quite a large change as one rises vertically through a space. Again, wide fluctuations in temperature, which can make hair stand on end, have been associated with apparently haunted spaces.
  • air movement - as a substance that is fundamental to our existence and surrounds us yet cannot be seen, air is often regarded with a certain awe. One of the most spooky experiences arises when air moves across our skin without any apparent cause. Air movement (in and of itself, as well as in combination with temperature and humidity effects) is therefore key to a "haunted" sensation.
  • electromagnetism - many studies have been undertaken to gauge the affects of electromagnetic fields (EMF) on people's perceptions. Some have argued that electric fields from appliances, antennae or nearby power cables have created sensations of haunting. Others note cases where none exist nearby. However, it is clear that EMF affects perception, more in some people than in others. As a result of this, the gaussmeter (which measures levels of EMF) is one of the main tools employed by ghost hunters.
Plan of Haunt chamber as constructed

Other factors also affect the perception of hauntings - the psychology of the individual; the desire to believe that something is happening (also observed when people encounter simulated intelligence systems); the social environment in which the hauntings are observed.

There are naturally questions regarding whether these phenomena arise out of existing natural and manmade constructions - power stations, draughty windows, leaking pipes. The project proposed here does not attempt to explain how the phenomena arise, or even how they give rise to haunted perceptions. Rather, the project focuses on how the psychology of human perception gives rise to the construction of space.

The project

Until now, most studies of parapsychology have concentrated on measuring existing phenomena and subject responses. In the project proposed here, we intend to collect together the results of some of these studies and actually synthesise a "haunted" space using infrasound, temperature, humidity, air movement and electromagnetic fields that have been associated with "haunted" environments.

Diagram of Haunt chamber as constructed
  • The first stage of the project required rigorous background research of the studies that have already been undertaken in the field of parapsychology and perception.
  • The second stage consisted of taking some of the results of previous studies and "replaying" them; for example, a short experiment to create a 19Hz subsonic frequency in a space and gauge the reaction of people entering the space.
  • The third stage brought together the various phenomena developed in stage 2 into one cohesive space.

The design of the space itself (i.e. its "hardware" as opposed to the sound, humidity, temperature and EMF that make up its "software") was carefully designed to heighten the experience. Visually, nothing moved. However, by using varying (very low or very high) contrast of colours and light levels, and by employing other optical illusions in the space, it should be possible to provoke unsettling visual phenomena. The actual route towards and through the space was crucial to the full experience of the haunting. There was a buffer zone before entering the space in which senses are dulled (for example, moving through a dark tunnel prior to entering a light space allowed the eyes to adjust to darkness). The environment required access to good ventilation for the air control system.

The intention with this project was not to explain haunting phenomena or to debunk popular wisdom with regard to the paranormal. Rather, the intention was to demonstrate how the perceptions of space and objects in space are intricately affected by things we are not immediately conscious of. The work follows on from previous work we have undertaken to research the architecture of non-visual environments using sound, smell, electromagnetic and thermal phenomena.

Small EMF coil
Large EMF coil
Infrasound unit
Control shelf (prior to chamber wall installation)
Person standing next to Haunt coils

The images above show the chamber prior to installing the walls, and show the equipment that was hidden behind them. Below are photos showing the space after it was closed off.

Haunt chamber with closed off walls

In July 2013 the Haunt project was installed in a new incarnation at YCAM (Yamaguchi Center for Arts and Media) as a piece titled Anomalous? for several weeks where several hundred people went through the experiment in a set of 4 chambers, recording their experiences.

Questionnaire before entering
Walkway to the chambers
Anomalous? at YCAM, 2013