Cover Image: The late medium Eddie Burks along with the author (at the time beardless and still with his Medusa-like hair).
The old man sitting in a chair put his hands to his chest and grabbed his sweater, his fingers tightening. He spoke in a whisper, his eyes shut. “Yes … I feel that everything has happened here. This is the right place. It was horrible … . There was nothing left to do. But the time has finally come to end this pain. Now we can free the ghost that has been trapped in this house for so many years.” The highlight of the spiritual evocation came after half a day spent walking around the house, climbing stairs up to the attic and then down to the basement, and again room by room. It was the late English medium Eddie Burks that RTSI, the Italian television of Switzerland, had called to the town of Breganzona to see if a beautiful nineteenth-century villa, now home of the municipal offices, was haunted by ghosts. There had been rumors and hypotheses about an infestation after employees had noticed strange happenings—lights that went out, mysterious footsteps, and so on. And I had been called to observe Burks’s work and give my opinion on the whole thing.
After we had introduced ourselves, Burks asked me to accompany him on his tour of the house, perhaps wanting to show me that he didn’t intend to use trickery—something I had not even suspected, given the kind of demonstrations he often gave—and I gladly accepted to have an opportunity to chat with him and get to know him better.
Burks immediately seemed like a nice guy. I knew that Coutts & Co., a high-profile bank that served Queen Elizabeth, had hired him a couple years earlier to free the bank building from a mysterious headless ghostly presence. According to journalistic reports, no one had seen the ghost since his intervention. Despite his fame, however, Burks did not have the appearance of a mystic nor did he claim to fall into a trance, speaking in a falsetto to simulate the voice of some spirit creature. However, he was convinced that he could “hear” the presence of any entity in a given place and could get in touch with it. Every now and then he stopped in a room, sat down, closed his eyes, and opened his channels to try to “tune in” to the spirit world. After a couple hours of these tours and attempts, he asked if he could rest for a while.
During that half hour, we took the opportunity to try another spiritualistic approach. A local expert on EVP (electronic voice phenomena), the technique through which some claim to be able to electronically record the voices of the dead, would try to contact the alleged spirit of the villa.
It was a woman with a strong passion for Spiritualism. She used an old cassette recorder for her attempts. We sat in a room where Burks had shortly before said that perhaps he had felt a presence. The recorder was placed on a table while the woman and I sat on two small office chairs. The woman started the recorder and then we sat silent for a few minutes.
The techniques used by EVP practitioners in fact vary. There are those who think that during the recording it is necessary to talk, perhaps read a song from a book, and then listen to the tape and find out if among the normal chatter some “extra” words left by the spirits have slipped in. Others listen to these recordings backward, dozens of times, until some sound in that jumble of upside-down words seems to recall some real word. Others still demand total silence; she belonged to this latter group.
Once the recording was completed, the woman rewound the tape and turned up the volume. Being an old recorder, what we heard was a very loud rustling sound, where any random noise (cars passing by on the street, birdsongs, children playing in a park not far away, etc.) became a confused and very noisy jumble. However, something louder was heard in that noise.
“It’s a voice! Did you hear it?” exclaimed the excited woman.
“I heard something,” I said, “but I am not sure it was a voice.”
She rewound the tape over and over again to hear the sound repeatedly. “Of course it’s a voice! Listen. Let’s try to understand what he says.”
I didn’t insist on the fact that to me it didn’t seem like a voice at all, and I let the lady continue.
“Here, perhaps he seems to say: ‘I am here …’ and again, over and over.”
The woman was now sure she had discovered a spirit voice, which in her opinion said something like “I am here. Can you hear me?” At that precise moment a squeak caused by the seat springs as I moved in my chair sounded. It was identical to the “voice” on the tape. The lady blanched, perhaps convinced that the spirit was there with us in the room!
I hurried to reassure her: “No, ma’am. Listen here. It’s just the chair that squeaks. It is not a voice.”
The color suddenly returned to her face, now quite red. She was forced to admit that I was right; that phrase, “I’m here, can you hear me?” was only a product of her imagination. She then got up, put away her tape recorder, and proclaimed herself too tired to continue.
Meanwhile Burks was ready to start over, and we began walking around the house again until, when we reached a room on the first floor we had already passed several times, he said that the spirit was there. So he sat down and looked for contact. “Tell me!” he pleaded. “Tell me what happened in this house!”
After awhile, he began to tell what the voice told him. In short, a tragedy had occurred fifty years earlier. A young woman, perhaps left by her lover for another woman or perhaps opposed by her father who did not appreciate her suitor, had thrown herself from the stairs; it was not clear whether it was intentionally or by accident, but in any event she broke her neck.
Burks, with tears now running down his cheeks, began to pray and beg that the spirit could be freed and leave those walls. It took about ten minutes of prayer until Burks relaxed, took a deep breath, and finally smiled with satisfaction. “It’s done. The spirit is gone,” he said, wiping his face.
The feeling I had was that Burks sincerely believed in what he did and said. As for the authenticity of spirit contact, I had very strong doubts. I asked the producers of the TV program to research what had happened in that house some fifty years ago. As I guessed, it turned out that no one had died a violent death in the villa in the past century and surely not a girl with a broken heart who had thrown herself down the stairs.
By the time the discovery was revealed, the medium had already returned to England, and I have strong doubts that anyone ever informed him that—just like the EVP practitioner—perhaps his contact with the afterlife was just a product of his imagination.