I’m going to make this clear up front: I am not a fan of ghost hunting shows. However, as they still capture the public’s interest, I will occasionally watch an episode that alerts my skeptical radar either from a dubious history or an overhyped video of a “ghost.” This time around, my attention was called to a recent episode of Ghost Hunters.
In an episode titled The Last Mission (S13, Ep7), the cast of Ghost Hunters travel to Utah to “investigate” claims of ghostly activity at the Wendover Air Force Base. There were the usual frivolous ghostly claims followed by the standard cookie-cutter ghost hunt throughout the show. However, it was their newest “old-school” device that caught my attention: the Spiricom.
Brandon Alvis, the “paranormal technician” on the second version of the series Ghost Hunters (A&E 2020), began teasing images of a modern version of the Spiricom in January 2020. In May, Alvis posted to social media a photo of himself next to some equipment with the caption, “In April of 1982, a man named George Meek called a press conference at the National Press Club in Washington D.C. to make a momentous announcement. ‘For the first time in the history of Western man we have electronic proof that the mind, memory banks, personality, and soul survive the death of the physical body.’ Tonight at 9pm on A&E we bring that experiment back to life. The results are just as George Meek said, ‘momentous’” (Alvis 2020).
I was familiar with the work of George Meek, so I watched the episode. Unsurprisingly, I found it to be far less then “momentous.” Prior to the show airing, I engaged in a discussion with Alvis concerning the research that had previously been done on the Spiricom. He assured me he had looked into all aspects of the device and informed me he has always been extremely skeptical of the original recordings. When I began asking about the investigation by Dr. Terrance Peterson (which had exposed the Spiricom as a hoax), Alvis did not appear to be familiar with this important information.
For those who don’t know the case, we are going to take a closer look at the Spiricom here, then swing back to the attempted resurrection by the Ghost Hunters crew.
The Spiricom was the brainchild of George Meek, a retired businessman that had become quite wealthy from patenting various air conditioning systems and parts in the 1940s to 1960s. Meek was already fascinated with the idea of survival after death but became obsessed after attending a séance. During the séance, a spirit allegedly claiming to be a scientist gave Meek the idea for a machine that would allow for two-way communication (Free Dictionary 2003). This set Meek on a mission to bring the idea full circle.
In 1970, Meek began working at a small laboratory outside of Philadelphia with Hans Heckmann on a prototype device, designated Mark 1, that would allow for two-way communication with the spirit world (Metascience 1982). The device was made up of a high frequency RF generator, a foot-long antenna, a demodulator, a preamplifier, microphone, and a tape recorder (Metascience 1982). The specifications and procedures are much too involved for this article, so I suggest downloading the full Spiricom technical manual, available for free at https://idigitalmedium.com/complete-spiricom-technical-manual/. Be warned, it’s over 120 pages long.
Through a medium claiming to channel the spirit of Dr. Willian Frances Gray Swann (who died in 1962), the ghost allegedly gave instructions on how to build/modify the device. After several attempts, the device failed to provide any recordings of spirit voices. The team moved on to the next version, which included upgrades to the equipment. However, this version also failed to produce any audio recordings from alleged spirits.
By 1975, Meek had become acquainted with William O’Neil, an electronics engineer and self-professed medium. This is where the story starts to get interesting. O’Neil claimed to have established two-way communication with many spirit persons, one of which was named “Doc Nic,” which O’Neil stated he could both see and hear. O’Neil had his own small electronics lab (in his home) and on September 17, 1977, claimed to have successfully established a two-way audio conversation with the spirit of Doc Nic. This caught the interest of George Meek, and the two began working on the third version of Spiricom, the Mark 3.
Due to the poor quality of O’Neil’s equipment, the recording of that ghostly conversation was extremely poor, with only about 25 percent being intelligible, according to the Spiricom technical manual. Over the next several years, George Meek invested approximately half a million dollars into the project, upgrading O’Neil’s equipment and providing financial compensation to O’Neil for continued work (Noory and Guiley 2011). Once again, a spirit was credited with suggesting the upgrades and modifications that would allegedly improve the communication. However, the spirit of Doc Nic had apparently refused to continue—perhaps too busy with other afterlife activities—and the spirit of a Dr. George Jeffries Mueller took over the ghostly consulting duties.
Dr. Mueller had been a real person (and medical doctor) who had died on May 31, 1967. Mueller’s spirit suggested using thirteen tones generated by radio equipment, then mixed together using a specific process that would be continually broadcast over a speaker. This process would allow a spirit to produce a voice that would be broadcast over a second speaker. You can listen to all thirteen tones separately and combined by visiting the website (https://idigitalmedium.com/original-spiricom-tones/ ) and scrolling to the bottom of the page.
With the upgraded Mark 4 version, O’Neil was having regular conversation with the ghost of Dr. Mueller. Overall, George Meek and William O’Neil claimed to have recorded over twenty hours of two-way conversations with the spirit of Dr. Mueller. Many of these recordings can be found on the website iDigitalMedium.com under the article “Spiricom – Its Development & Potential – The Complete Recordings” (Ruiz 2016). The audio recordings are taken directly from two LP records, narrated by George Meek, which were revealed in a press conference in 1982.
While listening to the conversation examples, the alleged spirit voice of Dr. Mueller comes through as a mechanical vibrating/buzzing-type noise, which reminded me sharply of an electric clipper used to cut hair. This rather annoying sound stands apart from the thirteen-tone mix generated by the device. Curiously, the vibrating/buzzing sound dominates the audio tracks for the entire time the spirit of Dr. Mueller is (allegedly) present, not just when he (allegedly) speaks.
What is interesting to note is that O’Neil’s voice often gets wrapped up in this buzzing sound, meaning that O’Neil’s voice begins coming through the buzzing noise just like the alleged spirit of Dr. Mueller. I immediately suspected O’Neil was using some electronic device to synthesize the spirit voice and was just not particularly skilled at keeping the device far enough away from his mouth when he needed to speak as himself.
After some additional poking around on the internet, I discovered that the Metascience Foundation, which had been founded by George Meek, had uploaded several low-quality recordings (filmed on VHS) of O’Neil’s Spiricom sessions. There are five videos available, with three of them showing his communication sessions. In these three videos, O’Neil constantly has his back to the camera during his “conversations” with Dr. Mueller’s ghost. At no time do we see O’Neil’s face while the spirit is “talking” through the Spiricom. Even when the conversations end, we do not see O’Neil turn around to face the camera. Instead, there is a jump-edit and O’Neil is suddenly facing the camera.
In addition, O’Neil’s voice and the spirit voice of Dr. Mueller never overlap; each voice would always speak in turn, even if they were quick back-and-forth exchanges. As I listened to these exchanges, they reminded me strongly of performances by Jeff Dunham, the popular ventriloquist comedian. In Dunham’s shows, he does several bits where he speaks himself and for the dummy in an extremely fast manner. After a bit of digging, I discovered that O’Neil was a semi-professional ventriloquist.
In one video, titled O’Neil Mueller 3, O’Neil is facing the camera while speaking directly to George Meek (who he sends the videotapes to when finished). The alleged spirit of Dr. Mueller is heard calling from the speaker, “William? William, William, are you there William?” (Metascience Foundation 2016). Listening closely, we can hear at the very beginning of the video a break in the thirteen-tone sound being played—this break interrupts the sounds momentarily, creating a brief second of silence before the sounds resume—but this time with the buzzing noise mentioned previously. After what feels like a staged conversation, the spirit of Dr. Mueller leaves (at the twenty-five second mark) and there is a second break in the sounds. There is another brief second of silence before the original thirteen-tones start playing again, minus the buzzing noise.
The tones are played via cassette recorder, which is connected to a speaker. Being a child of the 1980s, I was quite familiar with the use of cassettes, having recorded many old-school mix tapes. The brief sound-breaks heard in O’Neil’s video are something I’ve heard many times before. It occurs when trying to record something new on a cassette tape with previously recorded audio already on it. There is a short break that occurs due to the internal mechanics engaging the cassette tape. In this particular case, I suspect O’Neil likely prerecorded his buzzing voice and inserted the clip onto a tape that already had the thirteen tones recorded on it. O’Neil did not account for the sound-break that would result and simply ignored the mistake when he made the video.
The apparent success of the Spiricom prompted George Meek (who had invested heavily in the project) to address the National Press Club in Washington in April 1982. It was at this time that Meek announced, “After ten years of research in this particular field, Metascience Foundation is pleased to report two historic accomplishments. For the first time we have electronic proof that the mind, memory banks, and personality survive death of the physical body. Our proof consists of many hours of conversations with some, among the so-called, dead” (Bloxsom 2016). Unfortunately, the reporters that attended showed little (if any) interest, with many making jokes.
It is interesting to note that all communication with the spirit of Dr. Mueller ceased in November 1981, five months prior to Meek’s announcement. Why might that be? In August 1981, George Meek began planning the press conference (April 1982) and wrote to author John Fuller requesting a meeting. Fuller had written several books on the supernatural and had a regular column in the Saturday Review magazine. Meek wanted Fuller to write about the Spiricom, which naturally meant that Fuller would want to observe William O’Neil operating the device. I think O’Neil became worried that he would be exposed as a fraud and took steps to ensure he would not be caught. In November 1981, O’Neil reported to Meek that the spirit of Dr. Mueller had left and would not be returning. With this announcement, the Spiricom never worked again. Even with several other psychic operators giving it a try, such as Sarah Estep, it simply did not work.
In the January 1987 issue of FATE magazine, Dr. Terrance Peterson published an article titled “Spiricom or Spiricon?.” In the article, Peterson investigates the Spiricom recordings, focusing on the particular buzzing sound I mentioned previously. Although Peterson knew the sound was familiar, he could not place where he knew it from. Eventually he identified the sound as coming from a device called an electrolarynx (Peterson 1987). This is a battery-operated device that makes a humming (buzzing) sound and is used to help a person talk after removal of the larynx (National Institute of Health 2020).
Peterson consulted Dr. David Rivers, a speech and language scientist and professor at Baylor University in Waco, Texas, who was able to duplicate the ghostly voice of Dr. Mueller by using an electrolarynx. A recording by Dr. Rivers performing test comparisons, and well as the spectrograms (voiceprints) that can be found here (https://idigitalmedium.com/twist-fate-spiricom-spiricon/) demonstrate. After reviewing the recordings by Dr. Rivers, as well as several other videos demonstrating an electrolarynx in use, there is little doubt this was the source of the so-called “spirit voice” attributed to the Spiricom.
According to several reports, William O’Neil was diagnosed with schizophrenia, which, when active, “symptoms can include delusions, hallucinations, trouble with thinking and concentration, and lack of motivation” (APA 2020). This likely contributed to O’Neil’s belief that he was actually talking to spirits and not just himself. We must also consider that O’Neil needed money; his house had caught fire in 1979 (alleged arson) and was little more than a burnt-out shell—which he was still living in. George Meek was providing financial compensation for O’Neil’s continued work. Unfortunately, this situation would have put pressure on O’Neil to produce positive results to keep the money flowing, even if it meant cheating.
Furthermore, after O’Neil’s death in 1992, an inventory of his possessions led to the discovery of the “smoking gun: an electrolarynx” (Noory and Guiley 2011). This proved to be the proverbial “final nail in the coffin” for the device known as Spiricom. It failed to capture the public’s interest, no one else could make it work, and it was eventually exposed as a likely hoax. The Spiricom soon faded from the public’s memory.
This brings us back to the present day when a laptop-version of the Spiricom was presented on the episode of Ghost Hunters mentioned at the top of this article. During the episode, the ghost hunters set up the device in an airport hangar and begin playing the combined thirteen-tone sound. Team member Brian Murray introduces himself and starts asking questions of the ghosts. And then … nothing happens. There is no buzzing spirit voice, nor are there any alleged responses shown to audience.
At the end of the episode, the team does a “reveal,” where they present what they believe is evidence of paranormal activity. Usually, this alleged evidence is of poor quality and obtained in uncontrolled environments. This episode was no exception. What caught my attention was how Alvis, the “paranormal technician,” presented an alleged spirit voice allegedly captured during the Spiricom segment. Alvis tells the client, former airport director James Morris, “this next piece of evidence we’re gonna show you, James, is the most significant piece of data that we collected during our entire investigation.”
The audio clip we hear features female team member, Kristin, speaking instead of the male (Brian Murray), which we saw earlier in the show. Because the audience is not shown in the video portion of Kristen’s session, it causes me to wonder if this clip underwent some creative editing prior to being presented to the client (and viewers). I have no idea if this is the case, but it must be considered given the history of this series and its share of hoaxes, such as the infamous “Jacket Pull” fiasco (FormerGHfan 2008).
Nevertheless, when the audio clip is played, a faint whisper can barely be detected over the background noise, which is deemed to be a ghostly voice saying “crashes.” I have several issues with this recording; first, this whisper sounds nothing like what the original Spiricom recordings presented—which centered on the mechanical buzzing from an electrolarynx. This whisper sounds no different than the millions of other alleged ghost voices that enthusiasts claim to have captured. It hardly stands out as significant.
Second, during the Spiricom segment, there were four cast members present (two females, two males) and at least one camera operator and an audio tech. The cast members were constantly talking about the aircraft crashes that had occurred at the base, making it the focus of the episode. In fact, the episode is titled ‘The Last Mission’ based on the number of crashes at the location. Given the lack of experimental controls in place (there were none), it is much more plausible (and likely) that the cast members were discussing this idea and part of their conversation was recorded by the microphone they were using.
Third, all four cast members are literally standing within a few feet around the microphone/recorder in use. Looking at the image taken from the episode, we can see cast member Brandon Alvis, the one who promoted this device the most, is standing closest to the microphone. I suspect the whisper is most likely his voice, perhaps from speaking out loud without realizing what he was doing. Of course, this is speculation on my part, because—again—there were no controls in place to guard against an accidental recording of the cast members. And curiously, we do not get to see any video footage from when the alleged ghost voice was recorded, which you’d think would be important.
I am aware that these so-called reality shows do not actually portray reality and are produced for “entertainment purposes only.” However, many of the viewing audience still believe they are watching good investigation methodology and/or science in use. Spoiler alert: you are watching neither. The cast members continually promote their methods as legitimate, but they are not, which is why I continue to review episodes like this and provide a solid counterargument against the pseudoscience nonsense presented to the public.
This episode promoted a discredited “spirit communication device” and claimed it provided them the most significant data they collected during filming. They left out all the relevant information that indicated the device was likely a hoax, which gives viewers the impression the Spiricom was a successful device for talking to the dead (it wasn’t). This tactic is called “cherry picking” and is described as “when only select evidence is presented in order to persuade the audience to accept a position, and evidence that would go against the position is withheld” (Bennett 2020). This misleads the viewing audience.
In closing, remember the three golden rules when watching any paranormal reality television:
- Do not accept the paranormal claims at face value. They are usually not as dramatic as shown on television (and are often embellished). Interviews are edited for time and content, creating the opportunity for creative editing which makes for a more dramatic story.
- Do not accept “scientific” methods performed by the cast as valid. They do not use proper controls and often are not aware of the proper use of their own gadgets. Although cast members often claim to be “doing science,” most don’t understand the scientific method and just how involved it really is.
- Do not accept the alleged evidence as valid. This type of shows promotes anomaly hunting, searching for anything odd and then promoting it as paranormal. This is a cookie-cutter method used in most ghost hunting–style productions. Also, a lot happens off-camera, which again allows the opportunity for creating editing—adding an extra sound clip to video or editing out an extra cast member that accidently bumped a table.
The magic of editing is often the source of many TV ghosts. Never stop learning, my friends.
- A&E Television Networks, LLC. 2020. Ghost Hunters Bios; Brandon Alvis. Available at https://www.aetv.com/shows/ghost-hunters/cast/brandon-alvis.
- Alvis, Brandon. 2020. Facebook Post.
- American Psychiatric Association. 2020. What Is Schizophrenia? Available at https://www.psychiatry.org/patients-families/schizophrenia/what-is-schizophrenia.
- Bennett PhD, Bo. 2020. Cherry Picking. Available at https://www.logicallyfallacious.com/logicalfallacies/Cherry-Picking.
- Bloxsom, Jeremy. 2016. George Meek – Spiricom Press Conference. Available at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pw89AAdZViM.
- FormerGHFan. 2008. Jacket Pull Debunk. Available at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZlM-Uy8ODYQ.
- Free Dictionary, The. 2003. Meek, George W. Available at https://encyclopedia2.thefreedictionary.com/Meek%2C+George+W.
- Metascience. 1982. Spiricom: An Electromagnetic-Etheric Systems Approach to Communication with Other Levels of Human Consciousness. Metascience Foundation Publications Division. Orlando, Florida.
- Metascience Foundation. 2016. O’Neil Mueller 3. Available at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-ZNUXEUICZs&t=60s.
- National Institute of Health. 2020. Electrolarynx. Available at https://www.cancer.gov/publications/dictionaries/cancer-terms/def/electrolarynx.
- Noory, George, and Rosemary Ellen Guiley. 2011. Talking to the Dead. Tom Doherty Associates, New York, NY.
- Peterson, Terrence. 1987. Spiricom or Spiricon? FATE Magazine
- Ruiz, Ron. 2016. Spiricom – Its Development & Potential – The Complete Recordings. Available at https://idigitalmedium.com/spiricom-development-potential-complete-recordings/.