Let me begin with a warning: a little knowledge is a dangerous thing. Back when I worked in a magic shop, I would train new employees to do the tricks. Inevitably, some of them would start learning sleight of hand, thinking they were the 2nd coming of David Copperfield. Sleight of hand doesn't sell magic tricks, so I'd embarrass them by showing them the world's most amazing card trick using a deck that was made entirely of the eight of diamonds. A 6-year old could figure it out, but a new magician obsessed with learning the latest sleight would be blown away by my seeming ability to invisibly whip his card out of the deck.
So it is with explaining a phenomenon that can take form in a hundred different ways. Today's topic: strange sounds coming from the sky, which have taken YouTube by storm. I'm going to explain some of them, but as soon as I do, someone will upload a new video using a new trick and someone else will have to start all over again to debunk it.
Creepy sounds are probably about as common as creepy sights, but for some reason photos of UFOs tend to get more attention than recordings of the weird bleeps and bloops and rumbles in our lives.
The rumbles, when they most likely have a natural origin, are known as "brontides," deep booming sounds that seem to come from very far away. They're often heard near bodies of water, like the "Seneca Guns" at Seneca Lake in New York, or the Barisal Guns near the Bay of Bengal. They could be caused by thunder, natural gas explosions, seismic activity, or even waves hitting at resonant hollows, and they can easily be confused with manmade sounds like sonic booms, artillery, and construction.
There's also the Bloop, an ultra-low frequency sound that was detected underwater by the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in 1997. It was several times louder than our loudest known creature, the blue whale, and no one knows what caused it. NOAA has also found five other sounds of unknown origin underwater, known as Julia, Train, Slow Down, Whistle, and Upsweep, which I think we can all agree are simply terrible names compared to "the Bloop." "The Bloop" forever.
Even fairly well-known animals can make sounds that scare people – owls, foxes, fisher cats, and even rabbits can sound like people screaming. As a child, I had a cat that was the perfect killing machine, so I can describe in detail exactly how horrific bunnies sound as they're having their entrails spread across a driveway. Keep your cats indoors, friends.
Anyway, all of these weird sounds can freak people out, in much the same way that satellites and the moon and stars and weather balloons can freak people out when they're not sure what they're looking at. So ordinarily if you go on YouTube, you can find a lot of videos of people who have recorded sounds that genuinely scare the crap out of them.
If you go on YouTube to search for strange sounds these days, though, you'll most likely only find lies. Bald-faced lies.
I first became aware of this around January 12, when blogs started picking up on a huge influx of videos featuring creepy sounds. All that week, there were an insane number of videos being uploaded from all around the world – the US, Canada, Brazil, Russia, Australia – all claiming to demonstrate a creepy sound sort of like trumpets signaling the oncoming apocalypse. Here's an example:
That's from Melbourne, and it's one of the first I saw. I found it suspicious firstly because there's no one else around, even though the person with the camera seems to be asking someone if they can hear the noise. Plus, his delivery sounds about as natural as Keanu Reeves in any movie where he doesn't play a stoner.
So, I got the audio off the video and put it in Audacity to have a look at it. I noticed that it's in stereo, which made me happy, because I don't know a lot about audio but I do know that there's a really neat trick you can do with a stereo track that may have been manipulated. You see, if the manipulator is particularly lazy or just ignorant, they may actually record their audio in mono but add a stereo sound effect to it. Audacity has a plugin called Center Pan Removal, which basically inverts one of the channels and then puts the audio back together again, causing the waves of the mono sound to cancel each other out, and you're left hearing only the stereo sound.
So I did that, and 10 seconds later, this is the audio I had:
The man's voice has mysteriously disappeared! So, either the angels of the apocalypse broadcast in magical stereo that bypasses mono devices, or this is a fake.
It doesn't really matter what the strange sound really is, and it could be any number of things, but I happened to have watched Kevin Smith's film Red State last month and – spoiler alert everyone – at the end, there's an apocalyptic trumpeting sound. And – seriously, this is a big spoiler though it's not a great movie so it's not that big of a deal – the trumpeting in the movie is actually caused by some kids playing a prank on a Christian doomsday cult. Since Red State is now available for free on Netflix Watch Instantly, that may be what is inspiring people to make these videos.
Here's the Red State audio:
Sound familiar? Maybe that's it, or maybe it's something else, but I found that a number of the videos had that sound or something very similar.
Here's one from Dawson Creek, British Columbia that uses a different creepy sound but makes the same stereo/mono mistake:
And here's a clip of that after center pan removal:
Just for fun, here's the same clip sped up 250%:
It sounds to me like an instrument or a toy, plus a cymbal crash, but your guess is as good as mine. Anyway, the safe bet is that it's probably not the apocalypse.
There are, of course, many videos that are all in stereo or all in mono, so our center pan trick is no good. However, the more I listened to a lot of these, the more I heard the exact same sounds over and over again. Not just the creepy sound, but also the ambient noise around the sound. I clipped out the key bit that tipped it off for me, from Chicago:
And here's a clip from Kiev:
The Kiev video was the earliest I could find, having been uploaded August 11 of last year. I figured it was some sound from a sci-fi movie, but I wasn't sure which one until I Tweeted about it and one of my Twitter followers, NotInMyName2050, pointed me to a video by youtuber V00D00Sixxx in which he figures out that it comes from the 2008 film War of the Worlds. So, there you go.
That should explain the vast majority of the YouTube videos that are currently popular with the conspiracy crowds. We're only left with the question of "why?" I initially suspected that this was a viral marketing job, due to the large amount of people who uploaded videos all within the same few days, so I looked for any upcoming films that might go for that kind of promotion. Sadly, JJ Abrams is busy with Star Trek 2, Neil Blomkamp's next film takes place on another planet, M Night Shyamalan's next film takes place far in the future and is only just starting principal photography, and Spielberg is producing something called Robopacalypse, which personally I'm already excited about just from hearing the name, but it's not due out till mid-2013.
But anyway, my theory about viral marketing got less and less likely as more and more of the videos turned out to be rather amateurish fakes, mostly using clips from other movies. Instead, I think this is just the work of a few people pranking the Internet, possibly inspired by the hoaxers in Red State. Once the initial few videos got popular, more and more people piled on surprisingly quickly with their own fakes.
It's kind of a shame, really, because if it was viral marketing, it would be brilliant. Even some of the crappy videos are still a little scary, and a good marketing company would be able to create better, creepier videos that were more difficult to crack than these. Spielberg, are you listening? This is your chance to really make me fear the Robopacalypse. Get on it.