Ghost in the machine: inside the internet’s paranormal history

Ghost in the machine: inside the internet’s paranormal history
Face The Strange — Haunted websites, digital myths and abandoned online spaces: writer Biju Belinky shines a light into the internet’s creepiest corners.

The internet is full of death. Not just in its news cycles or its serial killer documentaries, but also in the hidden corners – in the content that preys on humanity’s natural morbid curiosity, asking if you want to know which celebrity might’ve predicted their own death. It’s in the allure of the Dark Web, and all the horrendous things it holds – the alleged torture livestreams, supposed contracted killers and domains predicting sudden damnation. It’s in the abandoned profiles of those who have passed, always online for the bereaved to pour their hearts into, like a cross between therapy and a failed séance.

The internet is also accompanied by ghosts. And I’m not just talking about photographic memories of dead relatives, your embarrassing indie rock review blog from 2008 that still has your name on it, or even the AI’s trained to sound like your dad used to, when he was alive. I’m talking about a trove of digital mysteries: the call of the unexplained that used to be speculated around a fire, but now happens on a subreddit thread on a Tuesday at 3am.


Computers are far from the first digital devices to be implicated in hauntings and mysterious phenomena. In fact, investigations into the potential of electrical equipment as a tool of communication with the great beyond date back as early as the 19th century – with scientists such as Nicola Tesla and Thomas Edison said to be some of the first explorers of the concept. In the decades since, believers and sceptics alike have spent time dissecting physical and anecdotal occurrences, but have reached few definitive conclusions that could, once and for all, put the debate on the afterlife to rest.

However, within paranormal investigation circles, the everyday ghost is seen as a fan of electrical devices. The answer for why that is can be easily explained, according to Steve Parsons, a member of the Society for Psychical Research and a physicist, who has been a paranormal investigator for the past 40 years: “Theories and speculations consider that radios and telephones are already direct voice communication devices, which renders the possibility that, if connections could take place, those would be the most obvious and likely methods to be employed.”

He continues: “When, for example, the SETI project astronomers and scientists were looking for evidence of alien life forms, they also turned to radio communications and electromagnetic emissions as the most probable and likely area to look for evidence – so it would appear logical that if we’re looking for an exchange, it would start with a device meant for that, rather than a planchette on a table, or a glass.”

One of the most well-known electric techniques for attempting to establish a connection with otherworldly entities is through recordings – wherein, famously, an investigator can walk into an assumed-to-be haunted room, and, while recording, ask questions to whoever might be present. Later, when the recording is played back, the investigator might hear a reply, which was previously inaudible. The potentially unexplained words captured in those recordings are one example of what’s known as Electronic Voice Phenomenon, or EVP.


But going further than just replying to questions through a run-of-the-mill recorder, an investigator could also use a specifically designed device, called a “Ghost Box”.

Designed by Frank Sumption, back in 2000, and popularised in 2009 by the TV Show Ghost Adventures, the now widely used “Ghost Box” or “Spirit Box”, is essentially a radio, set to constantly sweep through stations and frequencies extremely rapidly, without ever stopping on a specific one. If a clear voice can be heard in between the milliseconds of sound picked up by the scanning, some investigators assume that a ghost might be manipulating the radio waves to communicate. (And yes, there’s an app for that. Multiple ones, actually.)

Steve errs on the side of caution when it comes to ghost boxes, and has affectionately nicknamed them “crack cocaine for ghost hunters”, due to the fact that it’s so easy to get carried away with all the sounds they offer, despite results often being easily explained.

With that taken into consideration, it’s only natural to assume that the more technology evolves, the more objects and spaces can become alleged connections to the other side of the veil.

Professor Christopher French, a sceptic, psychologist and head of the anomalistic psychology research unit at Goldsmiths, believes that this progression of channels in the world of lore is natural. “Paranormal investigation and paranormal phenomena in general, has always been associated with whatever latest form of technology has been around”, he says, specifically pointing to the first reports of “ghost photography” that occurred when cameras began to gain popularity (now easily explained as double-exposures.)


Today, a quick YouTube video search yields hundreds of results of people claiming that their devices are haunted or possessed – either independently, or through remote means, such as “haunted” (read: creepy) apps (Mariam and MyDol being popular examples) and phone numbers (666-666-6666). In more anonymous forums, some even discuss receiving text messages and emails from the dead.

As well as that, the modern popularity of ghost hunting shows, the exaggeration of “evil” hauntings for YouTube views and the use of increasingly exaggerated devices with very little actual scientific explanation behind them to allegedly capture hauntings has, in some ways, interfered with the work of actual researchers seeking to find proof of the paranormal, says Steve.

Interestingly, if I am contacted, as I am from time to time, by people who believe that their house is haunted, and that want someone to carry out an investigation, and I turn up dressed normally, carrying a notebook and a pen, perhaps a recorder and a camera, they sometimes seem very disappointed that I’m not in a black RV with multiple cases of strange and mysterious science equipment, because that’s what they’re expecting,” he says. “I say ‘I’m an actual researcher’, and people ask why I don’t have a ghost camera.”


Beyond electronics being tampered with physically by whatever might be stuck between this world and the next, there are also, of course, digital spaces which seem to be cursed in a less tangible way. A famous story in online circles is that of Pokémon’s Lavender Town, and the so-called “Lavender Town Syndrome” – a digital urban legend that still, for many, exists in-between the spaces of “internet lore going wild” and “an actual thing that happened”. 

Analysed in detail by Kotaku, Lavender Town Syndrome was described as what happened during a two-week period right after the launch of the games Pokémon Red and Green in 1996. Allegedly, the soundtrack that played while walking through the Lavender Town segment of the game caused several children to be severely distressed, with rumours swirling that the song had led some individuals to suicide.

This was proved to be untrue on multiple occasions, but the story ended up taking a life of its own online – leading people to develop their own versions of the theme and upload them to YouTube, trying to emulate these distressing sounds through sonic devices such as a change in frequencies, direction, and speed.

Urban legends transforming into distressing, real-life “threats” is not unusual for the internet. A prime example is Slender Man, a strange long-limbed creature in a suit, said to be usually spotted in the back of photographs as an omen. Another example is the lesser known “Red Room”, an online legend of Japanese origin, which tells of a mysterious red pop-up that, if closed, would cause the user to die or go insane.

Most of these ominous but largely harmless (with exceptions) tales are referred to online as “creepypasta”. For the uninitiated, a creepypasta is essentially the internet version of an urban legend, passed around in the form of a website, video or text, repeatedly, all until the actual origins are lost in the ether of the online world.

When asked about haunted websites and our fascination with them, Christopher French has a straightforward explanation. “The idea of bumping into a haunted website combines a lot of things that people find fascinating – the idea of curses, for example, which has been around for as long as people have been around,” he says. “In the past, it was always physical objects, which at times brought people bad luck, misfortune, but in other cases, brought luck.”

“The fact that we now live in an age where a lot of people spend their time in some type of virtual reality, it’s almost a natural progression that those ideas would transfer to that sphere,” says French. “If you look at folklore back in history, the notion of finding something you don’t realise has any special qualities is a common theme within folklore, within mythology – everything from Aladdin’s lamp to a monkey’s paw. It’s the same thing, it’s just been transferred into the latest technology.”


Many of these internet-born horror stories have now gone mainstream, making bank in horror films worldwide such as Slender Man or Unfriended. But there are some realms that still remain unexplored.

After delving deep enough to go past the discussions of potentially haunted locations, tasteless takes on actual human suffering or run-of-the-mill creepy stories, one can find old, archived websites that, although stuck in time, are still interactive. For example, the online creepy collection of “true” tales found on 1997s website Hotlyps Ghost Stories, or the early 2000s click-through haunted house The Bone Garden Estate. These are creepy enough in their own right, but now that they’re abandoned, stuck in time, they generate a different sense of unease – like the one house in your neighbourhood with overgrown weeds and cracked windows, but somehow still lived in.

Online multiplayer game worlds, some of which have been left forgotten for over a decade, also create a perfect environment for something strange to happen. For example, what happened to gaming Youtuber and streamer Vinny, from channel Vinesauce, when he went into Active Worlds – a 3D virtual universe first launched in 1995 whose servers were inexplicably still left active, although mostly devoid of players.

Vinny assumed he was alone, as none of his viewers had been able to create accounts in the game, until he came across another player – Hitomi Fujiko. At first, Hitomi seemed like part of the game (“Are you lost?”, he asks), but after a while of harmless walking around, the words of the Pierrot-like man started getting stranger: “I am real, aren’t I?”

Although it is widely agreed in online communities that behind Hitomi was a person, somehow still playing the abandoned game, his identity remains unknown to this day.


All in all, online hauntings – in all of their forms, and regardless if they’re real or not – seem to loom in our subconscious as particularly strange, uncomfortable, occurrences. It would seem that’s the case because they touch on a niche combination of very human fears – that of ghosts (the otherworldly, the unknown, out of control) and that of people, whose cruelty is always possible.

In the back of our minds, there is an awareness that as long as we are online, we are using a communication device, where there is always a certain level of uncertainty on who’s on the other side, no matter how small. The internet blurs the line between what’s real and what isn’t even more than your run-of-the-mill haunted house – It creates dubious reality within digital reality; intangible, yet ever present. So, could that existential bot in your Instagram DMs, or that one time your printer started spitting out a page of black ink at 2AM be an electrical mishap – or is it an apparition trying to say hello?

Follow Biju Belinky on Twitter.

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