C.A.S.P.E.R Research Center

Past Perfect: Communicative Competence An EVP Primer

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"Making Contact With the Dead is Almost as Difficult as Making Contact with the Living"(Todd Robbins, Dark Deceptions: The Séance Experience, Players Theatre, NYC  8/05)



Attempts to communicate with the dead, via EVP recordings, as part of the ongoing process in paranormal investigation, has become a common and widly-used technique. However, as currently applied, it is too limited. This article will illustrate the use of a potentially more valuable strategy for EVP recording. This strategy is called "communicative competence". It is

based on four assumptions:

          1.- Language is not the only, or even the most important, communicative channel for EVP.

          2.- Communication is rooted in biology and is an activity shared by all living forms.

          3.- The ability to communicate continues to survive the death of the physical form, and may be found in other sources other than a deceased individual.

          4.- Cultural traditions remain "active" after the physical death of the participant.

Many of us have seen and "heard" EVP attempted on numerous TV programs dealing with the paranormal. We hear such phrases as: "Is There Anyone Here...?, "Show Us a Sign....", "Do Something!", "Why are you Here?", and What do you Want?". To these investigators, I can only say: "Get Real! and Get a Life!!" Please!!!" because this investigative line of questioning is so narrowly focused, it merely leads to a "dead" end! There is too much "noise, and too little context! Have you really ever "heard" of any specific response to these questions? And its boring too! If we, the viewers, are bored, how do you think the dead feel? They are probably "dying" to leave! So, how do we communicate in a manner that would invoke(provoke-?) a response? First, to do so the investigator needs to be the principal "apparatus". It is he/she who is the "active" agent(not the ghost), the instrument of research. Technology, in EVP recording, should be secondary. We need to "immerse" ourselves into the socio-spatial setting, to "blend-in", as it were, and to be very adaptable: for any given circumstance, the investigator should be using a particular "situational personality", fitted to the phenomenon occurring at that location. This also implies that one has to continually develop and "fine tune" one's repertoire of behavorial traits which can then be used in different cultural, spatial, and historical contexts, as one investigates "haunted" locations.


Communicative competence consists ofidentifying three basic components at historically-intercultural and interactional "haunted" locations. These components, adapted from Hall(1973) are the sets, isolates, and patterns of transmission. Sets are the "vocabularly" of communication. Isolates are the "grammatical rules" for communicating correctly. The patterns are the "sentence structures" that provide the medium of communication and the stimulus for a response to be made. Lets examine each of these components.



In any given communicative situation, we have to identify and use specific vocabularies of interaction for our communicative channel to be both focused and relevant. A very effective way to do this is to identify what are called P.M.S.(Primary Message Systems). P.M.S. are "types of human activity involved in the communicative process"(Hall 1973:38). When we do paranormal investigations, we need to determine which PMS  survived, or remains part of the existing environment. PMS should be based on an analysis of the history of the location, the observations of witnesses, the "psychic impressions" of mediums(if available and under controlled conditions), and the preliminary data obtained from the site by the investigation. According to Hall (1973:38-39), there are 10 PMS. They are:

          1. Interaction: This is the only audial-based message system and communication involves "speaking" to elicit a response. This is the most common channel used in EVP recordings.

          2. Association: This involves contact and degree of interaction in a communicative setting. Important barriers that can lead to a communicative "breakdown" are based on economic, occupational, age, and sexual affiliation and relations: who we are, and how we are identified could lead to this "breakdown".

          3. Subsistence: This is based on nutritional requirements.: the who, where, when of processing, preparing, and consumption of edibles.

          4. Bi-sexuality: What behavior or activity or location is considered masculine or feminine in its historical context? The form of decoration or adornment is also critical. A response(or lack of) to a question may also depend on whether it came from a male or female speaker!

          5. Territoriality: What is considered a "private" area? an invasion of privacy? What is considered "trespassing" in the past? The physical demarcation of a confined area as defined by fences, walls, floors, windows, etc. and the implications for changes and modifications to the "original" environmental setting. What happens when a "stranger" appears?

          6. Temporality: The hourly, daily, seasonal round of activities: when, where, how? What about life-changing cycles?(birth, marriage, death). When is the best "time" to "call", to "talk"?

          7. Learning: How are skills, customs, "the right way", "unspoken rules" transmitted among individuals at a location? Has there been learning post-mortum?

          8. Play: When is playtime for a "child ghost"? What did males do, as opposed to females, in historical context? What is humor? Do we "play games" with the ghost? How does this "play" with new technology?

          9. Defense: What areas will be defended? How are they defended? What are the religious practices? Do they affect beliefs about death and dying? What about the medical knowledge? Did it lead to a death in the household? How were the rules and regulations enforced?

         10- Exploitation: What technology was in use? What/how was there interaction with the surrounding environment? Has paranormal phenomena evolved at the site due to changes?


These are just some of the unspoken message systems that need to be "translated" during an investigation, before communication is attempted.

          REMEMBER: "The past is a foreign country. They do things differently there."(L.P. Hartley, The Go-Between): Do not communicate/impose contemporary viewpoints during EVP recordings!



These are the encoded informational contexts contained in the PMS. Isolates contain four specific elements:

          1. verbal language usage: This involves the use of an audial restricted code related to each PMS and contains targeted vocabularly, slang, intonation, accents, etc. as well as non-verbal cues such as posture and other body language.

          2. spatial orientation/distribution: The spatial parameters at a "haunted" location(which I call S.I.M.S. Zones- Stored Information Memory Spatial) of specific H.A.U.N.T. phases

(historical contexts) offer important clues to thecommunicative environment. These clues divide each S.I.M.S. Zone into four perceptual characters(what I call E.S.P.= encounter space perception). These are fixed-feature space( such as rooms, buildings, and associated functions of each in its historical context);semi-fixed spatial features(such as furniture, décor and their distribution within the fixed feature); and informal space(the personal distance between participants in a communicative event).

          3. the temporal parameters: This refers to the "timing" of a communication transmission. Has our attempt at communication been "heard" or was it "wasted", "spent", "lost". This depends on the "ghost watch", I.e. the particular PMS in use at the "time" of the communication. This, in turn, dictates commitment and involvement. Hall(1984)describes this situation when he "speaks" about monochronic and polychronic time. If our ghost lived by monochronic time standards, he or she would only do one thing at a time, selecting, permitting, limiting the number of events done within a given period. Priorities would have been set for people, function, and space. If he/she were functioning on polychronic time standards, the emphasis would be on an involvement with people, multi-tasking, and no specific schedule. The implications for EVP recording are obvious.

          4. cultural knowledge:This is the key element an investigator uses to interpret the sensory manifestations observed at a "haunted" location. Each cultural tradition has different informational contexts: what is fixed-space in one culture may be semi-fixed in another; What language use is culturally appropriate? Spoken by whom? In what situation and location? At what time? These are all questions that need to be resolved through research before EVP is attempted. Once these isolates are clearly defined, the channels for potential communication are now open. And, more importantly, the use of the isolates in proper historical context(H.A.U.N.T. Phase) and at the correct location(S.I.M.S. Zone) identifies the communicator as "one who belongs", opening the dialogue for a "spirited" response.


Armed with this background knowledge, we still have to initiate the "conversation". Remember, the investigator is a "stranger" to the ghost, and visa-versa. So, how do we begin?


Patterns "The only past which endures lies wordlessly in you"(Leto Atreides II, The Notebooks of Frank Herbert)

These are the specific action chain sequence of activities used by the investigator to initiate and maintain contact and response. These activities preclude the "participation" of the investigator through the use of a particular situational personality. This involves "socio-environmental immersion": not only verbal "deadspeak"(identifying targeted deceased individuals), but also a visual and audial display appropriate to the transaction, I.e. to the identified PMS and associated isolate elements.

Some of the activities I have used in my investigations are specific musical scores as "warm-up", period poetry with targeted themes, coached dialogue and scripts aimed at specific individuals and personal causes, "roll-calls" of wounded and dead(for battlefields), sound effects(for battlefields), appropriate trigger objects related to the PMS, video socio-historical replay, and staged authentic reenactments using my training as a method actor. It must be emphasized that this sensory stimulus begin slowly, from a targeted "warm-up" to very specific activities culiminating in "deadspeak", the EVP sessions, with individuals historically-verified as being associated with the location, with each sequential stage in the process being documented using a cross-validated/triangulated approach with video "back-up". The goal is to determine which targeted activity is generating the most "chatter".


It should be obvious that the EVP recordings occur at a specific stage of an investigation(apart from the general EVP "sweeps" during the recording of the base readings). They should occur after the identification and location of specific S.I.M.S. Zones within specific H.A.U.N.T. Phases and after the informational contexts of the zones have been analyzed and decoded in order to determine the proper channels for communication. Only then, can "communicative competence" be achieved, and "deadspeak" begin. Finally, it should be noted that the use of EVP recordings, as a methodological tool, form merely one element of the total investigative process and focuses on one perceptual medium.


It is hoped that this preliminary review of communicative competence for EVP will provide a solid foundation for the continuing development of the observational and recording methods for data gathering at reported "haunted" locations.


                         "They will come together again under a higher bidding, and will know their place and name. . . this army will live, and live on, as soul shall answer soul. .

                                                    Joshua Chamberlain.

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