Written by Laura Davies
Humans have recorded some creepy sounds.
Some are kind of tragic, like the loneliest whale. It calls at the unusual frequency of 52 hertz, much higher than all known species, and follows a unique migration path. Does it do this alone because it’s unable to communicate with other whales? Is its plaintive cry left unanswered? Scientists have spent hundreds of thousands of dollars of funding and donations to track it down, find out, and presumably give it a hug. Unfortunately all attempts have been unsuccessful.
Others are horrifying hoaxes like, in 1989, Geologists drilling the Kola Superdeep Borehole claimed to have tunnelled into hell itself and released a recording of the agonized screams of the poor souls tormented there. Unfortunately, they went a bit too far with their story and also claimed a massive gas cloud burst from the ground in the shape of a bat which then wrote ‘I have conquered’ in fiery letters in the sky. So, probably a hoax.
A few were genuine mysteries that have since been explained. The most famous is the Bloop, an ultra-low frequency underwater noise recorded by the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. It baffled scientists for years as it seemed to have originated from a living creature but was far more powerful than any known animal. Some even suggested it came from one of the last surviving large dinosaurs. Disappointingly, we now know it to have been the sound of a cryoseism or ice quake. Much less exciting for fans of Jurassic Park.
There are, however, a few freaky recordings that remain unexplained. Some just creepy, others debilitating and occasionally deadly. And no, I don’t mean the infrasonic frequency designed to subdue protestors by making them shit themselves. The Brown note is, fortunately not a thing. I mean actual brain damaging unexplained sounds.
1. Number Stations
Imagine a thrilling Friday evening, casually browsing frequencies with your shortwave radio when you come across (1) a grainy broadcast of Swedish Rhapsody, played on a child’s music box, with the voice of a young girl reading a series of numbers in German. Or, perhaps (2) another ice cream truck style rendition, this time of the English folk song, the Lincolnshire poacher also pausing occasionally for a British woman to read aloud lists of numbers. I think I’d burn the radio or at least stick it in the freezer.
Of course, this is exactly what ham radio enthusiasts are hoping to find, and they’ve spent hours listening, recording the numbers and identifying the patterns. What they’ve managed to figure out is that firstly, their radios aren’t haunted. Secondly, no children are being held captive and forced to broadcast. We now know the creepy voice of the Swedish Rhapsody was generated by the Stasi Sprach Morse Generator Machine. And, finally, that the codes are impossible to crack.
Although no government or intelligence force has admitted to it, they’re numbers stations. Used by several countries to transmit messages to their spies working abroad.
These stations started appearing during WWI but didn’t reach their peak popularity until the Cold War, when thousands of spies were being used to gain intelligence related to nuclear weaponry and combat capability. Since then, many of the stations have ceased transmission. The Lincolnshire poacher shut down in 2008. It was briefly replaced by Cherry Ripe (3) but not for long as it was soon shut down in 2009.
What the messages were will never be explained as all of the stations broadcast using the Vernam or Perfect cypher. The only mathematically unbreakable encryption. To decode the message the sender and recipient must both have a One Time Pad, a sheet of paper with a series of random numbers. The sender converts the letters in their message into numbers and then adds the values from the key to each. This is known as false addition. The recipient receives the coded message, subtracts the values from their key, false subtractions, and then converts the letters back into numbers.
The only way to break the code is with the One Time Pad, and as it’s a bit of paper, it can be easily destroyed, burnt or eaten after use. The only way for another nation to get hold of the information from the broadcasts is to use a double agent or capture the recipient before they have time to destroy their key. So, fortunately or unfortunately, we’ll never know what the messages were. Orders, intelligence, the weather? But, I think we can all agree the use of a child’s music box and girl’s voice was unnecessarily disturbing.
2. The Buzzer
Of course, we couldn’t discuss creepy, unexplained broadcasts without talking about UVB-76, also known as The Buzzer. It began transmitting in the 1980s as a series of beeps and switched to buzzes in 1992. (4)
The number of buzzes per minute varies, between 21 and 34, and they’re occasionally interrupted by a man reading numbers, words and names. An incredibly eerie rendition of Dance of the Little Swans (5) has also been broadcast.
What makes this station creepier than the numbers stations is that it’s not pre-recorded. It seems to be read live and shuffling, thuds, mumbles and once a woman’s scream can be heard in the background. This led many to jump to the conclusion that the station acted as a dead hand signal. Triggering a retaliatory nuclear attack if it’s ever interrupted. However, as the station’s broadcast has stopped at least 3 times since it began and we’re all still here, above ground, with the right number of eyes, this is unlikely to be true. Plus, Russia seems perfectly happy with its Perimeter System, which will automatically launch Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles if a nuclear attack is detected by seismic, light, radioactivity and pressures sensors. So, that’s comforting.
How does the channel differ from the numbers stations? It’s been proven to be for internal use only and has nothing to do with spies, probably. The buzzes are most likely used to keep the channel clear by making it impossible for anyone else to effectively broadcast on it. This keeps it free for communication during emergencies when messages might need to be sent urgently to communications headquarters and military units. The coded messages are, of course, still uncracked but are most likely tests, tasks, training, warning messages and perhaps signals for mobilisation. The woman’s scream? Probably someone watching TV in the background. The creepy Swan Lake music? Still no idea.
3. Havana Syndrome
Sometimes these creepy, unexplained sounds aren’t just the potential call for action but are actually the attack themselves. This is believed to be the case for a range of strange and debilitating noise events that began in Cuba in 2016. (6)
The first 21 episodes were described by victims as strange grating noises that caused pressure and vibration, similar to driving with a car window rolled partly down. They were all experienced by diplomats and lasted between 20 seconds and 30minutes. Remarkably, no one nearby heard the sound or experienced the effects.
While you may be thinking that 20 seconds of an irritating noise isn’t exactly the most heinous attack ever conducted, it left victims with long term symptoms such as nausea, vertigo, intense headaches, insomnia, visual disturbances, and loss of hearing and memory. Some have been unable to return to work or are still undergoing rehabilitation. MRI scans reveal brain trauma and changes in both white and grey matter volume and the functional connectivity of auditory and visuospatial subnetworks. Explaining the symptoms experienced. Named for the location of the attack the resulting illness is now known as Havana Syndrome.
The perpetrator is yet to be identified, but both the US and Canada have withdrew staff and their families from Cuba in response. Cuban authorities deny all responsibility and have conducted extensive investigations into the incident, looking for anything from toxins, electromagnetic waves and even insects that could point the blame away from themselves.
Since then, many have tried to solve the mystery and identify the true cause. Pulsed Microwave radiation is currently one of the main suspects as it has the potential to cause brain damage via the Frey effect. It’s likely been weaponised before during attacks on the US embassy in Moscow between 1953 and 1976, in an event named the Moscow Signal. Microwave beams were transmitted from an apartment building 100 meters east of the Embassy and targeted between the third and eighth floors. The strength of the signal was far below that of the microwave you’d have in your kitchen and wouldn’t heat anything. However, changes in brain chemistry, effects on the central nervous system, cancer, behaviour modification and even mind control have all been discussed as potential outcomes.
Those who dispute microwaves as the cause are quick to point out that the Moscow signal was spread over a whole building. It lacks the laser focus of the Havana attack and as far as we know, no one has developed the technology to make this possible.
Instead, they suggest Havana Syndrome isn’t a result of human aggression at all but crickets. During the 2017 attacks, 8 recordings of the noise were made which have since been analysed and identified as the call of the Indies short-tailed cricket or maybe a vibrating concrete machine with worn bearings. However, how the insect sounds could’ve damaged the brain and triggered the symptoms or why they’ve got it out for US diplomats, is left unexplained. Some believe the sound was simply a cover or distraction to disguise the real attack.
The case of Havana syndrome became even more mysterious in 2018 when US diplomats in China began reporting the same symptoms as the original victims. Then again in 2019 when a White House Official started experiencing the symptoms and in 2020 when an alarmingly similar incident was reported on a lawn to the south side of the White House. Since then more cases have sprung up worldwide, in Vienna, Australia, Taiwan, Columbia and Serbia. In 2021 a US military officer claimed he was attacked with his 2-year-old son in the car. While stationary at a busy intersection he suddenly felt a huge pressure in his head and his son started screaming. As soon as he sped away, the pain disappeared and the boy fell quiet. Both survived.
The current working hypothesis is that Russia is responsible for the incidents. Partly due to the history of the Moscow signal and partly due to mobile phone signals placing Russian Federal Security Service (FSB) agents in the vicinity of the attacks. It’s thought the attacks are designed to steal intelligence from phones and laptops being carried by the victims. The resulting symptoms are just a side effect.
4. The Hum
The Havana Syndrome noise isn’t the only mysterious and unexplained sound said to harm humans. There’s also the Hum. While not as targeted or as damaging, those who can hear it have reported symptoms such as headaches, dizziness and nosebleeds. It’s also been responsible for at least 2 deaths by suicide. It was first reported in the late 1960s and cases continue to this day. (7)
Only around 4% of the world’s population can hear it, it’s been reported worldwide and no one can figure out what’s causing it. In 1973, scientists proposed that the sound was generated by the jet stream shearing against slower moving air creating a low-frequency hum. In 2015 another team of researchers suggested it could be caused by ocean waves extending down to the seafloor and colliding with ridges and continental shelves. Others have hypothesised that the electromagnetic charge built up by the daily dose of Earth’s 8million lightning strikes could be causing the air between the Earth’s surface and ionosphere to resonate. West Seattle Hum has even blamed their hum on the mating call of male midshipman fish.
However, as the majority of reports come from urban areas it seems likely something manmade is the true source of the annoying droning. This has led to the hypothesis that the source is a low-frequency vibration originating from fans, air compressors, water pumps or vehicles. The Bristol Hum was once attributed to the large industrial fans of one factory. However, once decommissioned, sufferers continued to report the noise and the theory was debunked.
One Hum Hearer, Science teacher, Glen MacPherson has made it his mission to solve the mystery. He’s even created an online, interactive map to view and report cases, worldwide. He also constructed a radio frequency blocking black box to sit inside, to prove once and for all, whether radio signals were to blame. However, once inside the Hum grew louder. This indicates the source to be something internal, like tinnitus. However, in Windsor, Ontario in 2011, 22,000 reports were made to officials in one evening. A spontaneous onset of tinnitus in that many people is incredibly unlikely. However, an exterior source triggering an interior tinnitus is still a possibility.
Speaking of exterior sources, smooth link, the last and still completely unexplained sound detected by humans comes from space. Now, we’ve picked up a lot of weird extra-terrestrial noises like Rosetta, the singing comet (8), the catchily named Radio Signal SHGb02+14a (9) and Lorimer Bursts (or Fast Radio Bursts). However, the most mysterious and strongest candidate for extra-terrestrial communication ever detected is The Wow! Signal. It was picked up on August 15th 1977 by Ohio State University’s Big Ear radio telescope and its source remains a mystery.
The story begins in 1959 when physicists Phillip Morrison and Giuseppe Cocconi speculated that if aliens were to attempt contact they’d likely attempt to do it using radio signals at a frequency of 1420 megahertz. This is because it’s naturally emitted by hydrogen, the most common element in the universe and therefore most likely to be familiar to other intelligent life. Ohio State University ran with this theory and constructed the radio observatory, Big Ear, to begin their search for extra-terrestrial life.
The radio telescope produced huge amounts of data, on line printer paper and had to be analysed by hand by volunteers. One such volunteer was Jerry Ehman who noticed the anomaly a few days after it was picked up. He circled the data and wrote a large Wow! In the margin, christening it the Wow! Signal. It lasted around 72 seconds, was 30 standard deviations above background noise and originated somewhere in the constellation of Sagittarius. Frustratingly the exact location isn’t certain as Big Ear uses 2 feed horns, the signal was only picked up by one and the data doesn’t differentiate between the 2.
So was it our first contact with aliens? No, or at least it’s incredibly unlikely. Unfortunately, as the computer couldn’t do live analysis of the data it was a few days before it was spotted by Ehman. When everyone else turned to look at that portion of the sky, there was nothing there. Big Ear didn’t pick up anything else and a further 50 attempts proved fruitless. If it was aliens it seems likely that they’d keep broadcasting and not hope that we’d managed to pick up just one burst of the signal.
However, the actual source is still unknown and most of the hypotheses have been discredited. Occasionally teams think they’ve made a breakthrough, like in 2017 when Antonio Paris proposed the hydrogen clouds surrounding two comets in the region could’ve been the source. However further research has proved the comets were not in the beam at the time and regardless, comets don’t emit such strong frequencies. Ehman himself suggested it might be a reflection of an Earth source signal, bouncing off a piece of space debris. However, this is also incredibly unlikely.
The true source remains unknown. However, just in case it was aliens, in 2012 the Arecibo Observatory, owned by the US, decided to send a response. Not, as you might think, a similar radio signal, not a profound message of peace, not even something scientific to prove our intelligence. Oh no. Instead, we sent 10,000 Twitter messages from the general public who’d used the hashtag #ChasingUFOs and video messages from celebrities like Stephen Colbert, Jorge Garcia and the 2011 Miss Universe, Leila Lopes. Nothing like announcing ourselves as being the most attractive beings in existence before we’ve even made contact. Fortunately, Colbert used the opportunity to inform the aliens that ‘We’re not delicious. We’re kind of gamey and we get stuck in your teeth.’ 50% of his message was a rant about the plot of the movie Prometheus. So we should be safe from both terrifying human eating invaders and those searching for intelligent life.
By Laura Davies
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