The stone tape theory – or more accurately speculation – is the idea that recurrent hauntings are produced by the replay of recordings stored in the physical environment, analogously to magnetic tape recordings, the dominant recording medium of the 1970s. The name almost certainly comes from Nigel Kneale’s television play The Stone Tape, broadcast by the BBC in 1972, in which the fabric of a room stores emotional events that are then replayed.
The idea that old stone blocks may in some sense contain stored sounds and images was popularised by Thomas Charles Lethbridge, an archaeologist who became a paranormal researcher. Lethbridge’s 1961 book, Ghost and Ghoul, is sometimes cited as the origin of the stone tape theory, but he never used that term in any of his writings, and the roots of the idea go back to at least the 19th century.
In his book The Ninth Bridgewater Treatise (1838) mathematician Charles Babbage expressed his belief that spoken words make a permanent impression on the world, and that “the air itself is a vast library, on whose pages are forever written all that man has ever said or woman whispered.” The American physiologist Joseph Rhodes Buchanan seems to have been the first to extend that idea to the non-physical, in 1842. His suggestion was that humans leave a kind of residual psychic energy on the objects they touch, which can be read by a sensitive medium. He coined the term psychometry for this putative phenomenon, from the Greek psyche meaning “soul” and metron meaning “measure”. The geologist William Denton believed that psychometry would revolutionise geology and archaeology by allowing the memories of objects to be read, paving the way for what became known as psychic archaeology.
A rather similar idea was put forward by Eleanor SidgwickEleanor Mildred Sidgwick, (née Balfour; 11 March 1845 – 10 February 1936) was a physics researcher, an activist for the higher education of women, Principal of Newnham College of the University of Cambridge, and a leading figure in the Society for Psychical Research. of the Society for Psychical ResearchThe Society for Psychical Research (SPR) is a registered charity founded in 1882 to conduct scientific investigations into psychic and paranormal phenomena. (SPR) in 1888. She suggested that there was “something in the building itself” that could record the experiences reported by those who claimed to see apparitions, a place-memory.
The idea of place-memories was revived by H. H. Price, a professor of logic at Oxford University and president of the SPR. In his 1939 address to the society, titled “Haunting and the ‘Psychic Ether’ Hypothesis”, he suggested that ghosts are not supernatural but are instead traces that result from the emotions or experiences of former inhabitants of a place, “much as finger-prints result automatically from our handling of a wine-glass or a poker”. Price also used the term “delayed telepathy” when describing the replay of the place-memory.