The scariest noise we tend to hear on a day-to-day basis is the sound of our smartphone telling us we've hammered it too hard and that it's about to die.
Expiring battery beeps aside, we haven't been truly creeped out by a noise since a creaky door made us jump and scatter our Pog collection over the floor, back when we were little gadgeteers.
That's why we've decided to test our mettle by rounding up some genuinely spooky real sounds. Find a dark room, plug in your headphones, and start Halloween off in style.
THE HOWLING PHANTASMS OF DEEP SPACE
Last month, Voyager 1 emerged from the protective bubble of our sun’s magnetosphere and crossed into the unimaginable depths of interstellar space, the first object created by our civilisation ever to leave the solar system. As NASA’s boffins craned excitedly into their headsets listening for confirmation that the 36-year-old space probe had indeed crossed the heliopause, a terrible noise was heard: first a ghostly whistle, then a high, otherwordly scream, a sudden peaking in intensity, almost as if something was homing in, powerfully and directly, on the little craft.
In the NASA offices, people stared silently at one another as the terrible sounds played over and over. A cardboard coffee cup rolled off a desk, startling Voyager’s Mission Director. “They’ve found us”, he was heard to mutter. “My God, they’ve found us.”
These ethereal whoops are sound, Jim, but not as we know it. The sounds you hear are vibrations in the air, but these are vibrations in plasma, the ionised gases given off by stars. The increasing density (represented by the rising noise) detected by Voyager 1’s plasma instrument is what lets NASA know that the probe, now 12 billion miles away, really has made it to deep space.
THE CALL OF CTHULU
The job of the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) is to listen to the ocean. Not in the way your yoga teacher tells you to listen to the ocean. In a much more technical way, with arrays of hydrophones that listened for enemy submarines during the Cold War, and which now listen for advance warning of natural disasters such as tsunamis and hurricanes.
In 1997, from a point in the Southern Ocean, something vast was heard. It was so loud that it was heard by hydrophones almost 5000km apart, and was thought to be an underwater earthquake until Dr Christopher Fox of the NOAA reported that analysis of the sound showed it to have an ‘organic signature’: the varying frequency that is the hallmark of a sound made by an animal. An animal huge beyond imagining, and – although oceanographers have been slow to confirm this – with an unquenchable hunger for human souls.
If H.P. Lovecraft is to be believed, and he definitely is, then the noise (nicknamed ‘the Bloop’ by the NOAA) is the bellowing of Cthulu, a demonic Elder God who dwells in R’yleh, a city beneath the Southern Ocean.
After a decade of speculation, the NOAA at last confirmed that the Bloop could be the sound of ice - lots of ice - moving across the ocean floor. But the Bloop isn’t the only one: other sounds heard by the NOAA, including the Whistle and the Upsweep, can’t be explained by icequakes, and are almost certainly the sounds of immense submarine demons intent on driving all mankind insane before devouring the sun.
THE ALARM CLOCK OF DOOM
This is one you can hear for yourself: take any cheap shortwave radio and sweep across the spectrum to 4625 kHz. As you comb through the static you’ll come across a sudden, jarring alarm. Callsign UVB-76, known to its listeners as The Buzzer (žužžalka to the Russians) broadcasts nothing but a loud, repeating ERK-ERK-ERK noise, 24 hours a day.
Except, that is, for rare occasions when muffled voices make themselves heard, repeating strings of names and numbers in Russian, with the occasional snatch of classical music. It began in the late 70s, and when it stops, the world ends. A relic of the Cold War that can never be dismantled, UVB-76 is the Dead Hand, the trigger that will launch all of Russia’s nuclear weapons even if no general is left alive to press the button. It is the sound of Mutually Assured Destruction.
Actually, the paranoia surrounding UVB-76 isn’t so far from the truth. It’s a numbers station, a type of radio statio used by spies. Numbers stations - shortwave radio broadcasts of what appear to be gibberish - have been relatively common since the Second World War to send coded messages. They’re easy to set up and very, very difficult to trace, because anyone can listen to them, anywhere. They’re also more secure than any other form of encryption, because if the sender and receiver use a pre-coded pad (known as a ‘one-time pad’), there’s no way anyone listening in can figure out what the message is. The constant buzzing noise is used to keep others off UVB-76’s frequency, which implies that it’s an important one.
For more creepy radio, visit archive.org/details/ird059, where you can hear recordings of various numbers stations. Our favourite is The Swedish Rhapsody, a German numbers station in which the voice of a little girl sometimes emerges from the static. Fall asleep to that, we dare you.