"Louise, you've gotta stop listening to that thing. Not only is it annoying but it's freaking me out."
That was what my ever-patient boss said to me one early one morning at my old office job in Los Angeles. She and I were the only people around that morning on our side of the building. Though the sun was coming in through the windows, the overhead lights were off, and our historic "former Masonic lodge" office building stayed gloomy and shadowy.
A friend had posted a clip of what is believed to be the first sound ever recorded in 1860 by Édouard-Léon Scott de Martinville on my Facebook page, and I was playing it on repeat while I checked my emails for the morning. Yes, I know. Who does that?
But I couldn't get enough. Over and over I listened to a crackly voice from beyond the grave saying, "Au clair de la lune, Pierrot répondit..."
Covered in goosebumps, I couldn't get over the fact that I was hearing a woman or child's voice (it was later discovered that the recording had been sped up, and the voice was probably Scott's) long dead, but preserved in a way human's were only just scratching the surface of.
I kept listening for any lilts in the voice, breath, hints about who the person was who lent their voice to that recording nearly 150 years ago. I wanted to hear some indication of what that long-gone time was like.
Plus, that wavering, time-battered recording chilled me. I was listening to a moment in time that Scott had never intended to be heard.
Scott had recorded his singing on his invention, the phonautograph. Basically a paper cylinder coated in soot from an oil lamp, the impressions of sound waves were etched into the soot by a stylus. The intention was apparently to only make a visual record of sound, not playback.
Considering how delicate these phonautograph recordings are, it's amazing that so many survived. Even more amazing is that Patrick Feaster and First Sounds found a way for us to hear the recordings.
Here is a more accurate playback of how Scott's "Au Clair de la Lune" should sound:
First Sounds also notes that while it was previously believed that the singer is singing, "Au clair de la lune, Pierrot répondit...", he is actually singing, "Au clair de la lune, mon ami Pierrot, prête moi..." For more of Scott's phonautograms, click here (I highly recommend it).
Of course not all of you may consider Scott's recordings "creepy." Amazing, interesting, cool, but maybe not so much creepy.
Don't worry, Thomas Edison has that covered.
Long credited as the man who first recorded sound, he is more aptly credited as the first person to record and play sound with his phonograph recording on tinfoil. In the clip below you can hear a cornet solo, the recitation of "Mary Had a Little Lamb," laughter, "Old Mother Hubbard," and some more talking and laughing.
What if you heard that laughter at the end, mysteriously floating through the dark in the middle of the night? Just saying.
But Edison's recording isn't the creepy I'm talking about. Have you heard about his dolls?
You all know how I feel about dolls.
In 1890, Edison created the first talking doll called, "Edison's Phonograph Doll." Advertised as "A french jointed doll, reciting in a childish voice one of a number of well-known nursery rhymes."
Oh! A "childish voice" you say! Sounds peachy!
But the public didn't think so. Far from it. "Deemed too scary" even for consumers riveted by the advances of modern sound recording, the dolls ceased production after only six weeks.
Among the complaints about Edison's dolls were that, "Children found them difficult to operate and more scary than cuddly. The recordings inside, which featured snippets of nursery rhymes, wore out quickly."
The voices coming from the dolls, a sort of "unnatural"-uncanny valley of the human voice, frightened children and unnerved adults. Even The Thomas Edison Historical Park says that the recordings wouldn't have sounded better in 1890 than they do today — the dolls would still "hiss" and their voices (recorded by real live girls!) would be "distorted."
Take a listen to "Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep." What Joshua Barajas of pbs.org calls "nightmare fuel."
There's also the horror of "Little Jack Horner."
And of course, there's my personal favorite "rhyme to lose your soul by:"
And if the voices of the dolls weren't enough to make you think Edison hated little children (or for that matter all humanity), there was how the dolls were sold.
Phonograph Dolls wearing clothes (you read that right) were sold for between $12 and $20 dollars, depending on the little soul-sucker's outfit — that's over 500 clams in the current market. For the bargain price of $10, a parent could buy an unclothed doll for their little darling.
No Christmas morning would be complete without THIS under the tree:
She's like the Devil's Little Terminator. "I'll be baaaaaaack!..for your eternal soul, silly!"
And look I brought some friends:
I don't know if all the old recordings I've been listening to for a couple hours now have warped my brain, but in the world of "Creepy Corner" I find this to be some of the eeriest stuff.
Whatever Electronic Voice Phenomena (EVP) the "Ghost Bros" fist bump over, these recordings are by and large far more riveting to me. (And I'll fully admit that every time one of those ghost shows plays an EVP, I tell my cat and husband to SHUT UP so I can hopefully-maybe hear a ghost.)
These are actual human voices calling out to us (in the Edison dolls' case, shrieking out to us) from long, long ago. As far as voices from beyond the grave go, these recordings are the real deal. The geek in me that wishes the time-travel events of the novel Time and Again could actually happen, thrills at just a little taste of how people talked back then.
Plus, seeking out old spooky recordings is SUPERB internet-rabbit hole material.
And for those of you still not feeling the creep-factor of these recordings, I challenge you to turn off all the lights, cozy up to your computer, and let the voices of the past fill the darkness.
Then we'll talk.