USC Digital Folklore Archives / March, 2018

The Fax Machine

A verbatim dialogue of a conversation between me and my friend after she agreed to be interviewed to discuss her personal experiences.

JJ: When I say the word “cyberghost”, what comes into your mind?

AF: What do you mean? Like a hacked computer that sends communicates on its own?

JJ: Not necessarily, I use the word “cyberghost” in a very generalized sense. It could range anywhere from haunted servers, computers, cellphones, or tablets. Just as long as it’s a supernatural occurrence, not someone simply pulling a prank on you through your phone.

AF: Well, I might not have exactly what you’re looking for because the event I have in mind is not to the extent that I believe a ghost was behind it. But, it was significant enough in my life that it shook me for a few days.

JJ: If you don’t mind me asking, what was this event?

AF: It’s kinda silly to talk about, but several years ago, my dad opened a tutoring business back home in Maryland. We spent the first two weeks building the business up like decorating the walls, setting up chairs and desks, and setting up the phone lines. At that time, we needed a fax machine but it was not in our budget to buy a brand new fax machine. So we decided to find the cheapest used fax machine that would fill our needs for my dad’s business.  As we were driving home from the store that sold the machines, we saw a garage sale nearby and decided to try our luck. Coincidentally, the owners were selling a fax machine that definitely fit our budget and without hesitation brought it back to our business. Trying to set up and optimize the fax machine was a difficult process for us because it didn’t come with an instruction manual, so to the best of our ability we thought we had successfully set up the machine.

JJ: What do you mean when you say you thought you had set up the machine?

AF: Well after we finished the set up, we decided to send a simple test fax saying “Hello!” to my dad’s business to see our fax machine would work you know, but our message didn’t go through. Instead, we received the strangest, most unsettling faxes. The first fax we received from our test was a message or something saying in all caps “you are” then a series a gibberish letters. Then, the next fax we received said “I see” in all caps then the same series of gibberish letters. I know when I explain this situation in words that it doesn’t seem spooky to you, but at that time, my dad and I were thoroughly shook and frankly haunted by the messages that our fax machine delivered. And just when we were trying to process what had just happened, a third fax arrived and it said in all caps “bye” followed by a different series of gibberish letters.

JJ: Oh wow, that is quite an experience. Do you ever think that the fax machine was just malfunctioning and that’s why you received those strange faxes?

AF: Yes, my family are rationalists so at that time our explanation for this unsettling event was that our fax machine was just broken and that is why we received those messages. But the more I tell myself that, the more I realize that a broken fax machine could not have sent the words like ‘you’ ‘are’ and ‘see” on its own. There is no way that the machine could have mixed letters together and coincidentally form those words. You know, I was hesitant to believe that supernatural forces were actually real, but it seemed like the only explanation. Thankfully, this cyberghost like you mentioned earlier seemed to be benign because it didn’t set out to destroy all the technology in my dad’s business or anything like that.

JJ: Do you still have that same fax machine in your dad’s business?

AF: No, after that incident we decided to toss it and save up for a brand new fax machine. Thankfully the one we have now isn’t like haunted.


AF’s story is certainly an interesting one, as it exemplifies cognitive dissonance. Because she is a rationalist, a situation in which a fax machine disobeys the commands of a human and sends a message on its own disturbs our sense of how our world works. She sent a test fax saying “Hello!”, but the message never went through, and instead received words that were created by the fax machine. Whether it was a machine malfunction or a supernatural entity that was trying to communicate through the fax machine exemplifies the uncertainty that is associated with encountering a cyberghost. Our rational mindset tells us that an inanimate object such as a printer or fax machine cannot be haunted by ghost, but when the machine begins to act autonomously, we begin to challenge the belief that the machine is merely malfunctioning. When AF began to talk about the messages that the fax machine began to print on its own, her tone of voice had some uneasiness to it, indicating that her encounter with the haunted fax machine instilled a sense of uneasiness to her. Because the machine acted on its own, AF felt as if the machine was trying to communicate with her, which is a very unsettling experience in my opinion.



The Digital Ex Girlfriend

About a year ago, my good friend Danny went through a rough break up with his girlfriend of three years due to something he labelled as a “distance issue”. He claimed that during the last year of his relationship, he and his girlfriend’s main form of communication was Facebook messenger and Snapchat. When he split with his girlfriend, she cut off all contact with him and blacklisted his phone number which created a huge empty gap in his life, in which he spent many hours blankly staring at his cellphone expecting texts from his ex-girlfriend. Danny admits that he was in a state of “psychological distraught” because he believed that he was still in a relationship with his ex, and he even went so far to believe that he was even communicating with her via text messages. Now this is where the story gets interesting; how on earth was he able to talk to his ex through text messaging when they cut off contact months after their breakup? Well, Danny was going through so much emotional trauma during this time period that he was fully convinced that he was still in a relationship with his girlfriend. But how do you explain Danny’s assertion that he was still texting her? Although he never admitted that a “cyber ghost” was communicating with his through his cell phone, the same idea can be applied in this situation. Danny claims that his girlfriend had sent him ordinary/casual text messages such as “I miss you” or “let’s go to the movies” or “let’s hang out”. Clearly, Danny was so intent on the fact that he and his girlfriend were still in touch, but from a rational standpoint, his belief seems implausible, as his number was blocked on his ex’s cell phone. This situation raises the question whether Danny’s conversations with his girlfriend is just a manifestation of his psychological and emotional state, or was really a unknown cyber entity that participated in Danny’s imaginary relationship.

From Danny’s perspective, a loved one who was a major part of his life suddenly ceased to exist, and an event as abrupt as this resulted in serious consequences to his mentality. The fact that his girlfriend sent him texts could be an unsettling “cyberghost” phenomenon that sent Danny text messages as a cruel ploy to make him think he is still in a relationship. More realistically, this “cyberghost” was merely a creation of Danny’s imagination as a coping method to deal with the emotional pain. Nevertheless, the fact that Danny received text messages from his girlfriend who blocked all forms of communication is a very intriguing and interesting story to be discussed.


The Ghosts that Stop Your Car

Jack is currently a freshman studying Chemical Engineering at the University of Southern California. He grew up in a small suburb in New Jersey, and because of this, it was very easy for local legends to form and be spread. This is one of the local legends he remembers hearing while growing up.
“My dad used to take me to this windy road about 10 minutes from where I lived. According to him, a little girl and her mom were driving down a hill when the brakes stopped working. Because of that, they ended up going down the hill and crashing into either a tree or another car; honestly I forget, but regardless of what they hit, both the mother and the daughter died. The legend, according to my dad, was that if you put your car in neutral towards the bottom of the hill, the ghost of either the mother or daughter would possess your car and hit the break for you. It was to make sure your car stopped so that you wouldn’t get into the same accident that they did. Like I said, my dad used to take me to that hill a lot when I was younger and we wanted to go a drive. He would put the car in neutral, and just as he said we would roll down the hill for a little bit, and slowly but surely the car would stop. Of course I was younger so my dad totally could have made this up, and he definitely could have just been hitting the breaks himself, and even while thinking about it now I didn’t even realize that ghosts could possess cars and other types of machinery, but regardless my dad is very religious, so I don’t think he would even entertain the idea of a ghost unless he truly believed it.”
The small town that Jack lived in is common amongst some ghost stories, especially the local legends that are well known by people living in the area yet completely foreign and unheard of by people living outside the town. Some of my friends had also heard of the legend, but again, they were my friends and our parents were friends, so the legend could have spread that way, regardless of whether or not it was true. Assuming the legend is true, it’s interesting that the ghost possesses the car in order to stop it before rolling into the middle of the street. In other stories, the ghost might simply possess just the driver and have him/her hit the bakes, but since the mother and daughter died because of a brake malfunction, it makes sense that the ghosts would possess the car. That is more related to their cause of death. This might show that mechanical ghosts are born if the death of the ghost is directly related to/directly caused by something mechanical. Possessing or becoming a part of that machinery makes the “haunting” closer to the cause of death, and as we’ve learned with other ghost stories, a lot of souls remain near the person/thing/place that killed them.


Facebook from a Deceased Relative

The informant wanted to remain anonymous, but she stated that it would be okay to share some general information about her. She is currently a student at the University of Southern California studying through the school for communication and journalism. She claims to be moderately religious, especially after growing up with a Christian family in a predominantly Christian area.
Informant: “So my brother died my sophomore year of high school. It was one of the hardest times of my life, and for the first few weeks after he died I always prayed and hoped that I would see him again. But one day, I don’t know if I was crazy or what, I saw him post something on Facebook. I didn’t get it. Like he was gone, but he was still on Facebook? At first I was angry. Did someone hack his account? Was this some kind of sick and messed up joke? Would someone really do this? But I did some thinking, and, I don’t know. Yeah it’s possible that my brother queued up that post weeks before he died so that it just automatically posted when it did, but I just hoped that maybe it was something else. I don’t really believe in ghosts, but do I believe in my brother? Yeah. Maybe it was his way of telling me he was okay, like the post was about basketball, and he loved playing it everyday. So maybe he was okay? Maybe this wasn’t as bad as I thought? I’m sorry I’m just still confused, and I’ve never really talked about it with anyone.”

Interviewer: “Did anyone else see the post?”

Informant: “I don’t know. I ended up deleting his Facebook later on. The post was there, but no one has liked it. Like I said I could’ve been crazy, or maybe everyone else was just as confused as I was that they just glanced over it and ignored it and hoped it would all go away.”

Interviewer: “So do you think it was your brother’s ghost?”

Informant: “I don’t know. I knew his password, and it wasn’t something someone could just guess and hack his account. I think it might have been. But not really a ghost; maybe an angel? Whatever it was, it was my brother.”
The idea that these posts could have been made by either the ghost of the informant’s brother or simply set up by the brother while he was still alive creates an interesting juxtaposition. The idea that someone could be dead in the physical realm while alive in the digital realm creates this liminal/limbotic idea of life and death, similar to Schrödinger’s cat. While the brother is dead in the physical realm, his “spirit” or “ghost” lives on in the Internet. Again, it is unknown whether these posts were made by a ghost or simply queued up by the brother before his death, but it still creates an eerie yet complicated situation.


Profanity House

The following exchange was between myself and my friend Amy. Amy is from New Jersey. We attended middle school and high school together.

“Have you ever had any strange experiences with technology, like your laptop or phone, that you think may have been linked to paranormal activity?”

“I went to one of those profanity houses and there was one that was boarded up because a ghost supposedly lives there. It was super cold inside and gave me a weird feeling. I went in June I believe, so it was super hot outside but cold in the house. After I got home my phone didn’t work. The picture would fade down my phone into white gradually, and on the occasion I could actually open my phone, it would open apps and type randomly without me doing anything but holding the phone.”

“When you say the picture would fade down your phone into white, do you mean you would try to look at a picture you took and your screen would just go white?”

“Like the whole screen would fade to white. It would start at the top as the picture and about a fourth of the way down just fade into a white screen.”

“Do you remember where the profanity house was? Did you go with other people?”

“It was in New Jersey somewhere. I was with my sister Lisa, Cody and Louie.”

“How long were you there?”

“We were only outside the house for maybe 5 minutes max.”

“Wow. Thank you so much!”


Amy has never had any previous problems with her phone. She suspects the ghost that supposedly lives in the house has a way of disrupting technology, therefore explaining why her phone went blank.


The Texting Ghost

The interviewer’s comments are denoted through initials GM, while the interviewee’s responses are denoted by a VA.


GM: Has anything happened to you or your family that you can tell me about regarding a weird text or something cyber-related that you couldn’t explain – like an anomaly?


VA: My aunt’s friend died 7 years ago in a car accident. It was a hit and run, and the driver escaped and was never caught. My aunt got a text 3 years later from her deceased friend’s number, with a very cryptic message. The text said “Hey Kaira. Car that killed me: LP3 WQ56.” In shock, my aunt didn’t know what to do – she simply kept the phone in her trembling hand. A minute later, she received another text that provided her a location – what or who was at that location, she had no idea.


My aunt tried to use “Find My iPhone”, tried calling the cell provider company, but they told her the number simply didn’t exist. My aunt left for the location, purely motivated by her friend’s death and a will to find out the truth. She showed up at the location, and the conversation had deleted itself.  She found herself inside an empty shack or garage – just like a horror movie. Even though she was really freaking out, she looked around a bit, only to find absolutely nothing – no trace of anyone residing or even visiting the area. Eventually, she was far too scared to continue waiting for something to happen. She left and never received a text or call from that number again, but to this day she is forever fearful of her phone.


She is one of the few in our family to actually believe in ghosts, and she still maintains that that night she was texted by the ghost of her friend – she was just too late to find the killer. She never informed the police because the conversation was gone and she had no proof, but she told me this story to forever remember that there are supernatural powers always watching our actions.


Conclusion, written by the interviewer:


This story shows the modern adaptation of ghostly belief. Initially, ghosts were only seen or felt: if they were far, they were irrelevant. However, the evolution of technology and the presence of it in every aspect of our lives has given rise to cyber ghosts that can contact us in many different ways. This creates deeper mystery and fear, and, in the case of this story, can allow for action. While this story shows ties to much older beliefs, like regret over a friend or relative’s death, it allows text messages to bring the story into a very possible modern day experience that drove my interviewee’s aunt to do things she never rationally would.