A how-to guide on how to use a modified version of the Estes Method in solo paranormal investigations. I walk through how to set up your own Solo Estes Method kit, how to use it, cheap or free alternatives to buying new gear, and more.
• Some weird audio from a 1979 spirit communication
• A look at some ghost hunters who developed a technique very similar to the Estes Method
• A quick history of the Estes Method
Episode Script for How to Ghost Hunt By Yourself Using the Solo Estes Method
Note: Please be safe when you’re investigating. Don’t enter into private property or dangerous areas. If you feel unsafe being out and about alone, then try this indoors where you know you’re physically safe. And as with all things paranormal, be respectful and investigate at your own risk.
I’ve talked about the Solo Estes Method a bit before, for example, during my Ghosts of Mount Beacon episode. But this episode, I want to give a background on what the Estes Method is, and a how-to for how to do the Solo Estes Method
Most people interested in paranormal investigation have heard of the Estes Method, a technique that was popularized by the webseries Hellier. There’s a good reason for the Estes Method’s popularity. It potentially allows for real time communication with supernatural entities, reduces the risk of matrixing or pareidolia (hearing what you want to hear), and can be done relatively cheaply with tools that many paranormal investigators already own.
The basic concept of the Estes Method is this:
- One person (the Operator) asks questions, while another person (the Receiver) answers them.
- The Receiver can’t hear the questions or see the Operator, because they’re blindfolded and wearing noise blocking headphones that are plugged into a spirit box (a modified radio that can be set to sweep AM or FM stations at a swift rate, also known as a ghost box).
- The Receiver repeats any words that they hear from the spirit box.
If the Receiver hears words that answer the Operator’s questions, despite not knowing what the questions are, then there may be spirit communication afoot.
Despite the Estes Method’s benefits, it does have an important drawback for solo investigators: it requires two people to be present. However, last year, I started experimenting with a modified version of the Estes Method, which is possible to do alone. While the technique has some drawbacks, I’ve gotten interesting results so far, and I think the Solo Estes Method is a great option for people who want to investigate on their own.
The Solo Estes Method should lower the barrier to entry for people who are interested in investigating on their own but don’t know where to start. My goal of this essay is to share what I’ve been doing, what I’ve learned in related research, and to document my early thoughts about the benefits and pitfalls of the Solo Estes Method. My hope is that other people can take what I’ve been doing and figure out better ways to do it.
My Experience with the Estes Method
On March 12, 2020, I traveled to Salem, Massachusetts, stayed in the Hawthorne Hotel, and tried the Estes Method for the first time. I was excited to try out the technique I’d heard so much about. In Salem, my wife acted as Receiver, and my friend and I asked questions. The session yielded interesting responses, leading us to information about the area and the hotel that we hadn’t known about. I worried that it was beginner’s luck, but was excited to try it again.
However, by the time I returned home to Queens, NY, the United States had started to take the pandemic somewhat seriously. Trying to find a way to work around the lockdown, I toyed with the idea of performing a socially distanced Estes Method, with a friend calling me and asking questions, something that I know other people have tried. However, after an unsettling solo experience with a planchette (the automatic writing device), I decided that I needed to pause all paranormal investigation until I did some initial research and had clawed my way out of my lockdown-induced depression.
Despite having paused investigating, over the following year, I pondered ways to make the Estes Method work for a solo investigator.
My first thought was that I could write questions on notecards, shuffle the cards, and hold them up to a camera, instead of having an outside person ask the questions. There were some issues there, though: logistically, I’d have to make sure I was somewhere where I could set up a camera in good light and make sure it could pick up something written on a card, which I would have to hold up with the correct side facing the camera while my eyes were closed, blindfolded, or at least averted. Plus, I could only write down so many questions, and they’d be fresh in my mind, so I might end up hearing what I wanted to hear. I continued to puzzle over it: Could I set up some kind of formula in a spreadsheet to shuffle a list of questions? Was there an app that could shuffle flashcards?
Then, one night in summer 2021, just as I was falling asleep, I realized there was a far easier solution: I could record a bunch of questions, put them on shuffle in my phone’s music player, and have the phone act as Operator, while I could be the Receiver. As long as I had a recorder positioned so it could pick up the audio from the phone’s speakers and my own voice at the same time, it would work.
Since then, I’ve been testing out the solo version of the method. I remain a rank amateur, and I know I’m not the first person to think of adapting the Estes Method for solitary use. (For example, the podcast Small Town Secrets has an August 2020 YouTube video using the notecard method, and also mentions the idea of pre-recording questions, which I discovered a month or two after starting to test my version of the Solo Estes Method.)
I’ve tried the Solo Estes Method in my apartment, in different parks in New York City, on a mountaintop in upstate New York, and in the woods of North Carolina, and I’ve gotten some pretty interesting–and at times unsettling–responses.
History of the Estes Method
Before getting into how to do the Solo Estes Method, it’s worth looking at the history of the Estes Method and what makes it so groundbreaking and popular.
Prior to the Estes Method, the use of spirit boxes in paranormal investigation had been popularized by TV shows like Ghost Adventures. The spirit box was a controversial device, since people used it by asking questions and then listening to hear if they got a response. Since they knew what question they’d just asked, it was likely that even well-intentioned investigators were hearing what they wanted to hear.
But before the spirit box was popular on paranormal TV shows, this type of ITC (instrumental transcommunication) was more of a DIY project. In 1979, George Meek and Bill O’Neil created the Spiricom, an early spirit box made of 13 tone generators. You can find clips online of Bill O’Neil communicating with a supposed spirit named Dr. George Jeffries Mueller. Later, in 2002, Frank Sumption came up with the first modern ghost box, the “Frank’s Box.” In the late 2000s, “Shack Hacks,” became popular; people would follow online instructions on how to modify cheap Radio Shack radios to work as spirit boxes.
In 2016, during the filming for the webseries Spirits of the Stanley, investigators Karl Pfeiffer, Connor Randall, and Michelle Tate tried out an idea they’d been talking about for the previous five years. That idea was an early iteration of the Estes Method, which Pfeiffer and Randall continued to refine and test. The method was named after the town of Estes Park, Colorado, the location of the Stanley Hotel.
In an interview with the website Week In Weird, Randall suggests that the Estes Method works through psychic means: “I think it’s quite possible that the method is simply a barrier breaker to being able to perceive the voices of spirits that are trying to communicate via our minds.” The Estes Method has some parallels to the Ganzfeld experiment, a test of psychic abilities that consists of putting ping pong balls which have been cut in half over someone’s eyes, playing static, and seeing if the person can describe an image that is being psychically sent to them.
In 2013, separately from Pfieffer and Randall’s work, investigators Shawn Taylor and Daniel Morgan published a book called The Double-Blind Ghost Box: Scientific Methods, Examples, and Transcripts. Their version of the method is the Double Blind Ghost Box Session, alluding to their more scientific (and less psychic) approach to the technique. One key difference between their Double Blind Ghost Box Session and the Estes Method is that the spirit box is connected to the mic input on a recorder, so the spirit box audio is recorded. The receiver’s headphones are plugged into the headphone jack on that recorder. A second recorder is set up to document the questions and responses. Then, during evidence review, the investigator listens back to the spirit box audio as well.
The Double-Blind Ghost Box method assumes that the actual spirit box audio is what’s most important, rather than someone’s (potentially psychic) response to hearing the spirit box audio. (However, the authors do give examples where receivers hear things, like a prolonged period of loud singing, that aren’t present in the spirit box audio that they listen back to, suggesting that something psychic may still be at work.)
I tend to be of the opinion that the Estes Method is based more on what the person is perceiving psychically when listening to the spirit box, rather than on what might appear in a recording of the spirit box audio. But either way, The Double-Blind Ghost Box: Scientific Methods, Examples, and Transcripts is valuable reading for anyone interested in the Estes Method, because it gives a less-talked-about perspective on this sort of investigation.
How to do the Solo Estes Method
What You Need
There are a handful of items you’ll need in order to do the Solo Estes Method. The full list is below, but I tried to offer alternatives to buying new gear whenever possible. The spirit box is the most important item, however.
You’ll need a computer and a DAW (an audio editing program) to record your questions. I recommend using Audacity, a free audio editor (which you can download for free at https://www.audacityteam.org/) . If you don’t have a computer, you may be able to record the questions on a smartphone, load them into a music app, shuffle them, and then listen to the final audio on your phone or recorder, though that solution will likely be harder.
I use an P-SB7 Spirit Box, though any spirit box should work. If you have an old radio, you may be able to find instructions to make it into a “Shack Hack” spirit box and save some money. At the time of writing, a P-SB7 goes for $80-100 USD online. I haven’t tested any spirit box smartphone apps, so you could try one of those, though I haven’t heard anything good about smartphone paranormal investigation apps in general. I would take any results from one with a large grain of salt.
You could also try something like Liminal Earth’s Christmas Spirit Box: https://christmasspiritbox.com/
You can make your own from any collection of mp3s (this takes a bit of tech savvy): https://github.com/Liminal-Earth/custom-spirit-box
Other Liminal Earth links:
If you don’t already own one, you should be able to buy a digital recorder for $50 USD or less. I usually use a Sony ICD-PX370, which is lightweight and easy to connect to your computer. If you don’t want to buy a recorder, you can also probably get away with using a recorder app on your phone, or you can record using Audacity on your computer (though that will mean bringing your computer with you when investigating).
You’ll want a pair of sound-blocking (not noise canceling) headphones. Typically, people use the Vic Firth stereo isolation headphones, which are drummer’s headphones that are great at blocking external sound. In a pinch, I’ve also used regular earbuds (after testing to make sure I couldn’t hear the questions played on my smartphone), but that isn’t recommended.
You’ll probably want to use your phone to play the questions, though you could also use an mp3 player with external speakers or your computer to play the audio, if you prefer. Any audio player with a shuffle function will do.
Optional: An eye mask or blindfold
Create your Solo Estes Session Kit
You’ll need to have a little bit of tech savvy to record and set up your questions. This initial setup is the hardest part, but you’ll only need to do it once.
1. Come up with a list of questions
In a spreadsheet software like Google Sheets (which is free), make a document with at least two columns: “Question” and “Number.” I also added columns labeled “Recorded” (for me to mark off whether I’d recorded the question yet or not) and “Source” (to note where I got a question from, if I didn’t think of it myself.)
Then brainstorm a list of questions, adding each one to its own row in the “Question” column. I used a mix of questions I’d sourced online, and questions I’d thought of myself. I wanted to pull questions from other sources because they were phrased differently from how I would have written them, and because some of them weren’t things I would have asked. I was looking for variety because that would make it harder for me to guess what question was playing and start to hear what I wanted to hear.
To start, I came up with about 150 questions. I wanted to make sure there were a lot, again, so it would be harder for me to accidentally guess them.
2. Assign a random number to each question
You don’t have to do this step, but I strongly recommend it. If you assign a random number to each question, you’ll be able to make each question’s filename a random number instead of with the question. So if you happen to glance at your phone during the session, all you’ll see is a random number, and that won’t bias you as you listen for answers. But if you need to locate a particular audio file later on, you’ll be able to look up the file name in your spreadsheet.
To assign a random number, type this formula into the cell in the “Number” column next to your first question: =randbetween(100,1000000)
That formula will fill in the cell with a random number between 100 and 1,000,000. You can choose any number range you want, but the bigger, the better, because that reduces the chance of having a duplicate number. Copy this formula down to all of the cells below, so each question has its own random number.
Once the numbers have been assigned, select the entire column, copy it, then right click (or Command+click on a Mac) and select Paste Special > Paste Values Only. That will remove the formula and leave you with just the numbers. If you don’t do that, the numbers will re-randomize every time you edit the spreadsheet.
If you find later on that a number is repeated, just add another number or two to the end of it to make it unique again.
That’s the end of the spreadsheet part of things!
3. Record the questions
Open up Audacity or another audio recording program and record your first question.
Once you’ve recorded the question, add some silence onto the end of the recording (you can do that by just letting it continue to record.) I added about 1 minute to the end of each question. That will give you time to answer during the session, before the next question plays.
Once you’ve recorded the first question, export it as an mp3 and name the file with the random number that the spreadsheet assigned it.
Continue recording questions and saving each of them as an individual file until all of your questions are recorded.
I also included a couple “questions” that were just 1-3 minute stretches of silence, also with random numbers as their filenames. I did that just to add some additional randomness to the session, and to make the cadence of the questions less predictable to me. (Again, my goal with these questions is to try to “trick” my subconscious into not being able to guess what’s being asked, or not asked, on the recording, and thereby hopefully getting more trustworthy results.)
This process will take a while, but the good news is that you’ll only need to do it once (unless you decide to add or eliminate questions later).
4. Update the questions’ metadata
Drag and drop the questions into Mp3Tag (which you can download for free) or iTunes. Once all of the questions are loaded into the program, highlight all of them, and update the album name to “Estes Session Kit” or something similar.
(You can skip this step if you labeled each file with a consistent album name when you exported them, though it was faster for me to just update the metadata all at once at the end.)
Subscribe on Patreon to get the Solo Estes Method Kit (pre-recorded questions) that I made: https://www.patreon.com/buriedsecretspodcast
5. Upload the questions onto your smartphone
Download the questions onto your smartphone and open them up in a music app. (I like to use Pulsar, but anything that allows you to shuffle tracks within an album will work.)
Open up the album you created, and play it on shuffle. The questions should play from the phone’s speakers (or an external speaker), not from headphones.
Test it out with your recorder to get a sense of how loud you should have the volume turned up, and how close your recorder should be for it to pick up the sound from both your phone’s speakers and your voice.
Now that the prep work’s done, it’s time to investigate. Bring your digital recorder, phone, spirit box, and headphones to the location you want to investigate.
The typical Estes Method requires you to be blindfolded, but since you’re investigating alone, it may not be safe to be blindfolded. (I do usually take my glasses off, though, because the Vic Firths are uncomfortable to wear with my glasses. If I decide it isn’t safe for me to be in the location without my glasses on, I usually use a different pair of headphones, making sure to test the audio extra carefully to make sure that I can’t hear the questions over the spirit box.) However, since there isn’t an Operator whose lips you might accidentally read, and the questions are labelled with random numbers, the lack of a blindfold shouldn’t compromise the results from that standpoint. (Though it will make the Estes session less of a sensory deprivation exercise.)
Plug your headphones into the spirit box and turn on the spirit box, setting it to sweep stations. (If you’re using an SB7, plugging it into the spout should get you louder audio than plugging it into the headphone jack.)
Test out the question audio on your phone: Play a question and see if you can hear it. If you can, turn the spirit box volume up louder or move the phone further away from you until you can’t hear it anymore.
Turn on the recorder, and place it where it can pick up both the phone audio and your responses.
Record a quick tag for the audio: State the date, time, and location. I also like to address any spirits that might be present, explain that I’d like to communicate, and talk a little bit about how the Estes Method works.
When you’re ready, press shuffle on your questions and start the session. Say any words that you hear clearly through the spirit box. If you aren’t getting much, you may want to experiment with the sweep rate, switch from AM to FM (or vice versa), or try retracting or extending the spirit box’s antennae.
I usually set a timer on my watch for 20-30 minutes, and then end the session once the timer goes off. Sometimes I want to go for longer, or shorter, times, so I try to just go with what feels right and end the session when I feel like it should be over.
To end the session, stop the questions on your phone. I usually keep the headphones on for a minute or so after that and say anything I hear, then I turn off the spirit box and thank anyone who was speaking to me. I keep the recorder on and and say how I’m feeling, how I think it went, and anything else I think I’d want to remind myself of when I listen back.
Review your evidence
Time to see what you got! Listen back to the audio on your recorder, or on your computer. I like to write down the entire session’s questions and answers in a notebook, and then read through, adding asterisks next to responses that seemed like answers to my questions.
Pitfalls of the Solo Estes Method
The biggest benefit of the Solo Estes Method is that it’s easy to do. You can do it alone, on a whim, whenever you want, without needing to make plans with anyone. (I’ve taken to carrying around my Estes Method kit in my bike bag so I have it in case I want to try an impromptu session.) It’s great if you don’t know local people who are into paranormal investigation, or if your investigation pals are busy on a day when you want to check out a location.
There are a lot of drawbacks to the method, however. Looking at it objectively, I don’t think the Solo Estes Method is as good as the regular Estes Method. But I also think it’s better than nothing. The Solo Estes Method’s drawbacks aren’t enough to make me reconsider using it, but they’re worth being aware of.
There are, of course, safety risks to being out and about alone. That goes double for when you’re in a potentially remote location, and even if you take my advice and forgo the blindfold, you’re still alone, with your hearing blocked out.
Ensure that you’re somewhere safe, and that your emergency contact knows where you are and when you expect to return home. Consider using a GPS device that allows you to broadcast your location to your emergency contact.
Also, be sure that you aren’t trespassing. Off-limits areas can have many dangers, whether it’s an over-vigilant property owner, other trespassers, unstable structures, or unpleasant animal or insect life.
I usually investigate during the day at public parks that I know well, but even that holds some risks. Be careful, and if you aren’t comfortable being out and about alone, you could try out the Solo Estes Method at home or in a hotel room.
Instead of having a human Operator asking questions based on what responses you have received so far, you’re relying on a music player on shuffle. Depending on which, and how many questions you record, you may find that your phone repeats questions, plays questions that make no sense in the context of the larger session, or asks questions that aren’t appropriate for your situation. You’ll be unable to ask follow up questions when you get an interesting response.
You also may find that there’s too long, or too short, of a gap between questions. For example, I’ve had Solo Estes Sessions where I get a quick (sensible) answer to my question right off the bat, but in the time between that answer and the next question, seemingly random, nonsensical responses start to come in. I have a feeling that whatever I was communicating with had answered quickly, then gotten bored waiting for the next question. If I’d been with a human Operator, they could have asked another question right after getting an answer that made sense, staving off random responses, and leading to a session that made more sense in general. (And that could cover more ground in the same amount of time.)
In addition to the logistical issues with playing random questions, you may also risk whoever or whatever you’re communicating with getting annoyed at you for not being able to have a normal conversation. I don’t believe that I’ve had a session yet where this has happened, but it’s something to keep an eye out for, since conducting a conversation with someone using a list of random questions may not be the most respectful way to behave.
You Know What Questions You Recorded
When responding to questions you recorded yourself, there’s always the possibility that you might hear what you want to hear.
I’ve tried to mitigate this issue by mixing in questions that I found online that I probably wouldn’t have asked, and thus probably am less likely to unconsciously think of a response to; naming files with random numbers, varying the lengths of audio files; and having a bunch of recorded questions. You could also ask a friend to select and record questions for you, and if you find that some questions end up being played more often than others, you can always “retire” some questions (or reword and re-record them) to keep yourself on your toes.
I’m pretty comfortable with this issue with the Solo Estes Method, however, because even in a regular Estes Method session, you can probably guess a lot of the questions that might be asked. Most Operators would ask questions like “Is there anyone here?”, “Who am I talking to?”, “How old are you?”, etc, as well as questions specific to the place you’re investigating. If you’ve investigated with someone often, you’re also likely to know what sorts of questions they tend to ask, and in what order. So even during a regular Estes Method session, matrixing is always a risk.
The Psychic Aspect
If the Estes Method potentially relies on psychic communication, what happens when part of that conversation is conducted by a machine? Perhaps part of what makes the Estes Method so effective is that the Operator is psychically as well as verbally transmitting their queries. If that’s the case, just having the questions played audibly might not be as effective as having a person think the questions as well as speak them.
Also, if you aren’t blindfolded, then you might be distracted by the things around you, which could have an effect on whether you’re picking up as much as you could from a psychic standpoint. The blindfold would contribute to the sensory deprivation experience that might make you more receptive to psychic messages, as well. But for me, the safety benefits of not being blindfolded are worth the tradeoff.
No Real-time Feedback
One of the biggest benefits of the regular Estes Method is that you can have a conversation in real time, unlike EVP sessions where you record audio, and then need to listen back to the audio later before you know if you got anything. The Solo Estes Method goes back to the non-ideal state of having to review the evidence afterwards in order to learn whether you were having a conversation or not.
One nice thing about a regular Estes session is that it involves at least one witness. Short of having the spirit box volume turned too low and being able to hear the Operator’s questions, it’s harder to cheat, and harder to hear what you want to hear. That’s the whole point of the method, and why it’s become so popular.
But if you’re hoping to use your results to convince a skeptical audience, there’s a lot more they could pick apart and question during a solo Estes session.
Closing Thoughts About the Solo Estes Method
While there are drawbacks to the method, when determining if the Solo Estes Method may be right for you, it’s important to look at your own goals. Why are you undertaking a paranormal investigation? Who are you trying to convince of your results, and/or where will you be sharing them? What are you looking to learn?
As for me, my goal isn’t really to convince anyone of anything. I’m looking to learn, and my ultimate goal is to learn something from an Estes session that I didn’t already know, whether it’s a story of someone in history, something about the location, or just another sliver of knowledge about the unknown. While I like to share my results and my thoughts, I wouldn’t be offended if someone dismissed everything that I got during a solo Estes session (or any paranormal investigation).
For that reason, I don’t mind that the Solo Estes Method is a bit less credible than the original version. It makes paranormal investigation more accessible to me, and easier for me to do often, and I find it easier to decipher than other solo investigation methods like EVP sessions. But your mileage may vary.
If you’re a solo investigator, someone looking for a low-cost, easy way to get into paranormal investigation, or just an investigator who can’t always meet up with friends for an investigation, the Solo Estes Method will probably serve you well.
Videos and podcasts consulted
Small Town Secrets Youtube video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=T9pcDdJO7qk
The Double-Blind Ghost Box: Scientific Methods, Examples, and Transcripts by Shawn Taylor and Daniel Morgan
ITC Voices: http://itcvoices.org
How to Make a Spirit Box: https://paranormalschool.com/homemade-spirit-box/
Clips online of Bill O’Neil communicating with a supposed spirit named Dr. George Jeffries Mueller: http://worlditc.org/k_06_spiricom.htm