Raindrops fall on the only roof he can put above his family, the nylon of the rain flap – and the tent beneath it – taking blow after blow with each concussive bead. Two weeks of this, four hours today, have made small divots in the fabric where the water pools up, and, eventually, will seep into the cabin unless drained by hand. Daniel Roberge, at thirty-eight years of age, has learned to press his fist into the cloth instead of punching it, which could aggravate the divot and create a larger leak.
He’s been outside climbing trees and hanging tarps while spiders crawled in his beard. What isn’t wet is damp, like his glasses, like the skin of the freezer bag that holds his Android phone and tablet. Roberge carries this bag each morning to the offices at Autumn Hills campground in Weare, New Hampshire to use the free Wi-Fi and answer emails. “Where are my friends?” he tweets on August 10, 2012.
The drips are manageable now, drips that soak his sleeping bag, drips that fall on the faces of his sons: ten-year-old Gabriel and seven-year-old Irie, who are off from school for the summer and spending time on dad’s “camping trip.” Each droplet of water drums on the wishful thought that he has repeatedly told himself since being evicted from his apartment on July 22: “I am not the man who fails this way.”
It’s crazy to think that, though he lives in the woods, Roberge is a tech entrepreneur making his play on the world’s digital circus maximus. His mobile software business “Big Beard Audio” just launched its first mobile app called “SV-1 SpiritVox,” selling for $2.75 on the Google Play store with an average 4.5-star user review rating out of a possible five stars. The Internet beckons like a lottery ticket, with its promise of Zuckerberg-like riches. He tells himself that those purchases will replenish his bank accounts. He knows it’s a fantasy, but one he desperately needs to believe.
He posts emergency messages on Twitter, begging for donations:
“HOMELESS! please RT and try to help! http://www.rhythmicsin.com/donations this is not a joke.”
Roberge lost his job and source of income as a concert stagehand, setting up and testing equipment for big-name acts like Judas Priest, when his knee exploded back in April. Unable to work, he redirected his audio engineering expertise into his life’s other great passion: the paranormal.
* * *
As a child growing up in Goffstown, New Hampshire, Roberge had recurring nightmares about ghosts and monsters. He courted darkness actively as a teen, toying with séances and Satanism as a way of rejecting Christianity by embracing its taboos. Friends would gather at the farmhouse of his best buddy John Kelly, which was reputed to be haunted. There, they’d mess around with the resident ghost. “We used a Ouija board, and we’d read some [Aleister] Crowley occult books,” Roberge recalls now, at age forty-one. “And we did magic circles on the floor.”
Roberge wasn’t exactly certain what he was interacting with, but he witnessed things he could not explain. “People were getting scratched, pushed, hair pulled,” he says. He claims he saw a Ouija board planchette move by itself and his friend Shawn Morin thrown across a room. Roberge accepted these mysteries as part of reality, skeptical of what they were or what they meant, but certain that they happened.
He dropped out of high school and bounced around the country playing in hard rock bands throughout the nineties. Dreams of stardom burned out, and he fell in love with sound engineering. After hours, he’d mess around with noise in recording studios and hear strange things in reverb. “There’s many times in my life being a musician and just being around machinery where I was like, ‘Did I just hear a voice?’”
Roberge settled back in New Hampshire, got married and had his two sons. Traveling from town to town as a musician isolated him from his family, and ultimately led to his first divorce.
He took work as a stagehand at local arenas — eighteen- to twenty-hour days moving equipment with no union protections. So when he brought Gabriel and Irie to the park one afternoon to kick around a soccer ball and felt his knee buckle beneath him, he was instantly sidelined from his occupation without workman’s comp.
Bedridden, he sat at his laptop and scanned the Internet. Stumbling onto a music app called Caustic, which offered a phone-based production suite, Roberge taught himself to write code for Google Android phones using a developer kit and community forums. He launched a few expansion packs for Caustic, uploading his original music samples into the program, and began the hunt for his own project. He scanned the Android store looking for a paranormal investigation app and found nothing he deemed “half-reputable.” In the absence of a major player, Roberge saw opportunity to create something new for himself and others like him: “turning your very expensive iPhone or iPad or Samsung Galaxy into a piece of paranormal investigation equipment.”
Ghost hunting shows like MTV’s “Paranormal State” and Syfy’s “Ghost Hunter” were mainstreaming the concept of the dead floating among the living, and Roberge sensed an underserved market in TV-watching enthusiasts who wanted to conduct their own investigations, but on a budget.
Specialty ghost hunting gear mostly prices out the mainstream public, running anywhere from $100 for a Mel Meter, which measures electromagnetism and temperature, to $1,200 for 360-degree camera rigs. Technology has run wild in the field of paranormal instrumental trans-communication, or “ITC,” which converts the once mystic practice of hiring a psychic or calling a priest into a pseudo-scientific process of enlisting a ghost-hunting team who will show up with vanloads of equipment. ITC theorizes that since everything in the universe exists as matter or energy, a disembodied (or “matter-less”) spirit would exist as energy that can be measured and, perhaps, contacted. Though mainstream scientists reject these concepts as intellectual voodoo, the general American public, seventy-three percent of whom admit to at least one paranormal belief, according to a 2005 Gallup survey, is not so dismissive.
In stepped Roberge. He’d always been a fan of “ghost boxes,” or radio transmitters that sweep AM frequencies. Ghost boxes are part of an ITC subcategory called electronic voice phenomenon (EVP) research, which involved analyzing recorded sounds that can be interpreted as spirit voices. The first ghost box was a radio transmitter invented in 2002 by EVP enthusiast Frank Sumption. Ten years later, Roberge was shocked to find no digital version of this hardware available as mobile software. His SV-1 SpiritVox is a simple concept: an app that generates random white noise through an Android’s speaker system. In theory, this noise can be used in tandem with an EVP recorder to investigate spikes in activity.
The idea of using mobile software for a serious investigation was new terrain. Most experts in the field, like Zak Baggins of the Travel Channel’s “Ghost Adventures,” were skeptical that a smartphone held the capacity to reach the beyond. When Roberge posted an article about SpiritVox on Reddit, a user made the comment “Bullshit detected!” and Roberge sounded almost apologetic when he responded, “I am trying to make the best stuff I can that everyone can afford. I know it’s not hardware.” Yet his life depended on this app finding its audience. It launched on June 25, 2012 during his eviction proceedings.
SpiritVox made the Top 100 most popular Android lifestyle apps on July 5. By the 16th it was the top new paid app. He launched on iTunes a few weeks later and then users began collaborating and posting their SpiritVox sessions. An investigator named illvet1 posted a session in which a girl’s voice supposedly rises through the noise.
Within six weeks, Roberge racked up nearly 2,000 SpiritVox downloads. These purchases, plus donations from friends, provided enough money to escape the rain. “3 weeks outdoors is too long for children,” Roberge tweeted on August 12, 2012. “We are heading for the cheapest motel I could find.”
For the first time in his life, Daniel Roberge became known for something. His inventions made the hunt for spirits accessible to the average person. Paranormal enthusiasts nicknamed him “Danny Big Beard,” an homage to his unkempt whiskers. “I used to want to be a rock star,” Roberge says. “This is way better.”
On September 1, 2012, SpiritVox had more than 10,000 paid downloads. Roberge’s bank account brimmed, and his passion was his actual profession. “Full Time Paranormal Investigator & Inventor,” he wrote in a Facebook status on September 27. “How the fuck did I pull this off?”
Only a small percentage of enthusiasts make the paranormal their full-time job. “There’s a million paranormal investigators out there that take it very seriously, but it’s their hobby,” explains Roberge. Even Steve Huff, an investigator with more than 60,000 YouTube subscribers and 100,000 likes on his Facebook page, treats his paranormal work as a side project. “Ninety-five percent of my time is taken up by my full time job of running my photo website,” he wrote on his blog Huff Paranormal in 2011.
Roberge’s software was in use on every continent except Antarctica. His YouTube Channel had 22,600 views, and paranormal celebrities reached out to him, including Bill Murphy and Ben Hansen of SyFy’s “Fact or Faked: Paranormal Files.” So much had happened since escaping the tent and landing in a two-bedroom apartment he affectionately named the “SpiritVox House.” The kids were in school again — he split custody with his ex-wife — and his son, Gabriel, kept asking if he could launch a Twitter account called SpiritVoxJr and post EVP sessions.
Success also attracted his first trolls and haters. A twitter follower named @RPI_INVESTORS requested tech support on a pirated version of SpiritVox, and, when Roberge asked him to purchase the app, the user tweeted, “Id rather spend money on a real ghost box.” Roberge’s parents, at odds with their son since he dropped out of high school, scoffed at his paranormal creations as just another scheme. “My parents don’t believe any of this,” he says. “They think I’ve made all this up. So when my kids are like, ‘Daddy’s a famous ghost hunter,’ they’re like, ‘No, he’s not.’”
* * *
In late August 2012 Roberge launched his second successful app, “Spiritfone,” which stood as a companion to SpiritVox. Where SpiritVox generates EVP noise, Spiritfone records the results. Spiritfone also provides a playback delay to give investigators in old houses or cemeteries a rhythm for asking questions and listening for answers. These pauses facilitate what Roberge calls “two-way communication,” which can then be examined in a postmortem session. Spiritfone, as a brand new app, wasn’t immune to the typical bugs, and Roberge stayed up late into evenings helping users troubleshoot.
One Wednesday night bled into a Thursday morning during an extra long Q&A session. He saw his two Android phones sitting next to each other and decided to experiment. He booted up SpiritVox on the left and Spiritfone on the right. Then, he unplugged his headphones and lets the apps interact.
For the first few seconds, there was clean sound between them. Then the Spiritfone playback kicked in, which merged with the SpiritVox noise to form a sonic loop. Feedback fed on feedback in an infinite echo. “What is your name?” Roberge asked, directing the question to a dark room. “Mike,” a voice answered almost immediately. “Danny?” the voice sounded like it asked. “Yes, did you say my name?” Roberge answered through the echoes. Then Roberge said to himself, “This is the most bizarre thing I’ve ever heard in my life.”
EVP recording normally takes ample patience and generous interpretation in analyzing the data. Investigators can spend hours posing questions to an empty room without success. Additionally, Roberge designed SpiritVox to eliminate the “false positives” generated by EVP hardware, which scan radio frequencies and pick up buzzwords like “excellent” or “money” from bits of on-air commercials. These false-positives satisfy a user looking to confirm future riches, but, in Roberge’s mind, distract from serious research. Several of his first SpiritVox users cited the lack of responses as proof that the app was legitimate. “The fact that you can keep it on for hours with no voices coming through when not having a session helps prove how true the results will be,” wrote a user named Carrie in a review. As the paranormal dictum went, an absence of evidence did not signify evidence of absence.
So, to get responses within the first few seconds of simultaneously booting up SpiritVox and Spiritfone was unprecedented. Sounds compiling and layering one atop the other, in Roberge’s estimation, created a kind of exponential boost. He pictured sound waves shooting from the speakers and bouncing back to the microphone, reading the room like sonar. “It doesn’t just help us hear them,” he says. “It helps them hear us.” He couldn’t believe what he’d discovered: a way to put EVP on steroids and converse with the unknown. This wasn’t just a digital extension of a physical tool. This echo stood for something new.
* * *
Elated with his breakthrough, Roberge hopped into his Volvo 240 and drove two and a half hours to Newport, Rhode Island, to visit his friend Dwayne Paiva. Roberge had met Paiva during the month at Autumn Hills, where their two families shared neighboring campsites — though the Paiva family was actually on a camping trip. These new friends were a lifeline during Roberge’s time in purgatory. Paiva’s teen daughter Wynter came to trust Roberge enough to share that she was terrified of her bedroom. A dark corner made her afraid, she said, and she’d wake up to find strange symbols drawn on pieces of paper.
Roberge arrived at the Paiva residence, a white, two-story home built in 1950, and the kids gave “Uncle Danny” a tour. “I remember the first time I walked into Wynter’s room,” remembers Roberge. “It was kind of weird because all of her stuff was at one side of the room, and then dividing the room was a low dresser with a TV on it. And then the other half of the room just didn’t have anything in it.” Wynter told him that something leered at her from the empty space. Roberge booted up SpiritVox and Spiritfone, and aggressive words spouted from the device: “Get out. Leave.”
Later, Roberge, Wynter, and her boyfriend and sister sat on the end of the mattress in Wynter’s bedroom listening to the devices. They asked the spirit to show them a sign. Between the mattress and the bureau sat an empty McDonald’s cup. “All of a sudden, out of nowhere, the cup wiggles and turns over,” says Roberge. “Like, rolls, like somebody went alongside it and blew on it really hard or tapped it.” There was no breeze. He tried to feel under the door for a draft but found nothing. The laws of thermodynamics dictate that energy cannot be created, only transferred. So a force must have compelled the cup to change position. How could four people have witnessed a stationary object move by itself?
Deep into the night, with everyone else asleep, Roberge descended into the Paivas’ dark basement with no devices. He called to the presence, saying: “Listen, I love these people, and this is a good family. You need to get the fuck out of here.” At that moment, something shoved his shoulder. He turned around and saw nothing but pitch black. “But, I swear, it was blacker than black,” he says. The blackness formed a shape. He doesn’t believe in demons or the Devil, but he does believe in evil. He believes that forces out there, which no one could perceive, can reach out and kill a human being. No one would’ve known. They’d just find him dead in the basement.
He slowly backed up the stairs and told the presence that he wasn’t afraid.
When he awoke the next morning, the house felt calmer. “Last night I had to fight, no choice,” he posted on Facebook. Still, Wynter refused to sleep in her bedroom. She moved into the room next door with her sister, leaving Roberge still feeling unsettled. Perhaps talking to the spirit had emboldened it or strengthened its connection to Wynter. He didn’t fully understand this technology. He sent out a tweet asking his 600 followers to say a prayer of protection.
* * *
Days later, sitting in his bedroom in New Hampshire, Roberge smelled something familiar: rose and lavender. These were the oils worn by his grandmother Antonia, who died in 2006. He called her “Mémé,” the French-Canadian term for grandmother. She’d been the only member of his family to support him when he dropped out of high school. “My Mémé was the closest person to me in my whole life,” says Roberge. “The only person in my family who I felt really loved me.” He had some of her ashes mixed with ink and tattooed on his arm so she would always be with him.
He booted up his devices, and the words “below,” “downstairs,” and “bad,” poured through. He racked his brain to assign meaning to these words. The combination of Mémé’s smell and “below” made him think of his grandmother’s urn. Ordinarily, he kept the urn at his bedside to honor her, but with all the moving it sat neglected in a box in the basement. The voice echoing through Spiritfone sounded unfamiliar though. It certainly was not the voice of Antonia. Still, he went downstairs and retrieved the urn. When he got back to his bedroom, the smell dissipated. In his gut, he suspected that a third-party spirit had been acting as an intermediary for his Mémé. He believed this experience with such conviction that he posted on Facebook: “IT WAS MY GRANDMOTHER.”
On November 27, 2012, Daniel Roberge launched an all-in-one app that combined the best of SpiritVox and Spirtfone — echoing noise through a bank of random phonetic sounds and recording the results. He named the app “EchoVox” and branded it with a unique logo: the spiral triangle, an ancient symbol dating back to Renaissance occultism to signify opening a portal.
Fearful of attracting thrill chasers who’d buy this device for entertainment, he priced EchoVox at $50. By comparison, the average Android app cost around $3.75. “I don’t wanna be responsible for a 12yo opening some ancient portal of rape demons,” he wrote on Facebook to explain his pricing model. The point wasn’t to get EchoVox in as many hands as possible but to get it in the right hands — those of professional investigators. This decision shrunk his user base; EchoVox had just twenty-five downloads in its first week.
Paranormal authorities like Steve Huff were quick to take notice though. Two days after the launch, Huff tweeted Roberge, “Just posted a video using EchoVox as well as SpiritFone/SpiritVoice. Echo needs a 2nd slider [in my opinion] but great job :).” On December 1st, Robb Demarest, lead investigator on the SyFy show “Ghost Hunters International,” tweeted Roberge to set up an EchoVox training session: “Let’s do this. I must admit some apprehension, but Im thrilled to give it an honest trial.” By the end of December, EchoVox had amassed three hundred downloads, generating fifteen thousand dollars of revenue for Big Beard Audio. In less than six months, Roberge had transitioned not just his technology from fringe to mainstream but also himself from an unknown entity to paranormal industry elite.
* * *
For two and a half years, Daniel Roberge has paid his rent, bankrolled his alimony payments and funded his children’s education with paranormal software. After a brief second marriage, which brought him his first daughter, Lilly, Roberge’s life stabilized in the arms of Jen Snow — a single parent with an infant as well. They live in a modest, two-story house with a wraparound porch in Nashua, New Hampshire, and Snow moderates the 1,500 “power users” in the EchoVox Facebook group. His son Gabriel has forsaken ghost hunting for his Xbox One, and his other son Irie plays soccer. Roberge often brings Lilly to Irie’s games — she sucking on a pacifier, he wearing a ski cap emblazoned with a pentagram.
Weekday mornings, after sending the kids to school, he descends to his basement laboratories, where he experiments with sound to manipulate unexplained phenomena. To brainstorm, he beats on his drum set. This has always been the basis for his creation of spirit software. His passion for music motivated him to push the sound wave past its limits, first with SpiritVox, which, to date, has more than 15,000 downloads, and then with EchoVox, now a byword in the paranormal world, and then in 2013 with the GV-1 GhostVox, which manipulated frequencies of noise for EVP research.
EchoVox has made appearances on paranormal shows from “The Ghost Trail” in Gibraltar to “Seekers” in Malaysia. Steve Huff called its results “Real, 100%.” Now available for $30 on Android or $20 on iPhone, EchoVox touches on users’ deepest and most desperate desires. Mickey Gocool, lead investigator of North London Paranormal Investigations, told me in an interview that he heard the voice of his father, who reassured him that doctors would find an answer for why his infant daughter refused to ingest food: “Time will tell.” A user named David Perkins tweeted, “EchoVox is the only thing that has brought me comfort since my mothers murder.”
Roberge entertains the possibility that people might be using his software to mirror their own subconscious minds. “You’ll know if somebody’s crazy or not,” says Roberge. “Someone will say, ‘I heard it say kill everyone now,’ or somebody will say, ‘My grandpa said hi.’” It could be like an inkblot test with randomized noise, he conjectures, in the way that EchoVox users tend to post supernatural evidence that closely aligns with their mental state. But, just as Roberge scrutinizes his own creation, he finds metaphysical meaning in its use.
Running EchoVox as background noise in his home one day, he heard a clear voice say: “Daniel, please talk to me.” Roberge recognized the word “Daniel” as a combination of two phonemes in EchoVox’s second sound bank, but he didn’t know where the other words came from. Why were they so clear, and why did they sound like an old woman with a German accent? Convinced it was his grandmother Antonia, he ran to the phone. “It was her inflection because she was born in Germany, and learned to speak English,” he explains. “And then she forgot how to speak German. So she has this weird way of talking.” The device went silent, and he started to cry. It was the only time that, he believes, he heard her voice through the software.
* * *
Three years since the launch of SpiritVox, countless paranormal apps have surfaced for iPhone and Android. Suddenly, Roberge’s inventions have competition, most notably from a software engineer named Anthony Sanchez, who has made a name for himself performing extensive UFO research. In July 2014, Sanchez went live with GhostHunterApps.com and a few months later launched a competitor to Roberge’s GV-1 GhostVox called the “GB-1 Ghost Box.”
“My code for the GB-1 was originally written in 2011-12 to scan the ISM UHF out at AREA 51 for ALIENS not Ghosts,” Sanchez told me in a conversation via Facebook on March 13, 2015. “Once I realized that I was potentially reaching SPIRITS… that was a game changer for me.”
Steve Huff, Roberge’s longtime ally, reviewed Sanchez’s app favorably. Sanchez and Roberge formed an alliance of sorts, planning to co-develop an app for both of their audiences. Sanchez flattered Roberge by telling him “EchoVox is the bomb” on Facebook and promoting EchoVox on the GhostHunterApps.com homepage. Roberge returned the favor by praising Sanchez’s coding skills.
Unbeknownst to Roberge, Sanchez and Huff had formed a separate partnership and were working on an app that they would soon bill as “A True Telephone to the Dead.” This software would constitute Huff’s first major business investment in the paranormal field. (Huff declined to comment on the venture in a recent email to me that stated: “Sorry, not interested. For MANY reasons.”) Branded the “SCD-1,” the app would run on Windows laptops, desktops and tablets, using Bluetooth to scan high-frequency ranges of electromagnetic force, while also using Wi-Fi or native Internet connections to scan live online radio stations. The concept meant two apps in one, a bank-based ghost box and an Internet radio-based ghost box, which positioned the SCD-1 as a tool for professional investigators.
Roberge learned about this new technology when Huff posted a Facebook message on December 31, 2014: “SCD-1 It’s getting close.” Sanchez reposted Huff’s message the same day with the addendum, “Looks like Huff Paranormal has something new on the Horizon. I cannot wait!” Roberge suspected that Sanchez might be involved in Huff’s project, but Sanchez was not forthcoming. Roberge and Sanchez moved forward together on an app called BlackVox, which would scan black box recordings of airplane crashes. “If it works out, it works out,” says Roberge, “but the whole time I’m talking to him, it’s really, keep your friends close but your enemies closer.”
The SCD-1 hit the market on January 23, 2015 for the price of $49.99. A few days later, Huff posted a video on his Facebook page testing the SCD-1 vs. EchoVox for effectiveness. While running EchoVox, Huff posed the questions “Do you like the SCD-1 app?” and “Is it easier for you to use than EchoVox?” He identified a spirit answering “yes” and “yea” to each question. Huff had gone from one of Roberge’s greatest advocates to an outspoken competitor.
* * *
Roberge wakes on February 5, 2015, the day after he gave users an advance preview of EchoVox 3.0, to find that Sanchez and Huff have blocked him on all social channels. Sanchez announces on Facebook that he intends to move forward on BlackVox alone, and Roberge decides to teach Sanchez a lesson. “I feel like I should paint my face in blood,” Roberge posts on Facebook. For weeks, Roberge has been prepping the new version of EchoVox. Hours away from this product launch, he changes tack. His goal? Create BlackVox as an EVP app that manipulates microphone sounds in a one-day sprint. This concept would be unique from the black box idea that Roberge brainstormed with Sanchez while utilizing the same name. Roberge submits BlackVox 1.0 for $.99 on the Android store just before eight p.m.
He grabs the microphone in his basement workstation and records a quick video. Leaning back in his chair, he screams the lyrics to a Queen anthem, “We are the champions! We are the champions!” The next day, Sanchez files for trademark protections on the BlackVox name and logo, seeking legal satisfaction where circumstances have failed him. “I legally own it,” Sanchez insisted to me, although he applied for the trademark a day after Roberge used the name in commerce. “I told him NOT to use the name, and he told me to fuck off. I called him THREE TIMES on the 5th only to get LOUD death metal music in my ears.” Two days later, EchoVox 3.0 is on sale, and BlackVox 2.1 ranks as the number one new paid app on the Android store. Roberge has launched two hits simultaneously. He fears no competitor, no I.P. dispute.
His only fear is somehow failing as a man and a father. His recurring nightmare is having to run for some reason, to run for his life, to run and save his kids from a burning building, and his knee blows out, and they die. It’s as if his subconscious mind dreads feebleness by dreading the injury that preceded his homelessness. His hell is not an evil spirit or even actual hell, which he thinks is a myth, but the inability to save his loved ones from the world. Yet, as he channels the paranormal for a living, at least his nightmares aren’t about ghosts and monsters. “I’ve always had questions,” says Roberge. “But I’ve never gotten an answer. I have lots more questions, and I keep asking them.”
* * *
Robert W. Fieseler’s stories have appeared in Narratively, The Big Roundtable and THE WEEK. W.W. Norton & Company will publish his debut book of nonfiction in 2016. Tweet him @wordbobby.
Alissa Ambrose is a multimedia journalist and photo editor based in Princeton, New Jersey.