A Curious Case
Six years ago, Mark Letteri, a philosophy professor at the University of Windsor, first heard what he took to be faraway jackhammers outside his window. “I thought, That doesn’t make sense,” he says. “Why would somebody be doing construction at 10 p.m.?”
When Mike Provost, a retired insurance salesman in the Windsor, Ont., neighbourhood of Old Sandwich Town, first noticed the noise, he attributed it to thunder rumbling over nearby Lake Erie. “I thought, Gee, there must be a storm over the water, but I looked up and the skies were as blue as blue can be.”
In October 2015, Liz Paszkowiak-Gillan, a mother in rural Amherstburg, Ont., listened, terrified, as what she thought was a semi truck idled outside her house around 1 a.m. “I’m in the middle of nowhere, and I’ve got hardly any neighbours around me,” she says. “I must have gone to the window a good five or six times that night, and I definitely didn’t sleep.” There was nothing there.
Industrial noise can be common in Windsor–Essex County, thanks to the local salt mines, the McGregor Quarry and surrounding automotive plants. For most people, these are minor nuisances in a place with affordable homes and tree-lined streets. With any luck, those disturbances follow predictable business hours.
The Windsor hum is different. It’s a low-frequency sound that has been plaguing residents of the southern Ontario city, and surrounding Essex County, since at least 2011. Mysteriously, not everyone can hear it, but those who do refer to the disturbance as a deep, vibratory rumble that’s more physical sensation than sound. To them, the hum is invasive and unsettling. It rattles windows, makes sleep unattainable and reportedly sends dogs into fits of hysteria. For years, this small group of Canadians, known as “hearers,” has been trying to convince the rest of the world that it exists at all.
Provost, the 63-year-old man who first mistook the hum for thunder, has been keeping track of noise disturbances on his property for the past five years. He’s a goateed, burly guy, youthful for a grandfather who walks with a cane. In February 2015, at his split-level house, he handed me a binder larger than War and Peace. It was full of entries—at least 20,000—noting the time, date, type and intensity of every intrusive sound.
His records mention hums, as well as pulses, vibrations and pressure releases, which he likens to “the Enterprise going into warp speed.” He grades each sound from one to 10, depending on its volume, and has collected more than 10 terabytes of audio from three digital recorders mounted in his backyard.
Provost is the most active poster on the 1,540-member Windsor–Essex County Hum Facebook page and has been the group’s administrator since last summer. He types and uploads his notes to the forum daily and sends between 150 and 200 pages of records every month to the federal environment minister, the minister of foreign affairs, the prime minister and the two Windsor-area MPs. He’s tried to get other Facebook posters to do the same—corroboration could get the government’s attention.
The Facebook page has a small cadre of participants: mostly hearers but also a few conspiracy theorists and trolls. One poster laments the “lack of empathy and support from local mayors.” Another suggests that the hum may have links to the Russian Woodpecker device, a Soviet radar system rumoured to have been used in mind-control experiments. Yet another tells Provost to “stop doing acid.”
Windsor isn’t the first municipality to be plagued by inexplicable low-frequency rumbles. In 1973, New Scientist ran a story about people in Great Britain who were afflicted by “a low, throbbing background noise that no one else [could] hear.” Such complaints were most pronounced around the British port city of Bristol, but by the 1980s, similar noises were haunting citizens of Largs, a Scottish vacation town. The disturbance hit Middle America in the early ’90s, first reported in Hueytown, Alabama, and then Taos, New Mexico. Hearer communities now make up a constellation of seemingly arbitrary dots on a map: rural Oklahoma; coastal Massachusetts; southwest Germany; the suburbs around Sydney, Australia; Calgary; and, more recently, Toronto’s Leslieville neighbourhood.
The locations seem random, but the narratives are similar. News reports describe the sound as omnidirectional and low-pitched, like a slow-moving train or, as many have put it, “an airplane stuck in the sky.” The phenomenon could be rooted in hysteria, but then why are the complaints so localized? Hum hearers, for the most part, reside in a few specific places. Explanations range from the prosaic (factories and industrial infrastructure) to the outlandish (transmissions from outer space or residual noise from the Big Bang).