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A Mysterious Hum Has Been Haunting the Town of Windsor for Years

For years, residents of Windsor, Ont., have been plagued by a spectral noise. So far, nobody’s been able to explain what it is—or how to make it disappear.

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A Curious Case Illustration: Byron Eggenschwiler

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).

Plus: This is Why You Hate the Sound of Your Own Voice, According to Science

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Mysterious source of the Windsor humIllustration: Byron Eggenschwiler

Suspected Source of the Windsor Hum

In 2002, the Board of Public Works and Safety in the city of Kokomo, Indiana, commissioned a study in response to a decade of hum complaints. Researchers triangulated the noise to two sources: a cooling tower at a DaimlerChrysler factory and an air compressor at a plant owned by metal-alloy manufacturer Haynes International—strong evidence that these noises can come from industrial sources. Those who prefer paranormal theories, however, point out that, although Chrysler and Haynes enacted measures to quell their noise emissions, the Kokomo hum hasn’t entirely disappeared.

When hum complaints ramped up in 2004 in Auckland, New Zealand, Tom Moir, an associate professor of electrical engineering with a specialization in signal processing at the Auckland University of Technology, was skeptical. Still, he visited one hearer at her home, where he played low-volume tones below 60 hertz—a frequency near the bottom end of the audibility spectrum.

Moir instructed the woman to turn her back to his controls. He switched the sound off and on and told her to alert him when she heard the changes. “She got it right 100 per cent of the time,” he says. Moir returned to his office, where he played the tone to see whether he could develop the ability to hear it. He couldn’t, but hours later, a student walked in and inquired about “the awful noise.”

Low-frequency sound permeates concrete walls and travels across extraordinary distances. Seismologists detect earthquakes thousands of kilometres away by measuring low-frequency ground vibrations much lower than the hearing range. It is thought that the brain determines noise direction by measuring the time lapse between when a sound hits one ear and reaches the other. But low-frequency sound waves are longer than the diameters of our skulls. They seem to reach both ears simultaneously, confounding our ability to figure out exactly where they come from.

Just as there are super tasters, there seem to be super hearers, too. Almost all of us can hear sounds in the 20- to 50-hertz range if they’re loud enough, but a few of us can hear them even when they’re quiet, which may explain why hum hearers are outnumbered by the happily oblivious.

In 2011, the Windsor hum became a local media sensation, and in 2012, the community established a hum hotline. More than 10,000 people called in to complain—enough to convince Ontario’s environment ministry to conduct a two-month study that involved placing sound sensors in residential and industrial locations. The federal government hired Colin Novak, a professor of engineering with a research specialty in acoustics and psychoacoustics at the University of Windsor, to further investigate the issue. Based on the evidence available, Novak chose to focus on one of the noisier spots: the banks of the Detroit River, which separates Canada from the United States.

Zug Island, Mich., sits in between those banks. It’s owned and operated by the United States Steel Corporation and is home to one of the largest steel mills in the U.S. It’s an undeniably creepy place. To get close, you must drive to the southern shore of Detroit’s ravaged Delray neighbourhood. You’re unlikely to encounter other humans, but you’ll pass crooked houses, brick facades fronting non-existent buildings, and the remains of a Roman Catholic church, stained glass long shattered. Despite the ghostly surroundings, the island is eerily alive—a sinister mess of belching towers and twisted tracks on which railcars carry liquid pig iron from soot-black furnaces to a nearby finishing plant.

The area was once an indigenous burial mound containing hundreds of human skeletons. In 1888, workers detached the island from the mainland to accommodate a shipping canal. Since the Detroit Iron Works took over in 1901, Zug has produced hundreds of millions of tons of steel, been the site of gruesome injuries and deadly explosions and provided fodder for more than a few local legends. The SS Edmund Fitzgerald, a giant freighter that inexplicably sank into Lake Superior in 1975, was supposedly destined for Zug, and there are rumours of a top-secret penitentiary on the island. It’s here, on this strange strip of land, that some believe the Windsor hum originates.

The United States Steel Corporation tightly restricts access to its 1,900 employees. (US Steel declined to comment for this story.) Adam Makarenko, a Toronto filmmaker working on a documentary about the hum, recalls driving up to the island on the American side with a camera and “getting cornered right away by security guys in Broncos.” On the site, the clamour of industry is all around: jackhammer-like chugging, horn blasts and a faint, omnipresent ring.

To sift through this cacophony, Novak installed two monitors equipped with sound-analyzing software, one on the banks of the river and one that rotated between various hearers’ residences. He also made occasional boat trips to the edge of the island, bringing with him a pentangular array—a spiky gadget outfitted with 30 microphones that produce high-level data on sound direction. During one trip, a boat carrying men with binoculars trailed him in the night.

For the first four months, Novak found nothing. Then, around midnight one evening in July 2013, the exhaust stacks at Zug emitted a ghostly blue flame, and Novak’s sensors caught a 35-hertz rumble emanating from the island—one that was detectable at Windsor homes four kilometres away.

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Hope for the HearersPhoto: Shutterstock

Hope for the “Hearers”

The steelmaking process, he says, is “a black-magic art” in which iron and limestone are bombarded with superheated air at temperatures as high as 1,700 C. A blast furnace that hot “will come alive,” says Novak, “and the walls will move in and out like a massive speaker, emitting a giant roar.” At a remove of several kilometres, that roar could be heard as an oscillating, low-frequency hum.

Clearly, there is a hum in Windsor, although by Novak’s reckoning, it isn’t as constant as some residents insist. He suspects that in 2011 and 2012, when hum complaints were rampant, US Steel was producing something that taxed its blast furnaces beyond their normal capacity. After 2013, reports dwindled, suggesting that the company had altered whatever operations were behind the worst of the noise.

But after the disturbance subsided, about 50 people continued to be haunted. They logged complaints at city hall and risked ridicule by posting on the hum Facebook forum. They might have gone unnoticed, except that on April 17, 2016, Windsor–Essex County was besieged by a window-rattling, bone-shaking racket, prompting the Windsor Star to proclaim that the hum’s noises “were some of the worst in years.” This time, many residents—not just hearers—noticed the clamour. Provost and his counterparts granted interviews to The Globe and Mail (and, later, the Guardian). Brian Masse, a Windsor-area MP, travelled to Washington last June to discuss regulating noise emissions coming from the Detroit region.

But the mystery still hasn’t been solved. Novak’s research suggests that the Windsor hum is a sporadic phenomenon, most likely the product of operations at Zug Island. But if that’s true, why do a handful of people hear the noise all the time?

While no one knows for certain, one plausible hum explanation can be found in the study of psychoacoustics, a branch of psychology that considers how states of mind affect sound perception.

Low-frequency noise is all around us—the by-product of exhaust fans, cooling towers, electric wires vibrating in air and wind swishing over dips in the landscape. Imagine you are a Windsor resident born with an enhanced ability to hear such sounds. In 2011 and 2012, you were bombarded with frightening noises from the direction of Zug Island—noises that, for understandable reasons, you fixated on. By fixating, you trained your brain to distill such sounds from the ambient metropolis, and now you hear them constantly. Are they real or the product of human obsession? The answer, perhaps, is both. What you hear is, in part, determined by what you listen for.

At the end of my meeting with Provost, we stand on his deck so he can smoke. He tells me that he hears the hum, albeit softly—he grades it a two out of 10—and I confess that I hear nothing except wind and children playing in a nearby backyard. “I’d feel a lot better,” he says, “if US Steel would go, ‘Yeah, it’s us. We’re working on fixing it.’” He acknowledges, however, that without sustained media attention and government interest, there’s little chance a major corporation will admit to a group of Canadians that it’s responsible. “I’ve been told that this has become a hobby, and I guess I’d have to agree,” he admits. He looks down at the logbook in his lap. “It takes up all of my time.”

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© 2016, Simon Lewsen. From “Can You Hear It?” The Walrus (September 2016). thewalrus.ca

Originally Published in Reader's Digest Canada