The Phantom Shriek of Forest Grove
The furor began, as so many do, with a cellphone video: 30 baffling seconds that, in all of their grainy eeriness, feel like something rescued from The Blair Witch Project’s cutting-room floor. Visually, at least, the clip captures little more than blackness — the streetlamp-cut dark of rural Forest Grove, Oregon, in the dead of a winter night. As the camera judders about, we spy ghostly trees, white wisps of breath, and, bizarrely, three yellow lights that seem to slowly re-form themselves into the shape of a question mark. Yet these onscreen details scarcely even register, because from the start, what transfixes you is the noise.
More or less by definition, the noise is a difficult thing to describe: loud and shrill, yes, but above all maddeningly indecipherable, for if it were easy to place … well, then it wouldn’t be the noise. It starts as a whistle in the distance, with a strange upward lilt at the end — an amplified teakettle, perhaps, or a jazz-flute experiment gone terribly wrong. For a moment it goes silent, only to resume in a slightly screechier form. Ah, one thinks, that’s just a train’s brakes squealing. But then, after another pause for breath, along comes sonic blast number three, Vesuvian in its intensity, annihilating all prior assumptions. Now, the noise seems to split the night itself in half, like some high-pitched industrial saw powered by harpy screams.
In other words, the noise is horrifically obnoxious, which was why the woman behind the camera recorded it in the first place. In mid-February, an erstwhile doggie-daycare operator named Paula Lynch reported the phenomenon to Forest Grove police, complaining that “a very loud and strange” sound had been waking her up at odd hours in recent weeks. What Lynch wanted was for it to be put to a stop. What she got, however — after she made the innocent mistake of posting her video to Facebook — was an unwelcome glimpse into the blinding sun of viral infamy.
Because almost unbelievably, no one could determine what the noise was or where it was coming from. The police were baffled; all they could say was that they suspected “a pipe or valve of some type was being turned on under pressure.” The Forest Grove fire marshal disagreed, telling the local News-Times that it sounded more like “metal on metal,” but got no further in tracking down its source. There were no train tracks nearby, no natural-gas leaks that a technician from the gas company could find, no rogue flautists on the loose. And deepening the general befuddlement was the fact that Lynch couldn’t even point in a direction to start looking for the sound. “It just kind of encompasses the area,” she told Portland’s CBS affiliate.
Thus was born the Mystery of the Phantom Noise. The story was irresistible. For in 2016, with all the great, gushing torrents of information at our disposal, how was it possible that we could have no clue what a sound might be? Was there not an app for these things? Was there not a squealing specialist at some German technical university who could be called in?
The Forest Grove din seemed a specimen of that rarest and most captivating of acoustic phenomena: a legitimately unexplainable noise. These sonic yetis, usually heard in snippets at varying locations worldwide, tend to bear alluringly enigmatic, X-Files-ready names: the Rossby whistle, Skyquakes, the Vocal Memnon. Several, such as the eerie, alarm-like oscillation known as Upsweep, can only be heard underwater by special low-frequency hydrophone equipment. Some emanate from the heavens, including so-called Sky Trumpets — something between a whale call and a horn blast heralding the End Times. (Scientists believe they’re caused by our planet’s usually inaudible natural radio emissions briefly entering the range of human hearing.) Others, such as the mystical Taos Hum, may not exist at all.
Most of the sonic mysteries we encounter, however — especially the more quirky localized ones like Forest Grove’s — don’t remain mysterious for long. In 2014, for instance, residents of Coventry, England, reported hearing a loud droning that some nervously compared to the massive invading alien spacecraft in Independence Day; it turned out to be an old propeller plane. Or take the rumbling, window-rattling Windsor Hum (not to be confused, naturally, with the Kokomo, Bondi, or aforementioned Taos Hums), which people in Windsor, Ontario, have been tearing their hair out over for years, but which is likely caused by industrial plants on an island just downriver. What made the Forest Grove case so exciting was that while those other local oddities were explained, this one — more unbearable by far — remained stubbornly enigmatic.
Which meant that it could be anything. As Lynch’s video pinged through the media landscape, from The Guardian to Inside Edition, theories about the noise’s provenance poured in from all over the world. Some favored mundane explanations: an errant logging whistle or the wind ripping through a broken roof whirlybird. Yet many embraced ideas more conspiratorially ornate. Comment boards filled with maps of secret intercontinental tunnel systems and accounts of supposed government mind-control devices — particularly the decommissioned HAARP ionospheric research station in Alaska. Jimmy Fallon, on The Tonight Show, linked it to the bloviations of Donald Trump. Forest Grove police received messages in which callers simply read out Scripture, along with one containing the most memorable suggestion: that, in the words of the department’s log, the noise came from “the Amish using Apple devices via DirecTV in attempts to drive everyone out of the area in order to take over.”
While the online masses theorized, the national media lamented the noise’s frightful toll on the community. “A Mysterious Shrieking Sound Is Terrorizing a Small Oregon Town,” blared Maxim, while The Washington Post opted instead for the more stately “Terrifying an Oregon Community,” and The Huffington Post skewed hipper with “Freaking Out an Oregon Town.” On the February 18 edition of ABC’s World News Tonight, anchor David Muir claimed the noise was “keeping an entire town up at night” and described the locals as “sleep deprived, desperate for a solution.”
Then, shortly after the media’s attention lit upon it, the noise abruptly vanished.
On a warm, white-skied afternoon this June, I made the 25-mile drive from my home in Portland — where the only nocturnal squealing we’d heard of late was from the participants of the World Naked Bike Ride coasting giddily through our neighborhood — out to Paula Lynch’s modest, cul-de-saced street on the western fringe of Forest Grove. (After the story broke, Lynch stopped speaking to the media and erased all of the Facebook activity around her video, except to say that she wishes she’d never posted it at all.) Despite its name, Forest Grove isn’t big on forest; in fact, Lynch’s neighborhood gazes out at a giant clear-cut. The town is pleasantly bucolic, ringed by undulating farmlands growing roses and rye grass.
What Forest Grove is big on, then, is quiet. As I walked Lynch’s neighborhood, moronically hoping that after its four-month absence the noise might suddenly decide to stage its comeback, the only sounds I heard were of leaves rustling in the breeze and cars whooshing past on a nearby highway. Once, my pulse quickened at a sudden high screech — quickly revealed to be the keening of a toddler. Another time, a chorus of sharp howls accosted me from the left: a pack of Chihuahuas on the other side of a fence.
I set about asking Lynch’s neighbors what their sense of the noise was. Yet among those I spoke with — all living within a block of where it was recorded — not one had actually heard it. A teenager climbing out of his pickup shrugged and shook his head. A woman watering her flowers said, rather flatly, “I haven’t heard it, and I haven’t heard anyone out here talking about it.” Even a pair of new parents with their baby, the exact sort who would be most fanatically attuned to nocturnal sounds, said that not only hadn’t they heard it, they weren’t aware that there had been any kind of uproar over a noise on their block. “What did it sound like?” the mother asked me.
This is not to imply that the noise was a hoax. Far from it; the video doesn’t lie, and there were indeed a few residents who told reporters back in February that they’d heard it. In reality, though, the noise was almost certainly less a real problem than a minor, highly localized nuisance — a weird little whistle that, in the journalistic equivalent of a game of telephone, grew more and more inflated with each news story until it became a terrifying sonic blight tormenting a community. Wasn’t that what we wanted to believe? That in our microscopically researched, data-crunched world, there are still mysteries out there that not even science can explain?
According to Andy Dawes, a physics professor at Forest Grove’s Pacific University who attempted to track down the noise, the culprit was most likely something hopelessly unexciting. “An audio analyst from Florida emailed me a fairly detailed report that certainly agreed well with the hypothesis that it came from a faulty valve within an HVAC (or heat pump) unit,” he told me over email. “If the original source was a failing valve, then it may have gone away completely when the failure was complete.”
On my way out of Forest Grove, hopes properly dashed, I stopped in for a cold drink at a café downtown, right next to a farmers market. In a last stab at reviving the mystery, I asked the bright-eyed young woman behind the counter if she knew anything about the famous Forest Grove noise — you know, the one that the media was talking about back in February?
“Yeah, I heard it once,” she replied, taking the money for my Italian soda. “It was exciting. A bunch of us drove around in that neighborhood at night until we heard it. Because when you’re in college, apparently that’s a good use of your time.”
I perked up, surprised. A queer, expectant hush seemed to descend over the café. What, I said, did the thing actually sound like?
“Like a whistle. Like …” She gestured out the plate-glass window. “Like, if it was across the street there, you’d be able to hear it in here.”
Across the street? Was that all? It wasn’t something that could travel blocks and blocks, perhaps inciting general terror and waking the dead from their cold eternal slumber?
“No, no,” she said with a gently chastening smile. “I mean, it wasn’t that loud.”