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It started for me in October 2016, when my son was a month old. Every night I would sit in Henry’s room, nursing him back to sleep. It was early fall and the house was still. We had just moved from Capitol Hill to Takoma Park, and our street was silent—no rushing cars, no sirens or horns. In his quiet room, at one, two, three o’clock in the morning, we’d sit, me exhausted but thrilled with early motherhood, Henry nursing until he slept again. 

And that’s when the sound would begin. Every night, a low, droning hum would fill my head and make me feel like I had seashells taped to my ears. It sounded like I was standing next to a loud refrigerator, or a diesel truck was parked outside, idling directly in front of my door. At first, I thought that’s what it was. We live around the corner from a restaurant and a small bodega, and in my sleep-deprived mind, I thought maybe they were getting deliveries. I could see how a truck might idle on the street while night-shift employees unloaded boxes and restocked shelves. For weeks I hadn’t slept more than five disjointed hours a night, and parents of infants can make themselves believe anything. 

But one night, when Henry was back in his crib, I looked out the window and was quickly disabused of my theory. There was no truck. The street was empty, the parked cars were still, and yet this hum persisted. If anything, it had gotten louder. It was louder in the front of the house than in the back, and I could only hear it at night, but it was everywhere: in Henry’s nursery, in my bedroom, in the bathroom, the kitchen, the basement, without end.

Surely, there had to be a source. I’m the daughter of an engineer, taught to revere science and the predictability of the natural world. My dad would argue that there’s no such thing as a magic noise, only clearly substantiated hypotheses. Following that reasoning, if the hum wasn’t coming from a truck, it had to be coming from somewhere else. The next morning, Henry and I went to find out.

The author, Emily Dufton Credit: Darrow Montgomery

We walked up and down our street and around every surrounding block, but no matter where we looked, there was nothing nearby that could produce that kind of sound: no generators, no electricity plants, no factories, no airfields. The power lines were silent, and so was my HVAC system. Even more disturbing, when my husband woke up to care for the baby with me, he said he didn’t hear anything. We’d be sitting in the nursery and the hum would fill my ears, but my husband thought the house was as silent as the street. 

I started to think that I was losing my mind, or that I was suffering from some strange postpartum condition. Finally, I did what I should have done in the first place: I Googled “I hear a constant low hum,” and quickly found out that I wasn’t alone. In fact, not only was I not alone, but I was one of the chosen few able to hear what is known as the Worldwide Hum, a massive global auditory phenomenon that, over the past four decades, has intrigued—and disturbed—people the world over. 

Before the Hum came to Takoma Park, it was born in Britain. Several articles I found reported that the Hum first generated attention in the 1970s, when more than 800 people in Bristol, England, reported hearing a low, droning noise, but no one could find its source. It soon swept through the United Kingdom, with reports coming from everywhere from rural County Durham to Largs, Scotland, that a mysterious hum was causing people to suffer from headaches, nosebleeds, nausea, and dizziness.

By the early 1990s, it had arrived in the United States. That spring the Hum was problematic enough for residents in Taos, New Mexico, to demand a state congressional investigation into the sound, but nothing conclusive came from the report. Researchers from the University of New Mexico, Los Alamos National Laboratory, and Sandia National Laboratories spent months scouring the state, but no one could pinpoint from where, exactly, the Hum was emanating. 

Since then, reports of the noise have spread—across the country and increasingly the world—with more people coming forward to say that they hear a constant, droning hum. Like me, most hear it at night and usually only indoors. And for many, including me, the Hum isn’t a problem (even on nights when the sound was extremely loud, white noise could usually lull me back to sleep). I’ve learned that Hum hearers often go through the same thing I did: When everyone else thinks they’re crazy for complaining about a sound no one else can hear, they go online looking for answers. And when they do, they find a surprising—and surprisingly dedicated—community that is actively trying to solve the mystery of the Hum. 

Most information about the Hum comes from one source: thehum.info, a website run by Glen MacPherson, a Canadian mathematics teacher and ethnographic researcher, who, over the past five years, has become the unofficial spokesperson for the Hum community. Since first hearing it in spring 2012, MacPherson has formalized the internet’s discussions of the sound and created a blog and a map where Hum hearers can pin their locations and fill out a form detailing the Hum’s effects on their everyday lives. 

MacPherson has clearly hit a nerve: In a half decade, his database has logged more than 16,000 entries, and the World Hum Map is dotted with little red pins. More than anything, MacPherson’s site is cathartic. Hearers have gathered en masse on his site to discuss the Hum in detail (a hearer in Bloxom, Virginia, described the sound as “a low pitch, A-sharp or B-flat”) or lament the discomfort they suffer (headaches, earaches, and fatigue from lack of sleep). And even if the Hum doesn’t bother them, most hearers still report that they’re thrilled to discover they’re not alone. 

In addition to compiling the first organized data collection on people who hear the Hum, MacPherson has also made some unique discoveries about those of us who can hear the sound. Beyond location and general descriptions, MacPherson asks Hum hearers to list their age, sex, if they’re right- or left-handed, in which ear they predominantly hear the Hum, any other medical issues with their hearing, and any “unusual geographic, geological, or other features” in their area. In June 2016, MacPherson reported that this information had yielded some interesting results: The average Hum hearer was 40.5 years old, and 55 percent of hearers were men. There were also eight times as many ambidextrous people among Hum hearers than there were in the general population. 

While most Hum hearers are located in Europe and the United States, others have dropped pins on every continent except Antarctica, including places as far flung as Bermuda, Siberia, and the Cape Verde islands. There are dozens of pins on MacPherson’s map in places like London and New York, but there are also lone Hum hearers in the distant rain forest of Rondônia, Brazil, and the quiet Sahel city of Niamey, Niger. 

I was fascinated by MacPherson’s map, and spent a couple of hours looking at it while Henry napped, reading stories from Hum hearers and imagining all the exotic places they lived. But the more I looked at it, the more I noticed something strange. When I compared D.C. to other cities, a quick count revealed that, more than Boston, Providence, Philadelphia, or Miami, the greater D.C. area (which I counted liberally as stretching from Fredericksburg to Baltimore) had the highest concentration of pins of any major East Coast city save for New York. 

There were even two other Hum hearers in my neighborhood, one of whom lived around the corner from me. A 44-year-old right-handed woman reported in June 2013 that she heard the Hum and it sounded like the same thing I heard—an idling truck or a portable generator—while a 39-year-old right-handed man said in November 2014 that he had measured the “low, steady tone” at 90 hertz. 

My neighbors were two of more than 100 D.C.-area residents who had reported hearing the Hum since MacPherson launched his site in 2012. Assuming the reports are coming in at a steady pace, that averages out to about one new hearer every two and a half weeks. And these were only the people who had come forward. There were probably even more people in the area like me who heard the Hum but hadn’t posted anything about it online. 

I had to wonder, what was going on? Was it the city itself that generated excessive amounts of the noise, or did more Hum hearers make this area their home? I also found something else in my internet searches—something far more disturbing than just irritation or sleeplessness caused by a sourceless noise. Not only did Washington have one of the highest concentrations of Hum hearers on the East Coast, but it was also the only city in America that had experienced a mass shooting perpetrated by a hearer.

***

People have been studying the Hum for decades, and there are numerous, if somewhat pedestrian, theories about its cause. Some believe, as MacPherson outlined in October 2016 on his blog, that the Hum is the result of “massive and widespread human activity that creates colossal levels of low frequency sound and infrasound”—in other words, that Hum hearers are attuned to the distant sounds of cars speeding down the highway, surface mining, even the collective noise of hundreds of thousands of appliances constantly plugged into our walls. 

Others think the Hum is the noise of ongoing earthquakes and seismic activity—the subtle sound of the Earth’s terrestrial processes unfolding. Like certain animals, including rats, weasels, snakes, and centipedes, Hum hearers are, perhaps, sensitive enough to hear these low tones. 

By far the most common theory is that the Hum is internally generated, and nothing more than a form of tinnitus—the constant ringing in the ears that humans have struggled with for centuries. Hum hearers may not be able to pick it up during the day, but at night, when everything else grows quiet, the sound becomes more apparent. As with traditional tinnitus, this theory suggests that the Hum is caused by similar triggers: hearing damage or an underlying medical condition rather than any outside source. And while no one has been able to explain why thousands of people worldwide would struggle with the same undiagnosed hearing disorder, many people—including scientists and lay researchers alike—are quick to agree, assuming tinnitus is the real cause of the Hum. 

There is another, far more sinister explanation for the Hum—a theory that MacPherson roundly rejects but that connects the phenomenon directly to D.C. This idea, which university professors have examined and conspiracy theorists on YouTube have advanced, argues that the Hum is a product of the government’s use of very low frequency (VLF) and extremely low frequency (ELF) radio waves. VLF and ELF radio waves can penetrate everything from seawater to rocks and mountains, and the military has used them for decades to communicate with deeply submerged submarines. 

But for the more conspiracy-minded, this theory goes on to suggest that Washington’s elites, including politicians and military and law enforcement personnel, have weaponized the sound, and are forcing targeted individuals to hear its constant murmur, while the resulting headaches, depression, sleep deprivation, and “intentional mood management,” as one blogger put it, sow disorder and confusion and keep people under intensive control. In other words, people who hear the Hum aren’t just suffering from tinnitus. Instead, we’re the victims of a vast, covert conspiracy bent on mind control and global domination. 

There are numerous blogs dedicated to this hypothesis, and most of these writings are harmless and even occasionally amusing. 

But there are other times when the Hum “mind control” theory isn’t benign. Like on Sept. 16, 2013, when a Hum hearer named Aaron Alexis decided that he had had enough of the noise. That day, he brought a Remington 870 shotgun scrawled with the phrases “My ELF Weapon!” and “End the torment!” into the Washington Navy Yard’s Building 197 and, over the span of an hour, proceeded to shoot 15 innocent people, murdering 12. After nearly an hour and a half, law enforcement officials killed Alexis, and the facility was locked down for the rest of the day. 

Originally from New York City and last living in Texas, Alexis was a full time Navy reservist from 2007 to 2011, working primarily on aircraft electrical systems. After an honorable discharge, he got a Department of Defense security clearance and went to work on military computer systems in Rhode Island, North Carolina, and Virginia. From September 2012 to January 2013 he lived in Japan, working with the subcontractor The Experts to “refresh equipment used on the Navy Marine Corps Intranet network,” according to a statement from the company, and his clearance had just been renewed in July. 

Alexis arrived in the D.C. area three weeks before the massacre, and he brought with him a relatively clean record. He’d had sporadic run-ins with the law, and most of them involved guns, but his friends and family were still surprised by his actions. “I can’t believe he did this,” Alexis’ roommate of three years, Nutpisit Suthamtewakul, told CNN. “He never showed any sign of violence.”

But Alexis was clearly living another life. Before arriving in D.C., law enforcement sources said, the 34-year-old had contacted two Veterans Affairs hospitals for assistance with psychological issues, and Alexis’ own writings bemoaned the torment he felt he was undergoing. In documents found after the shooting, Alexis declared that “an ultra-low frequency attack is what I’ve been subject to for the last three months, and to be perfectly honest, that is what has driven me to this.” He also claimed that three people had been sent to follow him, and they used “some sort of microwave machine” to send vibrations into his body, causing depression and sleep disturbances. The FBI didn’t use the term “Hum,” but it did suggest that Alexis “held a delusional belief” that he was being influenced or controlled by ELF waves. Officials also concluded that Alexis was prepared to die when he entered Building 197. Beyond calling his rifle “My ELF weapon,” Alexis scrawled on his shotgun, “Better off this way!” and “Not what y’all say!”

Students of the Hum were quick to diagnose Alexis as a fellow hearer, one who was driven insane by the sound. Articles in The New Republic, Big Think, and Mic all cited Alexis as a quintessential Hum madman, and Steven Kohlhase, a Hum investigator from Connecticut, argued that Alexis was hardly the only one. Kohlhase blamed the Hum on infrasonic sound from fracking and natural gas pipelines and said that it resulted in widespread “vibroacoustic disease.” 

According to Kohlhase, there was a murderous connection between the Hum, fracking, and other shootings, including Adam Lanza’s rampage at Sandy Hook Elementary School in 2012, and Jared Lee Loughner’s attack on Representative Gabby Giffords in 2011. Arguing that there is a distinct correlation between the location of natural gas pipelines and mass shootings, Kohlhase suggested that Alexis had most likely lived near fracking sites as well. “Looking at a map of instances like this,” he wrote, “I bet you’ll see that each place coincides with a Hum cluster.”

***

I wasn’t so sure. Alexis didn’t live in D.C. for long, but this city is nowhere close to any fracking sites or natural gas pipelines (the nearest wells are located on the Virginia/West Virginia border). Even before the shooting, his behavior was erratic. He lived in three hotels—one in Bethesda, one in Arlington, and one in Southwest D.C.—between Aug. 25, when he first arrived, and Sept. 16, the date of his rampage. That meant he covered much of the metro area in the span of just 23 days. And he had only worked at the Navy Yard for five days before he went back to Northern Virginia to purchase his shotgun and ammunition. I began to wonder, why was he moving around so much? Was he trying to escape the Hum, and was it following him from place to place? 

More frighteningly, was there something about living in Washington that caused Hum-hearing Aaron Alexis to snap? And were other Hum hearers going to do the same thing? 

I tried to find answers, but they were hard to come by. I first tried to contact doctors—specialists in the area who dealt with hearing disorders, mood disorders, mental illness, and anxiety. If the Hum were really a form of tinnitus, I wondered if masses of Hum hearers were going to the doctor looking for a cure. Was the Hum a widely diagnosed regional affliction? And if so, what were medical experts telling their patients?

But few would even answer my calls. My requests to the National Institutes of Health went unanswered, while local doctors said they had nothing to discuss. I even contacted the American Tinnitus Association but was told that their associated researchers and clinicians were focused on finding a cure, and none of them “had any experience with a ‘Hum.’” 

I decided to go back online, but when I posted on the Facebook page for “Low Frequency Noise/Hum Sufferers,” I mostly heard back from people in Australia. And when I posted a call to find other Hum hearers on Craigslist, in the community and science sections, I was met with swift derision. Numerous people dismissed the Hum as nothing but a form of tinnitus and told me that I needed to get my hearing checked. I even considered knocking on doors, trying to find the Takoma Park woman who had posted in 2013. But I felt weird approaching a house asking, “Excuse me, but do you hear a global auditory phenomenon? Because I do too, and I’d like to talk.”

Finally, I contacted MacPherson himself. MacPherson has long been adamant that, when it comes to researching and finding a solution to the Hum, “we are alone in solving this scientific mystery.” But he was hesitant about involving himself with any pseudo-scientific conspiracy theory about the Hum driving people to mass murder. “It is completely false and patently invalid to connect violent ends and shootings to the Hum,” he wrote to me. After a few more emails, he stopped responding to my requests. That’s right, I’d become the crazy one.

My breakthrough came when I went on my local parents’ listserv and made a simple request: “Do you hear ‘The Hum’?” 

I received numerous responses from Hum hearers across the area, and a few were willing to talk. Their responses put me at ease. I was far from alone in hearing the Hum, and most other local people were like me—interested by the noise but hardly driven to horrific acts. As many put it, the Hum wasn’t a problem or a delusion. It didn’t cause major problems in their everyday lives. Instead, it just was—harmlessly, but relentlessly, there. 

I first spoke to a 48-year-old man named Dave Ridgeway who lives in Silver Spring. Ridgeway has been hearing the Hum for two years but has only noticed it during the summer months, specifically in August. Unlike many of the Hum hearers who have responded to MacPherson’s site, Ridgeway says he has only heard the sound outdoors, and, rather than sounding like the steady tone I heard, for him the Hum pulses and throbs. 

As Ridgeway says, it sounds like the opening tones of “Cannonball,” the 1993 song by the Breeders, rising and falling all night long, from the early evening until 2 a.m. At first he was the only person to hear it, but in late summer his girlfriend and roommates began to hear it too. Though they originally believed it was noise from the nearby Beltway, when the sound continued after midnight and traffic on the highway decreased, they realized it had to be something else. 

“It didn’t bother me,” says Ridgeway, “but it did make me curious.” A native of the area, he believes that it might have something to do with local geography, that the higher elevation of Silver Spring and Takoma Park makes people more susceptible to hearing the tone. There are fewer tall buildings to block the noise, and Ridgeway believes the sound is able to travel, to rise above the constant noise of downtown. It hasn’t affected his everyday life, but its subtle arrival and departure—he heard it until winter came, and then it returned again last summer—made Ridgeway intrigued by its source. “I knew it wasn’t something logical,” he says.

I also spoke to a 58-year-old woman named Kristy Cook who hears the Hum year-round. Cook lived abroad in Zambia for years and sometimes visits her mother in northern California, but Takoma Park is the only place where she’s heard the Hum. Like Ridgeway, she first thought it was something else—maybe the Metro, or a passing freight train—but her house is about a mile from the station, and the consistency of the noise has led her to believe that it comes from somewhere else. The sound is also extremely gentle—a constant low hum that, Cook says, has no effect on her daily life. But as she became aware of the noise, she became intrigued. Like me, she has only heard the Hum indoors, and her husband hasn’t heard it. Cook says she grew up in the country, and that makes her observant to urban noise. “I notice things,” she says.

When I asked her why she thought the D.C. area was so rife with the Hum, she thought for a moment. “It might be big city noise,” Cook said. “In developed areas, there are a lot of electrical appliances, things that are plugged in all the time. They might be creating a kind of constant buzz. And in Takoma Park, we’re up higher than in D.C. I think the noise from the city travels up here more easily. That might be what we’re hearing too.”

I asked Ridgeway and Cook a couple of other questions that MacPherson included in his form. Both are right-handed, and neither has had hearing issues in the past. Both have tried, unsuccessfully, to find the source of the sound. Cook searched her entire house, checking in which rooms it was loudest and testing to see if it was her refrigerator or air conditioner, but it wasn’t. “It always sounds like it’s coming from outside,” she says. 

Hum hearer Dave Ridgeway Credit: Photo courtesy of Dave Ridgeway

And Ridgeway once spent an entire night roaming through his yard, trying to pinpoint the exact direction of the sound, but as soon as he thought he had tracked it down, it seemed like the source shifted and moved. He also researched the Hum online, and while he joked about being able to hear it (he once posted a picture of himself wearing a tin foil hat on Facebook), Ridgeway was serious about what he found. “I’ve traveled the world, but I’ve never heard the Hum anywhere else,” he says. 

My neighbors’ experiences seemed to pop a hole in the tinnitus theory that so many have assumed is the truth. What kind of tinnitus comes and goes, as it does for Ridgeway, when the seasons change? And what kind of tinnitus is location-based, only occurring in certain places for the individual hearer? The question remains: If it’s not tinnitus, what is the Hum? 

***

Summer has arrived again in the city. Ridgeway expects the Hum to return in August when he spends warm evenings outside along Sligo Creek, and Cook reports that she still hears the tone, though now her air conditioner is running to block out the noise. 

MacPherson never replied to my emails when I asked him to comment on the Hum’s effects on D.C.. But we also haven’t had any more Hum-related shootings, and most people who hear the Hum assert that it doesn’t affect their everyday lives. Hopefully this means that the ongoing conspiracy theory—that the Hum is directly linked to government mind control, madness, and death—is as crazy as it sounds. 

I’ve only spoken to a few people who hear the Hum—those I was able to find through a listserv, most of whom live within a few miles of me. But if MacPherson’s map is to be believed, there are obviously many more Hum hearers in this area.

Meanwhile, and somewhat ironically, I haven’t heard the Hum in weeks. Henry is finally sleeping through the night, and if I do wake up because I hear him babbling on the monitor, I find myself lying in bed and listening for the Hum, waiting for its drone to fill my ears again. 

But it’s gone, at least for now, and I’m surprised to find that I miss it. Maybe it’s blocked by the sound of the fan or, on very hot nights, the air conditioner. Or maybe I’m no longer one of the chosen few able to hear its murmuring tone. Either way, it feels like I’ve lost a companion, a noise that kept me company through those long nights with a newborn, when the rest of the world felt distant and asleep.