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21 January 2023

The mystery of Havana syndrome

This strange story from investigative journalist Nicky Woolf sits at the intersection of so many dark subjects.

By Rachel Cunliffe

Something about the podcast format makes it ideal for telling thriller stories. There’s a reason why so many viral hits have focused on true crime, psychological dramas, and tales of espionage: the blend of narrative, interviews, music and soundscapes can make the suspense so much greater than a TV documentary would manage. Plug in your headphones, close your eyes, and your imagination does the rest.

The Sound, a new eight-part series by investigative journalist Nicky Woolf, formerly an editor at this magazine, is all about the power of audio. In 2016, staff at the US embassy in Cuba started reporting symptoms – headaches, blurred vision, nausea, memory loss – after hearing a strange ringing noise. Dubbed “Havana syndrome”, the condition soon spread. It could not be explained by doctors, but scans suggested traumatic brain injury. Some patients have lasting health issues today. Were they victims of a terrifying new weapon based on sound waves? Of damage caused by drugs or exposure to pesticides? Of mass hysteria? 

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There is still no official explanation – but that makes the series no less compelling. This story about the potential for sonic warfare sits at the intersection of so many mysterious subjects: the dark side of geopolitics, bioethics, neuroscience, conspiracy theories, the long tail of the Cold War. It’s about the tension between the Castro and Trump administrations, the murky world of spy-craft and diplomacy, and the arms race to develop ever more ingenious and devastating weapons. But it’s also about the horror that one of your own senses might turn against you.

I don’t know if we’ll ever find out what happened in Havana, but the intimacy and intrigue of this podcast has me thoroughly spooked. Immersed in the narrative, I found myself lowering the volume on my headphones whenever the interviews were punctuated by white noise or piercing electrical hissing. Just in case.

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This article appears in the 25 Jan 2023 issue of the New Statesman, Why Germany doesn’t do it better