ASSAP: Paranormal Research
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ASSAP blogWelcome to the ASSAP paranormal blog! Though this blog is aimed at anyone interested in the paranormal, it will be of particular interest to the paranormal research community. Updated frequently, but not regularly (don't expect something new every day!), it covers any paranormal topic, as well as highlighting recent changes to the ASSAP website. You may not notice it but this site changes on an almost daily basis.

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26 Aug 2008: What makes somewhere spooky?

All alone!Studies show that people report more ghosts in places considered 'spooky' or eerie than in others. Factors said to contribute to a feeling of 'spookiness' include low lighting, low temperatures, dampness, old buildings and so on. But are there other factors that might make one stretch of countryside, for instance, appear spookier than another?

Let's look at the known factors first. Things like low temperatures and dampness may make us feel uncomfortable, possibly triggering a feeling of unease. Low lighting makes it difficult to see things unambiguously, which could also contribute to a feeling of unease (and encourage misperception). People tend to associate old buildings with hauntings, probably because of ghost stories, movies and so on, even though there are many cases of haunted modern buildings. Simply knowing that somewhere is supposed to be haunted may also make it appear spookier than an identical place nearby, with no such reputation.

All of this suggests that 'spookiness' is mostly in the 'eye of the beholder'. One person may perceive a place as spooky that another does not. This suggests that other psychological factors could contribute to a feeling of spookiness. For instance, a place might seem spookier if you are there all alone when you visit it. Being somewhere unfamiliar to you could also contribute to a feeling of unease. Even feeling stressed, by matters unrelated to the location, might contribute to a feeling of unease. All of these factors might make a place seem spooky that, in other circumstances, would not be.

When talking to ghost witnesses it would, therefore, be useful to find out their state of mind, and feeling about the location, at the time of their experience. Whether there is anything objectively 'spooky' about one place compared to another, is a matter for debate.

22 Aug 2008: Are orbs finally on the way out?

Tailed orbI like to keep in touch with what paranormal groups are up to by visiting their forums. I've noticed lately that the idea that orbs are paranormal often now gets short shrift in such places. For a long time, many people believed that while most orbs are caused by dust or insects, there is a small residue that might be different. However, now it is becoming more generally accepted that ALL orbs are naturally caused.

It would be odd indeed if 99% of orbs were natural while 1%, which look identical, are somehow paranormal. However, the "99% argument" is common among anomaly researchers and it can be beguiling. For instance, 99% of UFOs (or some similarly high percentage) are often said to have a natural explanation. Ufologists concentrate on the remaining 1% that might be something truly unknown.

With orbs, the "99% argument" is far less easy to sustain than for UFOs. UFOs sightings are produced by a multitude of different causes so involving many variables. By contrast, the causes of orbs are relatively simple and few. This makes it much easier to explain orb photos. There are also fewer varieties of orbs, like tailed versions, compared to UFOs, which are also easy to explain.

It will certainly be good if ghost researchers can finally put orbs behind them. There is plenty to explain and explore in 'basic' hauntings without photographic artifacts causing unnecessary distractions.

19 Aug 2008: UFOs and military planes

Eurofighter TyphoonSome UFOs are put down to sightings of military aircraft. Unlike civilian aircraft, the military versions can turn up pretty much anywhere. In practice, they are most likely to be seen near their bases and in training areas. Anyone who lives in a military aircraft training area will definitely already know about it. But the rest of us might be taken by surprise when an unfamiliar object appears in our skies.

Military aircraft can perform manoeuvres that their civilian counterparts would never attempt (see photo) which can give them an odd 'shape'. They are also often radically different in size (much smaller or much larger) than civilian aircraft. These factors can contribute to an unfamiliar (xenonormal) look. If seen at night or dusk, in particular, you might only see their bright exhaust from an afterburner (see photo). This can look like two bright dots or light trails moving in the sky.

UFOs are often reported to be silent, which some people think rules out terrestrial craft. However, aircraft can sometimes fly high enough not to be heard while still being clearly visible. Of course, there is also always the tiny possibility of seeing 'secret' military aircraft that are still under development. These may look very odd indeed (like stealth technology) and are highly likely to attract UFO reports, if seen.

OK, I'll come clean. This was just an excuse to show a photo of a Typhoon Eurofighter with afterburner. However, it doesn't mean that any of the above isn't true. And I have come across reports that sound as though they were caused by just such military aircraft recently.

PS: The excitement over the 'Georgia Bigfoot' body didn't last long - see here.

15 Aug 2008: Where do paranormal theories come from?

MADS in Muncaster CastleSorry to disappoint you but the question is rhetorical; I've really no idea. However, I do have a story about one such theory.

When I first heard about Michael Persinger's work, in the 1980s, I made a prediction (as did one or two others!). Persinger's work involved stimulating people's temporal lobe with weak magnetic fields. Some subjects reported sensations similar to those experienced in temporal lobe epilepsy with some even 'seeing' apparitions. The implications for ghost research were obvious. If similar magnetic fields (since dubbed EIFs - experience inducing fields) occurred 'in the wild', they could be responsible for at least some ghost sightings.

At the time we amateurs didn't possess the technology (like MADS) to detect such weak magnetic fields. However, I predicted that a theory would soon emerge that ghosts actually produced magnetic fields. And in recent years just such a theory did indeed emerge. No one seems to know where it came from or what evidence there is to support it, if any, but it remains widely known. It is the reason so many ghost researchers carry EMF meters, which are designed to detect mains frequency fields. These meters cannot detect EIFs but, since the idea behind their use is that ghost emit magnetic fields, I guess they don't need to.

So, why did I predict that this theory would emerge? Simply from the observation that paranormal ideas often get turned round as they spread. Whether the 'ghosts emit magnetic fields' idea actually came from spinning Persinger's research around, I've no idea. But it's interesting that some things in the paranormal are apparently predictable after all

PS: There is excitement today in the cryptozoological world concerning a possible bigfoot body in Georgia (the US one) - see here. No doubt more information will emerge soon!

12 Aug 2008: Can expert witnesses be wrong?

Black winged stiltI sometimes do a bit of birdwatching when I'm not pursuing the paranormal. I remember an occasion when I was with a lot of other birders, many of them experts, watching some rare birds. One man, a top expert, was telling everyone else where to find a real rarity he'd spotted. We lesser mortals all eagerly followed his directions with our binoculars. Some of us were bemused and frustrated because we couldn't find the bird, despite his detailed directions. He continued a running commentary on the bird for several minutes until one of his friends, another expert, intervened.

'It's not a 'B', John, it's a 'C'!'

There was an embarrassed silence. 'B' was a rarity while 'C', though similar in appearance, was quite common.

I've had various similar experiences down the years with experts being fooled in this way. I should say that the experts I'm talking about can identify a distant bird merely by its shape or behaviour and can describe in detail the exact feather distribution of all common and most rare birds likely to be found in the UK and beyond. Many have travelled the globe and seen thousands of different species. Some have written identification papers in birding journals. But, on occasion, they can still get it wrong, particularly in poor viewing conditions.

So, when I hear someone say that a pilot couldn't possibly make a mistake when reporting a UFO, because they are trained observers, I think of the expert birdwatchers I've met. We can all misperceive and make visual substitutions, no matter how expert we are. It's just the way human perception works.

8 Aug 2008: Why do people report mists as ghosts?

This question puzzles me. Misty shapes are rarely reported as ghosts, which is unsurprising as the obvious alternative explanation is just mist! However, there are many anomalous photos showing mists that are claimed to be ghosts. Apart from actual mist, fog and smoke, other possible natural explanations for such photos include condensation on the camera lens and 'photographer's breath'. The last one refers to flash photos taken on cold nights, when the breath of the photographer is visible and appears, usually out of focus, in the photo. This happens much more with digital cameras than film for the same reason there are so many more orbs now - the bigger depth of field.

What I find odd is that so many people associate mist with ghosts in the first place. In the vast majority of real life cases, ghosts are reported to look perfectly solid and normal. They might do odd things, like just vanish, but they are not misty. So why do people see mist on a photo and think it is a ghost? The only obvious explanation I can think of is some kind of cultural expectation.

The 'misty ghost' idea may be an example of fiction, in this case from movies and theatre, feeding back into real life reports. Pepper's Ghost is used on stage to portray apparitions, giving them a strange transparent, misty look and the apparent ability to float or vanish. This may well have led to a similar portrayal of ghosts in films. It is easier for the audience to realise that a character is supposed to be a ghost if they are translucent. This is all speculation on my part but it is possible that technical tricks, used on stage and in films, may be the reason why people think mists can be ghosts. It's difficult to imagine what other reasons there might be.

5 Aug 2008: Are you calling me a liar?

Many paranormal researchers come up against this kind of problem sometime or other. Having investigated a witness's statement, there seems to be an obvious natural explanation that fits all the reported observations, except one. Take away that single factor and there is nothing paranormal left to explain.

The problem is, you cannot expect people to believe that an incident was paranormal, defying known science, purely on the back of a single observation when the rest of the evidence points to a mundane explanation. On the other hand, the witness may feel they are being accused of lying.

The problem may be caused by misperception but another possibility is confabulation. Confabulation occurs when people either remember only fragments of an experience or they simply didn't notice important elements at the time. It is like seeing a jigsaw with most of the pieces missing. You may think you know what the whole picture looks like, but you could easily be wrong! Either way, an unconscious part of your brain 'fills in' missing pieces of the jigsaw to 'complete' the picture. This occurs when people see 'faces' in otherwise random patterns that just happen to contain elements arranged in a particular way.

Confabulation isn't lying. Lying is when you are aware that what you are saying is untrue. Confabulation produces false memories that feel completely true. So, a witness may 'remember' something that makes an otherwise mundane situation appear paranormal. If they are expecting to see a ghost, for instance, it will affect whether they 'see' one or not.

Unfortunately, confabulation can lead to situations where the witness believes they are being accused of either lying or being poor observers. It is a tricky situation to handle. The important thing to remember is that we are all subject to false memories from time to time and that confabulation is not lying. And we are all subject to misperception which doesn't make us bad observers.

1 Aug 2008: The legacy of the X-Files

InsectorodThe latest X-Files film is released today (in the UK) and it brings back fond memories. The original TV show aired in the 1990s and increased popularity for paranormal and anomalous subjects. It is interesting to contrast its effect on our subject with the current 'reality' ghost hunting shows.

Everyone knew that the X-Files was fiction. However, many viewers also knew that some of its plots drew on real life paranormal cases. In this way the show diverged significantly from previous paranormal-based fiction which drew largely on a legendary and horror tradition that bore little resemblance to cases actually investigated by researchers. The result was an upsurge in interest in anomalies and more people taking up research through organisations like ASSAP.

The current 'reality' ghost hunting shows, by contrast, feature 'ordinary' people in 'ordinary' situations - mostly sitting around in darkened haunted locations - rather than armed FBI agents facing high peril. This undoubtedly inspired many people to want to get personally involved in paranormal research. While they could hardly emulate the daring exploits of Mulder and Scully, sitting around in haunted houses looked like something anyone could do. Unfortunately, the 'reality' shows also encouraged a form of assumption-based ghost research which does not reflect the reality of spontaneous ghost experiences.

Ironically then, while the X-Files, which was undoubted fiction, never produced the explosion of interest that the 'reality' ghost hunting shows have, it tended to point people towards investigating the real experiences of casual paranormal witnesses. By contrast, the 'reality' ghost hunting shows tend to concentrate effort on vigils, where many of the apparent experiences may be due largely to the conditions and the way they are conducted, rather than reflecting what previous spontaneous witnesses have seen.

PS: The photo? See July's blog ...

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© Maurice Townsend 2008