ASSAP: Paranormal Research
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ASSAP bloggerWelcome 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.

Whenever new information becomes available on a subject ASSAP covers, it is added to the relevant pages of the website straight away. So, just because you've read a page, don't assume it will still be exactly the same when you next look. That way the ASSAP website remains an up to date research resource.

The photo (above right, pic by Val Hope) is the ASSAP blogger himself, out looking for anomalies wherever they are to be found, so that you can read about them here. To contact the ASSAP blog, email here.

Important note: If anything in this blog does not make sense, try following the links in text! If it still doesn't make sense, that's probably my fault ...

Previous blog pages ... (including ghosts, UFOs, poltergeists, flying rods, miracles, orbs, hypnotic regression, big cats, vampires, near sleep experiences, premonitions, shadow ghosts, paranormal photos, auras, river monsters and dozens of other subjects)

ASSAP @ 30: A series of posts summarising what we have learned through thirty years of ASSAP, whose anniversary was 10 June. See here!

NB: WDTHDWP = 'what does this have to do with the paranormal'

30 January: Interpretation is all

Crows in a treeRegular readers will be aware that I 'notice' myself misperceiving. We all misperceive all the time. Which is unsurprising as it is all part of normal perception. What makes it 'mis' is that some of the things we perceive are not strictly what is out there in the real physical world. The classic example is someone seeing a distant tree in low light as a human figure. Their brain substitutes the poorly-seen tree with a human figure from their own visual memory.

Most people, most of the time, never notice misperception. That's probably because what the brain is presenting to them as real is what is expected. And people rarely pay much attention to what they expect to see. It's important to understand that someone misperceiving does not see, for instance, a tree that resembles a human figure. Instead they see only a human figure and don't see the tree at all. It is little wonder, then, that misperception can give rise to ghost reports.

I was interested to know about other people's experiences of misperception. So I put an online survey form on the ASSAP website requesting other's experiences (here). There has been a steady trickle of replies ever since. I have not attempted to check the replies so any data derived from the replies must be considered in that light. People were asked to report odd things witnessed during circumstances typical of misperception circumstances, namely seeing something only in a quick glance, in difficult viewing conditions or in peripheral vision.

During an initial survey of the replies, I noticed two obvious groups among the respondents. Group 1 remained convinced that what they had seen was paranormal while Group 2 decided, after initially thinking they'd witnessed something paranormal, that it had a natural explanation. Many of the people in Group 2 later saw what their misperceived object really was. However, some decided what they'd seen was not paranormal because it vanished! And yet, many in Group 1 also had things vanishing but interpreted them as paranormal. Also, interestingly, some people in Group 1 saw something 'morph' into another, mundane, object but still thought what they were seeing was paranormal. Such 'morphing' into a mundane object is typical of misperception.

I was surprised by the contrary interpretations of objects vanishing. I would have assumed that something vanishing would be taken as an indication that it was paranormal. However, people in Group 2 took the contrary view. It was presumably based on the idea that if something vanishes, it is 'just imagination'. I was also surprised that objects 'morphing' into something else was not seen as a indicator that it was misperception. But if the person concerned is not familiar with misperception I suppose that's fair enough. Except that, some people in Group 2 decided that if an object became something mundane then it was NOT paranormal.

What we are seeing here is how personal interpretation of events can affect how a witnesses sees an incident. It could well affect whether they decide it is worth reporting at all. And that is no surprise to me at all. I suspect that whether someone believes in the paranormal or not could have a significant effect on such interpretations.

29 January: Colliding orbs?

Before orb collisionThis video (here) appears to show two orbs colliding. The reason for thinking that they collide, rather than simply pass close to each other, is that one of them goes off in a radically different direction after their encounter. Both orbs are in the middle of the frame. One (white) orb appears to be moving diagonally upwards from left to right. It continues on that track afterwards! The other (bluish) orb is going roughly horizontally, from left to right, and then goes vertically downwards after the encounter. At least that's what appears to happen, assuming the orbs don't somehow change colour during their encounter, which I think is highly unlikely as I've never seen an orb radically change colour like that! After the apparent collision, both orbs come into focus ('de-orb') and reveal themselves to be dust fibres. The fact that they both come into focus at the same time shows they are at the same distance from the camera, increasing the likelihood that it is a real collision.

Orb collisionIn the first photo (above right) you can see the orbs approaching each other. Notice how each 'orb' looks fuzzy. This is because they are actually both tight groups of overlapping orbs, indicating that the objects causing them both have multiple highlights. In the second photo (right) the orbs have apparently collided and appear as one single orb, brighter than both of its constituents.

In the third photo (below right) the two orbs are travelling apart following the apparent collision. The white orb is continuing on its upward journey. The blue one has apparently been diverted downwards. Both objects have 'de-orbed', as they are now in focus, and are revealed to be linear dust fibres. The fact that they both come into focus shows that they are each moving away from the camera. In fact, the orbs were already getting smaller before the collision, suggesting that they were moving away from the camera even then.

After orb collisionThese orbs are, of course, the out of focus highlights of bits of dust. As we can see, these particular dust particles are fibres and large by the standards of domestic dust (explaining why they appeared as overlapping orbs before the encounter). This makes a physical collision more likely than it would be for typical dust particles (and typical orbs) which are significantly smaller. Given that the white orb continued more or less unaffected, it is probably rather heavier than the blue orb. Given that these two bits of dust are large, by normal standards, it is likely that orb collisions are quite rare.

27 January: Moving heads

BushesAt first there seemed nothing odd about it. I had often see part of a head showing just above a tall fence I know well. The fence is so high that, for most people, only the upper part of their head shows when they are walking alongside it. The sight of part of a head apparently skimming along a fence can appear a little odd at first but you get used to it.

Having only seen the head in peripheral vision I looked up, curious to see who it was. But there was no one there! There wasn't time for anyone to have traversed the whole visible section of the fence in the fraction of a second it took to look up. Bemused, I watched for a while, in case some one had ducked down out of sight for some obscure reason. After several minutes, it appeared to me that there was no one there. Except a ghost perhaps!

Exactly the same thing happened a little later. Once again I saw a head, in peripheral vision, behind the fence. As before, I looked up to see no one there. The chances of someone doing the same 'trick' twice, and so quickly that I missed it both times, were low. Especially as most people are not even tall enough to see me over the fence!

Then I noticed something I'd previously not seen. There were shadows from a nearby tall bush playing along the top few centimeters of the fence. There were about the same size as a head! Watching the shadows moving, as the bush was blown around in a strong breeze, I realised it was what I'd seen as 'moving heads'. So this was an example of a peripheral vision misperception.

There are some interesting points in this incident. For instance, the misperception relied on several factors coming together. The sun can only throw those particular shadows for a few times a year, at a specific time of day, due to the surrounding objects and angles involved. It also required the combination of a brisk wind and sunshine. And finally, it required expectation on my part.

Expectation, as well as coincidence, is an important factor in misperception. If someone else had been where I was for this incident, they probably wouldn't have noticed the 'moving heads' at all. Even if they had looked up, all they'd have seen is dancing shadows and thought nothing of it. My expectation of seeing heads had created the misperception for me.

27 January: Ball lightning - towards an explanation?

Scientists in China have been lucky enough to obtain a spectrum from ball lightning. The results show that it contains elements from soil (see here). This is consistent with the theory that lightning strikes vaporize soil on impact producing silicon nanoparticles which react with oxygen in the air to produce a glowing ball. There are many ideas about what might cause ball lightning, some supported by laboratory experiments showing that they are plausible. But this new evidence suggests that the silicon theory is now the one to beat!

Ball lightning is one of those phenomena so elusive that some scientists have, until comparatively recently, even doubted its existence. It is heartening for those of us who follow a scientific approach to anomalous phenomena to see that progress can be made with such mysterious phenomena.

24 January: See multiple orbs morphing into dust!

Group of orbsI've long held an ambition to video an individual piece of dust morphing into an orb (or vice versa). Last month (here) I managed to show orbs and dust morphing into each other but it didn't quite fit what I'd seen in my imagination. The problem was that the dust particles, when in focus, were getting stretched out into light trails by motion blur. I still wanted to show a recognisable bit of dust turn directly into an orb without any such blur. And eventually I got lucky!

So what's in the video (which is here)? What you see is a torch with the far edge in focus but the nearer one not. Dust is floating around strongly illuminated. When they are out of focus, because they're too close to the camera (and inside the orb zone), dust particles appear as orbs. In the grab shot (above right) from the video you can see a tight group of overlapping orbs.

Dust particleLater, as the group of orbs drift away, they leave the orb zone, come into focus and are revealed as a single large dust particle. It is a fibre (pic right), a typical component of household dust. Because the fibre is drifting directly away from the camera, it is not motion-blurred into a light trail.

This video illustrates how orbs are not simply out of focus objects, they are out of focus highlights ON objects. This is why one fibre of dust becomes at least three overlapping orbs. However, the vast majority of dust orbs seen are singletons. That's because most dust particles are much smaller than the one shown here. They are so small that they only contain one highlight! Large bits of dust, like the one in the video, rarely form orbs because they quickly fall to the floor.

Another interesting thing to note is that the dust fibre is rotating. This means that the highlights shift around as different surfaces of the object are presented to the camera. In the video, the number of orbs in the group actually changes and they alter relative position, all due to the rotation of the dust fibre. Though dust rarely produces groups of orbs like this, insects commonly do because they are larger and generally have many highlights. In the video, the dust fibre finally vanishes because it leaves the orb zone. Though still in focus, it is no longer strongly illuminated by the torch. See here for more on exploring the orb zone.

23 January: The exact circumstances

SkyRecently, in a familiar street I was shocked to hear an unfamiliar sound. It was a loud train horn. Though I've often heard these many times before in this street, they are usually distant background noises, generally barely noticeable. This time it sounded as if I was standing right by the track. The railway is actually about 500m away with a lot of buildings in between. So why were sounds from there suddenly so loud? There are various possibilities but I think the most likely is refraction, given that it was a cold, still morning (see here for an explanation and diagram).

Many years ago, in the early days of ASSAP, a number of ghost investigators, including me, wondered if there might be anything special about the environment of haunted locations. Since only certain places were haunted, we reasoned, there might be something special about the environment of these sites. So, we advocated 'blanket' environmental monitoring during ghost vigils. That meant measuring every environmental parameter possible to see if there was anything unusual about these places compared to non-haunted locations. However, we never found any environmental 'signature' for haunted places.

Irony number One: I don't know if this approach led to the widespread use of instruments on ghost vigils but I suppose it's possible. Nowadays there is a quite different use for these instruments. It is widely assumed, with no compelling evidence, that ghosts affect local environments and so that 'unusual readings' indicate their presence. Given that most ghost sightings are caused by misperception, hallucination or coincidence, this lack of evidence is hardly surprising.

Irony number Two: It turns out that the exact environmental conditions at a location can actually strongly affect whether anything paranormal gets reported there. As well as the 'spookiness factors' that bias certain locations towards producing reports of the paranormal, there are are also much more specific factors that can trigger strange sights and sounds. For instance, specific lighting conditions at a particular location may give rise to misperception. The train sounds I mentioned earlier are an example where specific environmental conditions produced a temporary puzzling unusual effect. An investigator visiting the site later is highly unlikely to encounter the same conditions. They might therefore see no obvious xenonormal cause for the effect and conclude, quite wrongly, that it was paranormal.

So, it is vitally important to record the precise environmental conditions during a reported anomalous experience. This may not always be easy as the witness may not accurately recall such details. There can be a temptation for investigators to guess the environmental conditions when the information is not readily available. This is dangerous. Just the other day I was walking around outside in shirt sleeves feeling pleasantly warm in the sunshine. Given that it was January in the UK, most people would think such conditions highly unlikely! It can be difficult to find this environmental information but it is important to try to get it. Without it there is a temptation to regard something as unexplained or paranormal when, in reality, there is a perfectly good xenonormal explanation.

20 January: Ghost mouse

Water voleWalking along a deserted railway station platform the other day, I noticed a small 'thing' running just in front of me. It was clearly an animal of some sort. The most obvious thing, given its size and dark colour, was a mouse like the ones you see at London Underground stations. It was keeping pace with me so I couldn't get any closer. However, I was definitely close enough to be able to see exactly what it was. Except that I couldn't, however hard I looked. The 'mouse' seemed to have no obvious animal features. A ghost mouse then?

Then I saw a something that allowed me to understand what I was seeing - water. I was actually following a long thin ribbon of water, perhaps a centimeter or two wide. I hadn't noticed it before because of the unusual lighting. Now I could see that the 'ghost mouse' was the dark reflection of an object above me. The reflection moved because I was moving. Because I couldn't see the water, at first, it looked just like a small black object with the approximate dimensions and colour of a mouse.

Some questions answered. Where did the ribbon of water come from? It was a cold day and water had condensed on a metal bar in the canopy above the station platform. It then fell to form a narrow ribbon of water directly below. Could another witness have really thought this was a mouse? Well I was convinced it was a mouse for several seconds and I'm fairly familiar with them. Would it have been reported as a ghost mouse? You'd be amazed by what gets reported as paranormal! Lastly, why am I using a photo of a water vole instead of a mouse? I just didn't have a mouse pic around.

17 January: Creating a ghost

transparent objectI was looking out of a window when I suddenly sensed that something was 'wrong'. There was 'someone else' in the empty room with me! The 'someone', a dark figure, was clearly visible in my peripheral vision! A ghost? I turned slowly to get a better look. The 'figure' instantly turned into some clothes hanging over the back of a chair.

I have noted here before how clothes on a chair can give a powerful misperception of a human figure. So I decided to do an informal experiment, to create my own ghost (see definition here)! I draped a blanket on a chair so that it occupied roughly the same area that a person would if they were seated there. I then went about my everyday business, hoping to forget about the blanket and see if I later misperceived it as a human figure. The blanket was uniform in colour and, unlike clothes, had no arms or legs. It didn't strongly resemble a human figure.

At first the experiment was disappointing. Even when I forgot about it, the blanket failed to get misperceived. Then I realised that I was always approaching the blanket so that I first saw it in my central vision. When I tried approaching it in such a way that my first view was inevitably peripheral, I started to get the brief, but definite, impression of a seated human figure. It seemed that the first view of the object was crucial, which makes sense in terms of misperception. When approached peripherally the 'figure' was present even when I was expecting it. This ties in with the experience above where I only noticed the clothes on the chair for the fist time in peripheral vision.

Another thing that strongly increased the chances of getting a misperception was being pre-occupied. I tried visualizing an emotive scene that pretty much completely took my attention. Then when I moved so that the blanket suddenly appeared in peripheral vision, there was a particularly strong impression of a human figure. The 'emotive subject' had absolutely nothing to do with anyone sitting in a chair, so neither expectation nor suggestion was playing a part. Instead, I think distraction was the key element. This ties in with my experiences of the door ghost that is most likely to appear when I'm completely preoccupied with something else.

And the photo? Not a blanket on a chair! So, instead I used a photo from some experiments I've been doing to find out the best way to get transparent objects in photos. It turns out that it is best if the transparent object is only in the frame for a short time, maybe less than a second, otherwise it looks too solid. The object here is a scrap of paper. The blue background was added in software (the only alteration) to give the impression of a desert scene! Yes, xenonormal experiments can be whimsical. Real life ghosts are seldom, if ever, reported as appearing transparent. However, photos showing transparent figures, almost always caused by a long exposure, continue to be reported as ghosts.

16 January: Always looking out for weird stuff

Orbs in reedsI am always on the lookout for weird stuff, as regular readers will no doubt have noticed. The main principle of xenonormal studies is to reproduce phenomena that have been reported as anomalous using only the natural environmental conditions of the original situation. However, I've discovered, quite by chance, some previously unreported (as far as I can determine) odd but natural things only for them to subsequently to get reported as anomalous. Unfortunately, I can't give examples here as it would breach confidentiality, which is very frustrating. However, it is very satisfying to receive an anomalous photo, for instance, and show the sender a photo I took myself showing exactly the same thing, together with its explanation. And these are photographs that would, just months before, have been a complete mystery to me.

So, here (right) is my latest contribution to the weird photo genre. The photo shows backlit reed heads. If you look carefully you'll see coloured orbs in the background reed head, which is out of focus. Since orbs are out of focus highlights, this isn't too surprising. But why are they coloured?

But here's the really interesting bit, which I've never seen before (though if anyone else has, please let me know). If you look on the right hand side of the photo about half way up, you'll see an unexpected greenish area on the foreground reed head, which is IN focus. There are also a few other, less obvious, greenish patches throughout the foreground reed. These surprising colours only occur on the reeds, nowhere else in the photo. I do not remember seeing these greenish colours at the time with the naked eye, though my memory isn't great. In addition, however, I also have other photos of the same reeds, taken at the same time, which do not show any unusual greenish colours.

All these clues tend to point towards lens flare being the cause of the greenish colours, both in the foreground reed and (out of focus) background one. Though I doubt anyone would report this as anomalous, it gives a clue to how some orbs may get brightly coloured in similar situations. This sort of thing shows how it is always worthwhile looking out for scenarios in everyday life that could, in other circumstances or to other people, appear anomalous.

14 January: Why are ghost photos so often blurry?

Moon UFOThere is a common idea that photos of ghosts, UFOs and other anomalies generally suffer from problems, like being blurry, so that they are never really convincing. Why can't we get a really well exposed clear picture of a ghost? Is it something to do with the phenomena themselves? Or is it because the phenomena are elusive and witnesses are unable to get as good photos a result? The photo here (right), for instance, shows what may be a UFO. The trouble is there are no details so it's hard to say what it is exactly.

There was an episode of the Goodies, a British comedy TV series from the 1970s, where the trio go in search of the Loch Ness Monster. They were offered a monster hunting camera, which only took fuzzy pictures, in their quest! This played on the popular idea around that photos of ghosts, UFOs and the like are blurry and ambiguous. But is it justified? Well, I've closely studied around three and half thousand anomalous photos, so I think I probably have examined a big enough sample to answer that question. And I would say that, unlike so many popular ideas about anomalous phenomena, it appears to be essentially true. A high proportion of anomalous photos really do suffer from problems like being out of focus, under- or over-exposed, low resolution, motion blur and so on. But why?

MoonIt would be nice to imagine that, if only people had great camera equipment when they encountered something weird they could capture really good, unambiguous photos of things like ghosts. But is that realistic? A massive clue here is that, in the vast majority of cases, no anomaly was actually seen at the time the photo was taken. In the photos I've seen the apparent ghosts (or other anomalies) are usually caused by photographic artefacts. And these photographic artefacts appear as a result of a fault in the photo, like focus or exposure problems.

So, it is the very fact that the photos ARE blurry (or suffer some other photographic fault) that is causing artefacts which are interpreted as anomalous phenomena. And this, in my opinion, is why a high proportion of anomalous photos will always appear blurry or badly exposed. It is nothing to do with the quality of the photographic equipment. I've seen anomalous photos taken with very expensive cameras. Any camera can produce a photographic artefact in the right circumstances. And artefacts can resemble anomalous phenomena on occasion.

The second photo here (above) is the same object (taken minutes later) as the one shown above. The first photo shows no detail because the central object, the Moon, is heavily overexposed. The image is so bright that the sky looks blue and there is some lens flare present (the faint transparent disc overlapping the right side of the disc).

While cameras get technically better and better all the time, there will always be photographic artefacts. And these artefacts will always get reported as anomalous phenomena. So, yes, it is true that many anomalous photos are blurry. And there's a good reason for that.

10 January: Mysterious flashes!

ReflectionsWhen I looked up and saw the flash I was puzzled. It appeared in a darkened room for no obvious reason. There was a little light coming from an adjacent room but no likely sources of a flash there either. I stared for a while at the wall but nothing further happened. As I did so, I 'replayed' the incident in my mind (though I have a terrible long term memory, I can recall very recent incidents with high accuracy by 'replaying' them in my mind). One thing that struck me was that the area covered by the flash was small. Light diverges from most light sources, except lasers, so the source would have to be very close but there there was nothing nearby.

It reminded me of the unexplained flashes that were commonly reported in ASSAP training ghost vigils back in the 1990s. I was never particularly impressed with such reports because, to me, there always seemed to be plenty of likely sources of flashes present. But, on this occasion, I could find none.

Intrigued, I started to play with the idea that I was source of the light in some way. I stood in precisely the same position I had originally and moved my head in the same way. On the third attempt I saw the light again - same size, same shape, same colour, same place! After several goes, I was able to reproduce the effect at will and realised what it was!

Like many people, I wear glasses. Sometimes stray reflections intrude in my visual field as a result. Being thoroughly familiar, I rarely even notice them. But on this occasion I was standing in a position where a bright light source, above and behind me, was reflecting strongly on the inside of my glasses and appearing in my visual field. This meant that an image of the light source briefly flashed into view, appearing as if on the wall beyond, as I moved my head. Because it was an image of the light source, it appeared quite small, explaining that mystery. The fact that I was looking into the dark enhanced the impression that the light was in the room in front of me rather than coming from behind.

Paranormal investigators will, of course, always note whether witnesses were wearing glasses when they saw whatever they saw. Usually, it would not be a important factor since, like me, people who wear glasses know what sort of reflections they produce. However rarely, as this incident demonstrated to me that, unusual conditions may come together to produce some unexpected reflections. As always, reproducing the incident as closely as possible is invaluable in understanding such reports.

8 January: A white floating thing!

Night foxI admit that I often have at least some idea of what I'm looking at when I see something a bit weird. But the white object floating along the pavement of a dark street the other night really had me utterly baffled! My best guess was some kind of animal. Somebody else might easily have considered some kind of ghost. Personally, I'm not convinced white ghosts actually exist. Like transparent ghosts, they are widely portrayed in movies but seldom, if ever, actually encountered in real life cases.

I had to wait until the floating white thing moved under a street light to see what it actually was. It turned out to be someone dressed in very dark clothing carrying a white bag! Yes, the clothing was so dark and the lighting so poor, I completely failed to register the person carrying the white bag, so that it appeared to float along unaided.

In my defence, I only saw the object for a few seconds before the street light revealed all. Also, I was concentrating on the white object itself, which might be why I failed to notice anything else. In addition, I was watching for foxes (like the one in the photo), so that probably affected what I was expecting to see. Interestingly, I did not misperceive the bag as anything else, I just saw a weird unidentifiable white object. I have noted in many paranormal reports that witnesses generally concentrate entirely on the weird object itself and cannot recall much else about the scene.

In many ghost cases an object, like a bush, is misperceived as a human figure. This, then, was almost the opposite - a person present who was not seen. I doubt this sort of thing happens very often but, when it does, it could produce some spectacular reports. What if, in the current incident, the person with the bag had never moved close enough to a street light to be seen properly. I would be left with a seemingly inexplicable white object floating along a dark street. If I was investigating such a report from someone else, I admit I would find it baffling. One clue would have been that the object was following the pavement, just as a person walking would move. I would probably try to reproduce the scenario with the same illumination conditions. That would, at least, show what kind of details were visible and invisible in such conditions. I admit, though, it might well remain unresolved.

7 January: Yet another shadow ghost!

Night fallsIf you found yourself in a situation that recalled a horror movie, how would you react? When it happened to me recently, I didn't react well! I had just entered a darkened empty room. It was night time and the only illumination came from a street light outside through the uncurtained window.

It caught my eye immediately - the unmistakable shadow of a large human figure on the wall opposite the window. I freely admit to being shocked! I turned round with some trepidation and saw no one there. Only after a few seconds of confusion did I notice an area of condensation on the window that just happened to strongly resemble the shape of a human figure. It was much smaller than the shadow it projected, of course. I missed it at first because, quite frankly, I was expecting to see a real person! If I'd never noticed the condensation I would have been left with an unexplained shadow that could easily have been interpreted as a shadow ghost.

The sight of an unexplained shadow would have been disconcerting in any case but the resemblance to a scene from a horror movie made it worse. I think the such familiar scenes from movies may actually actually encourage people to see weird things. For instance, walking around an old building at night almost inevitably recalls scenes from ghost or horror movies. I wonder if such scenes may actually constitute spookiness factors.

It has often been suggested that fiction affects real life reports of anomalous phenomena. So some people, when seeing a strange light in the sky, will inevitably think 'extraterrestrial'. In the days before UFOs entered popular culture, it's unlikely that thought would have occurred to them. But I wonder if encountering situations which resemble typical movie scenes may produce particular expectations, albeit unconsciously. I would guess that some ghost sightings could easily result from someone finding themselves in a situation that resembles one from a ghost movie. Psychological expectation is always an important factor in anomalous cases and should be looked out for during investigations. It would also be well worth looking out for odd-shaped condensation on windows!

6 January: Ghostly figure mystery

Red hooded ghostThere is something distinctly odd in this photo (right) of a transparent red hooded ghostly figure. And this is the mystery. If you look carefully, you'll notice that both the ghostly figure, and the buildings behind it, look noticeably clearer than objects elsewhere in the photo. It is almost as if the ghostly figure is acting like a lens, focussing the objects behind.

OK, it's not really a ghost but there are many photos like this one which some people believe do show actual ghosts. It is an odd idea because, the vast majority of ghosts are reported by witnesses to look perfectly solid and normal. I have long suspected that the origin of the widespread idea that some ghosts are transparent comes from the theatre and Pepper's Ghost. It is also a widely used convention to show ghosts as transparent in movies (presumably so that the audience realises what they are). This is despite the fact that there is very little evidence for transparent ghost from real cases.

There are other reasons why people seeing a transparent figure in a photo they've taken might think it's a ghost. Firstly, such transparent figures arise from long exposures and the photographer is often not aware they've taken such a shot. Luckily EXIF data is now available and, in the many such photos I've looked at, it is always a long exposure. Secondly, the photographer may not notice anyone present at the time they took their photo. However, it is quite common for someone concentrating on taking a photo to not notice someone drifting into shot. Thirdly, people often think that if a someone walks through a shot during a long exposure, they should show up as a continuous blur, not a stationary transparent figure.

I recently did some experiments concerning this last point. It confirmed my previous experience that moving objects in long exposures only show up if they move very slowly or stop altogether. So, in one shot I got someone to walk slowly straight through a long exposure without stopping and they barely appeared at all. There was just a slight, highly transparent, impression of a boot, like a faint shadow! When the person started stationary and walked out of shot during the exposure, they appeared stationary but transparent. This was how the example here was produced. The same person even appeared twice, both times transparent, in the same shot if they walked slowly enough. When they moved really slowly, they did indeed appear as a continuous blur, as you might expect. If someone was originally outside a frame and then walked into it half way through an exposure and stopped, they would appear as a clear transparent figure. It is this last scenario that probably explains many ghostly transparent figure photos. So, overall, I think the idea of transparent figures in photos being ghosts probably arises from theatrical convention and a misunderstanding of what long exposures do to moving objects.

But why do the buildings look clearer through the ghostly figure in the photo? Well, it was a hand held long exposure which explains the motion blur in the general scene. But the figure and the buildings behind it were each only exposed for around half as long as the overall frame. Thus they suffered only half as much motion blur! You wouldn't get this effect if the camera was on a tripod.

3 January: Ghost misidentification

Misperceived womanGhosts are supposedly identified with particular people in many haunting cases. However, there are few examples where the figure is actually recognized by an apparition witness, either at the time, or later by comparison with a picture. So, I am always highly interested in those rare cases when someone says they actually recognized a ghost they saw.

Many apparition sightings are caused by misperception. From my experience, the figures seen in misperception appear to be archetypes, rather than specific individuals drawn from the witness's own memory. So, I might see a 'shadowy male figure', an 'old woman' or a 'young person in a grey coat', for instance, rather than someone I actually recognise. Taking a specific example, I once saw the reeds photographed (right) as an 'old woman'. Not someone I know, just an old woman. I think that impression probably came from the light colour of the reeds suggesting white hair!

So, if someone claims to actually recognise a ghostly figure, would that necessarily rule out misperception as a possible cause for the ghost sighting? At first sight, yes. However, a recent experience has given me second thoughts.

I was surprised, to say the least, when I recently saw of friend of mine on a city street. The location was a long way from where I'd ever expect to see them. Bemused, I approached to say hello. Then I realised I was mistaken - it was not my friend. But what really shocked me was how little the person resembled my friend close up.

How could I possibly have made such a bizarre misidentification? I looked at the person more closely and realized that the only thing the two people had in common was similar clothes. It made me recall several similar incidents in the past where I've mistakenly thought I'd seen an acquaintance. In fact, I've often 'identified' a person on just one characteristic, like clothes, gait, hair, face, etc. Such single characteristics are too vague to reliably identify someone in a crowd of strangers (though people with prosopagnosia manage it) . But that doesn't stop me, and no doubt others, 'recognizing' an acquaintance mistakenly (and sometimes correctly).

So, if a witness sees a ghost, it is quite possible that they might mistakenly identify them, perhaps based on just one characteristic. And this could apply as easily to a ghost sighting caused by misperception as any other type. I might have identified my 'old woman' ghost with someone I knew if they'd shared a key characteristic, like 'clothing'. But it would still, in reality, just be a reed!

2 January: The man with two heads

OK, so you're walking past a well known haunted house one evening when you happen to notice there's something odd going on inside. Although there are no lights on in the building, you can see small lights moving around inside. Could it be the ghost? Intrigued, you approach a window that is adjacent to the street to look in. Inside you glimpse a group of people sitting in chairs in the dark. One person is walking around with a torch, so explaining the mysterious moving light. You realise, after studying the people for a while, that they are ghost hunters! The thought crosses your mind - what if I were to appear at the window briefly and then run away and hide? Naturally, you don't do it.

This is, of course, an imaginary scenario but one that could easily happen. Indeed, I know of very similar incidents which HAVE happened. And while you or I would never tease the ghost hunters, it is not hard to think of individuals who might!

Wet streetThe other day I saw a man with two heads. As well as the expected one, another was projecting from his chest. This story is completely true, by the way, not imaginary. Luckily, I passed close enough to the man to see what was going on in this decidedly odd scene which resembled something from a horror movie. It was raining and the man was holding the head of a mannequin close to his chest, presumably to stop it getting too wet. While, up close, the head was clearly that of a dummy, from a distance the scene would be difficult to comprehend.

What these two scenarios have in common is that they demonstrate how people do not always behave predictably. And yet, I am always reading paranormal reports where a possible natural explanation has been ruled out because it is so utterly unlikely! So, someone sees a figure at a window during a ghost vigil and quickly investigates. They discover there is no one outside and there was not time for a casual passer-by to have gone out of sight. But what if the figure was not a 'casual passer-by' but someone intent on playing a trick on the ghost hunters? Such a person might easily identify a suitable place to hide before performing their trick. Or they might just run fast, in a way no 'casual passer-by' would be likely to do.

The point is, most people behave predictably most of the time. But it is quite wrong to assume ALL people behave predictably ALL of the time. And yet, that is precisely the implicit assumption so often used to dismiss improbable, but not impossible, mundane explanations. If you asked me if I expected to see a man with a head apparently sprouting from his chest walking down the street, I'd probably laugh. Which wouldn't stop it happening.

PS: The photo is a wet street near the one where I saw the man with two heads. The light anomalies are caused by water on the camera lens (see here). I've come across these being reported as paranormal.

For a review of paranormal research in the noughties, see here.

Last month's (December) website figures are an average of 9940 hits per day. This is down on the previous month's 11675 daily average, as expected during a holiday period.


Previous blog pages ...

  • Dec 2013 (including popping orbs, new shadow ghost, ignoring a ghostly hand, dust turning into orbs videoed)
  • Nov 2013 (including hearing voices, blurry ghosts, mirrors and ghosts, coincidences, UFOs near airports)
  • Oct 2013 (including fairy photo, mist ghost, yeti, premonitions, orbs are NOT dust, how hauntings start)
  • Sep 2013 (including moving sticks, targets affecting odds in psi tests, shape shifting, not photographing ghosts)
  • Aug 2013 (including ghosts in plain view, mystery photo, seeing faces, ear pointing, shadow presence, time distortion)
  • July 2013 (including floating ghosts, on being a ghost, ghost ducks, follow that ghost - yes, ghosts galore)
  • June 2013 (including transparent ghosts, distance of UFOs, other stuff going on while witnessing anomalous phenomena)
  • May 2013 (including ghost seen AND photographed, time distortion, reproducing anomalous phenomena)
  • Apr 2013 (including door ghost moving, UFOs from a train, missing time, reality glitches, EVP without E, weird photos)
  • Mar 2013 (including witness credibility, distraction to see ghosts, movie in real life, photo or witness)
  • Feb 2013 (including possible orb comeback, OBEs go mainstream, walking ghost, feelings without touch, object movement)
  • Jan 2013 (including a big problem with ghost vigils, time distortions, cryptids, snow ghosts and rods, causes of hauntings)
  • Dec 2012 (including mysterious injuries, ghosts versus people, voice from nowhere, experimenting with a ghost)
  • Nov 2012 (including reflected ghost, isolated EVPs, ghosts talking to each other, invisible presences)
  • Oct 2012 (including ghostly presence, shadow ghost, strange pigeons, window ghosts, hallucinations)
  • Sep 2012 (including yellow grass, weird waterfalls, vanishing buzzard, ghost vigils, slowing down time)
  • Aug 2012 (including seeing unknown animals, glowing lampposts, EMF meters as an accident of history)
  • July 2012 (including turning rods into orbs, psychic insight, making insects spell, glowing eyes, haunting hot spots)
  • June 2012 (including doppelganger mystery, not expecting ghosts, anecdotal evidence, credible witnesses)
  • May 2012 (including lenticular cloud, ghost encounter, ghost train, weird stuff in a tree, van Gogh, resolution)
  • Apr 2012 (including naturalists and ghosts, odd feelings during OBE, wrong kind of sound, voice from nowhere)
  • Mar 2012 (including jogging and ghosts, misty ghosts, image noise, full spectrum photography, EVP of machines)
  • Feb 2012 (including ghost car, analyzing anomalous photos, ghost at rock concert, OBEs and motion sickness)
  • Jan 2012 (including stopping flying rods, photographing fairies, time warp, a ghost tie, ghostly fingers, New Year UFOs)
  • Dec 2011 (including missing time, improving ghost vigils, anomalous photos, ghostly faces, seeing fiction)
  • Nov 2011 (including OBE video games, EVP and VLF, whatshisname, paranormal misconceptions, invisible ghosts)
  • Oct 2011 (including smartphone ghosts, similacrum, smell of ghosts, morphing UFOs, slowing time)
  • Sep 2011 (including tidy ghost, MADS, transparent ghost, big announcement, ghost fox, not alone)
  • Aug 2011 (including cold spots, spectral hound, triangular UFO, ghost photos, rushing air and being dragged)
  • July 2011 (including Hilary Evans, Harry Potter, witness investment, bias in paranormal research, TV detectives)
  • June 2011 (including ASSAP @ 30, detecting lies, hyper-vigilence, strange thunder)
  • May 2011 (including ASSAP @ 30, lone shoes, flying rods, bias, early memories, strange floating object)
  • Apr 2011 (including royal wedding, mirror touch synaesthesia, sleep disorders, new ghost sighting)
  • Mar 2011 (including roof heron, Atlantis, first time witnesses, comparing film to digital paranormal photos)
  • Feb 2011 (including predicting the future, ghost bird, time slip, weird floor, what do we really know about paranormal)
  • Jan 2011 (including the ghost hunting boom, orange UFO, EVP experiment, extreme normality)
  • Dec 2010 (including microsleeps and road ghosts, shadow ghost in snow, lack of ghosts in photos, anthropomorphism)
  • Nov 2010 (including EMF meters, auras, evidence for precognition, sensitisation, the ghost hunting boom)
  • Oct 2010 (including black orbs, UnConvention, mirror visions, levitation, flying rods and orbs)
  • Sep 2010 (including a ring tone from the roof, shadow ghost video, time slip explanation, daylight orb video)
  • Aug 2010 (including Parisian UFO, sense of presence, SLI, consulting experts, misperception)
  • Jul 2010 (including Sherlock Holmes as a paranormal investigator, haunting sounds, what ARE hallucinations)
  • Jun 2010 (including the Loch Ness Monster, gorilla video, getting ghost stories the wrong way round)
  • May 2010 (including ball lightning, Wem ghost photo, waking up twice, eyewitnesses, Robin Hood)
  • Apr 2010 (including causes of road ghosts, new orb evidence, bird UFOs, UFO photo, not quite seeing is believing)
  • Mar 2010 (including experiencing hypnagogia, consciousness, belief, prolonged misperception, doppelganger)
  • Feb 2010 (including visual continuity errors - AKA ghosts, near sleep experiences on trains, spontaneous OOBEs)
  • Jan 2010 (including intelligent oil, SLI, inducing OOBEs, orange UFOs, the bleak midwinter)
  • Dec 2009 (including review of research in the noughties, pretty orbs, imperceptions, river monster)
  • Nov 2009 (including EVP without a recorder, demons and entities, why only some people see ghosts)
  • Oct 2009 (including grey ghost, near sleep experiences, a triangular UFO and seeing David Beckham)
  • Sep 2009 (including latent memory, Tufted Puffin, Bermuda Triangle and garden poltergeist)
  • Aug 2009 (including official UFO files, partial ghosts, flying rods and miracles)
  • Jul 2009 (including garden poltergeist, big cat video, orbs and hypnotic regression)
  • Jun 2009 (including thoughts from nowhere, shadow ghosts, premonitions and metallic UFO)
  • May 2009 (including analysing paranormal photos, making ghosts and ghost lore)
  • Apr 2009 (including phantom bird, choice blindness and grass that gets up and walks away)
  • Mar 2009 (including deja vu, ghostly mists, weird UFO photo, white ghosts)
  • Feb 2009 (including hidden memories, coincidences, auras and window UFOs)
  • Jan 2009 (including animals sensing ghosts, vampires, flying rod season and a haunted path)
  • Dec 2008
  • Nov 2008
  • Oct 2008
  • Sep 2008
  • Aug 2008
  • July 2008
  • June 2008
  • May 2008
  • April 2008
  • March 2008
  • February 2008
  • January 2008
  • December 2007
  • November 2007
  • October 2007
  • Even older

© Maurice Townsend 2014