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) is the ASSAP blogger himself, out looking for anomalies wherever they are to be found, so that you can read about them 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)

31 May 2010: What IS a ghost?

I've been studying ghosts for decades now and yet the question 'what is a ghost' becomes more perplexing as I learn more about them. It is a very important question to paranormal research because it affects how investigations are carried out (such as assumption-led methods) and how their results are interpreted. So how did such a simple question become so complicated?

Most people think ghosts are spirits but the evidence from actual cases does not obviously support this idea, despite its popularity. When apparition reports are investigated thoroughly most have xenonormal explanations. Effectively there are TWO kinds of ghost - the one of popular imagination and fiction and the one of real life cases. As paranormal researchers we are, of course, primarily interested in the latter type.

Another curious dichotomy surrounds hauntings. In popular imagination, a haunting is what a ghost does - you can't have one without the other. In real cases of hauntings, however, apparitions are rarely sighted and it is only ASSUMED that a ghost must be responsible for an odd collection of paranormal phenomena. Even when ghosts DO appear during a haunting, they are rarely, if ever, seen producing any of the other phenomena in the case. It is entirely possible that ghosts are simply one possible, non-essential, symptom of a haunting!

So to answer the question 'what is a ghost', the most practical reply idea would be to ask 'why does someone think they've seen a ghost'. In most cases, ghosts are human, occasionally animal, figures that should 'not be present' for some reason. A figure seen in a locked room that is known to be empty, for instance, would usually be taken for a ghost. In other cases, a figure may look odd, or do something impossible, like disappearing. In reality, such things are not as 'impossible' as they at first appear. It is typical of misperceived figures, for instance, to disappear when seen well. And figures may look odd if they are, in fact, hallucinations caused by near-sleep experiences, for instance. And both causes could be responsible for a figure in a locked empty room!

Having split ghosts into two major types, it is now possible to reunite them. A broader answer to the question 'why do people report seeing ghosts' is that they see things that broadly equate to the popular idea of a ghost as a spirit. If a human figure is seen in an empty locked room or disappears in front of a witness, it is assumed that only spirits can be the cause of the sighting. In reality, people are far too trusting of their own senses. Human perception is a complicated system but it is clear from recent research that what we experience are the edited highlights of reality with a dash of our own memories and expectations thrown in. Because we believe implicitly what we experience, we can easily be led into seeing things that simply did not happen the way we think they did.

So what IS a ghost? I would say it is 'what a witness reports as a ghost' which, in most cases, has a xenonormal explanation. It is a messy concept which revolves closely around the witnesses themselves. We can go a little further and say a ghost is generally a human or animal, though there are sometimes inanimate objects reported as ghosts as well. It is clearly an unsatisfactory definition of a ghost which is why I am still uncertain about the whole thing after all these years.

25 May 2010: Ball lightning - an explanation?

This week's New Scientist (17 May) , a constantly reliable source of anomaly related information, describes how ball lightning could be an hallucination! When someone is close to where a lightning strike hits the ground during a storm, a return stroke carries charge back to the sky. This high voltage return stroke has around the same duration as the shortest period required for TMS - Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation.

In TMS, changing electric fields produce magnetic fields which can temporarily disrupt or alter the function of the human brain. This is NOT the same as an EIF, which is caused by much weaker, complex magnetic fields acting over long periods of many minutes. TMS can, however, also produce hallucinations, albeit brief ones. It is possible, if someone is standing close to a lightning strike, that they may see a ball of light for a few seconds that is entirely hallucinatory.

While this might explain some ball lightning reports, it cannot explain them all. There are reports where ball lightning lasted for more than a few seconds and has even caused physical damage. As with ghosts, UFOs and other anomalous phenomena, ball lightning reports probably have several explanations. Different cases have different causes. It is the concept of ghosts that unites many observations of the apparently inexplicable appearance of human figures in certain situations. Similarly, 'ball lightning' may unite observations of all spherical glowing object ever seen, even though different cases may have different causes. Perhaps the problem is our human tendency to classify otherwise unrelated phenomena together purely by appearance!

I was once within a couple of hundred metres of a lightning strike hitting the ground but, sadly, I did not see any ball lightning!

21 May 2010: Close encounter

RobinThe other day I was astonished to see a Robin land very close to me. Normally birds, and most other forms of wildlife, tend to keep their distance from people. I stood as still as I could and watched. The bird actually hopped even closer. At one point I could have leant over and literally picked the bird up it was so close (though I doubt it would have waited for that to happen!). I felt immensely privileged to watch this little scrap of life close up. I was starring in my own wildlife video!

This kind of encounter is rare and most wildlife normally does its thing all around us unnoticed. Sometimes the activities of wildlife leaves evidence that can seem puzzling, even paranormal. Last year I reported how local foxes were moving small items around neighbourhood gardens. They had a special preference for shoes!

I sometimes see small birds in my peripheral vision, flying rapidly out of sight. Unless I turn quickly to see them, it can be difficult to confirm such sightings. Anyone not aware that small 'flying objects' could be birds, or even large insects, might conclude they'd seen something paranormal. Paranormal researchers need to know about all sorts of possible xenonormal causes of paranormal reports and wildlife is just one! No one said being a serious paranormal researcher was easy!

20 May 2010: The Wem ghost photo

Today I noticed a photo in someone's newspaper that was very familiar (here is the article including the famous photo). It is likely to be extremely familiar to people reading this blog too! It is the one of the fire in Wem which appears to show a little girl silhouetted against the blaze. It has become iconic now, reproduced in countless books and websites and is debated wherever and whenever it appears. It regularly appears in lists of 'greatest ghost photos'.

I was one of the first to see this photo because it was originally investigated by ASSAP and Parasearch. We could hardly have realised at the time that this particular ghostly photo, among the thousands of others we've investigated down the years, would become world famous and instantly recognisable to almost everyone interested in the paranormal. I guess the appeal of the photo is that, unlike most ghost photos, it appears to show someone clearly from an earlier age. The dramatic backdrop also helps!

In the latest twist in the ongoing story of the Wem photo, it is claimed in the Daily Mail article (link above) that the 'girl' in it is virtually identical to one in a postcard from 1922. Greg Hobson of the National Media Museum is quoted as saying "the postcard offers pretty conclusive proof that this is a hoax".

When the negative was examined by Dr Vernon Harrison*, ASSAP's photographic consultant at the time of the original case in 1995, he said " The negative is a straight forward piece of black-&-white work and shows no sign of having been tampered with". I don't have a copy of the investigation report, which is a pity as I sometimes get asked about the case because of the ongoing interest.

As I recall, it was concluded at the time, based on the evidence then available, that the 'girl' was most likely a burning bit of debris in front of the main fire. It would explain the curious 'square' shape of the 'face' and the bizarrely thin 'body' below. There certainly appeared to be a suitable object in the correct place in the copy of the fire brigade video that we saw at the time. The fact that the photo was in black and white and that the bright bits were underexposed and the dark bits overexposed made for a high contrast image. With less contrast and some colour it was felt the 'girl' might not have looked like a person at all!

In the latest theory, however, the girl in the ghost photo and the one in the postcard, when compared closely, look notably similar. What is really needed is a minute comparison of the original photo and the postcard. Many people will, no doubt, conclude that this is the answer to the Wem ghost photo mystery, while others will disagree. History suggests people will continue to argue about this striking photo for decades to come!

*A former President of the Royal Photographic Society as well as one of the founding members of ASSAP - see here.

18 May 2010: Robin Hood

There is a new film about Robin Hood now in cinemas. The tale of the outlaw has be retold many times before but it still draws large audiences, generation after generation. What is its continuing appeal? Maybe the concept of robbing the rich to give to the poor is one that many people would love to be true. It is seen as righting a perceived injustice, a powerful theme in many popular stories.

Another appealing concept, judging by how often it is represented in fiction, is the enduring idea that ghosts are spirits. In fiction, such spirits often have a specific motive, such as righting an injustice, for 'returning' which explains their existence as ghosts. It is a concept believed by many people to be factual as well as fictional.

In real ghost cases, as opposed to their fictional and legendary counterparts, the evidence that ghosts are spirits is surprisingly weak. For instance, the reported indifference of ghosts to their surroundings and witnesses does not obviously point to sentient spirits (see here for info on ghosts). The vast majority of ghost sightings are usually explained, when investigated thoroughly, by misperception, near sleep experiences and other xenonormal effects.

None of this puts a dent in the widely perceived idea of a ghost as a spirit. Perhaps the idea is so appealing to us that whenever we see an unexplained human figure, our first reaction will always be that it must be a ghost. Not only that but the ghost is a spirit, present for a specific reason. Certainly, the reaction of many ghost witnesses is to start looking into the history of the area where they had their sighting to see if any unfortunate past incident might explain this apparent haunting. The idea of ghosts as spirits is clearly deeply embedded in our culture, possibly enough to influence strongly what we see when we witness something extraordinary.

14 May 2010: When you wake up twice!

The other day I was inside a room with no windows. I'd been there for a couple of hours when, suddenly, I had the strongest feeling that the sun had gone in! When I went into the room there was brilliant sunshine outside but now, despite having had no ordinary way of knowing if it was still shining or not, I 'just knew' it had clouded over. Immediately, I left the room to look and found ... the sun was still shining!

OK, it's not much of an anecdote. But that's really the point. We remember coincidences, like 'knowing' the sun has gone in when it really has, but soon forget those times when our intuition is wrong. That is how we can get an exaggerated view of how often we have premonitions that turn out to be right. Statistically, we're bound to guess things correctly sometimes but if we forget all the times we got it wrong, it can seem paranormal despite being random chance.

Many years ago I used to have a recurring weird experience. Each morning I would get up and go to work, as normal, but when I got there everything was different, in a rather sinister way. Then I would wake up again! The first 'awakening' was actually a dream - an example of a false awakening. The strange things about such dreams is that they feel so normal despite being full of absurdities. For instance, I used to get to work but could not remember the journey! Strangely, this didn't bother me. In dreams we generally seem to accept things without question even when they are ridiculous. False awakening dreams are often particularly vivid and can produce a feeling shock and confusion when you really wake up and realise what has happened.

Now imagine you are in bed asleep when you wake up, in the middle of the night, to see a person standing at the end of your bed. The person picks up an ornament but then puts it down in a different place. You turn to wake your partner but they won't wake up! You look back and the person has gone, so you go back to sleep! In the morning you examine the room carefully but can find no trace that anyone has been there and ornament is where you left it! Your partner cannot remember anything of the incident.

Some people would report this incident as a ghostly visitation. Others might think it was a dream or possibly hypnagogia. Some telling factors that it was a false awakening may be the inability to wake up a sleeping partner, the lack of any tangible evidence of anyone having been there in the morning and things being 'wrong' during the dream (objects not in their usual place, for instance). Also, the curious reaction of simply going back to sleep! If the incident had been real, most people would have got up and investigated straight away, far too agitated to go back to sleep.

This sort of incident is reported quite frequently as a ghost. False awakening or hypnagogia should always been considered first when you receive such reports.

11 May 2010: Is there a bandwagon effect in paranormal research?

Psychologists, among others, refer to something called the 'bandwagon effect'. It means that people sometimes do things, or believe in things, mainly because lots of others do. Such 'bandwagons' are seen in the popular fads and fashions of everyday life. But do they occur in paranormal research?

There is no denying that ghost vigils have become incredibly popular in recent years. The ghost hunting shows on TV are no doubt responsible for this. When ASSAP first started, we were one of the few groups doing such vigils and there were not hundreds of buildings willing to hire themselves out for such activities then.

One of the problems with such a rapid expansion of activity is that participants may do vigils in a particular way simply because 'everyone else' does (like assumption-led methods) rather than for any sound scientific reason. This may be responsible for some of the more unlikely claims that regularly surface, like the existence of ghost detectors. The idea that an EMF meter can detect a ghost seems to have obscure origins but now that it is 'out there', many people believe it. This may be the bandwagon effect in action.

Once an 'odd idea' gains currency, it can be difficult to challenge. A bandwagon is a very difficult thing to stop! There are still lots of people out there snapping orbs and believing them to represent spirits, even though most serious paranormal researchers have long recognised them as dust (see paranormal orbs).

With such a large community of paranormal researchers now, and with the internet allowing them to swap ideas so quickly and easily, bandwagon ideas can gain currency very fast. For instance, if you do a web search on 'full spectrum camera', you will find lots of hits on paranormal websites. Such cameras are modified to allow a greater part of the infrared and ultraviolet parts of the spectrum to affect the sensor chip than in standard cameras. There seems to be an idea that ghosts may show up on such cameras, presumably because they might appear more easily in infrared or ultraviolet (though there is obvious evidence for this). In fact, like thermal imaging cameras, using a full spectrum camera requires expert interpretation and is likely to lead to many claims of images of ghosts that have mundane causes.

There is probably not much we can do about the bandwagon effect in paranormal research. Ultimately, most fads and fashions pass, in time. All we can do in the meantime is supply reliable information about paranormal research on websites like this one. Then, one day, hopefully we will no longer be outnumbered by the 'bandwagon' sites in web searches.

6 May 2010: What a paranormal investigator does

Following on from the recent discussion of eyewitness testimony, it raises the wider question of what exactly a paranormal case investigator does. Many people might say that an investigator tries to prove the existence of the paranormal. However, if they wish to be scientific, a paranormal investigator should be attempting to explain the cause of apparently paranormal reports. In most cases the causes of such reports are not paranormal at all.

It is easy to get deflected onto the path of trying to prove the paranormal when investigating the case. The problem with this approach is that it makes it easy to miss other possible explanations (see assumption-led methods) which could be the real cause. Even an apparently open and shut case of the paranormal may not be all it seems.

It has only recently been discovered just how powerful misperception can be in producing images of things like ghosts. Though misperception has always been understood as a cause of paranormal reports, it was usually rejected for the more dramatic cases. Now we realise it can account for such cases too! We need to look specifically for clues that misperception may have taken place in order to eliminate it.

Unfortunately, the important role of misperception (and some near sleep experiences) was not known in earlier decades. It could explain many apparently classic cases from years gone by. It is now too late to go back and re-investigate these cases to eliminate misperception, particularly given what we know about witness testimony (see this blog last few weeks). In future, however, we will need to take a much more rigorous approach to investigation.

It is, therefore, important to consider ALL likely xenonormal causes while investigating a case. One method I have found useful in this regard is to imagine that you are the original witness. Ideally, you should stand where they did when they made their observation, in conditions as close to the original as possible (particularly lighting). Then think to yourself 'if I was there at the time of the original report, what would I have seen?' and then look around, listen carefully and take in the scene in detail. You may see well something that could have been misperceived as a ghost, for instance, that no one had noticed before. You might also notice clues to other possible xenonormal causes. It is important to realise that different people perceive things slightly differently. You need to see things the way the witness did, if you can. This is an area that needs more research, to develop ways of seeing possible misperceptions that the witness might have seen. We can no longer ignore this important aspect of paranormal research if we want to eliminate all xenonormal causes from cases.

4 May 2010: Eyewitness

South coast UFOThe BBC's outstanding Eyewitness series came to an end on Sunday (see here to catch up). It was, in my view, the best documentary series ever about the paranormal that was not actually about the paranormal! The issues it raised about eyewitness evidence, though well-known in ASSAP, are barely understood by the general public and have a huge influence on paranormal reports. Every witness who ever uttered the words 'I know what I saw' should definitely watch the series, as should everyone interested in researching the paranormal.

Unlike in a criminal investigation, paranormal researchers generally don't see witnesses until days, weeks or even years after the event. During that time witnesses may talk to many people about their experience. Every time a memory is retold there is a possibility that it will change slightly. And the way people ask questions of a witness can alter that memory more drastically. Since few people are trained in cognitive interviewing techniques, anyone casually questioning a witness may, quite unintentionally, alter their memory. Once a memory is altered, the original more accurate version can no longer retrieved. If a witness saw a vague ghostly figure and a questioner shows them a photo of a person who used to live in that house, there may be 'unconscious transference'. This means the witness will, from then on, remember the ghost as the person in the photo, whether it really looked like them or not. This new memory will replace the original entirely.

A promising method of retrieving memories shown on the programme, after 'free response' (where the witness simply gives their memory of events unprompted) is exhausted is 'contextual reinstatement'. With this method, the witness is taken back, in their mind, to the events and asked to visualise them. They are asked to remember specific sights, sounds, smells, touch, etc that they did not recall at first. These sensory reports may add vital clues in themselves and they can also act as a cue to remember further detail. It is certainly a technique that paranormal investigators should consider using if they don't already.

The overall message from this TV series is that eyewitnesses are not generally reliable. We may think that our senses act like a video camera but they certainly do not. Our memories are fragmented and compressed and easily altered, particularly by the wrong kind of interviewing techniques. For instance, if a question forces a witness to try to remember things that they simply never saw or don't now recall, we will simply get confabulation. Such unfortunate questioning methods may have led to some old paranormal cases appearing a lot more dramatic than they really were! It might explain how paranormal cases don't, generally, appear to be as exciting as they once were!

A cognitive interview is probably the best way to retrieve as much accurate information as possible but even that has its limits. And all this does not even take into account whether the witness misperceived to start with! Eyewitnesses are a key resource in paranormal research but they need to be used with great care!

For more on eyewitnesses in paranormal research, see here.

The photo shows a UFO photographed recently on the south coast of England. The full story is here.

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

Last month's (April) website figures are an average of 9107 hits per day. Marginally down on the previous month's 9685, it is also down (by just 4%) on the same month in the previous year.


Previous blog pages ...

  • 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 and naked eye orbs)
  • 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 2010