ASSAP: Paranormal Research
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ASSAPWelcome 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.

This blog is updated frequently but not regularly (don't expect something new every day!). As well as any paranormal topic, the blog also highlights recent changes to the ASSAP website. You may not notice it but this site changes on an almost daily basis. New information from research and researchers is incorporated as soon as it arrives.

30 Nov 2007: The ghost in the unconscious

StreamYou are walking along a dark alley when you see something black moving ahead of you. How do you feel? You are riding a bike for the first time in years and yet it comes back easily, just as the saying goes. You are trying to solve a problem at work but give up, exhausted, and go home. Much later, while watching TV, the answer to your work problem just drops into your head, as if from nowhere. What do all these experiences have in common?

An article in New Scientist this week (# 2632, p42) describes the latest research into the unconscious, which is widely underestimated. There may even be a part of the unconscious that works at the same level as consciousness. Though we are rarely directly aware of the unconscious part of our brains, it affects our conscious perceptions and decisions. In the examples above, the urge you get to flee the dark alley comes from hard-wired instincts in your unconscious. Your ability to ride a bike, without conscious effort, comes from habitual part of your unconscious. The ability to get the inspiration to solve a problem comes from the creative ability generated by the tight partnership between the conscious and unconscious parts of your brain. The unconscious part of your brain can process problems when you are not aware of it.

What has this to do with anomalous phenomena? It shows just how much the unconscious affects our conscious thoughts. It can go some way to explaining the way we react when we experience something unfamiliar (the xenonormal). Sometimes we just 'know' things are paranormal, even though we can't explain why. Many witnesses describe their paranormal experiences in similar terms. If you hear a strange noise in your house late at night, you might feel uncontrollably uneasy. The noise may well have an entirely innocent explanation but, nevertheless, the word 'ghost' still drops into your mind, as if from nowhere! The concept of ghosts arrived in your unconscious through years of listening to ghost stories, absorbed whether you noticed or not.

Paranormal researchers need to understand the unconscious when investigating haunting reports. It is not some primitive area dedicated to slavishly processing orders from the conscious mind. In some ways it is actually on a par with consciousness.

NB: Photo? Stream of consciousness, of course! There should be a reward for writing 'conscious' so many times.

29 Nov 2007: Re-inventing the orb!

Spooky looking crowsSomeone, somewhere, right now is seeing their first ever orb. What will they make of it? Will they ask someone to explain it or look it up on the web? Or will they just swear, delete the photo, and re-shoot? It is difficult to say, but it is certain that one or two people will inevitably think it is a paranormal phenomenon. They may well think it is a spirit, a ghost or some other-worldly entity (or even a UFO). You may ask why this should be so, but that's a story for another day (try xenonormal and culture if you can't wait).

A few people who have just 'discovered' the orb will be so inspired that they start doing their own research. They may spend a lot of time and effort investigating orbs, apparently unaware that their, usually 'paranormal', results have already been satisfactorily explained as natural phenomena. It is sad waste when they could be doing something genuinely novel. Doesn't happen, you think? Sadly it does, as a perusal of the web will show.

So why don't individuals and small groups just look stuff up on the web before embarking on major research programmes? It's difficult to say, but sadly it is a pervasive feature of amateur paranormal research. Groups jealously guard their own work (often refusing to make results publicly available) and frequently ignore or even disparage others researchers' results. And so, they 're-invent the orb' instead of doing something genuinely useful. And, unlike the wheel, the orb just isn't worth re-inventing.

NB: The photo isn't really relevant but I can't wait until the next time I need some spooky looking crows.

28 Nov 2007: Yet more insects!

Falling snowInsects (or bugs) causing reports of paranormal photos seem to be a theme this month. As well as insects wandering over security cameras and causing brightly coloured orbs, they are also being blamed for 'rods'. Rods are long rectangular shapes (often grey, sometimes bright colours) that are captured by movie cameras, though never seen with the naked eye (or should that be never noticed at the time?). The photo (right) is actually falling snow but it looks similar. Rods are held, by some people, to be some sort of unknown flying animal or entity that moves too fast to be seen by the naked eye.

However, several people have investigated the possibility that there is a non-paranormal solution to the problem of rods. The consensus is that rods are, in fact, flying insects. Certainly it is possible to reproduce most, if not all, of the known features or behaviour of rods by taking movie shots of insects. Here are just a couple of examples: Sol's Bugrods and the Rods Hoax.

This kind of research obviously takes a lot of patience. How people get the little *****s to cooperate is not known! There is certainly room for much more research into the various ways that insects get mistaken for other things once they are (usually unnoticed) in front of a camera. One wonders how many other allegedly paranormal photo effects they produce.

26 Nov 2007: Large coloured orbs

Among the fewer, larger brighter orbs being reported these days (see 12 Nov), some are brightly coloured. The colour of smaller dust orbs is usually determined by Moire patterns or chromatic aberration. However, this is sometimes not always the case with the big, single bright insect orbs. So where do their exotic colours come from?

DragonflyOrbs are expanded circles of confusion, produced by out of focus highlights on small objects. With dust, these orbs are usually grey or white, simply reflecting back the white light from the flash. Insects are a lot more complex than typical bits of dust (most of which are fibres). It is possible that there may be more reflections than a simple white highlight. For instance, what if the main highlight is behind the insect's wing? It will still produce an orb but the reflection will be modified by going through the transparent wing. The light going through the wing may be refracted, diffracted (or even subject to interference).

At the moment this is just speculation. It is known that light coming from behind out of focus insects produces coloured orbs (see 19 Nov). So, could a similar effect happen sometimes when they reflect light to produce orbs? What is required is more research. If only we could keep insects still it wouldn't be so difficult. One of the great problems of orb research is that not much of it is done. Most photographers recognise orbs as a known photographic fault. They will change a couple of things, re-shoot and delete the failed (orb) photo. They are only interested in getting a good shot, not in why an orb is a particular shape or colour.

22 Nov 2007: Mysterious birds

There is currently a flap in south Texas concerning reported sightings of a large mysterious bird. Sightings go back several years and the bird is reported to be black and huge. Birders (the preferred name for keen bird watchers) and naturalists are often bemused by such reports because, although they sometimes see birds they can't identify it's usually only because the viewing conditions are poor.

Young crowThe problem with reports like the Texas ones is that non-birders can often misjudge the size, shape and colour of birds even when they are quite close. Indeed, since most birds tend to keep their distance from humans, a close encounter can easily lead to exaggerated size. People in south-east England sometimes report seeing ravens (which do not occur there) when they actually have seen a crow (photo right) close up. Used to seeing crows in the distance, they are surprised how big they are close up. In the US, coming upon a Turkey Vulture close up can be a shock - they have a wingspan of around 2m!

If a bird is flying in the sky, it is difficult to judge how big it is. This is similar to the problem of scale encountered with UFOs. It is impossible to know what size the bird is unless you know its altitude and distance. It could be modest sized bird close by or a large one further away. People who are not used to watching wildlife may also have problems reporting the structure and colouration of the animal accurately (eg. length of tail compared to wingspan). Without such details it is difficult for naturalists to identify the bird.

Once a report of a mysterious bird is publicised by the media, it attracts more reports. People will suddenly start to notice birds that previously they ignored. Such reports will suffer from the problem of suggestion, in addition to the other factors mentioned above.

It is quite possible that mysterious birds may actually be unusual for the area where they were reported. This may be what prompted the report in the first place. Birds do wander away from their normal range sometimes, particularly during migration periods .Though some people may speculate that such mysterious birds could be pterosaurs or thunderbirds, without decent photos the reports remain just anecdotes.

21 Nov 2007: Nostalgic November

Autumn leavesNovember is not a month many people regard with affection, at least not in the UK. Autumn is nearly over and winter is knocking hard on the door (there was early snow in the Midlands in the last couple of days). November is the month when the pre-Christmas pressure starts to tell. Shops push you to buy presents at prices you know will be hugely reduced in January! But in ASSAP, November is a month of fond memories. It's time for the annual jamboree that is the AGM and training weekend. It is held in November largely for historic reasons, to do with when ASSAP was originally formed. However, it is a fittingly 'spooky' month with long, cold nights when paranormal researchers thoughts turn to ghosts!

The training weekend has moved all around the UK over the years, from London to Leicester and Oxford to South Wales among other places. It has proved so popular that some people came several times, despite the course being largely the same. They come, among other reasons, for the friendly atmosphere!

It is interesting to compare ghost research, as taught and demonstrated in those training weekends in the 1980s and 1990s, with the current scene. The biggest difference was that ASSAP was one of only a few groups actively researching the paranormal, particularly ghosts, in the 1980s. Now every town seems to boast its own ghost research group, no doubt prompted by the many 'reality TV' programmes depicting 'ghost hunting'. Another major difference is that there was far less equipment used a couple of decades ago. ASSAP has always encouraged the use of equipment but only when its use and limitations are understood. The training course always had a large section devoted to interviewing casual witnesses, who are the primary source of information about hauntings. Now some people seem happy to go on vigils at buildings that are supposedly haunted by reputation only!

This weekend, ASSAP will be holding its AGM and training weekend once again. The latter has changed format significantly this year but will, doubtless, be as memorable as ever. Once again ASSAP members will have something to remember November for.

19 Nov 2007: Security camera 'ghosts'

There is a security camera video currently being discussed on various forums around the internet. It shows a blue 'object' apparently floating around an Ohio Gas Station. It has been variously interpreted as a bag floating on the wind, a balloon, an insect and, inevitably, a ghost. The owner of the gas station was said to have watched it for half an hour on the video.

The video shows the monitor which was recording the blue object (you can see the edges of the monitor at times). Looking at the blue object, it is clearly out of focus all the time. It appears to move in a jerky fashion. The object is long and thin and bends in the middle. Given how long it was in view, the way it bends and the fact that it is too close to ever be in focus, a floating bag or balloon seem unlikely.

Sunlit midges as coloured orbsA clue to what it may be comes from an article in a recent Fortean Times (FT229:42-44). Benjamin Radford explains how he tested his theory that a similar security video, recorded at a Santa Fe Courthouse, could be explained by an insect crawling across the glass front of the camera. He did an experiment where he released ladybugs onto the camera and, sure enough, got something very similar. The reason the insect showed up so well was because, at that specific time of day (the same as when the original mystery recording was made), the sun illuminated the camera glass and the insect on it.

Could the blue 'gas station ghost' be an insect too? It certainly moves in a similar way though it is more difficult to make out legs. The main problem is - why is it blue? There would have to be some source of blue light nearby shining onto the glass in front of the camera, though not necessarily visible in the shot. Alternatively, it may be an odd optical effect caused by a bright white light. In the photo on the right a group of midges, illuminated from behind by the sun, show up as light green 'orbs', each with a red 'halo'. The midges were, in reality, black in colour, so the strange colours were clearly an optical effect probably due to the angle of the bright sun behind. Perhaps, if the the gas station 'ghost' is indeed an insect, it is blue because of some similar optical effect. Certainly, there is no requirement for the insect to be blue!

15 Nov 2007: The power of stories

When the final Harry Potter book came out, millions of people set about reading it avidly. They all wanted to know how the series ended and what happened to all their heroes (and villains). If you tried to explain the event to a Martian, it might sound a bit odd. Practically every reader, even the very youngest, surely knew that all the characters were fictional. They will also have known that the fate of the characters came entirely from the head of the author, who could have written any ending she liked. The readers could just as easily have made up their own endings but it wouldn't have been the same - it wouldn't have been the 'real' ending.

We humans love stories. We hate to miss episodes of our favourite soap operas and dramas series. We listen to legends again and again, even though we know exactly how they end. Modern advertising campaigns often use a story, or 'narrative' to hook us in. There is a unique satisfaction in hearing a well-rounded tale.

Sometimes, stories can impinge on paranormal investigation. When someone sees an orb in a photo, they may interpret it as the spirit of a departed loved one, looking over them. There's usually no real evidence to back up that idea. Orbs are, in fact, photographic artifacts caused by dust or insects. And even if they were spirits, instead of dust, how can we know they would be someone we love?

If someone believes strongly in a story, it can influence how they interpret paranormal events. A whole series of unconnected, unexpected events might be strung together as a story in the witness's mind. The big problem this causes is that the story can sometimes influence how the events are remembered. If you are convinced that a spirit is moving an object around, you may never notice the traffic vibration that always precedes the movement.

When we are confronted by events we can't explain, they become less mysterious when we see them as forming part of a coherent story. It often disguises the fact that the events may be entirely unconnected with each other.

14 Nov 2007: How long will ghosts be fashionable?

If you wear the same style of clothes for long enough, there is always the danger that you might one day be seen as fashionable. ASSAP has been investigating ghosts for over a quarter of a century. For most of that time there were few other people doing it. In recent years however, due no doubt to TV coverage, ghosts have become fashionable. There are huge numbers of ghost research groups out there. In spite of all this activity, we seem to be no nearer to an understanding of the enigmatic phenomena of hauntings.

One matter of concern is, what will happen when ghosts become unfashionable once again? It seems inevitable that the current 'bubble' of interest will burst at some time. It is difficult to predict what might happen but there will always be some people interested and active in the subject. When will the bubble burst? It is hard to say but it might well happen when the media get bored with making 'ghost hunting' shows. There are already hints that the audience might be getting bored with them so it might not be too far in the future.

12 Nov 2007: The inevitable rise of the single bright orb

Orbs are changing! Out go photos showing multitudes of dim grey orbs and in come single, bright orbs. The earliest, smallest digital cameras were the 'best' for producing huge numbers of orbs in a single photo. Newer cameras (with bigger chips) have less depth of field and, as a result, don't pick up dust as orbs. However, they can still pick up insects as orbs which can show up at a greater distance (up to half a metre!). That's because insects are much more reflective than dust.

Insect orb zone

In the diagram, there are no orbs in zone A as everything is too close. Further away, in zone B, almost any small particle will show up as an orb (including dust) in a flash photo while in zone C, only insects (and water droplets) are reflective enough to show up. In zone D everything is in focus and there are no orbs.

Older smaller digital cameras tend to have all 4 zones while modern, larger cameras have only zones A, C and D (or even just A and D, which means they'll never get orbs). So, the trend is towards bright, single orbs produced by insects (in zone C). Since there are far fewer insects than bits of dust, these cameras will not get many orb photos at all.

So, will we see the slow death of the orb? This is unlikely as sensor sizes for compact cameras will always be significantly smaller than those for DSLRs. This is both for reasons of cost and camera size - people like the small compact cameras which they can slip into a pocket. So orbs will continue to be around for a long time but there may be far fewer of them.

New page added: Bright single orbs

8 Nov 2007: Transparent ghosts

If you took a photo and noticed, when you looked at it closely later, there was a transparent figure on it, what would you think? Most people would probably think they'd taken a photo of a ghost! In fact, it is most likely to be the result of someone walking unnoticed into a long exposure (like the infra-red 'ghosts' discussed yesterday). Most reports of real ghosts describe them as looking totally normal, solid figures. So why do people think of ghosts when they see a transparent figure?

The idea that ghosts are transparent probably comes from movies and TV. When movie producers want to show that an actor is playing a ghost, they might well choose to make them transparent, so that the audience understands what is going on. In the theatre there is a similar tradition using Pepper's Ghost which requires a glass partition to reflect a transparent image of an actor, who is in the wings, to the audience. Also, by a curious process of circular logic, photos with transparent figures (from long or double exposures) reinforce the idea of transparent ghosts!

So, if you see a transparent ghost in a photo it is much more likely to be the result of a long exposure or manipulation than a real apparition.

7 Nov 2007: Hand held infra-red photos coming

Hand held infra-red photoContrary to popular myth, digital cameras are not particularly sensitive to infra-red (IR). People often demonstrate this supposed sensitivity by pointing a TV remote control unit at a digital camera, pushing a button on it and seeing it light up in the screen on the back of the camera. It only works because the infra-red LED in such remote control units produces an intense beam.

Anyone who has tried taking an ordinary IR photo, by putting an IR-passing lens filter (which blocks ordinary light) over the lens of a digital camera, will know just how insensitive the camera is. A flash photo, using normal settings, is likely to produce nothing at all. Only a long exposure of many seconds will produce a decent photo with daylight outdoors shots. This is because, although digital sensors are IR sensitive, almost all consumer digital cameras have an IR-blocking filter permanently fitted inside. If there wasn't a blocking filter, the colours in photos would be adversely affected.

Despite this, it is still easier to take IR photos with a digital camera than with film. Infra-red film requires special handling whereas all you need to do with a digital camera is attach an IR-passing filter. Some people believe that ghosts may appear more prominently in infra-red. However, the long exposures required to take IR photos inevitably leads to claims of ghosts when, in fact, a real person has wandered in and out of the frame, unnoticed by the photographer.

Now, thanks to higher speed cameras (ISO 1600 and above) and new image stabilisation technology it will soon become possible to get hand-held infra-red photos. Exposure times of a few tenths of a second will be possible which will be short enough to prevent people wandering in and out of shot.

7 Nov 2007: The paranormal residue

You sometimes hear paranormal researchers argue that, though most orbs (or some other anomalous phenomenon) have a natural explanation, there remains a small residue of cases that remain unexplained, which might be paranormal. However, if the unexplained residue is identical to the explained cases, how logical is this argument?

If the 'unexplained' orbs are exactly like the 'explained' ones, then it seems logical to assume they also have the same explanation. That's how we generally assume things work in the everyday world. If gravity is the known cause of the downward flow of water in waterfalls, no one would speculate that there might be some other mechanism responsible for it in a tiny number of waterfalls, somewhere in the world. And, if 1% of orbs are paranormal, why on earth should they 'imitate' the other 99% which are known to have natural causes? There seems no obvious reason why a paranormal phenomenon would be indistinguishable from one with known natural causes. Of course, if there is an identifiably different group of orbs (or other phenomenon) it is entirely possible that it has a different, possibly paranormal, explanation. See also paranormal ORB FAQ and Orb Zone Theory.

6 Nov 2007: Coincidence and synchronicity

Almost everyone has had a synchronicity - a meaningful coincidence. But how do you know if a coincidence is truly 'meaningful' or just random chance?

We tend to have a selective memory when it comes to coincidences, particularly if they have an apparent significance (like synchronicity). If event A happens at the same time as event B, we will frequently remember it, while forgetting all the times when A happened but not B and when B happened but not A. So if event A is an unusually high reading on an EMF meter and event B is taking a photo containing an orb, we tend to remember it when they happen together. If event A is a feeling of presence and event B an orb, it might appear even more significant. To show a real causal relationship, however, you'd need to collect a statistically useful sample of all A and B events and show they happened more frequently than chance by a statistically significant margin.

5 Nov 2007: Mysterious Mitcham

Jim Clark has finished 'Mysterious Mitcham', his long-awaited publication about the weird side of a south London suburb. Even better, it's all available free on the web! Just go here to read about the Phantom Cyclist (not to mention the 'dark figure') of Mitcham Common, the Haunted Rooms of Fry Metal and the ghosts of Beddington Park among many other strange oddities. It is the latest addition to Project Albion, a long-running programme to document the geographic distribution of anomalous phenomena. It has been likened to a Domesday Book of the paranormal.

Main page update: Project Albion

5 Nov 2007: Bigfoot and Chupacabra

Some recent crypotozoological sightings have met with skepticism. An 'unclassified primate' (for which read possible Bigfoot) was snapped on an automatic camera in September in Northwest Pennsylvania. However, it is being treated as a 'skinny mangy bear'! Pennsylvania Game Commission spokesman Jerry Feaser was quoted as saying was definitely a bear. See what you think!

Meanwhile, an odd-looking carcass found in Texas has been DNA tested and found to be a coyote. There had been speculation that it was, in fact, a Chupacabra or Goat Sucker.

2 Nov 2007: ASSAP mentioned in the Times

ASSAP was mentioned in the Times recently (here). It was an article about superstition that featured comments from our president, Lionel Fanthorpe. It quoted research by Ben Schott and Ipsos Mori (summarised here) that showed that superstition is still surprisingly prevalent in modern Britain. It came as no surprise to Lionel, nor will it to many paranormal researchers. The article was illustrated with a picture of a white sheet with holes for a mouth and two eyes cut in it! And so the stereotypes live on (perpetuating superstition?)!

1 Nov 2007: Orbs are forever!

Despite the fact that a large number of serious paranormal investigators believe orbs to be a photographic artifact, the subject continues to be a hot one. While ASSAP's own orb web pages are always among our most visited, many other web sites put the case for orbs being paranormal in origin.

Though many people accept the case that some, maybe most, orbs are produced by dust or insects, there is a feeling that not all orb photos can be explained in this way. It is inherently unlikely that there should be a natural phenomenon and a paranormal phenomenon that are virtually identical. It would be astonishing indeed if a paranormal phenomenon 'imitated' a natural phenomenon exactly in this way - there seems no obvious logical reason why that should be (unless someone can suggest one). The most obvious solution is that the apparently inexplicable 'paranormal' orbs are, in fact, the same as the natural ones. They may just take a bit more explaining!

As a result, there is a new(ish) page on this website which is a Frequently Raised Objections (as opposed to a FAQ) to the idea of a natural explanation to all orbs. It lists many of the common objections to orbs as photographic artifacts. These include:

  • If it's dust, why don't I get orbs in all my photos?
  • I got lots of orbs in one photo and then none in another taken just seconds later - surely dust can't do that?
  • Orbs have been reported behind objects in photos. Surely, that shows they are not dust just in front of the camera lens.
  • I've seen the same orb twice. I've also seen some orbs with faces! How can these be dust?

If anyone has any other objections or queries to add to this list (and answered), please email.


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This blog does not contain ALL changes, just the major ones. Minor updates occur all the time.
© Maurice Townsend 2007