Science, Not Superstition:
The Nature of Ghosts
A Review of the Evidence
by Paul Lee
Despite many thousands of reports of apparitions since the beginning of history, the evidence for the paranormal remains very sketchy. It is not too hard to see why this is, and why sceptics remain to be convinced; the main reason is a lack of tangible, tabulated evidence. Ghost stories are almost purely anecdotal, and seem to be very personal experiences. They also mostly seem to focus on trivial, mundane events, which is remarkable when we are often told that ghosts are imprints of behaviour, such as violence etc., committed in the past and this somehow becomes imprinted upon the environment. We can only presume that many people have died from the mundane, for instance how many times have you read a ghost story where a figure is seen in the middle of the night, walk across the room to the window and vanish?
(Here this author must hang his head in shame; in a previous version of this webpage I have mentioned that an aircraft will pick up a static charge as it travels through the atmosphere and this could lead to anomalous readings on magnetometers. I have since learned that aircraft have anti static brushes that prevent a buld-up.)
Tantalising pieces of experimental evidence and observations have given us a few clues, but, to quote one drama serial, "a ghost is a mass of data waiting for a correct interpretation". For the sake of discussion, let us assume that you do believe in ghosts, either by faith, religion or otherwise, or by actually seeing one. You do not need convincing. Now, do ghosts occur "all in the mind" as many critics have cruelly suggested, or do they occur in the environment? Hopefully, in the discussion that follows, you will be intrigued as I am and will hopefully want to learn more of these elusive apparitions.
Those who dismiss ghosts as being a figment of the mind have one compelling piece of evidence on their side: the seeming lack of interplay between spirits and their environment: on the whole, they do not move things around or communicate with witnesses although there are of course exceptions to this. One could easily create a theory that accounts for the movement of objects by psychokinetic abilities on the part of the observer, or poltergeist phenomena but this is hardly satisfactory since, to quote Fortean researchers Janet and Colin Bord excellent maxim, it attempts to explain one mystery by invoking another, an excellent summary of "Occam's Razor" which, simply put, states that one should not overcomplicate possible solutions. Furthermore, ghosts rarely appear on film or videotape; again, there are exceptions to this. Even with infra-red imaging equipment the chances of successfully recording a ghost on film or tape is remote, although the TAPS team do claim some success with thermal imaging equipment.
Of interest are of those cases where, of many people in a group, only a few see the apparition, the others excitedly asking "what do you see?" One may attempt to use 'mass hysteria' or 'mass hallucination' as one possible explanation but for it to be remarkably selective and for people to see the same thing, unprompted by others, is intriguing to say the least.
Cynics will scoff at the notion that one of the witnesses was adept at telepathy; and we must presume that the unobservant witness "E" was not so focussed on getting to work that she simply ignored the supposed apparition completely.
As regards audible phenomena, a patient at Walton Hospital in Chesterfield was told by a phantom nurse that he was going to be OK. The nurse vanished - but the most intriuing aspect of this is that the patient was totally deaf.
I should also point out that, sometimes video/film equipment do record something. I should also point out here that sometimes cameras have picked up images when even humans don't see anything at all, and others times the reverse situation is true. A fascinating conundrum in this issue of perceiving ghosts was mentioned in a Facebook discussion fairly recently. One gentleman had seen an apparition and noted that it was in focus - AS IF HE WAS WEARING HIS GLASSES. Everything else was blurry, as you would expect from someone with vision problems, except for the ghost. This implies that whatever he was seeing had bypassed his visual system, or had not been picked up by his eyes at all - and was the by-product of something occurring in his brain.
This raises an intriguing point: the connection between eyesight and the brain. Charles Bonnet syndrome has been mooted as a possible mechanism for the sighting of spectres. Basically, aged related macular degeneration (AMD) of the eye leads to the brain filling in the gaps in its information "feed" with hallucinations. An interview on the BBC was conducted with the daughter of a (now deceased) lady who had started to experience hallucinations due to this condition. As this lady was already in her 80s, initially she attributed her experiences to failing mental health and possible dementia and her hallucinations included people sitting on her sofa, an entire Edwardian funeral taking place outside and a demonic looking gargoyle moving around her home. Another lady said that she was visited by her late relatives, which she found comforting.
Lest it be thought that scientists are militant in their approach to the unknown, I must point out that this is a fallacy. Many scientists are reluctant to absorb ideas until proof emerges to convince, such as meteorites and dinosaurs. Even today, no-one is sure how anti-depressants or anaesthetics work; they simply do, and the proof is there. Quantum physics, especially the horribly cliched "spooky action at a distance" (or quantum particle entanglement) is another good example and I am sure there must be hundreds of others. No, what science demands is repeatability. A one-off observation is worthless; it could mean anything, and besides, random events do happen in every day life that look significant, but aren't. These are called coincidences. The scientific methodology's result is a catalogue of explainable, repeatable events. Just image the furore if something as simple as turning on a TV set was not repeatable! But it does happen, it is scientific and it is understood. Be honest and ask yourself how much of the paranormal acts in such a way, and you will find out that the anti-science and anti-scientist tirades by psychics etc. are without any basis. Science works by hypothesis, testing, and the comparison of these two data sets. If the two don't match, then the hypothesis is reworked and more testing is done until the two agree: this circular process may be repeated many times. The work is then subjected to peer review in a refereed journal. Then, once it is accepted, we say the theory is consistent with physical observations: many paranormal "findings" are simply reported on the internet or on the television with no independent checking of the facts, so why should we trust them?
What is not true is to say that a scientific theory can be 100% correct; any theory can be supplanted or modified as new advances emerge. Newton's theory of gravity worked for centuries, but it took Einstein's genius to explain the (till then, unexplainable) eccentricity in the orbit of Mercury.
Can science ever work in a reverse sense, progressing from observation and testing back to theory? After all, this is what we have with the paranormal world. Yes, in some cases, it does. Remote space probes provide pictures and readings from their sojourns, but without the opportunity of remote experiments "on the spot", we have only our terrestrial knowledge and experience to match with the observations. And here the analogy with the paranormal fails, for much of the world of the weird does not seem to obey the physical world in which we live. What should we do? Throw away decades of knowledge and provable theories in science? Or just dismiss ghosts and the like? For some scientists, the latter option is a much easier proposition. Hence the schism between scientists and paranormal enthusiasts.
"The Stone Tape"
by Nigel Kneale
"The Stone Tape" theory relies on no 'external' ghost- everything is perceived in the mind, and nothing can be recorded or analysed on their equipment. Such a 'ghost' would follow a predetermined course of action- walking the same path as in life, although how the recording comes to be imprinted on stone or replayed is an interesting question! There exists no theory that can explain such a mechanism, and without anything to actually test, such a theory must be downgraded and renamed to simply "an idea." In the same way, we can label Lethbridge's "Water Memory" 'theory' as an abstract concept with no current way of testing.
This explanation does have many parallels with 'real' ghost-stories; the apparition that walk through walls where doors used to be, climb up steps that no longer exist etc. The most spectacular cases of this are at The Treasurer's House in York (where a worker in the basement saw a legion of Roman soldiers, whose legs were cut off at the ankles- the current level of the ground), Westminster Abbey (where a priest is seen walking an inch or two above the ground, marking the settling of the ground since he 'died') and Bell Lane in Enfield, London (where a phantom stagecoach allegedly rushes along - 6 feet above the ground).
But can data be stored in the fabric of a building? The New York Times on-line magazine once recounted how audio experts were trying to uncover the erased 18 1/2 minute segment from one of President Nixon's Watergate tapes. Using digital technology, and a knowledge of the original media, it may be possible to at least partially restore some of the excised material. Very interesting, but what has this to do with ghosts? Some 40 years ago, a hypothetical theory was developed by a technician by Richard Woodbridge III and reported in "The Proceedings of the I.E.E.E. (the Institute of Electronic and Electrical Engineers" Woodbridge theorised hat there were many occasions when sound might innocently get scooped out of the air and preserved. For example, when an ancient potter typically held a flat stick against a rotating pot, he was accidentally (and crudely) recording into the clay the sounds around him. Woodbridge wrote about experiments he performed pulling basic noises off a pot. Another experiment involved setting up a canvas and then talking while making different brush strokes. Woodbridge apparently found the word "Blue" in a blue paint stroke - " as if the artist was talking to himself or to the subject. Parenthetically, the search was long and tedious. The principle, however, was established."
At least one commentator is sceptical of "The Talking Wall of Kenfig." In "The Fortean Times" issue 206 (February 2006), Mark Harris from Singapore wrote, "[The voices] were a hoax perpetrated by the landlord Jack (since passed away and I can't recall his surname) and a local 'geologist' (I think he had an O level). As I remember, the scam involved the supposed capture of voices on the silicates in the sandstone walls of the pub, similar to the workings of a cassette tape. The local paper, "The Glamorgan Gazette", swallowed the story hook, line and sinker. Jack was well known for his practical jokes and tall stories and this was his most famous. I was a mere 19-year old student geologist at the time, but can remember my brother-in-law, a well-known 'local' of the pub in question, relating the story to me. Unfortunately, the science does not exist for extracting voices from walls and as the pub is aminly constructed from locally quariied Carboniferous limetsone (if my memory serves me right), it would be a long, silent task for any budding aural detective.
Another major problem for the Stone Tape theory is: just where are the data required for playback stored? This poses no problem for buildings, where the fabric remains more-or-less in situ, but what about the reports of phantoms on battlefields, or brand new housing estates? The ground must have been worked thousands of times, hedges and trees uprooted and planted, so where is the "ghost" information stored? Mike White, an ASSAP member suggested that it might actually be recorded in deep lying strata, deep beneath the surface. Of course, this might tie in nicely with Paul Devereux's hypothesis of "Earth Lights" being the product of tectonic plate stresses. And David Taylor, Parasearch chairman, has made the connection between earth tremors in the Dudley area and its population of ghosts. An excellent TV show ("Ghost Hunters- Spectres of the Severn") even made the connection between the ghosts in Gloucestershire (e.g. The Ancient Ram Inn) being linked to its series of local fault lines. This programme has suggested the possible link between high rates of spectral appearances and geological fault lines; the evidence was intriguing, but faulty, since no control of non-fault areas was performed. The idea is that somehow the stresses in the Earth causes bursts of electro-magnetism, and this affects eyewitness perceptions. An acquaintance has also suggested this link, but has suggested that the natural conductivity of the surrounding ground may also play a part in somehow causing phantoms some distance away from an earth tremor or fault line. If a building is constructed on a layer of piezoelectric material, such as quartz, then stresses caused by shifting plates would generate a magnetic field; this is by virtue of the fact that when such materials are compressed, they produce a tiny electrical current, and hence an associated magnetic field. If this phantom-fault line connection is proven, then the mechanism will still be a mystery: is it simply due to the natural effect of electricity and magnetism on the brain, or some unknown force?
The "Stone Tape" theory does not explain those instances where ghosts communicate with the observer (sometimes being able to understand a foreign language), but one could always explain this as due to telepathy, which, conveniently does not seem to be a quantifiable subject under current understanding of physical laws! Also a mystery are those cases that seem to incorporate a 'sentient' ghost, and in this category one could include Poltergeists, which love to put on a good show for the observers, but only once recording media (video, tape recorders etc.) have been turned off or directed elsewhere. And what about those ghosts which are of non-living entities; aircraft, buses and the like?
One seemingly obligatory feature of paranormal manifestation seems to be a sudden drop in temperature, or a very localised zone of cold air - the so-called "cold spot". Again, this is sometimes real and is measurable on a thermometer, and other time it seems to be a perceived effect. One idea is that the ghost is somehow extracting energy from the air. Alternately, the "cold spot" may not be real and may simply be an artefact of the way the human body reacts to such things, such as shivering uncontrollably when in a state of shock, for instance. But one story is intriguing and points to at least one cold spot being real: at the Prince of Wales pub in Willenhall, the drop in temperature caused the beer to "fob" (that is, to go very frothy). Incidentally, a story I recall from a few years back refers to the fact that one ghost would shift locations to another room if an ioniser was left activated in its original haunted location; indeed, there was even a mention in a Ghost club circular referred to a build-up of static electricity during a vigil. And, a contact on one forum mentioned that: "I once saw a spirit in full manifestation. She was quite see through, her features were clear, she was animated and there was a blue/green aura of mist swirling around her. Once she vaporised she set the smoke alarm off."
An exciting avenue of research came from the late Vic Tandy at Coventry University. He has found that infra-sound (at around 19 Hz) causes the human eye to vibrate almost imperceptibly, but causing a feeling of "being watched" as it causes a distortion in the peripheral vision. You wouldn't feel the vibration (it is so subtle) but it would cause unease, not just in the eye but in the stomach too (19 Hz being close to the natural frequency of the human body, as reinforced by research from NASA). Being below the level of human hearing, such sonic waves would not be audible. Vic discovered the effect on his body when he traced feelings of dread to a faulty desk fan in his lab. Once this fan was repaired, the feeling vanished. He has also discovered one other case of infrasound being the cause of spooky feelings, in an old catacomb. He has also noted the conditions when such "feelings" may occur. The media naturally tried to conclude that this low frequency sonic wave was the cause of all ghost stories, a claim very easy to dispute.
To reiterate; one should always, if possible seek solutions beyond the range of the physical senses. Infra, or ultra sound may explain why animals react in haunted locales. And it is known that doses of carbon monoxide can induce hallucinations. Another compound capable of inducing sensory hallucinations is carbon dioxide; tests with fighter pilots show that a concentration of 5-6% can affect the senses. But then the problem emerges as to how such a large amount of CO2 can be created: the normal atmospheric concentration is typically much less than 1%.
Regarding the equipment based approach to data gathering, attempts to record ghosts on equipment have met with remarkable degrees of unsuccess (for want of a better word): they are camera-shy even when cornered! At a lodge in Dudley Castle, near Birmingham, the oppressive nature of the building totally vanished when each room had two people, a video camera and a tape recorder installed!
Considering the difficulty of seeing ghosts, why is it that people almost always see them when they never expect it? For instance, when in a relaxed, or distracted frame of mind, or have just woken up? On vigils, this usually happens when you are changing tapes over or having a tea break. Of course, if the ghost had intelligence, we might say that "it" was being mischievous. But I wonder.... It almost reminds me of the Uncertainty Principle in Quantum Physics: observing the experiment adds energy to the system, altering it slightly, and making it impossible to observe two quantities simultaneous to a given precision (such as momentum and position). It may be similar to going on vigils: by observing, we are blocking what we set out to seek! With the permission of the National Trust, an attempt was made by a party at Dover Castle to switch off the logical, reasoning part of the brain by getting drunk (!) and engaging in a musical jamboree, playing monopoly etc. They also thought that since ghosts never appear where video cameras are, they would place machines in every room and station themselves in a 'nerve centre' hoping for the ghosts to appea in their very lap. This vigil was unsuccessful as far as seeing ghosts was concerned!
Relaxed, but conscious people exhibit "alpha rhythms" in their brain. These are regularly recurring electrical waves. They are 11 "peaks" per second in an alpha state, and the voltages involved are tiny (approximately 50 MILLIONTHS of a volt!). When excited or startled, the alpha rhythms are replaced by a low voltage (37 microvolts), but irregular waves. In sleep, the waves become increasingly slow. Can ghosts be connected with these relaxed mental states?
The issue of "sleep" is an interesting one, and I am indebted to my friend Nick Duffy of the West Midlands Ghost Club for the following fascinating snippet about the concept of "micro sleep":
"The simple notion is that you can pretty much slip in and out of micro-sleep at the drop of a hat AND you do supposedly dream during these brief periods. It's been stated that dreamers tend to - for whatever reason - dream about their current surroundings at such times, so the inference seems to be that you might lapse into sleep momentarily, dream about something in your current situation and then wake without realising it..... thinking you've had a weird experience, etc!?!
A ghost hunter mate of mine - Kurt - and his partner, Steve, were conducting an investigation at a pub, then called The Green Dragon, a few years ago. During the early hours of the morning, they'd both sat down for a little break in the bay window of the pub. While sitting there, Kurt looked out of the window concerned, across the road to the lamp post, where he saw a young couple standing. As he watched, the couple embraced tenderly and kissed. In response, he had said: 'Ahhh - bless!!' (or some such sentiment).
A split second later, Steve drew his attention by laughing at him..... and Kurt wanted to know what had tickled him? It transpired that they had been sitting resting when Kurt's head had 'lolled' and he'd suddenly said out loud 'Ahhh - bless!!', which had caused Steve to laugh out loud!! Kurt protested and said he hadn't slept, but had been looking at the young lovers across the road....... and when he turned, there was no sign of anyone anywhere in the street at all!! Steve maintained that Kurt hadn't looked out of the window at all, while Kurt swears he hadn't gone to sleep...!?"
It might be worthwhile to consider what happens in the brain during a ghost sighting, and ASSAP did use an Electroecephelagram (EEG) to measure this during their vigil of Chiselhurst caves many years back; this was in conjunction with a experiment into a connection between the various brain rhythms and hypnosis. An EEG is limited by what it can do: it records only a small sample of electrical activity from the surface, not the interior of the brain.
Perhaps the inclusion of equipment changes the nature of the environment; perturbs it in such a way as to prevent spontaneous cases occurring. A lot has been written about the effect that ghosts have on equipment - in Borley Church, a tape was ripped from the spools of an audio tape recorder; in the Enfield poltergeist case, three flashguns rapidly drained of power, tape machines jammed, tapes were either wholly or partially wiped and a metal part inside one machine was bent; in Rosenheim in Bavaria, a poltergeist somehow created very localised voltage and current surges (which didn't trip the fuses) and even caused investigators to speculate about invisible forces causing direct pressure on the crystal in a microphone, springs inside a telephone and the pen of a instrument that recorded voltage fluctuations on a paper chart. But has anyone ever considered the effects that the introduction of equipment has on the appearance of ghosts- maybe the electrical and magnetic fields reduce the probability of a presence. In the Australian Humpty-Doo case, the Poltergeist would only put on a show once the TV cameras batteries had run out of power, and any witnesses had left the building. An interesting coincidence, or just malice on the part of the poltergeist?
Returning to the argument that the barrage of electrical equipment we take on vigils perturb the EM atmosphere so much that we actually inhibiting the very phenomena we are seeking: perhaps it should be ensured that our equipment is shielded for producing such pollution into the environment? Or, what would happen if we could create a machine where the periodic waves of the alpha rhythms are duplicated, but the voltages were increased many fold? Would we be feeding the ghost? Would one appear? I have pondered this question for many years...
And incidentally, why do people report that their batteries have died when on investigations? When
one goes on such excursions, one should make sure that virgin batteries, tapes, discs etc. are
used ... so why does the power drain so fast? It has been suggested that the mere act of transporting
equipment jostles it so much as to affect it, perhaps dislodging the battery, damaging connections etc.,
but this is nonsense! Imagine the furore if this happened to commonplace items such as camcorders;
you take it on holiday and it stops working!
Temperature can affect battery life. High temperature increases the rate of chemical reactions, meaning that the battery has a shorter life. Also dependant is whether you use disposable or rechargeable batteries. But there may be another reason why batteries go dead, and that depends on the make of the battery. I installed two batteries in my digital camera a few days ago, and after checking that it worked fine, I turned the camera off. Two days later, I tried the camera; the red "power low" light flashed and the camera turned itself off. The batteries had never been used before - and they were cheap batteries, from a "Everything's a pound" (or "Everything's a dollar") store. I don't think the same thing would happen with EverReady or Duracell ... in short, I suspect the make of battery has a lot to do with this problem...
In 1997, at a Society for Psychical Research talk, council member Tony Cornell mentioned that their infra-red triggered monitoring system/glorified burglar alarm (called 'SPIDER', or Spontaneous Psychophysical Incident Data Electronic Recorder) had been used for 10 years and had not produced one single, verifiable paranormal event on tape. It has only apparently triggered once in hundreds of deployments, and this was only after 53 days "in the field"! This could imply that humans need to be present for manifestations to occur. But this demonstrates, in this author's opinion, one neglected facet of paranormal research; long-duration research. It seems to be fruitless for a group to turn up for one night only and expect that night to be Hallowe'en and to get definitive answers. If ghost sightings are a rare as the literature suggests it makes no sense for, say, TAPS, to turn up and expect to gather unequivocal proof in 8 or 9 hours and then pronounce on the "hauntedness" or otherwise of a location when a family may have been cataloguing events for many years. Fortunately, long duration research, include multiple overnight stays have been done at a few locations (Muncaster Castle and, apparently, Chingle Hall).
[As a matter of interest, Cornell was using a similar system, monitored by a ZX Spectrum in the early 1980s.]
What about other explanations? The correlation, noted by Canadian scientist Dr. Michael Persinger, on the Earth's magnetosphere (magnetic field) and occurrences of spontaneous psychic events has long since been noted. This is rather akin to the cases of Spontaneous Human Combustion, which were mentioned (controversially) many years ago to follow the same peaks, namely that ESP & Precognition was more likely to occur on days of high geomagnetic activity, and Ghost & Poltergeist activity was more likely to during low geomagnetic activity. Author Albert Budden has also noted that witnesses to paranormal activity are likely to: live near high levels of electromagnetic activity (pylons etc) and/or have been involved in an electromagnetic discharge (lightning strike etc). But one expert is not so sure that the current electrical environment is causing ghost sightings; Tony Cornell of the SPR (Society for Psychical Research) ponders whether they are being inhibited and bemoaned the lack of ghost reports in 2002, blaming possible interference by mobile phone masts. A more reasonable explanation is that with the huge proliferation of ghost groups in the last decade, the finite number of cases are now spread so thinly that some groups (even the revered SPR) receive few such new ghost reports.
As an aside to this main narrative, Dr.Persinger was interviewed on a BBC Horizon documentary, which covered the connection between the brain and religion - Neurothology. Dr.Persinger noted that the application of weak magnetic fields to the Temporal Lobes of the brain resulted in similar experiences to those who encounter religious or paranormal occurrences. For instance, in one subject, applying a field to the right lobe resulted in the person "sensing a presence". Dr.Persinger thinks that nearly, if not all cases of the paranormal could be explained by such magnetic fields, which could occur from overhead pylons or underground fault lines. To back this assertion up, the BBC showed a reconstruction of a case that Dr.Persinger had investigated. In this case, a young girl was complaining of nightly visitations by an entity. The cause of the disturbances was traced to the EM field of a clock radio, sitting on a table adjacent to the girl's bed. When the clock was removed, the girl reported no further "bedroom invaders". A research team from ASSAP (the Association for the Scientific Study of Anomalous Phenomena) has adopted Persinger's ideas, and, under the inspired leadership of Maurice Townsend and Dr.Jason Braithwaite, himself a neuroscientist from the University of Birmingham, and created a laptop based system to test the notion that certain magnetic fields impinging on the human brain may cause hallucinations. Their system is called MADS (Magnetic Anomaly Detection System). Early indications are encouraging.
Some tantalising experimental evidence does exist that suggests that the stimulation of the brain by an external magnetic field can rekindle old, dormant memories - and 'create' new hallucinations ("Temporal Lobe Epilepsy"): this may explain the many cases of Alien Abduction prevalent throughout the world. The late, much missed Andrew Green recounted a tale that people with TLE might be more prone to supernatural phenomena; this needs more research though. There might also be an element of chaos and 'non-reproducibility of results' involved here: if the reports are anything to go by, phantoms should appear all over the place. Clearly this is not the case. Perhaps they require certain environmental conditions to be (even approximately) met before they appear?
The effects of strong magnetic fields on the brain, causing transient Temporal Lobe Epilepsy has been noted above: this can produce hallucinations and was trumpeted as a "explanation" for ghosts. But the actual fields required are so large it is highly doubtful that they could be produced naturally on the Earth. Even arch sceptic Richard Wiseman concedes this point. It may be that high fields are produced in the vicinity of fault lines when Earth Lights appear; after all, if these lights are anything like Ball Lightning, they may require strong fields to cohere the energised particles together.
The Hutchinson Effect is a more recent attempt to mimic Poltergeist activity using electrical and magnetic fields; the equipment, when activated, allegedly caused items to levitate and various items to move seemingly by themselves. Fires would spontaneously erupt, too. The effect of these fields on the human body is quite damaging, and there is talk of electricity being stored by the body, then released catastrophically. However, if the Hutchinson Effect is a good start to unravelling the mystery of the paranormal, it doesn't seek to explain how such strong electrical or magnetic fields can be generated in the environment. It also hasn't received much in the way of credibility from the scientific community because it is extremely difficult to reproduce. But, if magnetic fields are a partial answer to this conundrum, then a good, cheap piece of equipment that may be of use during vigils is the magnetic compass; any deviation from North caused by a field would be observable. You don't have to have a big equipment budget to perform science!
Camera manufacturers have done a lot of work to prove that orbs are simply a by product of something small and out of focus being illuminated by a flash that is too close to the lens. Canon has even provided a help sheet to educate the public how to eliminate orbs. Parasearch researcher Andrew Homer writes, "...from recent researches it appears that different makes of digital camera have their own orb 'signature'. One particular make even seems to reproduce 'face' type images. Orbs are recognised as a problem by digital camera manufacturers but rarely mentioned in the advertising blurb - no surprise there then!" He also says that the depth of field associated with cameras plus the presence of infra-red illumination, makes anything close to the lens appear to be coloured white and in sharp, or near-sharp focus - things like dust, or insects.
This brings me to another topic: the use of digital cameras. yes, they are handy and convenient, but the images are too easy to manipulate and hence open to the possibility of abuse. These cameras certainly can pick up what the human eye sees and more besides (i.e. slightly into the infra-red portion of the electromagnetic spectrum; try this with a TV remote control emitter). One tale I would like to recount occurred at a vigil to Beaulieu Abbey. One digital camcorder, on super night vision mode (with one new image being recorded every second or so) showed streaks of light. These were like mobile orbs, with a comet trail, and most of them were moving horizontally, from right to left, although a handful did move diagonally from top right to bottom left. A correspondent on the Fortean Times message board suggested that this might be due to the optics or over exposure of mundane things. I should add here that I was observing the scene through my hand-held image intensifier which was a comparatively simple affair, lacking the software and CCD found in the video camera. I saw no orbs at all. This makes me think that the fault lies in the software in the camera, since it, and my intensifier should see more-or-less the same thing.
In their quest for the "truth", one team, on an internet forum mentioned that they were attempting to prove that orbs are definitely paranormal by positioning four cameras in a square configuration, each camera pointing at one directly opposite. The theory is that if an orb appears in two cameras that are looking at each other, but not the others, then this would prove that orbs are 2 dimensional, and hence must be paranormal, as sparkles caused by water etc. would "apparently" cause 3 dimensional spherical orbs. Such a camera set-up would also prove whether orbs occur close to the camera lens, as has been predicted by the "orb/dust" proponents. ASSAP have also suggested a similar scheme using a 2 camera set-up, called "Orbit." This latter attempt was not attempted; the status of the first is unknown.
It is just highly suspect that orbs and digital photography's introduction were coincident. But why are there so many orb pictures lately? I have seen a few orb photos from 35mm film, but they are very scarce. The reason is, I believe, due to the convenient nature of digital photography; you can take many pictures, delete the ones you want and reuse the camera's memory for other photos. This leads to any perceived "non-paranormal" pictures being removed. Film cameras on the other hand, do not enable an immediate viewing of your photos, plus you have the expense of development costs etc., so you may feel inclined to take few pictures. It is probably not the case that more orb photos are being taken, but simply more photos taken - the majority of which are discarded. Sadly, this means that ghost hunting has turned into a hobby that has become the domain of camera-happy orb obsessives.
A topic that I would like to mention that requires further research points to sociological aspects of ghost sightings. It was raised by museum curator and historian Jeremy Harte: why are "out of time" ghosts a recent occurrence?
To qualify this, ghost reports go back to (at least) Roman times. However, for instance, there are no reports of Elizabethans seeing Roman ghosts. No reports of Tudors seeing Bronze Age phantoms. It wasn't until quite recently (early 20th century???) that we started getting reports of Roman ghosts, and all other periods of history. Why? Were our predecessors so ignorant that they thought that anyone dressed "oddly" wasn't worth a second glance? Or is it because our schooling these days is so advanced that everyone knows what a Roman, Tudor, Elizabethan, Georgian etc. person looks like? My personal theory about this is similar to a "key and lock" mechanism. It requires some psychological conditioning, (knowledge from history or folklore etc. etc.) before a person can see the ghost. If a person is not familiar with how Romans look, then they may see nothing, or perhaps misidentification - for instance, the balls or light or mists that we sometimes see during vigils.
The last point I wish to refer to are those periodic phantoms; the ghosts that such re-enact some event on a regular, periodic basis (comparatively rare)- for Royal phantoms (say) that appear on the anniversary of their execution in the middle ages is bizarre, since with the 10 day shift in dates when Britain changed from the Julian to the Gregorian calendar in the mid-18th century, not to mention the various leap days added to the years by now, such sighting should be days or even weeks away from their expected appearances - But they aren't! Nature itself does not operate on a weeks, months, years system- this a purely human invention for the convenience of keeping appointments etc. Surely this must mean some form of human (perhaps psychological) trigger for such periodic events to take place? I have a theory about the seeming fondness for ghosts to keep to such appointments: humans, it must be noted, have a predilection towards observing anniversaries and tend to congregate then, making sightings of ghosts that would have occurred anyway, more likely.
An interesting tale is regaled in the book "Ghostwatching - The Ghosthunter's Handbook": a family were regularly disturbed just before midnight by the sounds of footsteps on the stairs, even though there was no-one there. ASSAP were called and various sensors were placed in locations around the flat; an infra-red sensor was situated on the staircase. Nothing was seen or heard though. The next day, however, upon reviewing the output of the sensors, it seemed that at about five minutes to eleven, the sensors on the stairs were activated and continued to relay data for several minutes. What is interesting in this case is that a few days before, there had been a change from British Summer Time to Greenwich Mean Time. As "Ghostwatching" notes: "The implication was that the sensor had triggered at close to midnight, but midnight British Summer Time. The ghost had 'ignored' the change-over to Greenwich Mean Time".
Most ghost stories are accepted unquestioningly by enthusiasts.
This should not be the case. For instance, the case
of Admiral Tyrone is a perfect example. When he was drowning
in the Meditteranean, his ghost was reportedly seen at
home in London. Research for "The Unexplained" magazine has
debunked this story, and now it is hardly mentioned. One should
always go back to the original story and do base research from
original sources rather than rely on word of mouth, or stories
passed down from book to book, and frequently embellished.
To summarise then, it is clear from the meagre collection of "experimental" data collected in the field that a great deal of work needs to be done to quantify and qualify the nature of ghosts. Hopefully, with the small but growing band of dedicated amateurs throughout the world some significant advances in our understanding will be achieved as long as some basic protocols, outlined above are met (e.g. don't wave an EMF meter round like a Guy Fawkes Night or July 4th sparkler!). But for those of you lucky enough to have seen a ghost, no amount of argument or debate is necessary for you- you are convinced that they do exist. Now lets try and understand them.
For another fascinating overview of the subject, please read the "Midnight Watch" article in the Christmas 1998
(19/26th December 1998-2nd January 1999) edition of "New Scientist".