One thing that ghosts, Bigfoot, and UFOs have in common is a lack of hard evidence for their existence. Many people report seeing these phenomena, though sightings are essentially stories, not proof.
According to many “ghost experts,” just about anyone can find evidence of ghosts using a device found in nearly every home: a camera. Ghost stories and sightings are fine, but what can we make of images claimed to be actual photographs of dead spirits? A few years ago an exhibition of spirit photography was held at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. Several of the pictures on display were created by Boston photographer William H. Mumler, who first claimed to have captured ghosts on film. Mumler produced many “spirit photographs” in the latter half of the 1800s, depicting faint, ghostly images in otherwise normal portraits. This caused a sensation and convinced many people with his seemingly excellent proof of ghosts. Yet there was more to Mumler’s photographic proof of life after death than met the eye; he was exposed as a hoaxer when some of the “ghosts” he had photographed were seen very much alive, living and working in Boston. In the process of his work, Mumler had simply stumbled across a crude method of double exposure, and hatched a plan to make a fortune with his fakes. Thus, ghost photography began as an unseemly blend of photographic error and outright hoax.
The clear images of ghosts and dead souls depicted by Mumler are long gone. Despite dramatically improved optical equipment and cameras over the past century, most “ghost photos” fall into two categories: 1) hazy, indistinct shapes that can be interpreted as a human form; and 2) “mysterious” glowing white blobs called orbs. Both can be easily (and accidentally) created by photographic error, and the latter are by far the most common. Books, television shows, and Web sites about ghosts often include photographs of orbs that investigators (or just ordinary people) find scary, amazing, or simply puzzling. Orb photos are essentially Rorschach cards, though the forms are usually white and round instead of black and blobby. The interpretations of both, however, reveal much about how the viewer sees the world. Orbs may take a variety of forms. There is not one blanket cause for all orbs; many things can create the phenomena, including insects and dust close to the camera lens.
In a series of experiments, I was able to create orb photos under a wide range of circumstances. Orbs can be found in the most un-spooky of settings, and are actually fairly common in daily, amateur photography. They are usually only noticed when a person is actively looking for them as evidence of ghosts.
The easiest way to create an orb image is to take a flash photograph outdoors on a rainy night. The flash will reflect off the individual droplets and appear as white, floating orbs (the effect is most pronounced in a light rain, though even a little moisture in the air can create mysterious orbs). As researcher Joe Nickell notes in his book Camera Clues, unnoticed shiny surfaces are also common sources of orbs. (As well, flashes reflecting camera straps can produce other ghostly photo effects.)
During one investigation I conducted several years ago at Fort George (“Canada’s most haunted place,” in Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario), I examined a large, wooden soldiers’ barracks where ghosts and orbs had been reported. I took several flash photographs of the area, and I noticed that the building (essentially a barn-like structure) was quite dusty. As a television crew interviewed some ghost hunters, I noticed one orb, photographed it, and wondered what it might be.
It hovered about chest-high and did not move at all, suggesting that it was not an insect nor a dust particle; instead it seemed supernaturally suspended in the air. It was several feet away from the nearest post, wall, or other visible means of support. The phenomenon was very strange. I showed the image to one of the ghost hunters, who seemed pleased that I had captured what was obviously a ghost orb.
Not content to simply declare my orb a sure sign of the supernatural, a fellow investigator and I searched even harder for a solution. Sure enough, closer investigation revealed that the orb was in fact a tiny piece of dust or lint that clung to the remnants of a spider web. It was a very unusual place for a web, and had I not traced the long, nearly-invisible line to its arachnid anchor, I would have rejected a web as an explanation. But it was a very long strand and just far enough away from the walkway that all but the tallest passersby would not walk through it. The dust mote was very difficult to see, and only apparent when a dark color appeared behind it for contrast, or when caught in a flash photograph. Had an amateur ghost-hunter spent a few minutes taking flash photos of that room at night, the dust would likely have appeared as an orb–and its true cause almost certainly overlooked as an explanation.
Orbs seem otherworldly because they are almost always invisible to the naked eye and go unnoticed until the photo is examined, later revealing the presence of a ghostly, unnatural, glowing object, sometimes appearing over or around an unsuspecting person. To those unaware of scientific and optical explanations, it is no wonder that orbs spook people (as Mumler’s photos did 120 years ago). Most ghost investigators will admit that at least some orb photos are of ordinary phenomena. Still, they insist, there must be some orbs that defy rational explanation. None have yet been found. Of course it’s possible that ghosts and spirits do exist and can be photographed. But if so, where’s the proof? And why do images of ghosts look exactly like images of photographic errors?
Ghost enthusiasts are satisfied with hazy images and orbs, but this will never convince skeptics and scientists. So what would be good photographic proof of ghosts? An authentic photograph of anyone born before the invention of photography would be a good start: Benjamin Franklin, William Shakespeare, or any of thousands of other people for whom we have a good record of their likeness but no photograph. Just one such photo would be more convincing than a thousand glowing blobs. Unfortunately, all the ghost photos offered so far are indistinguishable from intentional fakes and optical mistakes.
A few years ago, after publishing a column about psychics, I got an e-mail from a man who claimed to have ESP abilities. Lee B. claimed to be a “remote viewer” and wrote:
The problem with your article is that you group psychics with anyone who claims to be psychic. I can describe hidden objects or photos better than you (keeping it simple so it’s verifiable). Every time. Find an impartial party that can judge (and we both agree on) and $100 per round and you and I will play until you believe or go broke. Want an accurate prediction? I predict you won’t take me up on this.
Lee’s “accurate prediction” turned out to be wrong, as I accepted his challenge— and it was not his last. I first asked Lee to explain, in detail, what exactly he could do and under what conditions. Lee replied, “Testing me is easy. Set something out on your kitchen table for me to look at, mark it some way with an 8 digit number via tape or tag. I’ll check it out when I get a chance and let you know what I see. If you’d like to try this, let me know when the object is in place.”
It seemed fair enough. I was familiar with the ways that he might try to weasel out of a wrong prediction, but I was willing to give it a shot. If he could really do what he claimed, that would indeed impress me, and perhaps warrant further investigation. Could this man be the one to take home James Randi’s million dollar prize?
I searched my house for a good test object. I didn’t want to make it too easy to guess what it might be. Although in theory I could have chosen nearly any object in the world, by specifying the place (home kitchen table), Lee had already greatly reduced the pool of likely target objects I might choose to use. It would have to be small enough to fit on a kitchen table, thus ruling out things such as a sofa or exercise machine. Instead, it would likely be something I could easily handle, and that would leave space on my kitchen table for its use as a table during the experiment. Whatever I chose would not be anything that would damage my kitchen table or harm me or others (such as a pool of acid), and it would not be something terribly exotic (such as a container of plutonium). Whatever was to sit on my kitchen table for a few days or a week would also probably not be something disgusting (like a bloody animal carcass) or perishable (such as a gallon of ice cream), and so on. It was, therefore, very likely to be an ordinary household object. This reduces the pool of likely targets from potentially millions of possible objects to perhaps a hundred or so likely ones. (Check this yourself by cataloguing all the things in your home, from books to appliances to dishes, etc.)
I don’t think Lee was purposely guiding the target selection in this way; he probably didn’t realize how much his (quite reasonable) parameters narrowed the likely field—perhaps unduly impressing him with the accuracy of his tests. This is where a good grasp of probability and statistics comes in handy. Even with the greatly narrowed target pool, I decided I could make a fair test of it. After all, if Lee correctly uniquely and correctly identified the target, the one-in-a hundred chance would still be impressive. I was game.
I chose an object and replied to him. “Is it really that simple? I have placed an object on my kitchen table, and attached to it is a piece of tape with the following 8 digits written on it: 21389512. I’ll leave it on the table until Sunday, and take a digital photo of it and send it to you when you tell me what it is. How’s that sound? I’m happy to think about the object, if that will help…”
Lee replied, “You don’t need to, I’m going to look at it right where it is. I’ll do it as soon as I can.” I wrote back, “No problem, take as long as you like. I already took the photo of the object, in fact it’s on my computer desktop, the file name says RVtarget.jpg. I guess you can’t really remote view an electronic image (“I see ones and zeroes!”), but in case it helps…”
A few days later Lee wrote back, “Remember, remote viewing is more like a sport than anything else. Think of it as playing golf. We don’t always hit a hole in one but we try to get close!” He directed me to a web site where he had written out the information he had remote viewed. He wrote, “recurring elements of wood, grass, earth, water and rock. Primarily wood; visuals look like deer antlers or tree branches and porcupine quills, deer; pin cushion; porcupine quills; wood slats; forest; lush green field; straw; coffee cup; empty bucket; something round, but in a cluster of at least two or more; this is likely an ornamental tree or plant in a clay pot.”
In his e-mail he wrote, “Beginning to see more water in the target. Also, something corkscrews around as it goes up. Sort of like one of those old barber shop displays or a candy cane.” He also included sketches of what he saw.
I looked them over and replied: “You have a lot of responses here, the most specific one is ‘likely an ornamental tree or plant in a clay pot.’ Do you want to go with that? Obviously the more guesses / attempts you put out, the more likely it is that one or more will match, so to be fair I think you should narrow it down to one or two images you feel strongest about.”
Lee wrote back, “Well, I’m going to go with an extra small Christmas tree due to recurring images of quills and nettles, combined with a spiraling image which could be maybe garland or ribbon along with spherical objects which may be ornaments and water dripping. If you will allow me two, my second choice would be holly plant.”
The fact that all this happened a few weeks before Christmas was interesting, and likely influenced his expectations about what might be on my kitchen table. I replied to him, attaching a photo of the target. “Okay, well, it’s actually a small sculpture I made from a piece of coral I found in Roatan, Honduras, glued to a wooden base. I have attached a photo of it. It doesn’t really have much in common with an extra small Christmas tree, or a holly plant… Of course no one is 100%. Do you want to try again?”
“Yeah, I’ll try again. That one was hard, Ben. We don’t usually actually name our targets, just describe them. But I am for giving an actual prediction if it makes it more interesting. Let me know when you’re ready.”
“Well, as long as the descriptions are specific enough, (and there aren’t too many of them, so that yes, a few are right, but the other 25 are wrong) I guess that’s okay. I have selected a different target. Do you want a different set of numbers, or the same number?”
“Different numbers…” I chose different numbers and a second object, a small home fire extinguisher. “Okay, the target object is now out. The new number is 12065503. I’ll get a photo shortly.”
A few days later I heard from Lee again: “Ben, I’m going to ditch my original session for this one, in which the object was shaped like a brick. I looked at it this morning and it looks more like a tube to me. Six to eight inches long and roughly two inches in diameter, situated on its side.”
That was awfully general, so I responded, “Okay. Any colors or other details? You want to make two guesses at what it is?”
“I think it’s reddish brown and made of glass. One end looks as though it has a spout or a cap on it. If I were to guess, I’d say a glass bottle.”
I replied, “Hi Lee. Well, I really can’t give you this one… you’re right, it is generally a tube shape, and does have a spout or cap (though almost every tube-shaped thing I can think of has a spout or cap on it), but it’s not reddish brown, not made of glass (in fact there’s no glass on it), is well over eight inches long, is well over two inches in diameter, and is standing upright instead of laying down. The overall tube shape is a hit, but a lot of things are tube shaped: pens, water glasses, toothpaste tubes, cans of soda, flashlights, batteries, etc. How about we try one more?”
“Sure, we can try as many as you like, I need the practice >”
I found one more object, and e-mailed him as soon as it was ready. “Okay, let’s give it one more shot! Here’s the number: 63071086. It’s ready now!”
A few days later Lee sent me another URL with his information: “round disc; satin silver; compact disc; wristwatch; bottle cap; looking through a glass door; likely a satin stainless steel wristwatch.”
I looked over the list and wrote back; he threw out a lot of descriptors and possibilities, and I couldn’t just pick a random one and accept it as his answer, I needed him to give me his best guess—or two. “Hi Lee. Okay, hmm. So, if you had two guesses, what would they be?”
Later that day I got Lee’s response: “Ben, I’m not sure. I don’t have time right now to do it properly. Let’s skip ahead to the point I was going to get at: We are all psychic. That means you, Ben. I spent very little time on your targets, if you can’t see the correlations, then you are trying not to see. I’m trying to open your eyes, my friend. I don’t really care if you think I have psi, I’m trying to help you see. I felt like by asking me to actually name the objects, you were building a case against it.”
I wrote back a short note, explaining that I wasn’t trying to disprove his abilities, but to simply finish the test under the conditions we’d both agreed to. Instead of admitting that he was completely wrong, he suggested that I was being biased or obstinate if I didn’t agree that a watch, a CD, a bottle cap, or a glass door were close in description to a wooden clothespin. It was clear he was feeling defensive, and I didn’t want to hurt his feelings by pressing the issue. The point of the experiment was not to attack or challenge him, but instead to see what he could do.
He replied, “The end result is not about me having psi. I already know I do and I know you do too. I’d like to inspire you to use your psi, Ben. It would be a piece of cake for a guy with your intelligence. It bugs me when someone such as yourself doesn’t know what he can do. It’s right at your fingertips. I confess, I am out of practice right now, work is busy and the holidays are here. But remember, I said it is more of a skill than a power. Best holiday wishes to you as well Ben, I’d like to keep in touch.” With that, the remote viewer and I parted ways to attend to our own holiday headaches, and our little experiment ended.
Lee’s remote viewing information was typical of failed psychic claimants, consisting of many different guesses, later retrofitted to see how the information could be interpreted to fit the revealed target. Lee, who began our correspondence by claiming he could remote view with accuracy “every time,” lost interest in the testing when it was clear he wasn’t succeeding. Instead of giving me his best remote viewing information about the third and final test, he changed the subject from testing his abilities to telling me that I should develop my own.
I am convinced that Lee, like most psychics I have met, is a sincere, honest person who genuinely believes he has the powers he claims. The fact that he failed three times in a row didn’t seem to shake his belief in his powers; instead he found excuses: he was tired, out of practice, and distracted by the holidays. And all that may be true, but if we repeated the experiment at another time with the same results, he almost certainly would have found another set of similar excuses.
Lee practiced his remote viewing powers at a web site called Dojo Psi, “a private club for Mental Martial Artists for discipline, exploration, education, and pursuit of remote viewing world applications.” As he stated, he was not used to actually identifying targets in his tests, but merely describing them. This provides an interesting clue into why he had such confidence in his abilities.
The problem is of course that identifications are by definition specific, whereas descriptions are by definition general. A given description—even one that appears very specific—might fit a wide variety of objects, greatly increasing the “success rate” while not truly demonstrating remote viewing ability. (For example, if Lee described a target as something small with square corners and writing and/or colors on it, that could apply equally well to a deck of cards, a pack of cigarettes, a stack of CDs, a book, a business card, a magazine, a dollar bill, a receipt, a drink coaster, a mouse pad, a pocket calculator, or dozens of other things. If any of those had been chosen as the target, Lee would likely be very impressed with the accuracy of his remotely viewed information. When you combine this generalization effect with the limited pool of likely candidates for a target (i.e., not a sofa or a dead dog, as described earlier), the occasional correct guesses are not so remarkable. Lee—and Dojo Psi—are simply unfamiliar with good scientific controls that are required to test phenomena such as remote viewing.
This was not some trap devised by me to disprove his powers; we had agreed to the testing protocols under conditions he himself set up. We treated each other fairly and with respect. Though I purposely avoided choosing target objects that might be very common (such as a miniature Christmas tree or a glass bottle), I did not try to trick Lee or change the target at the last minute; everything was conducted on a firm but friendly and cooperative note. Perhaps Lee was right. Maybe I do have psychic powers, and I could remote view if I wanted to. I’m willing to give it a try, as long as the standard for success is raised high enough that a success is meaningful.
This originally appeared in the book Scientific Paranormal Investigation: How to Solve Unexplained Mysteries (Rhombus Books, 2011).