Are Orbs ‘Paranormal’?

cameraNow and then, the word “paranormal” seems to take on a life of its own.  In a recent discussion about orbs, a couple of people insisted that orbs aren’t paranormal.

Well, I can’t argue with a skeptical critic.  He or she has already made up his or her mind.  The skeptical critic is usually a bottomless well of explanations, no matter how extreme or preposterous.  (But, to be fair: Anyone absolutely, positively determined to interpret everything as ghostly… he or she can be equally defensive.)

I think skeptical critics feel a little more secure in their uncertainties, if they think they have a nice, normal reason for everything.  (Since they simply want to argue with people like me, I’m not sure why they’re involved in ghost hunting.)

However, I’m not convinced that yesterday’s critics meant what they said.  I think they meant that orbs aren’t ghosts.

THE DEFINITION OF PARANORMAL

“Paranormal” does not mean “ghostly.”

Para-, the prefix, comes from the Greek.  It means beside (not part of) or beyond.  So, “paranormal” is something beyond what’s normal.

The Free Dictionary defines paranormal as, “Beyond the range of normal experience or scientific explanation.”

Dictionary.com says it’s “of or pertaining to the claimed occurrence of an event or perception without scientific explanation.”

Merriam-Webster says paranormal means, “not scientifically explainable.”

Most definitions refer to supernatural phenomena as an example, but the basic definition comes down to:

  • Para = Beyond or outside.
  • Normal = Standard, not deviating from the norm, or average.
NOLA - Pirates Alley, on a foggy, rainy night
New Orleans on a foggy night, after rain, with lots of lights & reflections. No orbs.

So, avoid using “paranormal” when you mean “ghostly.”

A photo of an orb can be paranormal. So can a photo of a flower, a cat, or your shoe.  It all depends on what’s normal, and what can’t be explained within the range of normal.

NORMAL AND PARANORMAL ORBS

An orb I can identify as pollen artifact is normal.  

An orb that I can’t reproduce by normal means (setting up the lighting, dust, moisture, etc., in a certain way) is paranormal.

  • It’s not necessarily a ghost.
  • It’s not necessarily energy.
  • It’s not necessarily an angel, your great-granny, or the Tooth Fairy.

It’s just an orb that — at the present time — can’t be explained, and can’t be reproduced using similar photographic staging.

I may apply other descriptions to that orb, but they relate to the experience at the time the photo was taken. I’m looking for other phenomena, what investigators were sensing at the time, EVP, EMF spikes, sensory phenomena, and so on.

The orb photo itself… it doesn’t prove anything.  All by itself, it’s supporting evidence, at best.

Here’s my story:

For years, I was guilty of insisting that most orbs are dust, pollen, moisture, reflections, insects, and so on.  And, fed up with saying that to people who just wouldn’t believe me, I decided to prove it.

I planned to create some great, convincing-looking, fake orb photos.  Frankly, I didn’t think it would be very difficult.

I set up my cameras — multiple film and digital cameras — and used things like:

  • Ragweed (pollen).
  • My Swiffer (dust).
  • Flour (denser dust).
  • Very fine, powdery sand and dirt from unpaved roads (more dust).
  • Spray bottles (moisture).
  • Mirrors, shiny glass, and chandeliers (reflections).
  • Stop signs, traffic cones, other street signs (reflections).

I trekked to swampy areas with wall-to-wall mosquitoes.  I walked down dirt roads at night, and waited for a car or truck to drive by, stirring up the dust.

I visited damp locations on humid and foggy nights.  I even went to New Orleans shortly after Katrina, when everything was pretty soggy.

NOLA-reflect-cone
Flash photo of shiny glass, lights and a traffic cone in New Orleans’ French Quarter… on a damp evening. No orbs.

Sure, I got photos that included orbs. The problem was, they didn’t look like the orbs I photograph at haunted locations.  They weren’t convincing orbs.

A beginner might be fooled by them… but not me.  Not after all these years in ghost hunting, after tens of thousands of photos.

But, after spending years insisting (with no proof) that most orbs were the product of the environment, I wasn’t going to eat crow quite yet.

In fact, I spent six years trying to stage photos that would produce orbs identical to the orbs photographed at haunted and spiritual sites.

The one and only thing that produced convincing orbs — orbs that looked like “ghost orbs” — was breathing (or talking with a lot of exhaling) while taking the photos.  And even then, I couldn’t get real-looking orbs in more than half my photos.  Most of them still looked fake.

Toulouse Street, New Orleans.
A street corner in New Orleans at night. Bright lights. No orbs.

Some researchers claim that all orbs — even those with logical explanations that you can see — are evidence of spirits.

I’m not one of those researchers.  Sure, maybe a ghost floated that particular fleck of pollen in front of my camera exactly when I was taking the picture. Maybe he did that just to get my attention.  I can accept that as a possibility.

However, I’m not going to state, categorically, that any orb represents a ghost.

It’s just something paranormal… and it seems to happen most often at “haunted” sites.  That’s all I can state with confidence.

That and the fact that believable orbs are amazingly difficult to fake.

Having been a skeptical critic of “ghost orbs” for many years, I’m regretting that — as the author of some of the earliest ghost hunting articles online — I led people to believe that most orbs can be explained by dust, pollen, reflections, and so on.

Sure, I can still spot an orb that doesn’t look right.  I know that, either inside the frame of the photo or just outside it, there’s a likely explanation.  If the photographer revisits the site, he or she will usually see what caused the lens flare or refraction.

But, there’s a different quality to the orbs we usually can’t explain.  And, to replicate those… well, except for breathing while taking a flash photo — and even that isn’t a “sure thing” — I can’t seem to create convincing-looking orbs with staging.

Fake-looking orbs are easy.  Real-looking ones… no.

But, my point in this article isn’t about orbs.  It’s about how people misuse the word “paranormal.”

If you mean “ghostly,” say so. 

If you just mean something that — at this time — can’t be explained by anything normal in that setting, at that time… that’s paranormal.

There is a difference, and it’s an important one when we’re discussing research techniques and results.

Haunted Houses and Carbon Monoxide

What does carbon monoxide have to do with a haunted house?

When people contact me about a haunted house, they often say things like:

  • dangers of the paranormal“Sometimes, when I’m in that part of the house, I get shaky, dizzy, and I feel weak all over.”
  • “I get a tightness in my chest, and I can’t catch my breath. Do you suppose the ghost died of a heart attack?”
  • “I’m okay during the day, but at night — especially when it’s cold out — it’s like something floats into my room through the bedroom window, and I can’t breathe.”
  • “The baby gets fussy in that room and seems to be looking at something that I don’t see, and the dog won’t go in there, ever.”
  • “I’m fine all day, but at night, when we close up the house and go to bed, I get headaches, it feels really stuffy in the room, and sometimes I feel kind of sick. I always have to get up and open the window, just to feel the breeze. About an hour or two later, around midnight, everything’s fine again.”

Well, those “symptoms” of a haunting can be caused by carbon monoxide poisoning. That’s why carbon monoxide is now the first thing to check in a house that might be haunted. This is especially true if the ghosts started to be a problem when the house was sealed up for the winter, or — in warm climates — for the summer.

The following is an edited excerpt from the book, Is Your House Haunted?, by Fiona Broome.


Before you do anything else…

Check the carbon monoxide levels at the possibly-haunted site.

Carbon monoxide is nicknamed “the silent killer.” Pets and children often react to it first. Carbon monoxide (CO), also called carbonous oxide, is a colorless, odorless and tasteless gas. It is highly toxic to humans and animals in higher quantities. It can come from a variety of sources, including gas appliances, woodstoves, car exhaust, blocked flues, and even cigarette smoke.

Some people are more sensitive to carbon monoxide, and may show symptoms before others do.

Any of the following symptoms may indicate high levels of carbon monoxide.

  • Headaches.
  • A tight sensation in the chest.
  • Nausea.
  • Shortness of breath.
  • Vomiting.
  • Dizziness.
  • Fatigue.
  • A feeling of weakness.
  • Confusion or disorientation.
  • Visual disturbances.
  • Fainting and seizures.
  • Flu symptoms.
  • Infants may be irritable.
  • Pets can avoid certain areas.

Carbon monoxide can also affect the heart and central nervous system, and raise blood pressure. Carbon monoxide poisoning can damage the fetus of a pregnant woman. Many areas in the UK, the US, and Canada have laws recommending (or even requiring) the use of carbon monoxide detectors in homes. Older homeowners may not realize that. Even if the homeowner has no fireplace or woodstove, and no gas appliances, check the levels anyway.

For example, if a nearby neighbor has a wood stove and you (or the client) sleep with your window open, elevated carbon monoxide could explain some “symptoms” of a haunting.

If you regularly investigate haunted sites, be sure your home has very low levels of carbon monoxide, too. If you’ve been sensitized to the gas, even low levels might trigger your symptoms at a “haunted” site. It could happen. Rule this out, immediately.

When you’re investigating a potentially haunted house and any symptoms match the warning list, carbon monoxide levels must be checked first.

If the homeowner does not have a carbon monoxide detector installed, and you don’t have a handheld monitor, call the fire department for advice.

Note: Before buying a handheld carbon monoxide meter, be sure to read the reviews.

If you’re investigating haunted homes and you can’t afford a good carbon monoxide detector, don’t bother with a cheap one. Either have the homeowner install carbon monoxide detectors in several places in the home — and use them for at least a week before you investigate — or ask the fire department if someone in the community can test the air for the homeowner.

A carbon monoxide meter that works is important. A cheap one that’s not reliable could put you and your client at risk.

So, either use a good detector or have the homeowner or someone else handle that part of the investigation.

Typical K-II Interactions

This video is a good example of a typical, informal investigation using a K-II meter.  The video is long — over an hour and a half — so I didn’t watch the whole thing.  However, you can learn a few good things in the first five or ten minutes.

First of all, this video shows how imperfect real-time communication is with any EMF meter, but especially a highly sensitive meter like the K-II.  There were times when the lights flickered so quickly, it was difficult to tell whether it flashed just once (for “yes”) or two or three times.  In fact, at least once, a team member said he didn’t see it, when the light had flashed quickly.

This video also provides a vivid example of how tedious ghost hunting can be, particularly when you’re focusing on one specific research technique or tool.  Really, by the 47 minute mark, one of the investigators is asking, “Is the fourth letter of your last name between the letters A and L?”

Wow.  That’s a very patient investigator.

You might ask, “Why not use a Ouija board, instead? It’s faster.”

The answer is personal safety.  The more people physically connect with the energy — like with a glass or platen that points to letters —  the more risks they’re taking.   With a tool like a K-II — one that requires no physical contact with the device — dangers are reduced.

The K-II results in this video could be pretty good.  I really want to like it and give it a very favorable review.  However, I have some concerns.

The TV

My first concern when using a K-II is variable, environmental electronic energy.

Right away, I saw the TV in this video’s background.  Is that enough to cause normal EMF fluctuations?  Unlikely, but I wouldn’t rule it out until I’d checked it carefully.

The cat

At times, a cat was on the bed where the K-II was.  I’m not too worried about that because I saw no reaction from the K-II when the cat was nearby.  Also, one of the researchers seemed to sit on the bed with enough vigor that the K-II moved around, but the K-II didn’t react to that, either.

The fan

The rotating fan in back of the EMF meter is a greater concern.  I thought I noticed more flashes after the fan moved to the far left and had just begun the return motion, but I wasn’t sure. (I’m still not sure.)  I’d definitely want to study some freeze-frame shots when the K-II is flashing.

Response synchronicity

I casually checked the frequency of the K-II responses.  In the first five minutes, the timing concerns me.  In a spot-check near the beginning of the video, I noted K-II flashes at these times:

  • 1:21
  • 2:21
  • 2:28
  • 3:20
  • 4:20

In other words, the K-II was flashing about once a minute, around the :20 or :21 mark.  If that pattern continued — or even repeated sporadically — I’d discount all of those flashes.

However, the 2:28 response was anomalous and fairly strong, so I’d be more likely to take that response seriously, if no other strong flashes sync with it near :28 marks.

That is the kind of analysis that researchers must do, in more formal investigations. On the other hand, this looked like a very informal investigation.

If I were analyzing this video as part of a formal investigation, I’d be concerned about the TV and the rotating fan.  Also, I’d wonder what else was in the room — or near enough to affect a K-II — that we don’t see in the frame of the video.

And, finally, the biggest credibility issue connected with this video is how it was uploaded to YouTube.

Keyword stuffing

In a misguided attempt to attract more viewers, the foot of the video description is stuffed with keywords that aren’t related to ghosts, such as “epic funny Santa Claus prank Christmas pranks bloopers,” “50 Cent The Voice” and “make money free cash” and “Black Friday Walmart black Friday.”*

I suspect the research team received bad advice about that tactic.  Please, don’t stuff keywords if you want to look like a serious researcher. (On the other hand, if you main goal is to boost your numbers to look popular or earn more money from your YouTube videos… go for it.)

Summary

All in all, this is a good video to learn from.  And, the results might be impressive in a different context.

If this were one of several supporting investigations related to a single, haunted site, this might be good, but I’d need far more compelling evidence.

For starters, I’d like to see a detailed analysis of the video, especially related to the rotating fan and the timing issues.  For now, there are too many red flags to trust the results… and it would be simple to eliminate most or all of them, in a follow-up investigation.

Originality  (Doesn’t really apply. It’s a K-II meter.)

2-stars

Credibility (The results were pretty good, but the context — especially the timing issue and the keyword stuffing — were huge red flags as far as I’m concerned, and made the entire effort look questionable.)

1-half-star

 

* No matter who tells you that keyword stuffing is a good idea to get more YouTube views, don’t do anything like the screenshot below.  It looks spammy, reduces your credibility, and… really, do you want people finding your serious, ghost hunting video using search terms like “prank ghost video” or “swimsuit boys dance gangnam style”?

keywordstuffing-nov2012

Ghost Photography 101 – An Overview

Cover of Ghost Photography 101, by Fiona Broome - 1st EditionGhost photography is a fascinating subject.  Ghost photos are also among the easiest ways for paranormal investigators and ghost hunters to find evidence of hauntings.

In the following articles, you’ll learn more about how to take ghost pictures, and what to watch out for.

Most of these are excerpts from the first edition of my book, Ghost Photography 101.  (That first edition is now out-of-print.)

Ghost Photography Articles

In these articles, you’ll see photos — mostly in color — from the book.  Some are real anomalies, others are explained as false anomalies… things to watch out for when you’re taking pictures at haunted sites.

These articles and photos aren’t intended as the last word in ghost photography.  They’re a starting point for each investigator.

Try similar experiments with your own cameras, to see what real and fake results look like.  Then, you’ll feel far more confident about your ghost photos.

Tips for the Best Ghost Photos

Ghost Photography Tips

The following is an edited excerpt from the first edition of Ghost Photography 101, by Fiona Broome.

Man in Blue ghost photo - Fort Worden, Port Townsend, WA
Fiona’s famous ‘man in blue’ photo. (Ft. Worden, WA)

If you simply bring a camera to haunted places and take lots of photos, you’ll learn the ins and outs of ghost photography on your own.  Trial-and-error is fine.

However, the following tips might make the learning process easier.

If you take pictures at random, you won’t return home with as many ghost photos as you could with a more focused approach… no pun intended.  First, learn where the “hot spots” are at the site.  Ask others where they’ve felt the most chills, found the most EMF activity, or taken the best ghost photos.  That’s a good place to start.

Take cues from your ghost hunting tools

If you have ghost hunting tools such as an EMF meter or a pendulum, you can use them to help you identify the best locations.

For example, if your EMF meter detects energy spikes — or drops lower than it should — that’s a potential location for ghostly photos.  Try taking photos standing directly at the location where your EMF meter indicated something odd.

However, sometimes when you’re in the middle of an anomaly — or a haunted spot — your camera won’t record anything unusual.  So, step away from that spot. Turn around and take pictures of it from a distance and from several different angles.

Unexplained photo - Gilson Rd. Cemetery, Nashua, NH
One of many strange ‘ghost photos’ taken at Gilson Rd. Cemetery, Nashua, NH

Several ghost hunting tools can detect EMF-related anomalies.  Of course, an EMF meter — especially a sensitive meter such as the K-II — can reveal the most electromagnetic anomalies.

You may identify equally good, active locations using a hiking compass, dowsing rods, or more specialized tools such as an Ovilus or any real-time paranormal communication device.

If you have a hiking compass, the needle points in the direction of magnetic north.

However, if you’re near electromagnetic fields (EMF), the compass needle will point away from magnetic north and towards where the highest EMF is. (Movement can easily affect hiking compasses, so I only pay attention to needle variations more than 30 degrees from magnetic north.)

Likewise, dowsing rods can behave strangely around elevated EMF levels. For many people, the rods cross each other at the point where the EMF is at its highest.  For others, the rods separate or even swing in circles.

Keep in mind that dowsing rods may also detect underground springs, buried pipes or electrical wires.  So, if the rods continue to behave strangely along a straight line, you may be walking over underground pipes or wiring.

The Ovilus is one of many tools that became popular during 2009.  It seems to respond to EMF surges by talking.  Using a pre-programmed vocabulary — plus additional words and names that baffle many researchers — the Ovilus “speaks” out loud.  Similar tools include the Frank’s Box, the Shack Hack, ghost radar apps for mobile phones, and “ghost box” devices.

If you’re using one of these tools and it starts talking, take photos.  Take lots of photos.

If someone’s camera or cellphone suddenly stops working, that’s another cue that EMF energy is interfering.  Take photos right away.

This ghost photo is actually breath on a chilly night.
This eerie photo is probably just breath on a chilly night.

Remember to take photos inside the area where the EMF or other electronic signal occurs, but also step away and point your camera so you’re looking at the location, from a distance of at least a few feet.

Your “gut feeling”

Your “gut feeling” is the single most useful tool to help you identify spots for ghost photography. Whether you get goosebumps, the hair goes up on the back of your neck, or you simply feel prompted to take a photo, pay attention to those subtle cues.

Share those feelings with others. You may be surprised by how many people will confirm what you’ve felt.

I believe that everyone has some psychic sensitivities.  They’re often felt as a “gut feeling.”

Few people are sure of their intuition at first.  If you mentally note how you feel when you take good ghost photos, you’ll soon recognize those “gut feelings” more confidently… and then take more pictures when you do.

It’s important to learn to identify real anomalies and the normal things that can look like them.

However, it’s not as easy to create fake ghost photos as skeptical critics insist.  When it doubt, trust your gut feeling.

Sparkles and Other Surprising Anomalies

The following is an excerpt from the first edition of Ghost Photography 101, by Fiona Broome.

Your camera can suggest “hot spots” for good ghost pictures.  One of the best indications is a phenomenon called sparkles.

In the late 1990s, my research team noticed bright, sparkling lights that slowly drifted towards the ground after I took photos in haunted areas.  They appear to flare when the flash goes off, but the lights linger for about half a second afterwards.  On rare occasions, they fade over a period of nearly two seconds.

I called them “sparkles” in my earliest ghost hunting website articles in the 1990s, and the term is now used throughout the ghost hunting field.

If we could capture those sparkles in photos, they might look like the following photo. (It think it’s actually a spiderweb or some hair.)

Sparkle-type image
What sparkles can look like. (Actually a spider web or hair.)

Sparkles usually appear about 20 – 30 feet away from the camera.  They look about the size of ping-pong balls.   We see dozens of them, sometimes all at once and sometimes in a subtle sequence.

Usually, the sparkles are white or pale pastel colors.  Some researchers report more vivid colors.

Sparkles seem to have mass, or they wouldn’t drift towards the ground as if pulled down by gravity.  However, people standing immediately underneath them don’t see or feel them as they fall.  So far, we have no idea what causes sparkles.

We know what they aren’t.  They aren’t bugs (including fireflies), dust or pollen.  They aren’t rain or moisture.

Note: Insects immediately in front of your camera can also seem like bright lights, but only when the flash highlights them.  In addition, if you’re in an area with fireflies, we’ve noticed that some fireflies “answer” the flash on the camera by flaring their lights as well.

Remember, the anomalous sparkles never show up in photos.  (I wish they did.)  They’re best seen through the camera’s viewfinder (or lens), but most spectators (about 80%) see the sparkles whether they’re looking through a camera or not.  Both film and digital cameras seem to highlight sparkles.  Some are better than others.

My oldest camera is among the best to reveal sparkles.  It’s an Olympus AF-1 Twin that my mother bought me, many years ago. It uses 35 mm film. Today, you may find cameras like it at thrift shops for just a few dollars.  (I recently found one at Goodwill for $1.50.  It works well, too. You might find something similar at Amazon.com.)

Once you see sparkles, you’ll know exactly what I’m describing.

Take as many photos as you can when sparkles appear, because there’s an increased likelihood that your photos will include anomalies… just not the actual sparkles you saw.

Photographing Ghost Orbs

The following is an edited excerpt from the first edition of Ghost Photography 101, by Fiona Broome.

Orbs are probably the most popular evidence of ghosts and hauntings.

Orbs are the easiest for beginners to capture in photos. They can be confused with dust, bugs, pollen, reflections and moisture… but not as often as you might think.

This photo at the lower right shows a typical orb at Pine Hill Cemetery (also called “Blood cemetery”) in Hollis, New Hampshire.  The picture was taken near some of the oldest graves in the cemetery. This orb is unusual because it was photographed without a flash.

Daytime orb - Pine Hill 'Blood' Cemetery - Hollis, NH
Arrow points at daytime orb – no flash, no reflection, no lens flare.

About 90% of orbs are photographed using the camera’s flash.  This suggests that orbs have some physical content that reflects the light of the flash.

However, if orbs have a physical form, more people should see them in real life.  In fact, most people don’t see orbs, except in their photos.

Orbs usually white or pale blue, but they can appear in a variety of colors, both pastels and vivid shades.  Some are very faint.  Others are bright and almost opaque.

Now and then, orbs seem to include faces, but most are simply translucent circular (or spherical) shapes.

Sometimes the face closely resembles the person whose ghost is supposed to haunt the site.  That’s eerily reminiscent of the fake ghost photos of the late 19th century… and baffling.

Some “face” orbs are reported in locations more associated with faeries than with ghosts.

For now, orbs are a mystery and deserve more study.  We don’t have many answers, yet.

Orbs often appear close to people. I’ve seen hundreds of orb photos in which the orb is near a baby or a bride.  It’s difficult to dismiss them as mere coincidence.  Many people are comforted by an orb that represents a loved one who’s crossed over, and is visiting our world to celebrate a happy event with his or her family.

Ghost orb over historic home in Katy, TX
Orb over historic home in Katy, Texas.

Other orbs seem to manifest near haunted objects or specific locations.

The photo on the left shows a solitary orb over a house in Katy, Texas.  It’s one of just a few homes that survived the famous Galveston Flood of 1900.  The night was cool and dry with no insects and no breezes.

Many people think that the Galveston Flood affected the island of Galveston and that’s all.  If you research that famous flood, you’ll see that the flood extended into Houston and surrounding areas.  As a result, there are many rich stories and tragedies from that disaster, and some may indicate haunted locations.

In the photo at the lower right, orbs hover near haunted Houmas House in Louisiana.  It’s an extraordinary location for ghost photos.  Houmas House may look familiar because it’s been featured in movies and TV shows.  It was also the home of the man who designed the famous “Stars and Bars” flag of the Civil War.  Ghosts of Confederate soldiers have been reported near the house.

I’ve seen two full apparitions at Houmas House.  One was in the bedroom where Bette Davis slept while filming “Hush, Hush, Sweet Charlotte” at the house.

The other was at the front gate, where I saw an unusually tall black man pacing.   At first, I saw him from the “widow’s walk” on top of Houmas House.  The apparition looked only slightly translucent.  It was a sunny morning, and I saw him very clearly.

Ghost orbs at Houmas House (Louisiana)
Orbs hover at historic (and haunted) Houmas House, LA

I wanted a closer look, so I dashed downstairs and out the front door.  The figure was clearly visible until I was about 30 feet from him.  He faded quickly.  It probably took less than half a second.

After the apparition vanished from sight, I asked Kevin Kelly — the owner of Houmas House — about the ghost.  I described the figure in detail.  Mr. Kelly knew exactly which man I was describing.

Mr. Kelly showed me a photograph of the former slave, taken during the man’s lifetime.  I recognized the man in the photo right away.  His apparition looks almost exactly the same today.

I wish I’d been able to capture his ghostly image in a photo.  However, these kinds of encounters indicate locations — such as Louisiana’s Houmas House — where ghost photos are likely.

This is important: Credible ghost photos rarely occur unless other ghostly phenomena are reported, too.

 

Photographing Ghostly Ectoplasm

The following is an edited excerpt from the first edition of Ghost Photography 101, by Fiona Broome.

Ghostly figures in Portsmouth, NH cemetery
Smoke is the #1 explanation for crisp ‘ecto’ photos, like this one.

In the field, the word ectoplasm is often shortened to “ecto” and it’s considered rare. Ectoplasm is a complex and controversial topic.

Ectoplasm seems to be something physical.  People describe it as something that’s visible to the naked eye.  “Sparkles” may be small spots of ectoplasm, or they might be something different, since they don’t usually show up in photos.

Orb photos are popular and almost commonplace. Ectoplasm photos are rare and receive little attention.

In fact, many professional ghost hunters seem to dismiss all “ecto” photos as cigarette smoke.  Is that fair?  From my experiments, the answer is a firm “no.”  It’s remarkably difficult to photograph cigarette smoke.

Like orbs, at least 90% of modern ectoplasm pictures have been taken after dark using flash cameras.  To confuse matters even more, there are many natural explanations for ecto-like forms in photos.

False ectoplasm in photos

Ectoplasm in photos could be, in order of likelihood:

  • Smoke.
  • Breathing, fog or moisture in the air.
  • An odd, reflected light.
  • Hair, insects, dust or pollen.
  • A camera strap.
  • A light leak in a film camera.
  • An error during film processing.

Let’s rule those out, if we can.

Film errors are easy to spot.  Examine the film closely, looking for scratches, splashes, fingerprints or other surface evidence of mishandling during processing.

A light leak in the camera will usually extend beyond the frame of the photo, into the edges of the film.

Insects, dust and pollen usually look more like orbs.  However, hair can be confusing, as can camera straps.

For reflected light to cause an ecto effect, it would have to be very close to the lens… and obvious.

Fog and drifting moisture are usually evident when the photo is taken.  You can usually confirm this with a flashlight; the beam of light will highlight bands of damp air that could appear in photos.

Eerie 'ghost' images in breath, Northfield, NH
Yes, this is what breath looks like in a ‘ghost’ photo, but is that all it is?

Breathing is a problem on chilly nights. It’s easily the #1 reason someone might think “ecto” when they look at a misty photo.  To rule it out, either don’t breathe (or stand close to anyone who is breathing) or don’t take ghost photos on chilly nights or when the dew point is high.

From my experiments, smoke is not likely to cause “ecto” effects.  It’s possible, but not likely.  (Those experiments are illustrated in the book.)

As with fog and moisture, you can usually highlight smoke with a bright flashlight, so you can tell if it’s an issue before you take photos.  If its light is reflected, the smoke will reflect your camera’s flash, too.

With those factors ruled out, we’re left with another mystery:  What are those eerie, misty areas and swirling entities in our photos?

Many professional ghost hunters agree that smoke is the best explanation when we see ethereal, ectoplasmic images in photographs.

Most ghost hunters insist that, even if someone had been smoking 20 minutes earlier, smoke particulate can remain in the air and reflect light, especially light from a flash camera.

If you’re serious about ghost photography and you’ve seen images that look like ectoplasm in your photos, run tests with your own cameras.  Rule out normal effects, first.

I recommend testing in a variety of weather conditions, especially varying levels of humidity.

Take test photos of different kinds of smoke, including smoke from:

  • Cigarettes
  • Pipes
  • Incense
  • Burning wood (like a campfire)
  • Burning paper
  • Matches

If you live near a factory that spews minute particles into the air, take after-dark photos near the factory.  Airports (and traffic paths of low-flying planes) can also contribute particulate matter in the environment.

It may sound like a mantra at this point, but it’s important: Always know what different normal effects look like, before deciding that you’ve photographed anything paranormal.

For locations with particulate matter in the air, check regional environmental websites.  In the United States, you may find helpful information at AirNow.gov and at the EPA website, http://www.epa.gov/air/emissions/where.htm

 

More Test Photos

The following photos are from several years’ tests, trying to create convincing, fake, ghost photos.  As you can see, it’s not as easy as I thought… or as simple as skeptical critics claim.

Spider webs with moisture in them

Some people might confuse the lines for ectoplasm, but most won’t.

  

Damp, foggy morning, using the flash in all photos

As you can see, there were no orbs, even in thick fog.  The third photo (lower left) has something odd in it, but it’s not an orb, as I’d been expecting from so much dampness.

    

     

Hair

In some cases, hair could be confused with light streaks or vortex images.  The color of the hair is the clue. (My hair is auburn.)

However, notice the last of these four photos, at the lower right.  It looks like it has large, overlapping orbs. That’s also a photo of hair; when the light catches it in a certain way, it appears as a series of large, faint orbs.

 

 

Smoke

Frankly, the smoke photos showed almost nothing.  The only way we could get smoke to show up in pictures, consistently, was to use actual stick incense.  The results open some interesting questions.  And, yes, some of these could be mistaken for anomalies.  That of course raises the question: If someone nearby were using incense, wouldn’t a photographer notice the fragrance?

  

  

Pollen

Pollen was very difficult to capture in photos.  Even shaking ragweed directly over the camera lens, the pollen rarely showed up at all.  (See the third photo, in the lower left, where I was shaking the ragweed in front of the lens.) The final photo in this series shows what it looks like to crush the ragweed with your hand, and then sprinkle the pollen in front of the camera lens.  These extremes suggest that pollen is rarely a problem for an experienced ghost photographer.

However, in the few photos where it did show up, it could look similar to orbs with “faces” in them.

Unless you’re standing directly underneath a tree that’s sprinkling pollen, or it’s a very bad night for hay fever, I don’t think pollen is a major concern.  Among the few photos that showed pollen orbs, even fewer were orbs that we’d confuse with actual anomalies.

Is it possible to confuse pollen for an anomalous ghost orb?  Yes.  Is it likely?  No.

  

  

Dust and dirt

Dust particles — from household dust and dust (or dirt) kicked up while walking — were equally difficult to confuse with anomalous orbs.

In the first photo (immediately below this text), that’s a Swiffer duster, caked with dust, that my husband was shaking in front of the lens.  Nothing showed up, except the actual duster.

In the next two photos, you can see orbs and other shapes created by reflected dust.  They’re more likely to be confused with ghost orbs, but I think I took 50 photos to get these results.

The final photo in the dust & dirt series shows what very dry, fine dirt looks like, sprinkled in front of the lens.  This is the same powdery, dusty dirt that could be kicked up by people walking or a car driving past you during an investigation.  It looked almost identical to pollen, but a finer texture.

Keep in mind, all of these particles were sprinkled within three inches of the camera lens.  Few produced images large enough to look like ghost orbs, and other characteristics  — such as a solid, dark dot in the middle, or an irregular, notched circumference — usually don’t match anomalous orbs.  However, a  few dust orbs did look like anomalous “ghost orbs.”  (Some researchers might argue that those few were actual ghost orbs.  After all, most of these photos were taken in haunted cemeteries.)

  

  

Rain

Rain produced such obviously fake results, I don’t think rain is an issue for professional or experienced investigators.  First of all, you’re likely to feel the rain even if you don’t see it right away.  Then, some of the drops reflect such as solid reflection, I doubt that you’d confuse a photo of rain with an actual, anomalous orb.

  

Breath

In my opinion, the number one issue for ghost photographers is breath.  Though these photos were all taken on a winter night, I was able to achieve similar results on a warm summer night when the dew point was high.  These are a few of many photos that show strange forms and mists, the result of exhaling sharply at the exact moment I took each photo.  So, these are extremes.

The third photo (lower left) intrigues me the most.  It’s a fairly benign-looking misty shape.  It could be confused with an actual, ghostly anomaly.

  

  

Before I completed the first edition of Ghost Photography 101, I showed these photos to someone else who’s been studying ghost photos for years.  He insisted that some of the photos did represent ghosts (particularly pictures like the third in the breath series.)

I could see his point, but in my research, if something could be explained by something normal, I have to discount that as a non-anomalous photo.  I’d rather err on the side of caution.

On the other hand, I think we need to explore another possibility:  If we give the spirits something to work with — like breath or incense — should we look to see what the spirits do with it?  After all, that’s not too different than using white noise to give the ghosts sounds to work with, to form EVP.  And, it’s also similar to using a device like a Frank’s Box, ghost box or “shack hack” to give entities sounds and words to use.

I’ll expand on this in the second edition of Ghost Photography 101.

Homemade Dowsing Rods

How to make your own dowsing rods

Many ghost hunters use dowsing rods to identify things — like underground streams and electrical wiring — that can create false positives in ghost research.

Others use dowsing rods for a second purpose: To identify areas of high paranormal activity or vulnerability.

Whether or not you believe that dowsing rods work, they’re easy to make and fun to experiment with.

You’ll need:

  • Two wire coat hangers.
  • A very strong wire cutter, heavy tin snips, or a similar cutting tool.

(Some dowsers use just one rod, but it’s best to start with two until you’re accustomed to how the rods respond.)

How to make a dowsing rod from a coathanger.

Here’s all you need to do to make your dowsing rods:

  1. Cut each coat hanger at the X marks, and discard the right (twisted and hooked) section.
  2. Straighten the wires enough so that the bend in each forms a right angle (90 degree bend) like the letter L.

That’s it.  You now have a set of dowsing rods.

How to use your homemade dowsing rods

Hold one L-shaped wire in each hand, and grip each one gently, forming each hand into a loose fist.

Each thumb should rest at (but not over) the bend in the wire. The rods should point away from you, straight ahead, and swing easily from side to side when you tilt your hands.

There are other ways to hold the rods. Some grip the rods loosely with the index, middle and ring fingers, and then prop the little finger on the other side of the rod to steady it. The thumb is held away from the rod.

Some create handles from the cardboard tubes from coat hangers that are used for hanging up slacks. Cut one tube in half and rest the handle of one rod in each tube. Hold each tube so that the rod swings freely inside it.

Now, tilt the rods down very slightly.  The idea is to give gravity a chance to pull on them slightly, so the rods aren’t swinging randomly and by chance.  However, don’t point the rods down so much that the rods can’t move on their own.

Now, walk around your home or yard to see what happens. Generally, the two rods will cross in front of you when you are near water pipes.

Some genealogists report similar results in cemeteries, helping them find graves (sometimes hidden in shrubs or tall grass).

Some ghost hunters use dowsing rods to detect areas of paranormal energy.

Once you become comfortable with your new dowsing rods, you can try asking questions. That’s another way ghost hunters (especially psychics) use dowsing rods.

  • Start with questions you know the answer to.  Each should be a yes/no question, like “Is my name Fred?” or “Is my age 102?”  This will establish what movement you’ll see for the answer, “yes,” and which will indicate a “no.”

Scientists can’t explain why dowsing rods work. Some speculate that the rods react to elevated EMF levels and that electro magnetic energy pulls on the rods.

I thought dowsing rods were a lot of nonsense until I tried them.  I’ve had equally good results — in different locations — with the dowsing rods from Dowsers.com and my own, homemade dowsing rods made from coat hangers.