I was happy to see that a prominent paranormal website - AboutParanormal.Com - featured an article last month about "orbs," those variable white spheres and splotches that show up occasionally on film and are taken by so many popular ghosthunters for "spirits." Parapsychologists have never made that connection; but astounding the public with records of orbs and EVPs is the stock in trade of most popular "ghosthunters," and this skeptical article must have put the editor at odds with many of his friends. I commend him for wrestling with the matter awhile and then coming to his own against-the-grain conclusion. I had the same struggle a few years back. Let's revisit a series of articles on the same subject that appeared on my old website in 2004 and 2005.
PSYCHIC PHOTOGRAPHY, PART 2
ORBS & ECTOPLASM
From January 2005
[I have mixed feelings about writing this article. Many people I regard kindly - even some I think of as friends - believe they can take pictures of ghosts. Almost every time they try. (That’s how you tell a place is haunted: Go there and take pictures.) Regrettably, this seems to be the direction of popular “ghost hunting.” Other folks are even attempting to launch an industry based on their own photographic evidence of psychic activity. They show up and give powerpoint presentations to astounded audiences.
I’m sorry to seem to undercut people who may be my supporters, who may have bought, read, and praised my books. But I have to call this one like I see it. And I think claiming that we can show people physical evidence of ghosts is barking up the wrong tree. The matter just isn’t that simple.]
This season I noticed a popular explosion of interest in psychic photography and EVP (electronic voice phenomena). Clubs all over the US are taking pictures and recording sounds at graveyards, battlefields, and dark old buildings, and it’s started to make its way into the mass consciousness. Usually these ghost hunters get distorted images and background noise. The dominant images look like blobs of light - “orbs” - and misty substances - “ectoplasm.” Under close analysis, the static-like background sounds - “White noise” - can sometimes sound like people talking, often saying something suggestive or dramatic. Let’s talk about orbs, ectoplasm, white noise, and other effects.
“Spirit photography” for fun and profit was so thoroughly discredited in the 19th century that it seems ironic to have fight this battle all over again. For the record: I do believe that, occasionally, some good psychic photographs do turn up. Most of them come by accident. They are also rare. A great many lesser ones are easily explained.
Those mysterious blobs of light they call "orbs..." I could see them being signs of some sort of energy about a site that we might call paranormal, if not psychic. But orbs turn up in many photographs, not just those taken at suspected haunts. And orbs are easy to catch by accident or to stage. Anything - dust or moisture - that pitches light back at the camera can make at least one such image, and it will usually be roughly circular. It may look big and far away, but it's often quite close to the camera, maybe even on the lens. All you need to do to fake orbs is shake a duster in front of the camera and then shoot. (Voila!) Orbs that show up indoors are often caused by reflective surfaces like glass or mirrors, even polished wood, in the background, unnoticeable to the eye in 3D.
As for the misty stuff often interpreted as "ectoplasm" that turns up in so many nighttime photographs, particularly outdoors...
First off, this a misuse of a term. Living matter - the stuff of cells - is called protoplasm, and it has a specific formula of elements. “Ectoplasm” was the term coined in the 19th century for the psycho-physical substance that, it was conjectured, must have been behind the displays of famous physical mediums like D. D. Home and the Fox sisters. Sometimes the reputed ectoplasm turned up in photographs taken at seances. (It looked like spumes of cotton candy or play-dough. It emanated from the orifices of the body of the psychic - sometimes including even the navel - and could be seen wadding up and lifting the chair or table being apparently levitated.) That misty stuff floating around in photographs of graveyards should be called something else. But as it is...
People film this “ectoplasm” and subject their pics to a Rorschach's (inkblot) test of suggestive interpretation. They see interesting things in the smoky swirls. I hope to run one of my favorites on this website, an image taken at Goodleberg Cemetery that seems (to me) to be the image of an animal-person, like a shape-shifter in mid-shift. It’s real faint and smoky, though, clearly just a coincidence of factors.
My skeptical friends inform me - as do some ghosthunters who "turn Turk" (as Hamlet would say) on others – that this misty stuff that appears in photographs is often a camera strap, a human hair, or even a finger entering the lens field and being radically distorted. Other natural effects specific to the site and the environment can easily cause similar images to appear on film. This aspect of psychic photography is unreliable, at least as proof of ghosts.
The real reason there’s so much distortion with photography is that a photograph reduces 3D scenes from life into 2D images in the camera frame. There is a lens involved, too, and all kinds of reflective or translucent surfaces can be in the mix. Man-made light bouncing back at the camera throws all sorts of irrational images into the eventual photograph. It’s an effect of light and reflection, not things that are really there.
There are, of course, a lot of orb/ectoplasm photographs that can’t be explained away. This also doesn’t mean they’re valid, merely that we can’t account for every factor of a scene we weren’t at when the photograph was taken. No reputable “debunker” would try to rebut any but the most obvious blunders at a scene he or she did not witness.
Occasionally a good humanlike image turns up. I’ve seen a terrific one from one of the Canadian forts, Fort Erie, I believe it was. I think Lundy’s Lane in Niagara Falls (CAN) has also produced a couple good humanlike forms. I don’t know what to make of these, and I’d like to hear what my skeptical friends have to say before I pass judgment. You need to listen to all sides of an argument before you can get perspective.
In the digital era it’s easy to fake a photograph, and I would rather avoid the subject of fakery altogether in this discussion. I am not inside other people’s minds enough to judge their motives, and I am not with them as they produce their photography. Many of the psychic photographers I know seem sincere. They believe what they get. They just believe a lot more than I do.
As for “White Noise...” Stay tuned for Part 3.