HAUNTINGS AND THE HUMAN CONDITION: WHEN GHOSTS MAY NOT BE THE ANSWER - PAGE 2 GHOSTS ON FILM “Somehow Photoshop and the ease with which one can produce an image has degraded the quality of photography in general.” - Elliott Erwitt,  American advertising and documentary photographer           If you perform an on-line search using the keywords “ghost”, “film”, “camera” and “video”, the results will overwhelmingly produce submissions of spectral images captured by amateur photographers and videographers everywhere. Inserting the word “explained” won’t alter things very much until you include words like “fraud” or “mistaken” into your search. The incredible rush to judgment on anything that might even slightly resemble a spiritual “selfie” is one of the most vexing and disappointing examples of confirmation bias that permeates the paranormal field. Despite the veritable ocean of information existing that rationally and systematically offers a multitude of logical elements to consider before proclaiming these photos or videos to be authentic, people ranging from serious investigators to fun-seeking paranormal enthusiasts still refuse to accept any alternative reasoning and turn a deaf ear to any explanation that might bend their will to believe.      Perhaps the most common example of this are the artifacts called “orbs” that are frequently found in many photographs taken using digital technology. This is more extensively discussed in my article “The Orb Dilemma” that can be found elsewhere on this website.      When visual media is brought forth as proof of the existence of ghosts, one is always well-served to remember the adage, “if it’s too good to be true, it probably is”. There indeed exists some submissions of visual evidence that remain perplexing and are often pointed to as genuine visual documentation of spirits, but they are fewer and further between as we better understand the inner workings of cameras and video recorders, how their results can be easily manipulated and how the brain interprets visual stimuli. Spirit photography actually goes back more than a century and even in earlier times both the ability and intention to deceive the public in order to benefit from their willingness to believe in ghosts was on full display.      William Mumler (right) was employed as a jewelry engraver in Boston, Mass. and had developed a keen  interest in photography. Sometime in the early 1860s, he claimed to have taken a self-portrait that when developed revealed the apparition of a deceased cousin who had passed 12 years earlier. This served as the very first example of what would come to be known as “spirit photography” in which a deceased person would appear in a photographic image of a living subject. Mumler likely knew the image was nothing but the residual figure of a different subject on a reused negative, but he “jokingly” passed it along as authentic to a friend who was a devout spiritualist and eagerly accepted it as the genuine article. Inspired by his friend’s enthusiastic reaction, Mumler decided he could parlay this into a paying job. Buoyed and emboldened by the continued positive reception his work received from the public, he moved to New York City where photography experts analyzed his work and widely declared it to be authentic.      When news of his accomplishments spread, it was met with great enthusiasm and interest, especially by those who had lost loved ones in the on-going Civil War and wished to “reconnect” with them via Mumler’s ability to capture their spirits on camera. As hoped, this turned out to be a lucrative business for Mumler and his wife, who conveniently happened to be a spirit medium who would run her own business in conjunction with his. Mumler charged $10 for a dozen photos, a substantial sum in those days and quite often when these sessions yielded no results, he might suggest the client return at another time when perhaps the spirit of the deceased was more willing to pose, a rationale his mediumistic wife would corroborate. One particular client was very well versed in spiritualism and likely knew all the tricks, but she too fell victim to her own eagerness to believe. The client’s name was Mary Todd Lincoln, wife of the assassinated President and a photo taken by Mumler of her and her husband’s alleged spirit (left) has become iconic.      Mumler’s fame and fortune was to be short-lived when it was discovered that some of his ghostly subjects proved to be very much alive and well! He was ultimately accused of exploiting people’s fragile states of mind during their grieving process, but even more damning were accusations of breaking into people’s homes to steal photos of their deceased relatives to use in his ploys. His most notable accuser was (of all people!) the famous con man extraordinaire P.T. Barnum, who testified against him in court when Mumler was tried for fraud in 1869. Barnum produced another photographer, Abraham Bogardus, who demonstrated the process by which Mumler had initially fooled his friend with by overlaying previously imprinted positive glass plates over an unused plate which created a double exposure. The 7-day trial ended with Mumler being acquitted due to lack of irrefutable proof against him, and while he initially felt vindicated, his reputation - and by all intents and purposes his career - were damaged beyond repair.      As visual media technology has evolved, so too have the number of “ghostly entities” they seem to be producing. One of the biggest co-conspirators is the ever-present cell phone camera and owners are using them at an ever-increasing rate to capture visual proof of ghosts. But there are issues with cell phone photography most people don’t truly understand beyond the “point and shoot” mentality. Cell phones take a photo is stages and in very much in the same manner that a scanner moves over a document. The result is a much slower imaging process that is even more exacerbated when photos are taken in dark areas where the camera’s sensors require a longer time to record all the photographic information needed to produce a result. What this often produces are distorted images of anything in motion captured within the shot, otherwise known as “image aliasing”. As I cover in “The Orb Dilemma”, cameras can only record what physically exists in the existing light environment. They certainly can’t take pictures of anything that exists in another dimension or anything we have no potential to see with our own eyes under proper lighting conditions.      In this day and age, a number of photographic imaging programs can modify and enhance photos in post processing and they are often used to create the ghostly images that are displayed as proof a location is haunted. Modern technology is such that even in the hands of an amateur or a middle-school aged child, photographs can be manipulated and done to such a degree of proficiency that sometimes even experts have to forensically break them down to determine to spot the frauds.      The Internet is saturated with these types of fraudulent submissions whose titles usually contain the words “real ghosts”. Close to 99% of the time they portray anything but that and serve only to entertain their creator(s), draw more viewers to their sites or simply tap into the publics gullibility and willingness to believe it is all too real. Cell phones are equally capable of such deception by usage of “ghost apps” that insert a spirit’s image into an otherwise ordinary shot. In one case, we were informed by a client that his camera had produced one such image of a young girl he felt was invading his apartment. When pressed, he claimed he used what was called a “ghost app” to produce the image. In his case he thought the app was designed to detect the spirit’s presence and visually reveal it. This was not a case of deception, but one of clear misunderstanding of what the function was meant to achieve.      In many cases, the ghostly image is nothing more than the result of the slow shutter speed of a particular camera which makes people and objects in motion appear to be an anomalous blur or a transparent figure. Lens flare or a flash camera used to photograph against or near any reflective surface can also produce effects and artifacts that are often and incorrectly labeled as proof a spirit was present for the shoot. It is amazing how many people take pictures directly facing a mirror or pane of glass and then submit the image reflected back as evidence a ghost was peering back at them.      Another of the most common photographic submissions presented as validation of the presence of ghosts are what are termed “vortexes” which are supposedly the gateway that spirits use as a bridge to our dimension. Whether these vortexes (also known as “portals”) actually exist is only one of many theories that have the paranormal and scientific worlds at constant odds, but their photographic existence usually prompts a much more mundane explanation as they can easily be the product of nothing more than something obstructing the camera lens. The two most common culprits are a wayward camera strap (above left) or an unruly strand of hair (above right). When either are in close proximity to the lens, they can appear to be much larger and wider than they actually are. To illustrate the lengths people will go to validate their belief in this phenomenon, I have heard the idea floated that more solid the vortex, the older the spirit is! Does this explain all photographic evidence of these so-called vortexes? Possibly not, but its certainly a good starting point to work from. PAREIDOLIA WILL DESTROY ‘YA “Walking up a road at night, I have seen a lamp and a lighted window and a cloud make together a most complete and unmistakable face. If anyone in heaven has that face I shall know him again.” - G.K. Chesterton       There is no more commonly (and falsely) labeled spirit photograph that exists today than the ubiquitous “face in the background”. These are photos taken in which alleged supernatural entities essentially “photobomb” an otherwise routine snapshot or in some cases are the resulting images of random pictures taken in a specific location reputed to be haunted. Typically, this interpretation is the byproduct of a psychological phenomenon that results in the human ability to perceive faces or forms within random objects called pareidolia.  It is quite possible that this innate ability exists as an artifact of a survival system with origins in our earliest existence as humans. It helps us to distinguish whether an approaching form is human or animal and a potential threat. The mind therefore has an intrinsic ability to take random visual images and attempt to create order out of chaos. A perfect example is watching a passing cloud ( below left).  Intellectually we know what we see is a cloud, but as we stare at it longer our mind begins to fashion the image of an animal or a facial profile derived from a familiar reference point in our memories. A Rorschach ink blot (below right) is another prime example of pareidolia and is used by psychiatrists to determine one’s mental state based on what the individual claims it resembles to them. Interestingly,  adults normally see faces whereas children will see animals.    Leonardo da Vinci once summed up pareidolia as an artistic device thusly. “If you look at any walls spotted with various stains or with a mixture of different kinds of stones, if you are about to invent some scene you will be able to see in it a resemblance to various different landscapes adorned with mountains, rivers, rocks, trees, plains, wide valleys, and various groups of hills.”      JUST BECAUSE YOU CAN HEAR IT, DOESN’T MEAN IT’S THERE “The most important thing in communication is hearing what isn't said.” - Peter Drucker       My preferred use of technology as it relates to the world of paranormal investigation is probably the digital recorder and the pursuit of EVP (Electronic Voice Phenomena). These are words and phrases that appear on playback of the device that appear to have no animate origin. Some may be within the context of a question being asked and others might appear to be random statements. Here is a classic example of an EVP we recorded on an investigation of a 19th-century textile mill: RISEUP EVP.       You, the listener, can decide what you hear or what you think you hear. The setting for the clip is a garage in the complex where three investigators (including yours truly whose voice you hear before the  response) sat for an hour trying to coax a spirit into interacting with us. Only one of us (me) speaks during this clip. In and of itself, it remains one of our most compelling pieces of audio evidence because of the direct context of the response as well as its clarity. So, the question must be asked: Is this real? Is this just another investigator repeating what I said? Might we have forgotten that colleague responded? Are we making this whole thing up? Rather than adopt a defensive posture, it’s important to take these questions seriously because all are legitimate. It is even more important to ask them of yourself. While we may take offense with some of the implications behind these questions, it’s also important to understand the reason they are asked because while there is a large amount of genuine misidentification of EVP, there’s also a fair amount of wish-fulfillment, obtuseness and out and out deception practiced by some overzealous investigators and paranormal enthusiasts. Despite all that, there remain some startling and intriguing pieces of audio being recorded that defy a simple explanation when they are captured in a controlled environment by honest, technically proficient and objective people.      Far too often, when individuals or groups record what they believe to be “voices of the dead”, their conclusions fail to take into consideration two important factors: 1) Basic and thorough post-analysis of the sound and; 2) Stubbornness. Both speak to a certain lack of urgency or motivation to perform any detailed analysis that may ultimately prove self-defeating by invalidating the favored conclusion. What this results in is getting what is purported to be hard evidence in the form of EVP accompanied by a reluctance to consider any other alternative for its source, even if one of a myriad of other possibilities might better explain its existence.      It is quite possible for someone who is not an audio engineer to acquire a basic knowledge of what sound is, how it is produced and travels and how different sounds and their decibel levels can be distinguished on an audio software program. Is this an easy thing to learn? In truth no, the techno-jargon can be a bit daunting, but with a wealth of information out there on the “interweb”, some moderately understandable instruction manuals and a host of public forums where you can connect with like-minded individuals, it’s not impossible. Being able to discern the differences in sounds that should have been heard audibly, perhaps originating from a human host, and one that is below the human threshold of hearing is a crucial element of the data review. As most groups today use some brand of audio software program, an important form of data validation is always within reach. Many however, use the programs only to denoise  the raw sound file by placing it through a host of filters that are only guaranteed to make the altered clip sound nothing like the original. This is something that should be avoided.      Beyond the “techie” aspect of EVP, we must again consider the human perception called pareidolia because it’s not just relevant to sight but to sound as well. Like the basic premise of this entire article, if psychological factors are completely ignored in favor of a pre-desired outcome, we risk forever running in place and ensuring objective study takes a back seat to confirmation bias. We also have to put aside our egos and resist the urge to exert some type of self-perceived intellectual superiority over others by talking down to them and by doing so, negating any positive influence you might have on their thinking and approach. (If this is done respectfully and graciously and your efforts are still rebuffed and insults begin to come your way, just abort the mission. Their mind is made up. Do not engage.)      In the early 19th century, the great engineer/inventor Nikola Tesla was listening to the new crystal radio he had developed when he heard the sound of thunder in the distance over the device. Even more surprising, he also thought he heard indistinguishable voices within the rumbling. Even though today the “Tesla Spirit Radio” is still being marketed as a means of ITC (Instrumental TransCommunication), it is more likely what he thought he heard was merely background noise his own mind were interpreting as something familiar and meaningful - human voices. In 1959, Friedrich Jurgenson who was an artist and avid ornithologist, found strange voices among the bird calls he had been recording. A subsequent book he wrote on the subject really was the first tome to open the eyes and minds of the public about the possibility of communicating with the dead via recording media.      As I mentioned we have had some very remarkable results with digital technology in terms of EVP, and I must freely admit to my own bias in regards to our results, but we also always remain mindful of some of the pitfalls it is easy to fall into in pursuit of recordable spirit communication. One of the reasons investigators embrace the audio recorder is the perception the device unto itself is totally objective. The problem is people often cannot agree on exactly what it is they hearing. Compounding the problem is the ever-present possibility that what they are hearing are voices of investigators or objects being physically moved that, after the sound is compressed digitally, will resemble words off in the distance. A table sliding across the floor 2 rooms away can easily be misidentified as someone saying, “Get out!” A foot shuffling across the floor can be interpreted as the whispered word “yes”. The sounds of vehicle tires on pavement passing by a house can yield a human-like sound on a recorder as the sound starts to dissipate as the vehicle drives away.  I have heard this happen many times.      The most commonly accepted method of determining if a voice has some meaning to its response is to have a paranormal team reach a consensus among itself. In most cases, they are already pre-disposed as to what is being said and are only asked to confirm it. This is the gist of the problem with EVP. If we already accept that people are capable of picking out words in a string of gibberish and you add a certain level of expectation or suggestion to that scenario, it’s easy to see how they will hear specific words that conform to whatever the expected response is at the time of the session. Often it just comes down to what the listener expects to hear.      Auditory pareidolia (or auditory peripheric hallucination) are those instances where random patterns of noise are interpreted as being meaningful. As some recorders produce a lot of “hiss” and background noise, it’s fair to question whether this is the element of sound in which faint voices are sometimes heard. This is usually the case in recorders with a low sampling rate (anything below 44.1 kHz). It is important to note that this is not the same as noise being generated by a steady-state (white noise) or broad-spectrum (intermittent noise) external source. It should also be noted that the famed Parasonic RR-DR-60 that sells for hundreds of dollars now (original price was around 30 bucks) has a sampling rate of 6 kHz which might explain how audio pareidolia might play a huge role in its current status. Users will cite the ambient noise produced by this recorder as being the “white noise” crucial to capturing EVP. While that sounds like a really reasonable form of validation, I personally don’t buy it 100%.      Pareidolia remains a very plausible explanation for some EVP samples, especially in instances when the “voice” is of the same volume and tone as the background noise, but it is difficult to paint every sample with the same brush. If the voice is either louder than the background noise or falls into a different frequency - assuming the investigators are taking steps to eliminate possible interference and contamination - then the chances of audio pareidolia decrease exponentially.