The Alcatraz Ghost Photo

alcatraz spook close up

View an Update on this here.

There is no shortage when it comes to news coverage of pretty rubbish ghost photos, but every now and then a photo comes along that makes you pause. The photo making headlines at the moment, taken by tourists on a tour of Alcatraz Island Federal Penitentiary was a photo that made me pause when I first saw it while browsing the web during a recent lunch break. It allegedly shows the ghost of a woman in 1940’s clothing looking back through the window when the cell behind was empty.

Sheila Sillery-Walsh, who took the photo on her iPhone while taking a tour of the notorious prison, told The Metro ‘When I glanced at the photo on my mobile, I saw this dark female figure in the picture. I looked at the window again and there was no one in the room.’ She also told the paper that after contacting prison staff they could not recognise the woman in the picture.


Here is the photo:

alcatraz spook

This is a cool ghost photo, but unfortunately a little digging around online reveals that it probably isn’t as spooky as you might initially think. The visitation windows allowed prisoners to see but not touch their visitors while they were incarcerated at the prison. A quick google image search reveals several images that show what looks to be figures in these windows in photos taken by other visitors.

In the first picture below, for example, it becomes clear that the cells on the other side of the windows have lots of items inside them, as well as posters on the walls. In the second photo a similar shadow “figure” can be seen in the glass.

photo: Bay City Guide
photo: Stephen M Scott, Flickr
visitation window
Photo: Bay City Guide

My suspicion is that the ghost of the woman in the photo doing the rounds is caused by a pareidolia illusion of items either within or outside of the cell. The face could be caused by daylight from behind the photographer reflecting on the window, or causing people in the corridor to be illuminated in the glass against the dark background of the cell interior. A similar effect is seen in the two comparison photos above. It could also possibly be an image from a poster (which would explain why the “woman” looks so small).

View an Update on this here.

My “Unlucky” Birthday


Friday 13th has always been considered unlucky by some. Today (Friday 13th 2014) happens to be my 27th Birthday (yay!) so I thought I’d celebrate the unluckiness of today by breaking as many superstitions as possible as quickly as possible! With the help of my friend Dan I took to the stage and did the following in 8 seconds:

– Whistled on stage
– Walked under a ladder
– Spilt table salt
– Put an umbrella up indoors
– Said “Macbeth” on stage

Happy Friday 13th!

Don Philips: the desperate ghost hunter

Don Philips

“Even if it’s really quiet, my ears are quite tuned to hearing these guys. We’re actually communicating with them on a device that’s not actually made for communicating with spirits – it’s a digital recorder. The frequency is not perfect but they’re obviously somewhere in that range.”

Don Philips is the founder of the GSI Paranormal team and the above quote is taken from an episode of the television show ‘Man vs. Weird’ in which comedian Simon Farnby travels the world to meet people who claim to have superhuman powers. At the beginning of this particular episode he joins Philips and the GSI Paranormal team on a ghost hunt. A really, really boring ghost hunt… an almost homeopathic version of a crap Most Haunted knock off type ghost hunt…

“We’ll go anywhere, and we’ll usually find something” one of the team members tells the camera, “…even places that haven’t been reported as being haunted, we can usually find something there.” Well, the right crappy techniques and the will to believe anything is evidence will enable you to find ghosts where you want to find them, but that doesn’t do anything to prove a haunting.

Don Philips became involved in paranormal research after he had a scary experience with what he calls “a black mass” in his bedroom when he was seven years old. Some time later he started a paranormal investigation group.

“… straight away I realised I didn’t need any equipment but a digital recorder … they answer any question I ask them. I’ve asked about parallel universes and alternate realities and yes they do exist apparently.

Philips believes that he had the ability to capture the voices of spirits of the deceased on hand held digital recorders and offers these recordings as evidence that the soul survives after death, but in reality his recordings are a poor quality and likely caused by external interference, internal mechanisms (the recordings often sound clunky) and the auto-gain control of the device. He offers these recordings as evidence and calls them Actual Voice Phenomena (AVP), alluding to the idea that they are a class above Electronic Voice Phenomena (EVP), but they’re not. Those interested can read about what causes EVP recordings here.

In the programme produced for Channel 4 and available to watch on 4OD, Philips leads an investigation at the local council offices in Wigston where staff have reported hearing the sounds of children in what was a nursery, a baby crying near a back staircase, the visual apparition of a grey lady, and the sound of a child falling down a staircase where a boy actually once broke his neck from doing just that.

Philips begins the investigation by scouting the building out. “I’ll have a walk around, see where it feels strongest then invite the spirits to come to me and speak to me.” As he does this, his right hand man Nick Stoppani explains to the camera just how good Don is, saying “I can tell you hand on my heart that Don is the only person I have worked with that, for me, has given me the proof.”

The investigation is, quite frankly, pants. They smell something a bit weird in one room, then in another room Don suddenly proclaims, in that voice ghost hunters use for when they’re standing in dark empty rooms “I’ve got a lady with me now. Sweetheart I’d really appreciate it if you’d give me your name as loudly and clearly as possible, please.”

They get nothing.

Don also does some recording on the staircase where a child died after falling down the stairs, commenting wisely “this is sad just here” as he enters the area. He plays back the recorder and there’s a loud static sound that he swears is a voice saying “Wanker I will kill you!” Stoppani agrees enthusiastically that he has heard it too, but something tells me he’d agree with Don if he claimed he was the Son of God as long as there was a television appearance involved somewhere… then again, I’m a skeptic so I would say that.

There’s a moment where Don starts hyperventilating and coughing. “I just got blasted into next week” he claims, seemingly overwhelmed by… something. “I’ve never seen Don to that extent. Shocked me, shocked me, mate” Stoppani informs the camera man, shaking his head in an attempt to make the viewer understand just how edgy and exciting life with GSI Paranormal really is, but failing.

A little later they hold a seance, Don’s trusted digital recorder is still in his hand as he asks “who is behind me then?”, playing it back shortly later and listening intently, “…all of them” he whispers dramatically, but all that can be heard is a static clunking noise.

Don Philips isn’t the controversial character that some would have you believe.

I mean, yes, technically he threatens to sue people just for criticising him and his team, and yes he and his team mates aggressively harass people who don’t agree with them

..but in reality Don Philips is just a sad product of pop-culture paranormal – a man who talks to the dead and insists that they really, really do talk back even if you can’t hear it. The only controversy that comes with these particular ghost hunters are the awful over-hyped claims they make time after time again as they desperately try to stay relevant in a community where even the most open-minded believers eye them with caution and skepticism.

Scientists show that Ouija works! (Not)


Take a Break Fate and Fortune OuijaCanadian scientists have proven that Ouija boards have mysterious properties, according to Take a Break’s Fate and Fortune magazine of July 2014. In their “Spooky Science” section they reported that ‘Scientists investigating Ouija Boards have come up with some fascinating findings. Researchers at the University of British Columbia, Canada, sat two blindfolded participants down at a board and asked them to place their fingers on a glass. Unbeknown to one of them, their ‘partner’ was asked to silently leave the room. The remaining person was then asked a series of questions, which they’d previously been unable to answer. Strangely, when asked the questions again, they were able to answer them via the board. 

Student Ashwin Krishnamurthi, who took part said: ‘I thought the other person was trying to move the glass, but he wasn’t, because he’d actually left the room.’ Proof that Ouija messages really could be coming from the spirit world? We like to think so…’

Proof, more like, that Take a Break either didn’t read the study properly, or misinterpreted it so that it would please their readers who, by large, believe in ghosts, psyhics, crystal healing, witchcraft and other similar fringe beliefs. Have UBC really proven that Ouija boards communicate with ghosts? No… but their research suggests something even cooler…

A feature on the UBC research in the Smithsonian Magazine reveals what actually takes place in the study (as well as providing an interesting insight into Ouija), while the Inner Intel Project, run by the UBC Visual Cognition Lab describes the research on their website as follows:

Ouijas have long been advertised as a means to communicate with the supernatural, which may be an easy misconception. The movements ouijas make have been studied in the past by psychologists, and are classified scientifically as ideomotor movements. This is the phenomenon we investigate at the lab, in order to see whether a connection between these involuntary movements and our subconscious really does exist.

In the abstract of their published research the UBC researchers explained that they were studying whether ideomotor actions could help participants express non-conscious knowledge. The abstract goes on to explain:

Results show that when participants believed they knew the answer, responses in the two modalities were similar. But when they believed they were guessing, accuracy was at chance for volitional report (50%), but significantly higher for Ouija response (65%). These results indicate that implicit semantic memory can be expressed through ideomotor actions. They also suggest that this approach can provide an interesting new methodology for studying implicit processes in cognition.

The UBC research may be on the way to demonstrating that Ouija boards can provide insight into the unknown, it’s just not the unknown that Take a Break would have you believe. Ghosts are quite boring in comparison to what research like this may be showing about consciousness.

Suggested reading:

How People Are Fooled By Ideomotor Action, Ray Hyman
Science of Scams: Ouija Board, Derren Brown and Kat Akingbade

Take a Break photo: Laura Thomason


Slenderman: Myths, Murder and Humanity


In her book The Biology of Violence, Neuroscientist Debra Niehof, after twenty years of studying whether genes or the environment make people violent, explains that both biological and environmental factors are influences and that particular types of stimulation – such as films, News coverage, or other sorts of media, are not going to provoke violence in every consumer. It’s the individual person that is the catalyst.

Yet we have a tendency to focus on these casual links formed between the criminal and what “influenced them” rather than considering other factors that may have been at play in their lives, factors that we may have also been exposed to in our lives. Violent video-games, horror movies, heavy metal music, gothic culture, and online communities have all been labelled as bad influences in the past when violent crimes have been committed, but are these links really justified?

In 2011 Dr Kathryn Seifert wrote for Psychology Today that in her Thirty years of experience and research as a psychologist working with high-risk youth and their families she had identified numerous factors that determine whether a person is at risk for developing violent tendencies, including  biological traits, family bonding, intelligence and education, child development, peer relationships, individual characteristics, cultural shaping and resiliency. She wrote

When the accumulation of negative factors (such as maltreatment, chaotic neighborhoods, or psychological problems) and the absence of positive factors (such as opportunities to be successful, adults who provide encouragement, or a resilient temperament) reach a threshold, that’s when violence is more likely to erupt as a means of coping with life’s problems.

When two Twelve-year-old girls attempt to murder a friend because they allege they believe in ‘Slenderman’ and wanted to become his Proxy’s (human servants under hiscontrol) why are people asking if we should ban or close horror related websites rather than asking how young girls can get to the position in which a belief leads them to try and kill another child?

For some it is enough to resort to headline reactions that are “Just Asking Questions” while forging unsupported casual links between criminal and inspiration, but really it’s the underlying factors that need to be explored, and it is these that are may be revealed as the investigation unfolds.

It’s easy to blame myths and to suggest that myths are dangerous and delusional, but in reality myths reflect us humans and our cultures, while Horror genres explore our most basic fears. It isn’t the myth that is dangerous, it isn’t horror that is dangerous, it is the humanity that they explore that is dangerous. You, me, everyone around us… in the right bad conditions we can all do horrendous things. It’s this, I suspect, that people find difficult to accept.

We must blame them and cause a fuss
Before somebody thinks of blaming us!