On thinking outside of the box: Beware the “real or app?” trap

toowoomba composit

In June 2012 a ghost photo taken by a Cheltenham resident in their home started to go viral. It contained the ghost of a baby that had died in the house years before and the owner of the phone it was taken on was sure it was paranormal evidence. It wasn’t. It had been created on a smartphone app designed to create fake ghost photos by inserting ghostly characters into existing photographs.

The phone owner in question hadn’t known this and the fake photo had been created by someone else to prank them and they hadn’t realised the truth before going to the media. I wrote about this particular case when I became involved in it.

Smartphone apps have made it easier than ever before to fake ghost photos (not that is has ever been particularly difficult) that look realistic to an untrained eye – but know what you’re looking for and it’s easy to spot a smartphone app for what it is. There are a whole range of ghosts and oddities that can be added to a photo by an ever-growing range of ghost photo apps. Visit any paranormal blog and you’ll probably find people talking about these apps and attributing photos to them.

Today I saw someone ask their Twitter followers if a photo was ‘real or an app?‘ as though these are the only two possible explanations. The photo in question looked as though it could actually be someone walking into a photograph being taken on a slow exposure setting which can often turn people translucent.

People must be careful to not just dismiss photographs as ghost app creations a priori, but worryingly I’ve seen an increasing number of people doing exactly this. For example, a recent news story from the UK featured some sort of face being photographed in the window of an old hospital and people started speculating on social media that it was just created using an app – but the truth was that it was a Halloween mask placed in the window to spook people passing by. 

One must rule out all possible explanations until it isn’t possible to continue to do so. To just speculate about what could have caused a photo without any evidence on which to base your suggestion is find so long as you don’t pretend that you’re doing something altogether different.

This isn’t me saying that people shouldn’t question things or voice their thoughts and opinions about ghost photos and other forms of evidence – I often do just that on this blog and on The Spooktator podcast but these are different forms of analysis than actual investigation.

I conduct many on-site investigations too where possible, and these have always provided better results than sitting at my computer pondering and googling. There are forms of investigation where site visits are not required – footage replications for example, and audio analysis. But all too often people claiming to be skeptical investigators fall short of the actual investigating. They continually reach conclusions without stepping away from their computers, speaking to the people involved, or moving past the suspicion that every piece of evidence of ghosts is the result of ill intent on the part of the person who has shared it, and this approach bores me beyond comprehension.

We are the Monsters

all monsters are human

We all consider ourselves to be rational, ethical people, and we wouldn’t dream that we were potentially harming others with our behaviour. As a previous blog post showed, ghost hunters who do unethical things do not always realise that they’re being unethical.

How then do we ensure that we don’t make the same mistake? I pointed out in that blog post that it’s important to work to a code of ethics – either one that you’ve written up yourself, that an investigator/team you’re working with has written, or perhaps one a venue has in place.

It’s easy to think that irrational people are unethical investigators and that rational people are ethical investigators but this is false. Nobody fits those pigeon holes so perfectly.

A code of ethics covers your back, but it primarily works for the people you come into contact with. It protects them from you doing harm to them through your actions, it guarantees complete confidentiality and it enables them to stop the investigation at any time. No questions asked.

I don’t speak for other paranormal researchers but I am terrified that I am going to do the wrong thing when I deal with somebody who has asked for my help and so I’m glad that I have a safety net that limits the harm I can do.

I have today made public my code of ethics [PDF] in the hope that it will inspire others to actually use a code of ethics that exists outside of their head*. Skeptics (myself included) talk often about the harm they want to protect others from but if we’re not careful we can become the monsters that we’re trying to chase away.

*please contact me before replicating, redistributing, or using my code of ethics as your own.

 

What’s The Deal With Self-Styled Exorcists?

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Ghost Hunters claiming to clear spirits from a property is nothing new and yet many people who offer this nonsense service brand themselves as exorcists and they seem to be as popular as ever. So, what’s the deal?

A survey conducted in 2012 found that 57% of Americans believe in demonic possession. A survey in 2013 showed that 18% of Brits did too. In October 2013 the Pope commended exorcist priests for their fight against “the Devil’s works” and said that the Church needed to help “those possessed by evil.” The Catholic church responded by training more priests to perform exorcisms with a conference last year seeing at least 160 priests in attendance.

It seems that the “cool” new Pope that many people (atheists included) praise for being a more modern version of his predecessors is actually a bit obsessed with the fictional devil. When this man is praised by atheists it makes my skin itch, but that’s another blog post for another day.

“Pope Francis talks about the Devil all the time and that has certainly raised awareness about exorcisms,” Father Cesare Truqui  told The Telegraph, “but all Latin Americans have this sensibility – for them, the existence of the Devil is part of their faith.”

Traditionally people associated ill luck with demonic entities, and as the media modernises and we see news reports from all around the world 24/7 it is easy to see why people may turn to the more traditional aspects of their religion and believe in the work of the devil when they did not before. The world seems like such a darker place when you are constantly bombarded with news of terrorism, war, humanitarian crises, poverty and natural disasters.

Suddenly the darkness that was thousands of miles away is in your living room, invading your house. You can’t quite escape it.

The risk is, of course, that exorcisms often replace what should be a trip to see a health professional, and this is alarming given the number of people being killed or grievously harmed while being exorcised because friends or family members believe they are possessed.

People who are thought to be possessed are usually displaying symptoms of underlying mental or physical health conditions, but this isn’t always the case. Sometimes you could have a lifestyle that is not approved of by relatives and they’ll consider this sin to be the result of evil in your life.

This is why I find it concerning that ghost hunters present themselves as people who conduct exorcisms when ridding homes of a ghost. This is probably done because it makes you sound important and mysterious –  an appeal to authority, if you will. Yet to do this adds a sinister layer to a haunting that could actually make the situation worse because of the negative connotation that the use of the word ‘exorcism’ drums up. Suddenly your traditional ghost is something much more scary because a ghost hunter is stroking their ego. It’s all quite vulgar really.

 

London Accountant Claims Business Partners Ghost Changed Life

acrooge

Here is the story that we discussed in the Christmas Special of The Spooktator podcast which you can listen to below

 

Originally reported in The Spooktator by Chuck Dickens

London based accountant claims business partners ghost changed life

PLAGUED BY STRANGE APPARITIONS that warned him of impending doom London-based accountant claims that his brush with the afterlife has turned his life around.

THREE apparitions brought Ebennezer Scrooge warnings of his doom in the days that led up to Christmas, prompting in him a change that his family, neighbours and colleagues just cannot believe. “He’s so generous now and before we were scared to even ask if we could turn the office heating on” one employee told The Spooktator.

Scrooge claims that he was visited by his business partner Jacob Marley who died on Christmas Eve seven years ago. The ghost was swamped with heavy chains which, as punishment for his greedy and self-serving life, his spirit has been condemned to wander the Earth with.

The shocked accountant recalled that Marley informed him that three spirits would visit him during each of the next three nights to stop him meeting the same fate. “I thought I was hallucinating but I know what I saw.”

Mr Scrooge, 56, who has no history of mental health awoke from a heavy sleep to find a child with a GLOWING HEAD at his bedside which whisked him off through time into his past. The accountant, who has a seat on the London Stock Exchange, claims to have watched Christmases from his earlier years replay in front of him. “Nobody could see me, but I could see them and the memories brought up great emotions in me.”

He claims to have visiting the school he attended as a child, the merchants at which he apprenticed in his youth and even saw the tragic ruin of the relationship with his past fiancée, Belle.

The apparitions kept coming. Scrooge, whose nephew Fred is his only living family, claims he was next visited by a JOLLY GREEN GIANT which took him through London to unveil Christmas as it would happen in the days to come. Scrooge claims to have watched the impoverished family of his employee Bob Cratchit living in poverty before zipping through London to his nephew’s house to witness a Christmas party. Was this an other-worldly protest at the London housing problem forcing hundreds to live in unsuitable accommodation? Things took a macabre turn when this ghost revealed two starved children under his coat called Ignorance and Want before vanishing. It was then, Scrooge claims, that he noticed a dark, hooded figure coming toward him.

The accountant claims he was led to his grave. But not before being shown businessmen discussing his riches, vagabonds trading his personal effects for cash, and a poor couple living in a bedsit expressing relief at the death of their unforgiving landlord.

“I didn’t realise at first that I was being shown my own legacy” he claims, “I begged the ghost to tell me the name of the dead man. The next thing I know I’m in a churchyard and the ghost is pointing me towards a grave. Mine. Sent chills right up my spine, that did.”

The Londoner claims that this shock to his system make him renounce his insensitive, uncaring ways and to honour Christmas with all his heart and he found himself back in his bed.

Neighbours claim that they saw Mr Scrooge rushing into the street the next morning. One neighbour told our reporter “he was shouting something about a turkey. It was really odd and I thought he’d gone mad to be honest.” The turkey was purchased with sweetmeats from Fortnum and Mason and sent to the house of his employee Bob Cratchit whose family rely on hand outs from the local food bank despite having a income. Cratchit told The Spooktator “my son, Tim has been very unwell and finances have been tight. It was a huge surprise to find Mr Scrooge on the doorstep with the food. He’s turned over a new leaf.” His son Tim added “God bless us, everyone!”

The city is rife with the talk of the ruthless businessman who has changed seemingly overnight into a kind hearted philanthropist like something out of a Victorian ghost story, but is this a real-life ghost story that proves that christmas really is the season of peace and goodwill, or is there more than meets the eye to these spectral apparitions?

Professor Chris French of the Anomalistic Psychology Unit who studies paranormal claims at Goldsmiths University believes that this could all be a product of Sleep Paralysis – a disorder which affects around one in twenty people. ‘Our research confirms the results of previous studies in showing that sleep paralysis in its most basic form is surprisingly common, associated symptoms include a strong sense of a presence, difficulty breathing due to pressure on the chest, intense fear, and a wide range of hallucinations.’

When asked if he thought this could account for his experiences Mr Scrooge looked doubtful and said ‘Bah, Humbug!

That San Antonio Railway Tracks Video…

san antonio ghost tracks

Quite often old ghost-related photos, testimonies or videos do the rounds on social media sites, gaining attention and traction despite being long debunked and explained away. Oddly the rational explanations don’t follow around so quickly or at all. For all the good the internet does one of the downsides is the way in which it allows myth to persist (much like other forms of exchanging information that pre-date it.)

A video I’ve seen being shared around a lot in the last week or so is the video from about three years ago of a group of people in two cars driving onto the “haunted” railway tracks in San Antonio, Texas which I’ve shared above. This is just one of hundreds of videos of people doing this but this one is proving popular on Facebook right now. In this particular one two groups of people cover their cars with white powder and drive onto the tracks. The legend is that in the 1930s or 1940s a school bus was driving its way down the road and toward the intersection when it stalled on the tracks. A train smashed into the bus, killing twenty six children and the bus driver. However, the accident never actually happened in San Antonio but in Salt Lake City in Utah instead, but that doesn’t stop people from parking on the tracks and turning their engine off to see if the car will be pushed off of the tracks by the spirits of the people from the bus. The legend says that you won’t see them but you will see their hand prints on the car.

In the video they do find hand prints on their cards upon inspection… but they were likely to have been there before. When the powder was applied it probably just formed on top of the grease and dirt from hands previously placed on the car. Forensic investigators use similar tactics to find finger and hand prints in crime scenes but that doesn’t seem to occur to these folk. In fact, there’s even a child with the group and if you watch as they apply the powder to the second car that crosses the tracks you can see one of the men in the group patting their hand across the top of the car. He’s doing this to spread the powder, but I bet it left prints even if he didn’t think it did. Here’s a tip: If you’re putting powder on something to detect hand prints, don’t put your hand in the powder.

pat the car

As you can imagine people routinely drive onto the tracks and turn their engines off to see if the legend will come true for them which it sometimes does… but there’s a reason for that and we know what it is thanks to rational inquiry. The show Is It Real? found that there’s actually a two-foot incline in the road leading up to the tracks, you can see it being investigated in the video below along with the other elements of the legend:

Despite this people still drive onto the tracks, turn their engines off and wait, convincing themselves it is forces other than those of nature responsible for their cars moving. Kinda stupid really. If your default reaction to these sorts of legends isn’t skepticism then this is surely proof that you’re opening yourself up to all sorts of misinformation.