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.

When the skeptic get spooked

Woodchester Mansion photo by Stewart Black

I recently had the pleasure of visiting Woodchester Mansion with a small group of others. It wasn’t a paranormal investigation but more a tour of the building and we were there from about 11pm through to 2am-ish.

It is a beautiful building in its own way – incomplete, with doorways that lead to a two-floor drop, floors that aren’t quite there and in some places are completely absent. It feels as though you’re stepping back in time to the 1800s and that at any moment the architects and stonemasons will pick up the tools they left behind and carry on. Why they left their tools behind nobody quite knows…

You know that the building you’re standing in is old and yet it almost feels new and throughout the time we spent there I couldn’t shake the discombobulation that came as a result of that.

As we walked around Paul and Chris (who had kindly agreed to do the tour at a moments notice) explained the history of the building and the many eye-witness accounts that have been reported from visitors and staff over the years. We were listening to them speak while standing in a first floor hallway when suddenly the noise of something moving in the hall on the floor below us caught our attention.

It’s hard to explain unless you’ve been to the mansion, but the previously-mentioned missing floors meant that even though we were a level above the hall we were able to look through what was meant to be a doorway (but isn’t) and down into the hall through what should have been the floor of the missing adjacent room. There was nobody present and nothing obvious that could cause the noise.

Old building, lots of open spaces, windy night… who knows what the noises could have been. What interested me more though was the report that most weird experiences at Woodchester Mansion seem to happen to those not expecting to have experiences (e.g. not ghost hunters, or ghost hunters who aren’t yet ghost hunting.)

This is my experience too – whenever I have had a strange experience it has been when I was working, when I was packing up equipment or setting it up, when I’ve been a guest somewhere and not there as an investigator. This isn’t to say that ghosts are real and are pranksters, but it’s incredibly frustrating because when people inevitably ask you if you have any evidence you don’t because you didn’t have a camera with you, or you’d just packed it away.

The most interesting thing happened after we’d left the building for the night and were about to leave. The group of seven had arrived in two cars and were stood next to them talking – CJ and I went to the outbuilding that houses toilets. The women’s toilets are around the corner from the men’s and as I was inside I heard someone call my name but when I left there was nobody there which surprised me because it certainly sounded like a vocalisation. I walked around the side of the building and met CJ just as he was leaving the men’s and asked if he’d called my name but he hadn’t. None of the others had left the group of five that stood with the cars. Certainly not evidence of anything I know, but intriguing nonetheless.

To conclude, I left Woodchester Mansion realising that I was actually in support of paranormal tourism. We’re going to discuss this on Episode 10 of The Spooktator when it comes out and I’ll write more about this after the episode is released so do check back if you’re keen to hear more.

Thanks to everyone who made the trip possible – it was an incredible way to spend the night and morning. I would thoroughly recommend that people visit Woodchester Mansion either as tourists or as part of a ghost tour.

featured photo by Stewart Black, Flickr

The North Wales Incident: Lifting the lid on unethical ghost hunters

ethics

When you are a ghost hunter it isn’t always obvious when your behaviour is about to become unethical. You can become so caught up in the moment, truly believing that you’re finding evidence of ghosts that it’s the hunt for more evidence that’s at the front of your mind rather than a sense of what is right or wrong beyond the ghost hunt.

This is probably what happened recently in North Wales when a paranormal research team moved their ghost hunt from inside a pub and across the road into the local parish church graveyard. I imagine that the investigators didn’t think twice about standing among the graves and asking for spirits or ghosts to make themselves known. What could possibly go wrong?

Yet, a local resident who has family buried there was mortified and deeply upset when she heard what had happened from a friend who took part in the ghost hunting event.

I heard of this from a paranormal researcher that I know through mutual friends after the researcher was approached by the upset woman for advice. The researcher told me ‘she had spoken with her relatives and was afraid what occurred would become common knowledge in the vicinity. There are a few people she knew that would be deeply upset by what happened.’

I was asked to write about this as a warning to other paranormal researchers, and to point out that this isn’t the way to behave. Yet, although I agree that what happened wasn’t right, part of me wondered what had driven those people from the pub where they were invited to be, and across to the graveyard where there was no such invitation.

I contacted the team in question to tell them what had been reported to me and to ask why they had made the decision to do that. I wondered if perhaps I would receive abusive messages in response as I often do when being critical of ghost hunters, but instead I received a remorseful response.

‘We as a team would like to take the opportunity to send a sincere apology to all concerned’ they wrote, going on to explain their conduct. ‘We are deeply sorry though … and we do take this opportunity to apologise to all. We would have ideally liked to apologise directly but that is not to be the case. We shall bare the concerns raised in future and make it public that we will not visit this type of location again.’

There are lessons to be learned here for all.

Harm has occurred because of the behaviour of these paranormal researchers. In their email they explained that ‘every paranormal team at sometime or another have visited a church yard’ which is false (I’ve never visited a graveyard with any team I’ve been involved with) and is also potentially indicative of their decision making process.

As humans we attempt to live in accordance to what is and isn’t moral but our own senses of morality can be compromised by biases. This is why it’s important to have a previously-agreed-to Code of Ethics and Conduct that doesn’t get compromised because of what other teams do and what you’d like to do.

The code of ethics that I personally use as a researcher wouldn’t allow me to enter a graveyard to look for ghosts. Hell, it wouldn’t even allow me to involve paying members of the public in something I marketed as an investigation without the use of an entertainment disclaimer. It’s these things that set us apart as researchers – those who give a shit about others before themselves, and those that don’t.

Even so, the team involved in this incident seem to be genuinely sorry about what has happened and I think many critics of unethical ghost hunters can learn something important here too. These incidents are often not malicious in origin and are instead the product of ignorance. Attacking ghost hunters for being unethical does nothing to fight that ignorance and does nothing to lessen the unethical behaviour being criticised. A number of people would do well to think of that when they next take to Facebook for a very public rant about the latest team they’ve seen doing questionable things.

If anyone reading this would like to chat about creating a code of ethics for their team you can contact me here.

I Want To Believe: Will The X-Files Reboot Turn People Into Believers?

TV box

There have been lots of X-Files-related posts across my social media accounts recently as the relaunch fast approaches (with Greg and Dana of Planet Weird accounting for at least 70% of the Mulder and Scully stuff appearing on my Facebook feed.) Mixed in with these have been concerns from my more sceptically-inclined friends about what the return of Mulder and Scully will mean for the paranormal belief and susceptibility of the general public.

When talking about people who believe in paranormal ideas skeptics (myself included) will often be quick to point out that the media can have an influence upon which ideas we humans perceive to be realistic and possible. However many people will not be able to provide any reference for this claim – it is often parroted as a way to dismiss paranormal beliefs or to warn of the danger of paranormal television shows.

What we do know is that watching a television show isn’t likely to turn you from a non-believer to a believer. It’s all rather more complicated than that.

Glenn Sparks et al. conducted several experiments with groups of students who were surveyed about their paranormal beliefs and then exposed to certain forms of paranormal media. After watching shows about paranormal subjects presented in different manners they were surveyed about their beliefs again to see if there were shifts in their attitudes.

In one study the researchers had one group watch a program without any introductory disclaimer and another group with a disclaimer that mimicked those used on paranormal television shows. Another two groups watched the program with different disclaimers – one which said the program was only for entertainment and was fictitious and the second asserted that the depicted events violated the known laws of nature and that nothing like them had ever occurred.

The post-viewing survey found that the groups who saw the disclaimers tended to express more doubt in the existence of paranormal phenomena but the group who saw no disclaimer tended to express more confidence in the existence of these phenomena.

They also studied what happened when people with high or low mental imagery watched UFO-related television shows. One of which was shown as it had been broadcast, and the second which was edited to remove all special effects and alien imagery originally added by the producers.

‘One major finding that emerged from the study was that viewers who watched either of the two segments of the UFO reports increased their UFO beliefs significantly when compared to the control group. Like the results in the first study, this finding supports the notion that media depictions of the paranormal do indeed affect viewers’ beliefs.’ – Sparks

Other experiments were conducted about how a scientific authority can play a significant role in whether people consuming paranormal-related media are more likely to accept paranormal ideas presented as being valid or not. You can read an overview of the studies here. 

The important thing to consider here though is that The X-Files does not present itself as a factual programme as shows like Unsolved Mysteries, Beyond Reality, Strange But True and others. It’s a fictional show that fits into various different genres – paranormal, horror, science-fiction. The X-Files takes common paranormal themes and often adds another layer of weirdness to them.

The shift in attitudes that Sparks et al. noted also relied upon a pre-existing belief in paranormal ideas. There was no indication that watching these shows in their original format or an edited format could convert somebody from non-believer to believer.

In 2003 Christopher H. Whittle conducted a study that explored how people learn scientific information from television programming. Using an online questionnaire he asked viewers of ER and The X-Files to agree or disagree with a series of questions based upon the science (or pseudoscience) presented in the two shows.

He discovered that entertainment television viewers can learn facts and concepts from the shows that they watch, but he also discovered that there was no significant difference in the level of pseudoscientific or paranormal belief between viewers of ER and The X-Files.

The weird thing about this was the fact that Whittle wasn’t asking ‘do you believe in astral projection?’ but in fact questions that focussed on ideas created by the writers of The X-Files in their episodes, such as ‘Do you believe during astral projection a person could commit a murder?”

demon fetal harvest

‘ER viewers were just as likely to acknowledge belief in that paraparanormal (a concept beyond the traditional paranormal) belief as were viewers of The X-Files!’ Whittle wrote in Skeptical Inquirer in 2004. ‘The media may provide fodder for pseudoscientific beliefs and create new monsters and demons for us to believe in, but each individual’s culture is responsible for laying the groundwork for pseudoscientific and paranormal belief to take root.’

So sure, The X-FIles might make UFOs seem a bit cooler than ghosts for a bit (depending on what the focus of the series will be, that is) and many of us will rekindle old crushes, but it’s probably not going to make people believe in things they weren’t likely to believe in before.

Besides, Dana Scully is a kick-ass skeptic investigator who knows what’s up. We’re in pretty safe hands.

scully

The Worst Ghosts of 2015

hampton court

It has been an entire year since I correctly predicted that Slenderman would be seen in the UK in my ‘Worst Ghosts of 2014’ round up. In that year I created a feature on this blog called The Weakly Ghost Bulletin which morphed into The Spooktator Podcast which examines ghost related headlines on a monthly basis. It’s been busy…

…so, without further ado here are the 5 Worst Ghosts of 2015!

#5 The Ohio Ghost that was literally crap

figure outside Ohio mall

In May, Examiner reported that a woman called Tonya Nester was taking photos of the closed down Randall Park Mall in Ohio and a friend noticed something odd in one of the photos that was quickly concluded to be a ghost.

‘What exactly is the angelic figure in the photo?’ asked Examiner reporter John Albrecht. Well, John, bird crap is what it is.

The photo was taken through a car window, dirt tracks left from rain visible, and the white smudge being called a ghost or angelic is bird poo.

#4 That Samurai Ghost that photobombed a little girl

Samurai-Ghost (2)

In April some people lost their composure over a photo that it is claimed shows a pair of ghostly legs behind a little girl who was on holiday with her family. Taken on a smart phone, the childs father claimed nobody was standing behind her at the time the photo was taken. This, it turns out, is not true.

japan policeDon Cake worked out that it was a guard standing a slight distance away from the child and emailed the Fortean Times (FT332, p. 76) to tell them that the beach in the photograph is a short distance from the Summer palace of the Emperor of Japan, which is well guarded by officers who wear the uniform (pictured), which resembles the legs of the so-called ghost. If you look carefully you can even see part of the light blue shirt beneath the childs left elbow.

 

#3 The grey lady of Hampton Court that was actually… not

hampton court

Many people claimed that this photo taken by 12-year-old Holly Hampsheir in February shows the ghost of Dame Sybil Penn (aka the gray lady of Hampton Court) and that the apparition is wearing period clothing which is interesting because it totally isn’t.

It is, in fact, a panoramic photo that went wrong and what we’re seeing are the distorted features of a fleshy (an alive human.) This is explained by Mick West in more detail here, where he also replicated the photo. West said ‘it’s just the result of taking a panoramic photo in low light on the iPhone. Panoramic photos are done by holding the camera up, and panning from left to right. The camera takes lots of photos and then stitches them together … but because it takes a while to take all the images, if something moves while you are taking the panorama, then it will get distorted.’

#2 That eight-foot-tall Ghost 

Although this photo technically dates back to pre-Christmas 2014 it wasn’t until 2015 that it came to the attention of the media which is why it has been included here. It was taken by teacher Debbie Monteforte and a family friend said “The family insists there was no one standing behind them and there was no place to hang a coat. Even if there was someone standing there, they would have to be 8ft tall to appear like that. It’s beyond spooky.”

However, in Weakly Ghost Bulletin #4 I explained how a quick look around on Google Image Search revealed another photograph taken in the same area of the pub that showed that perhaps a person standing in that position wouldn’t have been 8-foot-tall after all.

Kings Arms Ghost Comparison

#1  Slenderman. Obviously.

It feels right that we finish with the story I opened with. I am awarding the #1 spot on this list to two people: Lee Brickley and Christine Hamlett.

In January 2015 Brickley (who has previously made the #1 spot on this list) generated bizarre headlines by claiming that Slenderman had been seen by many people in the Cannock Chase area. He also made the observation that throughout history people have reported seeing tall creatures and spirits which led him to declare that Slenderman wasn’t created online.

What a genius.

He’s wrong, of course. The fictional creature called Slenderman is an internet creation that probably takes inspiration from real-like folklore. I wrote about this in more detail in a blog post called The Evolution of Ghosts and Monsters in which I point out that ‘many in the Cannock Chase area reported that they saw the so-called Slenderman entity while experiencing sleep paralysis, but if they lived in a different part of the world they might perhaps report that they saw a Grey- an alien considered synonymous with E.T. encounters -rather than a spirit or monster.’

It didn’t stop there though. Enter Christine Hamlett…

Hamlett, a self-proclaimed spirit medium, claimed to have caught Slenderman on camera.

Alleged photo of Slenderman
Alleged photo of Slenderman

This is quite amusing because Hamlett also claimed to have caught a Black Eyed Child on camera when Brickley made the headlines in October 2014 with claims that Black Eyed Kids were prowling in Cannock Chase (you can read more about that on my blog here)

not slenderman
Alleged photo of Black Eyed Child ghost…
More recently Hamlett made headlines with claims that she caught the ghost of one of the Pendle Witches on camera, but her claims were shown to be historically inaccurate. You can read my breakdown of the Pendle Witch claims here.

So there we have what I consider to be the 5 Worst Ghosts of 2015 – a whole range of bizarre claims that, encouragingly, were investigated and explained by rational researchers.

You can check out previous years Worst Ghosts showcases here, and throughout 2016 I will examine ghost related headlines on a monthly basis on The Spooktator podcast. Be sure to subscribe on Soundcloud or iTunes!