Are Orbs ‘Paranormal’?

cameraNow and then, the word “paranormal” seems to take on a life of its own.  In a recent discussion about orbs, a couple of people insisted that orbs aren’t paranormal.

Well, I can’t argue with a skeptical critic.  He or she has already made up his or her mind.  The skeptical critic is usually a bottomless well of explanations, no matter how extreme or preposterous.  (But, to be fair: Anyone absolutely, positively determined to interpret everything as ghostly… he or she can be equally defensive.)

I think skeptical critics feel a little more secure in their uncertainties, if they think they have a nice, normal reason for everything.  (Since they simply want to argue with people like me, I’m not sure why they’re involved in ghost hunting.)

However, I’m not convinced that yesterday’s critics meant what they said.  I think they meant that orbs aren’t ghosts.

THE DEFINITION OF PARANORMAL

“Paranormal” does not mean “ghostly.”

Para-, the prefix, comes from the Greek.  It means beside (not part of) or beyond.  So, “paranormal” is something beyond what’s normal.

The Free Dictionary defines paranormal as, “Beyond the range of normal experience or scientific explanation.”

Dictionary.com says it’s “of or pertaining to the claimed occurrence of an event or perception without scientific explanation.”

Merriam-Webster says paranormal means, “not scientifically explainable.”

Most definitions refer to supernatural phenomena as an example, but the basic definition comes down to:

  • Para = Beyond or outside.
  • Normal = Standard, not deviating from the norm, or average.
NOLA - Pirates Alley, on a foggy, rainy night
New Orleans on a foggy night, after rain, with lots of lights & reflections. No orbs.

So, avoid using “paranormal” when you mean “ghostly.”

A photo of an orb can be paranormal. So can a photo of a flower, a cat, or your shoe.  It all depends on what’s normal, and what can’t be explained within the range of normal.

NORMAL AND PARANORMAL ORBS

An orb I can identify as pollen artifact is normal.  

An orb that I can’t reproduce by normal means (setting up the lighting, dust, moisture, etc., in a certain way) is paranormal.

  • It’s not necessarily a ghost.
  • It’s not necessarily energy.
  • It’s not necessarily an angel, your great-granny, or the Tooth Fairy.

It’s just an orb that — at the present time — can’t be explained, and can’t be reproduced using similar photographic staging.

I may apply other descriptions to that orb, but they relate to the experience at the time the photo was taken. I’m looking for other phenomena, what investigators were sensing at the time, EVP, EMF spikes, sensory phenomena, and so on.

The orb photo itself… it doesn’t prove anything.  All by itself, it’s supporting evidence, at best.

Here’s my story:

For years, I was guilty of insisting that most orbs are dust, pollen, moisture, reflections, insects, and so on.  And, fed up with saying that to people who just wouldn’t believe me, I decided to prove it.

I planned to create some great, convincing-looking, fake orb photos.  Frankly, I didn’t think it would be very difficult.

I set up my cameras — multiple film and digital cameras — and used things like:

  • Ragweed (pollen).
  • My Swiffer (dust).
  • Flour (denser dust).
  • Very fine, powdery sand and dirt from unpaved roads (more dust).
  • Spray bottles (moisture).
  • Mirrors, shiny glass, and chandeliers (reflections).
  • Stop signs, traffic cones, other street signs (reflections).

I trekked to swampy areas with wall-to-wall mosquitoes.  I walked down dirt roads at night, and waited for a car or truck to drive by, stirring up the dust.

I visited damp locations on humid and foggy nights.  I even went to New Orleans shortly after Katrina, when everything was pretty soggy.

NOLA-reflect-cone
Flash photo of shiny glass, lights and a traffic cone in New Orleans’ French Quarter… on a damp evening. No orbs.

Sure, I got photos that included orbs. The problem was, they didn’t look like the orbs I photograph at haunted locations.  They weren’t convincing orbs.

A beginner might be fooled by them… but not me.  Not after all these years in ghost hunting, after tens of thousands of photos.

But, after spending years insisting (with no proof) that most orbs were the product of the environment, I wasn’t going to eat crow quite yet.

In fact, I spent six years trying to stage photos that would produce orbs identical to the orbs photographed at haunted and spiritual sites.

The one and only thing that produced convincing orbs — orbs that looked like “ghost orbs” — was breathing (or talking with a lot of exhaling) while taking the photos.  And even then, I couldn’t get real-looking orbs in more than half my photos.  Most of them still looked fake.

Toulouse Street, New Orleans.
A street corner in New Orleans at night. Bright lights. No orbs.

Some researchers claim that all orbs — even those with logical explanations that you can see — are evidence of spirits.

I’m not one of those researchers.  Sure, maybe a ghost floated that particular fleck of pollen in front of my camera exactly when I was taking the picture. Maybe he did that just to get my attention.  I can accept that as a possibility.

However, I’m not going to state, categorically, that any orb represents a ghost.

It’s just something paranormal… and it seems to happen most often at “haunted” sites.  That’s all I can state with confidence.

That and the fact that believable orbs are amazingly difficult to fake.

Having been a skeptical critic of “ghost orbs” for many years, I’m regretting that — as the author of some of the earliest ghost hunting articles online — I led people to believe that most orbs can be explained by dust, pollen, reflections, and so on.

Sure, I can still spot an orb that doesn’t look right.  I know that, either inside the frame of the photo or just outside it, there’s a likely explanation.  If the photographer revisits the site, he or she will usually see what caused the lens flare or refraction.

But, there’s a different quality to the orbs we usually can’t explain.  And, to replicate those… well, except for breathing while taking a flash photo — and even that isn’t a “sure thing” — I can’t seem to create convincing-looking orbs with staging.

Fake-looking orbs are easy.  Real-looking ones… no.

But, my point in this article isn’t just about orbs.  It’s about how people misuse the word “paranormal.”

If you mean “ghostly,” say so. 

If you just mean something that — at this time — can’t be explained by anything normal in that setting, at that time… that’s paranormal.

There is a difference, and it’s an important one when we’re discussing research techniques and results.

Haunted Houses and Carbon Monoxide

What does carbon monoxide have to do with a haunted house?

When people contact me about a haunted house, they often say things like:

  • dangers of the paranormal“Sometimes, when I’m in that part of the house, I get shaky, dizzy, and I feel weak all over.”
  • “I get a tightness in my chest, and I can’t catch my breath. Do you suppose the ghost died of a heart attack?”
  • “I’m okay during the day, but at night — especially when it’s cold out — it’s like something floats into my room through the bedroom window, and I can’t breathe.”
  • “The baby gets fussy in that room and seems to be looking at something that I don’t see, and the dog won’t go in there, ever.”
  • “I’m fine all day, but at night, when we close up the house and go to bed, I get headaches, it feels really stuffy in the room, and sometimes I feel kind of sick. I always have to get up and open the window, just to feel the breeze. About an hour or two later, around midnight, everything’s fine again.”

Well, those “symptoms” of a haunting can be caused by carbon monoxide poisoning. That’s why carbon monoxide is now the first thing to check in a house that might be haunted. This is especially true if the ghosts started to be a problem when the house was sealed up for the winter, or — in warm climates — for the summer.

The following is an edited excerpt from the book, Is Your House Haunted?, by Fiona Broome.


Before you do anything else…

Check the carbon monoxide levels at the possibly-haunted site.

Carbon monoxide is nicknamed “the silent killer.” Pets and children often react to it first. Carbon monoxide (CO), also called carbonous oxide, is a colorless, odorless and tasteless gas. It is highly toxic to humans and animals in higher quantities. It can come from a variety of sources, including gas appliances, woodstoves, car exhaust, blocked flues, and even cigarette smoke.

Some people are more sensitive to carbon monoxide, and may show symptoms before others do.

Any of the following symptoms may indicate high levels of carbon monoxide.

  • Headaches.
  • A tight sensation in the chest.
  • Nausea.
  • Shortness of breath.
  • Vomiting.
  • Dizziness.
  • Fatigue.
  • A feeling of weakness.
  • Confusion or disorientation.
  • Visual disturbances.
  • Fainting and seizures.
  • Flu symptoms.
  • Infants may be irritable.
  • Pets can avoid certain areas.

Carbon monoxide can also affect the heart and central nervous system, and raise blood pressure. Carbon monoxide poisoning can damage the fetus of a pregnant woman. Many areas in the UK, the US, and Canada have laws recommending (or even requiring) the use of carbon monoxide detectors in homes. Older homeowners may not realize that. Even if the homeowner has no fireplace or woodstove, and no gas appliances, check the levels anyway.

For example, if a nearby neighbor has a wood stove and you (or the client) sleep with your window open, elevated carbon monoxide could explain some “symptoms” of a haunting.

If you regularly investigate haunted sites, be sure your home has very low levels of carbon monoxide, too. If you’ve been sensitized to the gas, even low levels might trigger your symptoms at a “haunted” site. It could happen. Rule this out, immediately.

When you’re investigating a potentially haunted house and any symptoms match the warning list, carbon monoxide levels must be checked first.

If the homeowner does not have a carbon monoxide detector installed, and you don’t have a handheld monitor, call the fire department for advice.

Note: Before buying a handheld carbon monoxide meter, be sure to read the reviews.

If you’re investigating haunted homes and you can’t afford a good carbon monoxide detector, don’t bother with a cheap one. Either have the homeowner install carbon monoxide detectors in several places in the home — and use them for at least a week before you investigate — or ask the fire department if someone in the community can test the air for the homeowner.

A carbon monoxide meter that works is important. A cheap one that’s not reliable could put you and your client at risk.

So, either use a good detector or have the homeowner or someone else handle that part of the investigation.

Typical K-II Interactions

This video is a good example of a typical, informal investigation using a K-II meter.  The video is long — over an hour and a half — so I didn’t watch the whole thing.  However, you can learn a few good things in the first five or ten minutes.

First of all, this video shows how imperfect real-time communication is with any EMF meter, but especially a highly sensitive meter like the K-II.  There were times when the lights flickered so quickly, it was difficult to tell whether it flashed just once (for “yes”) or two or three times.  In fact, at least once, a team member said he didn’t see it, when the light had flashed quickly.

This video also provides a vivid example of how tedious ghost hunting can be, particularly when you’re focusing on one specific research technique or tool.  Really, by the 47 minute mark, one of the investigators is asking, “Is the fourth letter of your last name between the letters A and L?”

Wow.  That’s a very patient investigator.

You might ask, “Why not use a Ouija board, instead? It’s faster.”

The answer is personal safety.  The more people physically connect with the energy — like with a glass or platen that points to letters —  the more risks they’re taking.   With a tool like a K-II — one that requires no physical contact with the device — dangers are reduced.

The K-II results in this video could be pretty good.  I really want to like it and give it a very favorable review.  However, I have some concerns.

The TV

My first concern when using a K-II is variable, environmental electronic energy.

Right away, I saw the TV in this video’s background.  Is that enough to cause normal EMF fluctuations?  Unlikely, but I wouldn’t rule it out until I’d checked it carefully.

The cat

At times, a cat was on the bed where the K-II was.  I’m not too worried about that because I saw no reaction from the K-II when the cat was nearby.  Also, one of the researchers seemed to sit on the bed with enough vigor that the K-II moved around, but the K-II didn’t react to that, either.

The fan

The rotating fan in back of the EMF meter is a greater concern.  I thought I noticed more flashes after the fan moved to the far left and had just begun the return motion, but I wasn’t sure. (I’m still not sure.)  I’d definitely want to study some freeze-frame shots when the K-II is flashing.

Response synchronicity

I casually checked the frequency of the K-II responses.  In the first five minutes, the timing concerns me.  In a spot-check near the beginning of the video, I noted K-II flashes at these times:

  • 1:21
  • 2:21
  • 2:28
  • 3:20
  • 4:20

In other words, the K-II was flashing about once a minute, around the :20 or :21 mark.  If that pattern continued — or even repeated sporadically — I’d discount all of those flashes.

However, the 2:28 response was anomalous and fairly strong, so I’d be more likely to take that response seriously, if no other strong flashes sync with it near :28 marks.

That is the kind of analysis that researchers must do, in more formal investigations. On the other hand, this looked like a very informal investigation.

If I were analyzing this video as part of a formal investigation, I’d be concerned about the TV and the rotating fan.  Also, I’d wonder what else was in the room — or near enough to affect a K-II — that we don’t see in the frame of the video.

And, finally, the biggest credibility issue connected with this video is how it was uploaded to YouTube.

Keyword stuffing

In a misguided attempt to attract more viewers, the foot of the video description is stuffed with keywords that aren’t related to ghosts, such as “epic funny Santa Claus prank Christmas pranks bloopers,” “50 Cent The Voice” and “make money free cash” and “Black Friday Walmart black Friday.”*

I suspect the research team received bad advice about that tactic.  Please, don’t stuff keywords if you want to look like a serious researcher. (On the other hand, if you main goal is to boost your numbers to look popular or earn more money from your YouTube videos… go for it.)

Summary

All in all, this is a good video to learn from.  And, the results might be impressive in a different context.

If this were one of several supporting investigations related to a single, haunted site, this might be good, but I’d need far more compelling evidence.

For starters, I’d like to see a detailed analysis of the video, especially related to the rotating fan and the timing issues.  For now, there are too many red flags to trust the results… and it would be simple to eliminate most or all of them, in a follow-up investigation.

Originality  (Doesn’t really apply. It’s a K-II meter.)

2-stars

Credibility (The results were pretty good, but the context — especially the timing issue and the keyword stuffing — were huge red flags as far as I’m concerned, and made the entire effort look questionable.)

1-half-star

 

* No matter who tells you that keyword stuffing is a good idea to get more YouTube views, don’t do anything like the screenshot below.  It looks spammy, reduces your credibility, and… really, do you want people finding your serious, ghost hunting video using search terms like “prank ghost video” or “swimsuit boys dance gangnam style”?

keywordstuffing-nov2012

Ghost Photography 101 – An Overview

Cover of Ghost Photography 101, by Fiona Broome - 1st EditionGhost photography is a fascinating subject.  Ghost photos are also among the easiest ways for paranormal investigators and ghost hunters to find evidence of hauntings.

In the following articles, you’ll learn more about how to take ghost pictures, and what to watch out for.

Most of these are excerpts from the first edition of my book, Ghost Photography 101.  (That first edition is now out-of-print.)

Ghost Photography Articles

In these articles, you’ll see photos — mostly in color — from the book.  Some are real anomalies, others are explained as false anomalies… things to watch out for when you’re taking pictures at haunted sites.

These articles and photos aren’t intended as the last word in ghost photography.  They’re a starting point for each investigator.

Try similar experiments with your own cameras, to see what real and fake results look like.  Then, you’ll feel far more confident about your ghost photos.

Tips for the Best Ghost Photos

Ghost Photography Tips

The following is an edited excerpt from the first edition of Ghost Photography 101, by Fiona Broome.

Man in Blue ghost photo - Fort Worden, Port Townsend, WA
Fiona’s famous ‘man in blue’ photo. (Ft. Worden, WA)

If you simply bring a camera to haunted places and take lots of photos, you’ll learn the ins and outs of ghost photography on your own.  Trial-and-error is fine.

However, the following tips might make the learning process easier.

If you take pictures at random, you won’t return home with as many ghost photos as you could with a more focused approach… no pun intended.  First, learn where the “hot spots” are at the site.  Ask others where they’ve felt the most chills, found the most EMF activity, or taken the best ghost photos.  That’s a good place to start.

Take cues from your ghost hunting tools

If you have ghost hunting tools such as an EMF meter or a pendulum, you can use them to help you identify the best locations.

For example, if your EMF meter detects energy spikes — or drops lower than it should — that’s a potential location for ghostly photos.  Try taking photos standing directly at the location where your EMF meter indicated something odd.

However, sometimes when you’re in the middle of an anomaly — or a haunted spot — your camera won’t record anything unusual.  So, step away from that spot. Turn around and take pictures of it from a distance and from several different angles.

Unexplained photo - Gilson Rd. Cemetery, Nashua, NH
One of many strange ‘ghost photos’ taken at Gilson Rd. Cemetery, Nashua, NH

Several ghost hunting tools can detect EMF-related anomalies.  Of course, an EMF meter — especially a sensitive meter such as the K-II — can reveal the most electromagnetic anomalies.

You may identify equally good, active locations using a hiking compass, dowsing rods, or more specialized tools such as an Ovilus or any real-time paranormal communication device.

If you have a hiking compass, the needle points in the direction of magnetic north.

However, if you’re near electromagnetic fields (EMF), the compass needle will point away from magnetic north and towards where the highest EMF is. (Movement can easily affect hiking compasses, so I only pay attention to needle variations more than 30 degrees from magnetic north.)

Likewise, dowsing rods can behave strangely around elevated EMF levels. For many people, the rods cross each other at the point where the EMF is at its highest.  For others, the rods separate or even swing in circles.

Keep in mind that dowsing rods may also detect underground springs, buried pipes or electrical wires.  So, if the rods continue to behave strangely along a straight line, you may be walking over underground pipes or wiring.

The Ovilus is one of many tools that became popular during 2009.  It seems to respond to EMF surges by talking.  Using a pre-programmed vocabulary — plus additional words and names that baffle many researchers — the Ovilus “speaks” out loud.  Similar tools include the Frank’s Box, the Shack Hack, ghost radar apps for mobile phones, and “ghost box” devices.

If you’re using one of these tools and it starts talking, take photos.  Take lots of photos.

If someone’s camera or cellphone suddenly stops working, that’s another cue that EMF energy is interfering.  Take photos right away.

This ghost photo is actually breath on a chilly night.
This eerie photo is probably just breath on a chilly night.

Remember to take photos inside the area where the EMF or other electronic signal occurs, but also step away and point your camera so you’re looking at the location, from a distance of at least a few feet.

Your “gut feeling”

Your “gut feeling” is the single most useful tool to help you identify spots for ghost photography. Whether you get goosebumps, the hair goes up on the back of your neck, or you simply feel prompted to take a photo, pay attention to those subtle cues.

Share those feelings with others. You may be surprised by how many people will confirm what you’ve felt.

I believe that everyone has some psychic sensitivities.  They’re often felt as a “gut feeling.”

Few people are sure of their intuition at first.  If you mentally note how you feel when you take good ghost photos, you’ll soon recognize those “gut feelings” more confidently… and then take more pictures when you do.

It’s important to learn to identify real anomalies and the normal things that can look like them.

However, it’s not as easy to create fake ghost photos as skeptical critics insist.  When it doubt, trust your gut feeling.