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.

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.

Sparkles and Other Surprising Anomalies

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

Your camera can suggest “hot spots” for good ghost pictures.  One of the best indications is a phenomenon called sparkles.

In the late 1990s, my research team noticed bright, sparkling lights that slowly drifted towards the ground after I took photos in haunted areas.  They appear to flare when the flash goes off, but the lights linger for about half a second afterwards.  On rare occasions, they fade over a period of nearly two seconds.

I called them “sparkles” in my earliest ghost hunting website articles in the 1990s, and the term is now used throughout the ghost hunting field.

If we could capture those sparkles in photos, they might look like the following photo. (It think it’s actually a spiderweb or some hair.)

Sparkle-type image
What sparkles can look like. (Actually a spider web or hair.)

Sparkles usually appear about 20 – 30 feet away from the camera.  They look about the size of ping-pong balls or walnuts.   We see dozens of them, sometimes all at once and sometimes in a subtle sequence.

Usually, the sparkles are white or pale pastel colors.  Some researchers report more vivid colors.

Sparkles seem to have mass, or they wouldn’t drift towards the ground as if pulled down by gravity.  However, people standing immediately underneath them don’t see or feel them as they fall.  So far, we have no idea what causes sparkles.

We know what they aren’t.  They aren’t bugs (including fireflies), dust or pollen.  They aren’t rain or moisture.

Note: Insects immediately in front of your camera can also seem like bright lights, but only when the flash highlights them.  In addition, if you’re in an area with fireflies, we’ve noticed that some fireflies “answer” the flash on the camera by flaring their lights as well.

Remember, the anomalous sparkles never show up in photos.  (I wish they did.)

They’re best seen through the camera’s viewfinder (or lens), but most spectators (about 80%) see the sparkles whether they’re looking through a camera or not.  Both film and digital cameras seem to highlight sparkles.  Some cameras are better than others.

My oldest camera is among the best to reveal sparkles.  It’s an Olympus AF-1 Twin that my mother bought me, many years ago. It uses 35 mm film. Today, you may find cameras like it at thrift shops for just a few dollars.  (I recently found one at Goodwill for $1.50.  It works well, too. You might find something similar at Amazon.com.)

Once you see sparkles, you’ll know exactly what I’m describing.

Take as many photos as you can when sparkles appear. There’s an increased likelihood that your photos will include anomalies… just not the actual sparkles you saw.

Photographing Ghost Orbs

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

Orbs are probably the most popular evidence of ghosts and hauntings.

Orbs are the easiest for beginners to capture in photos. They can be confused with dust, bugs, pollen, reflections and moisture… but not as often as you might think.

This photo at the lower right shows a typical orb at Pine Hill Cemetery (also called “Blood cemetery”) in Hollis, New Hampshire.  The picture was taken near some of the oldest graves in the cemetery. This orb is unusual because it was photographed without a flash.

Daytime orb - Pine Hill 'Blood' Cemetery - Hollis, NH
Arrow points at daytime orb – no flash, no reflection, no lens flare.

About 90% of orbs are photographed using the camera’s flash.  This suggests that orbs have some physical content that reflects the light of the flash.

However, if orbs have a physical form, more people should see them in real life.

In fact, most people don’t see orbs, except in their photos.

Orbs usually white or pale blue, but they can appear in a variety of colors, both pastels and vivid shades.  Some are very faint.  Others are bright and almost opaque.

Now and then, orbs seem to include faces, but most are simply translucent circular (or spherical) shapes.

Sometimes the face closely resembles the person whose ghost is supposed to haunt the site.  That’s eerily reminiscent of the fake ghost photos of the late 19th century… and baffling.

Some “face” orbs are reported in locations more associated with faeries than with ghosts.

For now, orbs are a mystery and deserve more study.  We don’t have many answers, yet.

Orbs often appear close to people. I’ve seen hundreds of orb photos in which the orb is near a baby or a bride.  It’s difficult to dismiss them as mere coincidence.  Many people are comforted by an orb that represents a loved one who’s crossed over, and is visiting our world to celebrate a happy event with his or her family.

Ghost orb over historic home in Katy, TX
Orb over historic home in Katy, Texas.

Other orbs seem to manifest near haunted objects or specific locations.

The photo on the left shows a solitary orb over a house in Katy, Texas.  It’s one of just a few homes that survived the famous Galveston Flood of 1900.  The night was cool and dry with no insects and no breezes.

Many people think that the Galveston Flood affected the island of Galveston and that’s all.

If you research that famous flood, you’ll see that the flood extended into Houston and surrounding areas.  (It was comparable to Hurricane Harvey in 2007.)

As a result, there are many rich stories and tragedies from that disaster, and some may indicate haunted locations.

In the photo at the lower right, orbs hover near haunted Houmas House in Louisiana.  It’s an extraordinary location for ghost photos.  Houmas House may look familiar because it’s been featured in movies and TV shows.  It was also the home of the man who designed the famous “Stars and Bars” flag of the Civil War.  Ghosts of Confederate soldiers have been reported near the house.

I’ve seen two full apparitions at Houmas House.  One was in the bedroom where Bette Davis slept while filming “Hush, Hush, Sweet Charlotte” at the house.

The other was at the front gate, where I saw an unusually tall black man pacing.   At first, I saw him from the “widow’s walk” on top of Houmas House.  The apparition looked only slightly translucent.  It was a sunny morning, and I saw him very clearly.

Ghost orbs at Houmas House (Louisiana)
Orbs hover at historic (and haunted) Houmas House, LA

I wanted a closer look, so I dashed downstairs and out the front door.  The figure was clearly visible until I was about 30 feet from him.  He faded quickly.  It probably took less than half a second.

After the apparition vanished from sight, I asked Kevin Kelly — the owner of Houmas House — about the ghost.  I described the figure in detail.  Mr. Kelly knew exactly which man I was describing.

Mr. Kelly showed me a photograph of the former slave, taken during the man’s lifetime.  I recognized the man in the photo right away.  His apparition looks almost exactly the same today.

I wish I’d been able to capture his ghostly image in a photo.  However, these kinds of encounters indicate locations — such as Louisiana’s Houmas House — where ghost photos are likely.

This is important: Credible ghost photos rarely occur unless other ghostly phenomena are reported, too.