Three Kinds of Ghosts You Can See

man-door-roseWhile ghost hunting, I’ve seen weird things like unexplained lights, shadows, and figures just out of the corner of my eye.

Here’s the basic rule: If they can’t be explained by something normal, we consider them paranormal.

Anything that’s seen or sensed that can’t be explained, except in paranormal terms, can be called an anomaly.

In ghost hunting, that means one (or both) of two things:

  1. We can’t explain it.  We see three gravestones, but a fourth one shows up in a photograph.  Or, we can hear a certain investigator’s voice on our EVP recording, but she wasn’t there during the investigation.
  2. Even if we could explain it,  it’s still very weird and doesn’t make sense.  It’s “statistically unlikely” in the context of where it happened or was recorded.  This is the kind of evidence that skeptics pounce on.  Sure, that orb could be humidity, but why did it show up in just two of about 15 photos, each taken within two minutes of each other… and by two different cameras?

So, when we’re at a location that’s supposed to be haunted, we’re researching paranormal activity and we’re documenting anomalies.

Those aren’t necessarily ghosts, or even evidence of ghosts.

However, when it’s something best described as a ghost, we call it a ghost.  It’s as good a label as any, for now, and — when we say “a ghost” — others recognized the kinds of phenomena we’re talking about.  Whether the person believes it represents the spirit of someone dead… that’s another matter.

As ghost hunters, we’re collecting evidence, trying to figure out what’s going on in haunted places.  Often, ghosts are the most logical explanation, so that’s the word I’ll use in this article and at this website.

There are at least three kinds of ghosts you can see:  Ghosts that emit light, ghosts that are shadows, and ghosts that are apparitions.  (There may be a fourth category, ghosts that absorb light, but we’re not sure yet.)

Ghosts that emit light

The most frequently photographed ghosts are those that emit light.  We see orbs (translucent circles or spheres) in our photos.  Those orbs usually have fairly crisp edges; they’re not reflections from headlights or lens flares.

In the photo below, the orb is very faint, and over the EMF meter on the right.  In a series of photos, the orb seemed to float between the meters, back and forth.  When it was near one of the EMF meters, that meter would signal. Then, the orb would float back to the other meter, leaving both meters dark in the interim.

At the time, we described it as spiritual ping pong.

This photo was not altered with Photoshop or any software, so the orb is very faint.  My photo is among many taken that night, at Tenney Gate House (Methuen, MA), showing the orb floating back and forth, triggering the EMF meters.

Two EMF meters and a faint orb, at Tenney Gate House, Methuen, MA.
Two EMF meters, spiking alternately, and the orb that floated between them.

Using Photoshop with a typical orb, the characteristic colors are revealed.  This next photo could have been taken anywhere, but I was at Fort George in Ontario, Canada.  Though skeptics will look at this kind of photo and explain it as dust, pollen, or moisture, this orb was photographed by about four of us, each standing about 10 – 30 feet apart, pointing our cameras in the same direction.  Mapping its location relative to landmarks we were seeing from different angles, it was easy to show that we were all photographing the same orb.

Typical orb. Perfectly circular. Looks three dimensional.
Typical orb. Perfectly circular. Looks three dimensional.

Some photos show a streak of light, often described as a vortex.  Unfortunately, a large number of vortices (plural of vortex) look identical to camera straps.  So, we’re not sure how many of those photos show something paranormal.  It’s too easy to explain them as a forgotten camera strap that fell in front of the camera.

However, if you have a photo with an image like this and you’re sure no camera strap or similar object was near the lens of the camera, you might have an anomaly we call a vortex.

This is a camera strap.
This is a camera strap.

Sometimes, we see light-emitting shapes or figures in real life, not just in photos.  Weirdly, those anomalies rarely show up in photographs.

They could be circular shapes or spheres.  They might be rods of light.  Or, in very rare cases, they assume the form of a figure, like an apparition.

These kinds of ghostly figures are best seen and photographed after dark.  Though I’ve taken photos of daytime orbs, with no flash or possibility of lens flare, the vast majority of light-related anomalies are photographed at night.

That’s one reason for a lights-out investigation at haunted sites.

Ghosts that are shadows

Ghostly shadows — sometimes “shadow figures” — are among the most disturbing ghostly phenomena we encounter.  We don’t know what they are, but they can seem a lot more covert and sinister than the ghosts we usually study.

The photo below, taken at a private residence near Laconia, New Hampshire, shows an eerie shadow figure we saw in a fully-lit basement.  It’s one of many troubling photos from that investigation.  In real life, the figure looked like a tall man.  There was nothing to explain that shadow.  I could see the cause of almost every other shadow, but not that one.


The figure in the photo, above, is unusual because shadow figures usually seem to hide among other shadows.

We’re not sure what these figures represent. Sometimes, they appear individually. At other times, they seem to travel in groups or packs.

In general, I don’t recommend lingering at any location where you see shadow figures.  We’re not sure that they’re as benign as what we usually call “ghosts.”

Ghosts that Absorb Light

At the present time, we’re not sure if shadow figures or “ghost shadows” are actually casting a shadow, if they are simply dark figures, or if they’re absorbing light like a black hole.

If they’re absorbing light (and perhaps energy), that’s another very good reason to be cautious if you ever see a shadow figure.

We don’t know what these are, and if they’re a separate kind of entity.

Ghosts that are apparitions

Apparitions are ghosts that look like they did in life.  Sometimes they’re more-or-less translucent.  Others look like living people, but they may appear to be in historical costumes.

It seems that there are very few photos of apparitions.  Here’s a classic, the Brown Lady, photographed in 1936 by Captain Hubert C. Provand.


I have three of theories about why we don’t see more credible photos of apparitions:

  1. Most apparition photos aren’t credible, and look like double exposures or as if they’ve been created in Adobe Photoshop.
  2. Often, the anomalies we see in real life don’t show up in our photos, and vice versa.
  3. Many apparitions seem so lifelike, we don’t realize they’re ghosts until they fade or abruptly disappear… and then it’s too late to get a photo.

Those are the three kinds of ghosts you can see… maybe:  Ghosts that emit light, ghosts that are shadows, and ghosts that seem to have physical form and look a lot like they’re living people.

A fourth category, ghosts that absorb light so they’re not just shadows but something like black holes, is a troubling concept that has yet to be explored.

Poltergeists – What they are, famous stories

Poltergeists - what are poltergeists?Poltergeists cause unexplained noises, and move objects with unseen hands.

At many hauntings, poltergeists throw things violently.

On TV, one of the most famous examples was in the Ghost Adventures episode filmed at the Goldfield Hotel.

Though I can’t clearly see enough to claim it’s a genuine event, Zak continues to refer to it as one of the scariest moments in the show’s history.

If he had reason to suspect it was a hoax, I doubt that he’d keep revisiting this topic. He’d probably hope people forgot it.

So, I take this seriously.

According to Wikipedia,

In folklore and parapsychology, a Poltergeist (German for ‘noisy ghost’ or ‘noisy spirit’) is a type of ghost or other supernatural entity which is responsible for physical disturbances, such as loud noises and objects being moved or destroyed. They are purportedly capable of pinching, biting, hitting, and tripping people. Most accounts of poltergeists describe the movement or levitation of objects such as furniture and cutlery, or noises such as knocking on doors.

Professional opinions

Among paranormal researchers, opinions vary widely. Some insist that a ghost – and only a ghost – causes the activity.

Others believe a living person triggers it, and is sometimes the target of particularly vicious physical attacks.

And some dismiss poltergeists entirely. They point to hoaxes, and vibrations from sources such as a passing train or heavy truck.

No simple, single answer that applies to all cases.

Fiona Broome's adviceIn my opinion, people who casually shrug off all poltergeists have never witnessed much poltergeist activity.

I’ve seen enough to believe it’s real, and sometimes very dangerous.

When poltergeist activity is infrequent or not especially dangerous, a bowl of salt seems to reduce or eliminate the problem. Place the salt where most of the activity occurs.

Of course, if the activity puts anyone at risk, it’s important to get professional help quickly. I refer people to spiritual advisors such as priests and ministers. In extreme cases, consult specialists in potentially demonic activity. They include John Zaffis, N.E.A.R., and Peter Haviland.

Meanwhile, some scientists are aggressively studying psychokinesis (PK), which may explain some poltergeist activity. So, we may have better answers, soon.

More notes about poltergeists

The following are references and notes from my 2010 podcast about poltergeists. (Like many of my older and outdated podcasts, that one is offline now.)

Colin WilsonGhost Sightings

This book reads like a children’s series of “ghost stories.” But, it’s actually filled with unique and fascinating information about ghosts and poltergeists.

He was the first researcher I heard mention an eerie connection between poltergeist activity and water, especially unexplained water residues.

Often overlooked by researchers, this book is among my favorite resources for unusual insights about the spirit world.  I keep a copy by my desk. Though the stories and descriptions seem light, Wilson includes some unique and useful insights.

Also, I agrees with Wilson when he says, “…the evidence is that we do continue to exist. And I don’t think that there’s any possible doubt about it.”

Winchester Mansion (aka Winchester Mystery House) – Wikipedia entry – One of the world’s strangest and most haunted houses. Often, its poltergeist activity is accompanied by small, unexplained pools of water. Those pools occur in rooms with no windows and no adjoining plumbing.

Cases mentioned: The Drummer of Tedworth, Enfield Poltergeist

(I will write more about these events, later, and include previously unreported facts. They may shed new light on these famous poltergeist stories.)

entity - a movie about poltergeists or demonsMovie mentioned: The Entity

This movie — hard to find as a DVD, since the movie studio discontinued it — claims it’s based on a true story.  I don’t recommend it. The content in this film is very disturbing, and sexually explicit.

Produced in the early 1980s, the movie is dated. Those who’ve watched it consistently describe it as sick, and too realistic for entertainment.

That may be why the movie was discontinued.

Books mentioned: Harry Potter books, by J. K. Rowling

The poltergeist, Peeves, appears during every school year.  However, when he is visible, he generally looks solid.  (That’s not common among poltergeists.  Few appear in visible form.)

Other Hogwarts spirits, such as Nearly Headless Nick, usually look translucent and slightly glistening or pearlescent.

Hauntings – residual or ‘real’?

Residual energy hauntings can be just as “real” as active hauntings.  Since at least 80% of hauntings seem to be residual energy, it’s important to recognize them.

Here’s my definition:

Residual energy

Many ghost hunters believe that emotionally charged events leave an imprint or energy residue on the physical objects nearby.

What distinguishes residual energy from an active haunting is that the activity repeats, as if on a loop. The energy levels may increase or decrease, but the content remains the same with each manifestation.

By contrast, in an active (or sentient) haunting, the ghost may respond to environmental stimuli and direct contact.

Residual energy hauntings usually appear the same, over and over again.

There may be an energy spike at a particular time of day or on the anniversary of the event.  (Those events can be happy — such as a birthday party or wedding — or tragic, such as the anniversary of a murder or a battle.)

In some cases, the haunting may draw energy from the investigators, slightly increasing the phenomena.

If there’s EVP, the recordings will sound the same from one visit to the next.  In photos, the manifestations will usually appear the same, as well.  That is, the orbs will look alike and appear in the same locations.

Cookie-cutter predictability distinguishes sites with residual energy.  Whatever is there, it never interacts with visitors.

Active hauntings — that is, hauntings involving the spirits of people who’ve died — are more rare.

Those spirits may also visit at regular times of day or on specific dates.  However, instead of acting in the same way each time, they respond to changes in the environment.  They may interact with ghost researchers.

High Spirits DVDIn some cases, it can be tricky to tell the difference.

One of the best fictional examples is in the 1988 movie, High Spirits, Liam Neeson portrays the ghost of Martin Brogan.

At first, he seems to be a residual energy haunting.  He repeats the same dialogue.  His physical movements repeat as well, as he murders his wife again and again.

Then, Brogan is interrupted by an American tourist. Right away, it’s clear that Brogan is an actual ghost.

The easiest way to tell the difference is to try to interact with it.

  • Try psychic contact.
  • Talk out loud to the apparent ghost.
  • Ask it questions.  Make comments.
  • Stand next to it or block its path.
  • In extreme cases, you can shout at it, to startle it a little.  (That’s not the same thing as “provoking.”)

Your goal is to see if its behavior changes, and if it responds in any way to you and your team.

The ghost may reply.  It may act angry.  It may seem shy or frightened, and vanish.  It may move objects, rap on walls or tables, slam doors, or roll a ball across the floor on command.

The point is: The ghost’s behavior changes with the people around it.

That’s what distinguishes it from residual energy.

Both active and residual energy hauntings are interesting to research.  Both can produce a wide range of phenomena.  Both are equally ‘real’.

However, to achieve two-way communication with a spirit, you must be sure that an actual spirit is there.

You’re looking for variations.  If the pattern simply repeats, no matter how ‘real’ it may seem, you’re probably witnessing a residual energy haunting.