Across the Great Divide

January 1st, 2012

The Harsh Truth about Ghost Boxes

The various ghost hunting “reality” shows that plague the airwaves have given a great deal of attention lately to an amusing new line of gear that merge EMF, audio recorder, and K-II devices all in to one unit; some even assert to turn this data into spoken words that they spout as proof of spirit contact. While in theory this sounds fantastic, in practice it’s a very different, very sobering, reality.

Not only are these devices laughable at best, but these “professional” ghost hunters are actually trying to pass off the data from these devices as legitimate evidence of paranormal activity. These devices are complete crap. Come on, folks- this is supposed to be science, not a scene from the set of Ghostbusters III.

There are numerous versions of these devices readily available for sale on eBay, and YouTube abounds with video clips of their supposed findings. It’s no shock to learn that the fine “professionals” over at Travel Channel’s Paranormal Adventures swear by these toys. That, if anything, is proof enough to discredit these devices and their data.

I first came across this type of device a few years ago when I heard of the Ovilus. Created by Bill Chappell of Digital Dowsing and appropriately labeled “for entertainment only,” it claimed to translate EMF fluctuations into phonetic speech by converting the EMF readings into numbers, and then those numbers into words by sounding them out using text-to-speech algorithms via a vocabulary of 512 words.  Various modes on the device include speech mode, using the environment to pick the words to say; phonetic mode, using the environment to create words phonetically; commutation mode, using speech mode and phonetic mode together, EMF Mode; yes/no mode, to ask questions and get yes or no answers (a digital Ouija board?); level mode, to watch the energy change in the environment; and dowsing mode, to work like a pair of dowsing rods.  It is powered by a battery and is equipped with a headphone jack, a recording jack with attenuated output, and something called the ‘Paranormal Puck.’  The Puck is designed to aid in paranormal research and meant to be the “center” of investigation as a place to gather, log, track and maintain the data.  It also watermarks data to prevent tampering. Users note that it can be “randomly repetitious” at times by stating selected words for every question asked and every environment investigated.

*ahem* Really? Say it isn’t so.

The first question that comes to mind is how can the inventor of this device possibly test the results?  What evidence or reasons are the formulas based on? Whatever method he used to equate EM energy with words would have to start as an arbitrary guess.  It would then need to be tested repeatedly to verify the results. In any case, this makes me think of the dog collars that supposedly turn barking patterns into words like “outside” and “water;” seems to me that this is just another example of wannabe researchers barking up the wrong tree.

The fine folks at Paranormal Research & Resource Society frequent their local Radio Shack for their “ghost boxes.”

Known as the “Radio Shack hack,” it was discovered in 2007 by a retired electrical engineer. These are modified AM/FM radios that continuously scan the various bands to create white noise in the belief that entities can use the audio falloff from broadcasting stations to communicate.     One model, the 12-469, simply produces a clicking sound when scanning through the bands; other models are modified armband FM radios from the likes of Jensen that are common among joggers.

A man named Frank Sumption invented a version of the device after experimenting with software to record EVPs. His device would produce random voltage to create raw audio from an AM tuner, which was then amplified and filtered into an echo chamber for recording.

What makes these boxes unique in terms of EVP analysis is that in addition to being modified to record the sounds, because that they were originally radios they are equipped with external speakers that proponents say can be used for real-time two-way communication with the other side.

Not surprising, many users report that results of the ghost box are affected by the strength of the radio signals in the area; poor signal quality reduced the ability for spirits to make contact (insert facepalm slap here). Furthermore, what conclusive proof do users have that the voices are indeed paranormal in nature and not simply the broadcast of local stations? Depending on the atmospheric conditions one could even pick up a station from great distances. This is not unlike an experience I had with a CB radio some years back. While driving in the northern suburbs of Detroit one clear summer night I ended up in a chat with a trucker outside of Las Vegas!

Anyone with the latest generation of Smartphone can even download an app (often for free or a few bucks) that claims to do the same. Ghost Radar is one that comes to mind that I’ve come across myself from the Microsoft Marketplace. These are toys, nothing more. If that’s your team’s idea of science, stay at home and play Angry Birds instead.

I’m all for inventiveness, and I think some of the reasoning behind these devices has some merit; but these self-made devices are tainted by their very nature. No conclusive proof could ever possibly come from them unless the findings can be proven using other verifiable equipment as a control measure. As with the field of paranormal research itself, the tools and theories behind them need to go through extensive experimentation and testing to prove or disprove their validity for recording and measuring paranormal activity, let alone the resulting data that is collected by them.

One again we have the misguided practice of amateurs do disservice and disrespect to science.  I applaud those who invent these ghost boxes, as necessity is truly the mother of invention; but I must condemn their inept notion that anyone with an intelligence greater than a garden radish take their findings seriously. The Ovilus and the various ghost boxes need to undergo years of intensive experimentation in various settings and controls to not only prove their worth, but decisively identify what sounds or readings mean exactly which words or phrases.

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again- it doesn’t matter how new or fancy the technology is, a tool in the hands of the unwitting is just a toy.

As always, happy hunting in your quest for knowledge, and here’s to a very happy new year!

© 2012 R. Wolf Baldassarro/Deep Forest Productions

So, you want to be a ghost hunter?

The paranormal has become quite a hot topic over the past few years and a lot of that is because of television.  There are mixed feelings about the effect of television on the paranormal field.  On one hand, it has made it much more mainstream and acceptable.  People are much more open to talking about their ghostly encounters these days and tourism is booming when it comes to locations with haunted history.

On the other hand, it has everyone thinking they can run out and buy some gear and hunt ghosts.  What happens then is that people become reckless, often times scaring the bejesus out of innocent property owners by telling them they have a house full of demons when in truth they have crappy plumbing.  People see all these “as seen on TV” gizmos and think they have all the answers to the afterlife.

If you watch much paranormal television, you will see several different gadgets, thingamajiggys, and do-dads used to “detect ghosts.”  Some of the gadgets actually print “The Ghost Meter” on them.  There’s the EMF Meter, the KII Meter, the Tri-Field Meter, the digital voice recorder, the Ovilus, the thermal imaging camera and so on and so on…

The truth of the matter is none of these electronic goodies detect ghosts.  These gadgets detect changes in the atmosphere.  It is theorized that when a ghost is present, there are changes in the atmosphere; however, the existence of ghosts has yet to be proven, so this is all really conjecture and somewhat educated – and more often than not, uneducated – guess work.

People that want to start their own paranormal investigation teams often say they will do it once they can afford all the equipment.  I’m here to tell you, the only equipment you need is a camera, digital or 35 mm, a video recorder, a tape recorder, a flashlight, a notebook, and the most important and least expensive piece – good old common sense.

A lot of paranormal enthusiasts get irritated at groups that always seem to be “debunking” hauntings.  It’s just not nearly as fun as having a bona fide haunted house.  Debunking is not a negative thing.  It’s the responsible thing to do.  For example, if you are examining a haunting and the occupant is complaining of sleeplessness or “seeing things” and you notice their bedroom is full of electronics such as televisions, DVD players, CD players, alarm clocks, lamps, etc., it could very simply be that they have too many electronics in their bedroom and not ghosts at all.  High levels of EMF have been found to cause hallucinations among other physical ailments.  Of course, if you go into that room with your Ghost Meter, it’s going to go crazy.  The occupant’s issues will likely cease upon removing all the EMF from the area where they sleep.

My partner had a similar case where the occupants were complaining of the baby not being able to sleep and other odd things taking place around their house.  She noticed that all of the switch plates were metal.  She had them rearrange the baby’s room and told them they needed to contact an electrician.  It turned out their house was not grounded and there were high levels of EMF being emitted into the rooms.  Once the electrical issues were fixed, there were no more “ghosts.”  Now, yes, I did say a camera was an item you want to have in your ghost hunting arsenal.  But you need to know how to use it properly.  There are a lot of paranormal folks that will swear those orbs they get in their photos are ghosts.  Well, they obviously didn’t get the memo.  Science has proven most orbs captured on digital cameras are caused by dust, reflections, bugs, moisture, smoke, etc.  If you don’t believe me, run your finger over a door ledge and snap a picture – you will get a ton or orbs.  Coincidentally, there’s an awful lot of dust being stirred up in some of the abandoned locations and cemeteries.  It’s also interesting to point out that before digital cameras came along there weren’t nearly as many orb pictures as there are these days.  I am not an expert photographer by any means, but when one person wrote to Canon to inquire about orbs, this is what they were told:

“We have checked your camera and are happy that the camera meets all design specifications.  The problem you have been experiencing is due to a phenomenon not associated with the camera.

When a picture is taken and reviewed afterwards, circular spots may be noticed on the picture. The problem does not occur with every picture.  Additionally, the spots are randomly positioned throughout the picture.  Highest concentration is in areas closest to the flash unit when the picture was made.

The cause of the problem is common to a lot of digital cameras with small CCDs, not just the Canon digital cameras.  Such digital cameras have a greater depth of field compared to 35mm cameras, due to their smaller focal distance.  This occurs in even higher degree when the camera is set to wide angle.

Because of the above, small dust particles, droplets of water, etc., drifting in the air close to the camera and not within depth of field for normal 35mm cameras, are within depth of field for digital cameras.  Under normal circumstances this is not too big a problem, as these are very small.

When flash is used, its light illuminates these dust particles or water droplets, and these therefore show up and are extremely obvious on pictures taken.  The problem is worsened, because the flash unit is positioned close to the lens barrel.

Due to the setup and operation of digital cameras using small CCDs (charge coupled device), there is nothing that can be done about this phenomenon.  You can take some measures though, to prevent this problem from occurring as much as is possible.

Switch off flash in environments where there are likely to be small dust particles or water droplets in the air.  To compensate for this lack of flash, you can increase the ISO value on your digital camera if this feature is available on your camera.

Use an external slave flash unit further away from the camera and partially cover the camera’s flash.  These units are not available from Canon, but there are third party companies producing such units.  Make sure a slave flash unit is chosen which can also be set to synchronize with the second flash as used by Powershot cameras.  With Powershot cameras, the first flash is used to measure, the second is the actual flash.”

(Canon customer correspondence)

This is not to say that nothing supernatural ever gets captured on a digital camera.  This is also not to say that orbs are never anomalous.  There are strange things sometimes captured on cameras, but the sensible thing to do is to have them analyzed and not just assume it’s ghostly.

One of the new toys in the paranormal world is a gizmo called the Ovilus.  It’s also referred to as digital dowsing.  It’s a device that creates phonetic speech from the environment.  It is pre-programmed with a set of 512 words that sometimes coincidentally make sense in certain places.  Each word is assigned a number and when the EMF changes, the words are spoken.  It’s very random.  Since EMF is not ghosts, I think it’s pretty safe to say the words generated from this device aren’t coming from ghosts either.  Is it interesting and entertaining?  Sure.  Is it ghosts talking to you?  Not likely.

I am pointing these things out because it’s all too easy to get caught up in all the hype of technology and throw common sense out the window.  People think they’re being “scientific” with these gadgets but without an incredibly good working knowledge of the technology behind them; they are in reality being reckless and ignorant.

All of these items can enhance an investigation if the operators are educated about them and understand the margin for error and realize that they are not in fact detecting ghosts with them.  It’s not necessary to break the bank getting these things if you’re seriously looking into investigating.  I contend that a good amount of common sense and a library card are the best pieces of “equipment” you can have – and they’re both free.


Imagine yourself as a child.  Your mother has asked you to fetch something from the cellar.  You don’t like the cellar.  Your mother thinks it’s nonsense and your brother will make fun of you (even though you know he hates it, too!) so you grudgingly head that way.  You pick up the flashlight and turn the knob to the door that opens into the musty darkness.  The cool air greets you but you’d rather suffer the heat than go down there.  Your weak flashlight beam finds the wooden steps and you begin the long descent into the black, praying something doesn’t reach between the open steps and grab you by the ankles, dragging you into the cellar and feasting on your flesh.  You hurry down the rickety steps as quickly as you safely can, fetch the jar of green beans and take the steps two at a time until you reach the top where you slam the door, leaning against it, thankful you made it out alive, your heart beating wildly…

Or perhaps you’re lying in your bed.  The moonlight shines through the window just enough for your desk and toys to be nothing more than dark shapes.  You notice your closet door is open.  It’s just a teeny bit, but still… That china doll you hate but feel obligated to keep because it was a gift from your Great Aunt Ethel is in there.  You know once you start to drift off to sleep it will come to life and attack you.  You just know it.  But now you’re too scared to get up and close the door because everyone knows you can’t put your feet down after dark – who knows what’s under the bed?  So you lie there, too scared to get up and too scared to go to sleep.  Finally, you get up the nerve so you bound as far from the bed as possible, run to the closet, slam it shut, and jump back onto the bed, keeping a safe distance from anything that might be able to reach you from underneath it, your heart beating wildly…

I recently came across the photographic works of Joshua Hoffine.  He sets up his shoots just like a movie set complete with makeup, costumes, and realistic scenery and props.  The children in the photos are his and while several people have questioned that particular judgment, the kids love doing it.  They realize it’s all pretend.  However, the emotions these photos elicit are quite real.  He covers it all from the monster under the bed to the thing under the cellar stairs.

His pictures made me think about fear and what scares people.  What scared you as a kid?  Something under the bed?  A long, dark hallway?  Being abandoned?  Spiders?  Clowns?  The ever so slightly opened closet at night?  The dark in general?  Ghosties?

I asked this question to several people and the responses were colorful and varied.  The fears mentioned most often were under the bed, the closet door being open, clowns, spiders, and intruders.  There were also completely random ones like moths, birds, needles, aliens, and bridges.  A lot of people are scared of dolls or ventriloquist dummies, too.  In truth, most of us are still a little scared of these things even as adults.  We probably don’t realize it, but when we think back to times gone by we still shudder at the thought of many of these things and can easily recall the terror they caused us as kids.

As a paranormal investigator, I spend a lot of time in what would be considered scary places.  Most of them are dark with spiders, snakes, birds, bats, and other creepy crawlies.  Most of them are the scenes of some type of tragedy, deep sorrow, or death, with the likelihood of ghosts.  We spend the night in places most people wouldn’t venture into in the daylight.  So what causes some people to get an adrenaline rush from being scared and others to quake in their boots?  Some people would just as soon never see a scary movie, never had any fears growing up, and would never, ever go on a paranormal investigation to a supposedly haunted place yet some people yearn to be terrified.  Carolyn Palmer, a psychology professor at Vassar College, said that some situations tie into our need to master threatening situations because anytime we master something, we get a thrill from that sense of control and the closer we get to not being in control, the greater the thrill.1

Now, most paranormal investigators will tell you they investigate to find the “truth” or to prove that ghosts exist.  If you ask just about any investigator what got them interested in investigating the paranormal, most of them will tell you it’s because of an experience they had and they want to know “why.”  This is very noble, but in reality, I believe a lot of us do it for the sheer thrill of being in a spooky situation.  Some people are simply fascinated with scary things and the thrill we get from experiencing them.  Would I love to prove the existence of ghosts?  Certainly.  But until then, I will just enjoy hanging out with the spiders in the dark spooky hospitals and prisons.  So there you have it – the reason I like to investigate the paranormal is simply because I love being scared.  I’m a sucker for spooky places and scary movies.  I love the thrill of a good spook house.  I scream and clap my hands with delight at the same time.  Crazy?  Maybe a little.  Stephen King explains the need to be scared as a sane way of expressing the insanity we all have – he likens it to feeding the inner “gators” – as long as we keep them fed, they don’t come to the surface.

I related to several of the same fears everyone else listed.  One that a couple of people talked about that was also depicted in one of Hoffine’s pictures was nuclear war, or the end of the world.  When I was young, the movie “The Day After” came out and nuclear war was a popular subject.  I was terrified of dying that way and I was terrified of what it would be like if I didn’t die.  The above scene with the closet door and china doll – not made up!  I had a doll that scared me to death, but I couldn’t get rid of it.  I think part of me was scared it would come back.  I would lie there and fret until I finally got the nerve to close the closet door.  Take a look at Hoffine’s pictures and let me know what scared you – or still does.  Granted, as we grow up our real fears change a bit – things like not being able to pay the bills or losing a child, but I think you will be surprised when you think about it that some of those childhood fears are still lurking there, just under the bed…


Do You See What I See: Spirit Photography

Last month we dealt with capturing audio evidence so this time around it seemed logical to continue by exploring spirit photography.  I was honored to chat with Paul Michael Kane in preparation of this article.  Paul is a professional photographer and has experience in paranormal investigations.  During an enjoyable and humorous chat many topics were discussed.

Many of us have taken a picture from time to time that had strange exposures, lighting effects, or unknown properties and stood there in awe wondering what it was.  Paul just about made me fall out of my chair in laughter over what he calls “chimping”.  This is when someone takes a random picture while out with friends or when part of an actual ghost hunt and stands there mimicking a chimpanzee jumping up and down shouting “OOOH!!  OOH!! Lookie what I got!!” because they believe that bright splotch on the tiny LCD screen is a ghost, when in fact it’s nothing more than a bug or other explainable source.

Spirit photography is the practice of finding images of paranormal anomalies or spirits on film and is also referred to as psychic photography.  It doesn’t necessarily have to be night time to get a ghost picture as many photographs of ghostly anomalies have been taken during broad daylight at various, seemingly innocent locations, proving yet again that ghosts or spirits are around during the day just as much as they are at night.

Light exists within the universe in a spectrum consisting of infrared, ultraviolet, and visible light.  Without getting too technical, humans experience the physical world through the visible spectrum but parallel to this are infrared and ultraviolet.  Infrared, or “night vision”, is electromagnetic radiation with wavelengths greater than visible light and shorter than microwaves; ultraviolet consists of electromagnetic waves with frequencies higher than those that humans identify as the color violet.  It is within the boundaries of these wavelengths that spirits make there presence known when they cross over, however briefly, into the visible spectrum and our awaiting eyes.

Just as with EVP, spirit photography has been around since the camera was invented with photographers using many types of film and cameras.  For example, Semyon Kirlian discovered in 1939 that when an organic or nonliving object is placed upon a photographic plate and subjected to a high electric current, a glowing “aura” forms around the object and is imprinted on the film.  It is more accurate to say that rather than revealing a natural aura, this process produces such.  Some effects thought to be paranormal disappeared under more stringent controls, leaving research of Kirlian photography at a dead-end.  However, fluctuations in the magnetic fields surrounding the subjects can be detected in this way and Kirlian photography has recently come into use as a medical diagnostic device.  It also has a popular market at psychic fairs as a sort of high-tech, more expansive version of the mood ring.

The use of digital cameras has become the rage in recent years, in part due to falling prices, ease of use, and the ability to view results immediately on location.  Many ghost hunters take hundreds of digital photos at random, using nothing else during their investigation but the camera, and then present the images as absolute proof of the paranormal and by doing so make a sham out of the field.

The issues researchers had with digital cameras have dramatically improved in recent years.  The problem was with older models and how they operated in low-light conditions.  Truth be told, even well-lit day conditions were often grainy, pixilated, and with questionable results.  Referred to as the “orb factor”, many ghost hunters would take shot after shot of locations and point to the numerous orbs in the resulting photographs and present it as proof of spiritual activity.  These were simply a result of the camera’s inability to interpret data correctly, light reflecting off of insects and dust, and areas of the file where the pixels failed to fill in completely leaving blank areas or misinterpreted and warped data.  Newer models have all but removed this incompatibility.

Another issue was that a digital image’s authenticity would come into question and often pictures were doctored or manipulated in such a way to support a group’s claim.  To be able to analyze a photo and determine its legitimacy, two things have been needed- a print of the photo and its negative.  It has been argued that a digital camera could not provide this and since electronic images could be easily altered, it was impossible to prove they were authentic.  To begin with, photographs have been manipulated and staged since the camera was first in use.  Manipulation occurred within the camera itself and afterwards during the development process, thus tainting the almighty film negative.  Technology has changed and now it is not only possible to authenticate digital images but, depending on the camera, it can be used as the primary photographic instrument in an investigation.

It is now within the financial means of investigators to purchase high-quality point-and-shoot digital cameras that not only offer clean and crisp images that do not have the problems with false orbs but some models also offer night-shot modes.  These next generation cameras also offer a way to authenticate the images that is as trustworthy as a negative.  One option of a higher-quality camera is access to what are called Raw Data or Meta Data files. These files are uncompressed and unprocessed and an anomalous image that is examined using this option can actually be authenticated with often more detail than in a photographic negative.  In addition, the newer cameras also offer access to the information about the images that are photographed.  This data is embedded into the image once it is taken containing everything about the camera that took the image including camera settings, date and time the image was taken, if flash was used, the ISO settings, f-stop and aperture settings, and more.  If anyone attempts to manipulate the image, the changes are marked as well.  In this way, a person trying to analyze a digital image will be able to see if it has been manipulated or not.  If anyone attempts to alter the data, it will destroy the image.  In this way, it becomes a “digital negative” of every picture that is taken.

Video cameras are another important instrument for any investigation.  Unlike still cameras, they provide constant visual and audio surveillance for review and observation.

Due to most investigations being conducted in absolute darkness, video cameras equipped with infrared capability are a necessity due to normal cameras needing a light source bright enough to capture.  Many of today’s handheld digital camcorders can be fitted with an optional infrared module for night vision recording and are fairly cheap via aftermarket outlets.

With video any phenomena occurring can be documented in its entirety.  This will show the length of time the phenomena occurs, what is happening, the conditions surrounding the phenomena, and possibly even the cause of the phenomena; also widely used are infrared wireless security cameras for the unattended stationary recording of various locations within an investigation area.  Paired with a 4 to 8 channel Digital Video Recorder system this is a must have for any investigation covering a large area.

When working with video it’s best to set your camera up on a tripod during recording to keep the image or video steady.  Don’t drag the camera around trying to get something on film- let the spirits come to it.  Set the camera up somewhere and just let it run, then view the footage later on.  Set your camera to manual focus and keep it focused on something nearby.  If it’s on auto focus and something unusual comes into view it will spend a lot of wasted time trying to focus in on it, and it usually won’t be able to in time, so you won’t see what really went by.

Try using external infrared lights to increase the viewing range.  When using a night vision camera, the laser dot will appear as a white glowing point, so don’t confuse it for something it’s not.  These can be fitted to a digital photo camera as well so there will be less need for flashes during an investigation.  There are Do It Yourself kits but you’re best option is to have a professional install it.

The holy grail of paranormal research equipment is the thermal imaging scanner.  This device is a fusion of the digital video/still camera and the infrared thermometer that allows users to see and record on video what an IR thermometer detects.  A deviation of plus or minus 10 degrees is significant for investigation purposes.  Should there be a cold spot or hot spot, this infrared technology makes it possible to see the shape and size of the temperature change.  These remain perhaps the most expensive items to date costing anywhere from $1500 to $10,000- second only to the new full-spectrum cameras which can run up to $30,000!

The results of this device are often glorified by groups like TAPS and GHI, but for every paranormal incident that the device shows, there are several that TAPS is able to debunk because of it.

A recent addition to the camera class is the full-spectrum model.  Not only can these highly-expensive cameras capture everything in the visible spectrum, but simultaneously in the ultraviolet and infrared as well; the resulting images are black & white with some color hues.

So what exactly should you look for in a digital camera to do ghost hunting with?  Make sure it has a good flash and the ISO settings can range from 100 to 1600.  By using cameras that range from 8 to 13 megapixels and taking advantage of all of the options available to us, we can actually gather significant evidence with our digital camera that is comparable to that of a 35 mm camera.  The Nikon P6000 is a great camera for ghost hunting purposes.

If the camera has a preprogrammed night-shot setting, which is a very slow shutter speed, you may want to invest in a monopod which can cost as little as $14 and easily portable on an investigation.  With this type of setting any hand held shot will come out blurry.  Some digital cameras will not take a picture if it thinks the area is too dark as well because they require something for light to bounce off of, like a gravestone.  Also use high capacity media cards- anything from 512 MB to 1 GB will have plenty of storage space for investigations.

A major issue that needs to be dealt with in detail when working with photography is the matrixing effect.  “Matrixing” is a general term for the natural tendency of the human mind to interpret sensory input, what is perceived visually, audibly or tactilely, as something familiar or more easily understood and accepted, in effect mentally “filling in the blanks.”


I was initially convinced I caught something wild when I took this photo.  It turned out to be the camera’s wrist strap.


In this example several of the rain drops looked like faces to me.

So, there you are, on location chimping away at your camera screen and exciting your fellow investigators because something looks paranormal on the LCD but later when the photo is analyzed in larger detail it turns out to be the reflection of a butterfly’s wings or the way the shadows of trees merged together to look like a figure standing in the field.  Of the hundred of pictures that are taken maybe 1 or 2 percent actually produce worthwhile results.  Is this to say that cameras are a waste of time?  No.  When something of merit is discovered it is usually of great importance to paranormal research.  Just be sure of what you have before releasing your findings.

A few groups take a conventional camera and shoot away in the hope that something will appear on the processed film.  From time to time distortions and anomalies result during development.  It should be noted that all such images are well-known an understood effects of photography and of cameras.  They happen every day and have nothing to do with paranormal phenomena.  Sometimes what may seem like a ghost or other paranormal occurrence in a photograph is the result of matrixing or physical factors within the camera itself.


We must also discuss the infamous “orb factor” in more detail.  The parapsychological meaning of substantiated orbs are floating circular balls of light with color or brightness seen in areas of high paranormal activity and are believed to contain the soul, personality, and emotions of a deceased person or animal. These may be visible to the naked eye or invisible until caught on film. They may also have streaking tails of ectoplasm or glowing energy; most orbs are widely debunked by paranormal researchers as evidence of paranormal activity.  True orbs produce their own inner light, so would it not seem likely that a true orb will be seen with the naked eye before being caught on camera?  After all, a light bulb doesn’t just show itself when a picture of it is taken.  The example above left of four ‘orbs’ surrounding a grave is particularly interesting.  While I know it’s most likely dust, the formation around the marker- as if standing guard- was very peculiar.



The two examples above show how some orbs are captured.  The example on the top does seem like it’s glowing of its own accord but keep in mind that the closer it is to the flash, the brighter it will be.  The example on the bottom is leaving a tail as it moves upward.  Dust will generally move very slowly and in an erratic pattern due to wind factors so the cause of this photo is open for interpretation.

There are several examples that Paul suggested as the cause of the majority orbs.  The infrared lights from video cameras or teammates camcorders could be reflecting in.  I once was analyzing some video footage of pulsating lights and it turned out that it was the handheld Mini DV of an investigator and a stationary camera’s IR modules reflecting into each other thus causing the phenomenon.

There is a term within professional photography known as Bokeh (bo-kah), meaning “out of focus”.  Many mists are the result of a portion of the lens being out of focus or the operator’s finger is over the lens causing condensation.  Also keep your fingers away from the flash and remove the wrist strap.

Sensor dust occurs in DSLR cameras when metal shavings from the detachable lenses stick to the sensor inputs of the camera and cause unwanted effects.  Sometimes there can also be issues with the shutter sync.

With great jealousy I listened to stories from Paul when he had an opportunity to document a pictorial of a paranormal investigation into Eastern State Penitentiary.  Over the course of the event, and during other investigations, he has gathered some great advice for investigators when documenting photographic evidence of the paranormal.

Pull out that camera from time to time and take a few shots.  Don’t just take a picture in front of you but also over your shoulder while walking.  While looking in one direction, quickly snap a photo in the opposite direction.  This method of capturing something on film is usually quite effective.  Trust your feelings.  If you feel something or someone else does, take a picture.  If you think you saw something, take a picture.

Take more than one consecutive picture.  Rather than taking a quick shot of a stairwell and moving on to the next room, take two or three quick shots keeping the camera in the same position.  Most of your typical point-and-shoot models have a sport or burst mode that will ratchet off three to five frames at once.  In this way, if you caught something you can have before-and-after shots to help track its movement.

Go with your instincts, but if you’ve captured something try to debunk it by recreating it.  Have someone stand in the same position to see if it was just a reflection or light effect as often it’s just our imagination impacting our perception of events.  Try to remove as much human element from your photographs as you can.  Be aware of reflective objects in the room; with dust and debris the closer it is to the flash the brighter it will be in the picture.  Also be aware of where other team members are and what they are doing.  If they are in the hallway taking a picture and you simultaneously take one in a connecting room the flashes will interfere with each other.  Control light sources as much as possible and try putting the camera down regularly and set the timer.

Many common settings on the camera can also improve your results.  Read the manual that came with your model thoroughly and know how to adjust the settings.  Turn off red eye reduction, set the camera for aperture priority, and most importantly turn off the auto image preview.  This feature slows down your picture taking because many cameras do not reset for another shot if the screen is active.  This also removes any possibility of chimping (I love this term) and if you’re too busy staring at the screen all night you’ll miss something.  Leave the in-depth review of your pictures for the analysis phase.

With photos you’ll want to import them into a computer and view them on a large screen.  Just like with EVP, you’ll want to work with copies only and leave the originals safely stored away.  You can also zoom in and out of the image to help clarify objects.  Be aware of the matrixing effect and go through each one to look for differences in lighting, shades, and shadows consistent with a vortex or apparition.  Using the tools available in programs like Photoshop, increase levels and clear up the image as best you can by adjusting for light, contrast, and color balance.  The most important thing is to differentiate between reflections and objects that are emitting their own light.  Look at how lights and shadows are affected by the objects in question and their positions three dimensionally.   Light bends around objects; it does not hover in mid air.



Two of my most treasured photographs (above) were taken at Goodrich Cemetery where a lone marker was hidden in a back alcove; these were taken in succession mere seconds apart. This is an example of a vortex, known in environmental science as plasma lights.  There is no satisfactory explanation as to their origin.

So there you have it, a brief but concise introduction to spirit photography.  As with many aspects of ghost hunting, try different techniques and experiments.  Remember to try and recreate or debunk any anomalies you encounter and strive toward truth rather than the exciting.  I hope Across the Great Divide continues to be informative and enjoyable for you and your comments are well-received and always appreciated.  As always, and until next time, keep those cameras rolling and always exploring the great unknown.

For more information on the photography of Paul Michael Kane and his pictorial book about Eastern State Penitentiary, please visit his website at

Springtime Calls Ghost Hunters Back Outdoors

Ridgelawn Cemetery

Well we had a big winter thaw here in Michigan.  Two feet of snow melted and the temp even hit the 50s.  The blanket of winter draws back to reveal the grass, freshly green from its long slumber.  The birds return and the scents of new life are in the air.

It was short-lived, though.  As I finish this article, a winter storm- complete with snow, freezing rain, and sleet descends upon the area.  But that brief taste of springtime brings with it thoughts of sunny days and fun in the great outdoors.   If you’re a ghost hunter, thoughts this time of year turn to revisiting favorite cemeteries and once again traveling into the unknown and investigating buildings and places.

I love the poetic duality of cemeteries; from the serene landscapes to the ornate markers.  From the sadness of a newly-dug site of a young person to the historic intrigue of a cracked and faded headstone of those long gone and forgotten to the pages of time.

I’ve stated time and again that if you’re one of those groups that think you’re serious and professional paranormal investigators, but all your troupe does is sneak into cemeteries in the dead of night to snap a few pictures and laugh and have a good time, then you’re not only fools, but trespassers.  There’s a big reason why laws in recent years have been established closing off these otherwise public places during the night.  This was made all too clear in a recent news segment here in the Detroit area.

Vandals caused extensive damage to Detroit’s historic Woodmere Cemetery this month.  Rows of toppled headstones, smashed statues and headless angels replaced an otherwise tranquil setting.  110 headstones in all were pushed over, some destroyed beyond repair.  This is the third time vandals attacked Woodmere in the last six years.  Here’s a link to the video from the newscast: Vandals Strike Detroit’s Woodmere Cemetery

Vandal damage at Woodmere Cemetery

If you’re caught in a cemetery at night, no matter the reason, and you have no permission to be there, then you deserve to be charged with trespassing. ‘Nuff Said.

Now, I like to use cemeteries as a place to train new members, and even when I’m just out and about enjoying a nice day.  I’ll come in with nothing more than a camera and recorder, or maybe even an EMF meter.  I’ll try to get a few EVPs or pictures; most of the time I’ll use the weather to my advantage and snap off a library of gorgeous professional photographs.  If a wandering spirit sees fit to make their presence known, all the better.  I’ve caught enough material in cemeteries over the years to make the experience not only enjoyable on a personal level but worthwhile on a scientific level.

Some claim that paranormal activity in cemeteries is impossible.  The reasons being that those interred there are long gone and any haunting will take place around the place of death, not where they were moved to up to a week or more after death; this being a long enough time for whatever spirit energy to cease being attached to the physical body.

Others disagree and claim that cemeteries are the most haunted spots around.  Much of the photographic “evidence” is the subject of ridicule from serious paranormal researchers because they were often taken at night, quickly, and generally under humid conditions including mist, ground fog, and even the condensation of the photographer’s own breath.  The time and steps needed to rule out these environmental x-factors are simply not taken into account.  Just because you’re not sweating doesn’t mean there isn’t humidity in the air. When the temperature and dew points are within 10-15 points of each other formation of ground fog is highly likely.

A dirty, abandoned cemetery is going to stir up a tremendous amount of dust and dirt.  Snap a flash and the resulting reflections will produce photographs that look like they were taken through a dirty car window.  These are NOT the souls of the citizens of the cemetery.  Nothing burns my biscuits more than being presented with picture after picture filled with these dust particles and the taker eagerly chimping away “but look at all the spirits!”  Don’t waste my time or your own with orbs.

Aside from that little rant on orbs, cemeteries can be a great asset in many ways for researchers.  You can, of course, travel freely in them during the daylight hours, but if you want to conduct nighttime investigations you can do so legally with just a few phone calls.  Contact the church, organization, or municipality that presides over the daily care and maintenance of the cemetery and seek permission.  As always, be sincere and honest in your approach.  If you do get the go ahead, then contact the proper authorities, and inform the local law that you will be conducting a scientific experiment in the cemetery.  Get permission from caretakers IN WRITING and provide proof of that permission, along with the date, time, and a list of those group members that will be participating.  They may even be willing to direct traffic around the local roads during the experiment so as to help reduce contamination if at all possible.  It never hurts to just ask.  The worst case is they simply say no.  Thank them for their time and try for daylight hours.  The problem here is that the increased traffic and noise levels of daytime could taint any data you collect.

As with any investigation do your research.  Check local records for a history of the cemetery.  Most records will at the very least provide a list of who is buried here.  Also look for any local events that could have caused this location to be active.

Use the daylight hours to get a map or plot from the caretaker or sketch out your own, especially if there’s a particular area that interests you. You’ll want to have all the landmarks and topography of the locations planned in advance for a smooth and speedy investigation.

If you or your team are thinking of doing grave rubbings check with the caretaker first.  Some very old, weather –worn headstones may be so far faded that even the light rubbing of a charcoal stick can cause further erosion.  And please, do NOT do what I saw in one local cemetery.  Someone had taken permanent markers or paint and lazily colored in the engraved letters on several headstones in order to make the etchings stand out.  Not only is this disrespectful but is legally considered vandalism.

If it’s damp, foggy, or raining, cancel and re-schedule for more favorable conditions.  Any material obtained under such conditions would be inadmissible as scientific data.  Besides, I sure wouldn’t want to be trekking around out in the rain and mud.

As always investigate in teams and designate a central command area and timetable.  A great thing to due that will not only garner you great respect from other groups, but the gratitude and endearment of the cemetery owner is to bring a trash bags to not only clean up after yourselves, but clear the landscape of other trash and debris.

Sometimes cemetery caretakers aren’t interested in your data or the results, but in either case send them a professional thank you letter for allowing you to investigate.  Check with them as to their wishes regarding any evidence you may have.  If you obtain overwhelming evidence it and make it public, it may entice those aforementioned less-respectful types to invade the cemetery or invite vandals.  No one wants another Woodmere incident on their hands.

So as the sunny days of spring return, keep these things tips in mind.  Please, above all else respect yourselves, respect the sites, and respect the field.  Happy Hunting and see you next month.

Romeo Cemetery

Ghost Hunting and Entertainment

I can no longer stomach ghost hunter shows. I’ve panned them in the past, and they’ve continued to get as stale as bread with a hole in the bag- slowly drying out to become as brittle and useless as the ‘evidence’ they purport to bring to the academic dinner table.

It’s the same boring thing week after week, and show after show- a hapless team goes to a location, sets up some toys, flips off the lights (never mind the fact that they don’t cut the power- a possible factor, but just the lights), flips on the clichéd monochrome night vision, and tries to scare a viewing audience into believing in ghosts through theatrics and really bad acting. Gone is the science, to be replaced with a Hollywood sensationalism that malnourishes the brain that is in search of something of more substance.

The incident that did it for me, personally, was the Ghost Hunters 2008 Halloween special. I sat there, anxious for hours, awaiting some evidence to cross my seasoned senses. What did I get? Grant Wilson’s hood gets tugged! It seemed so awesome at first, but turned out to be debunked by several different people as trickery and wires. I felt cheated out of 6 hours of my time. Never again, I vowed. This “reality show” gets more scripted and fake as time goes on.

There’s no rule that academia and entertainment need to be mutually exclusive; in fact they could learn a lot from each other. But the simple fact is that true paranormal researchers get a bit irritated by the celebrity status of these so-called “experts.” It’s not that they have PhDs after their names in the credits, but the sad truth that because they’re on “reality TV”, the viewing public is falsely led to believe they are experts by the networks.

It’s never been easy for those who choose to study psychic phenomena. Mainstream science views them with a deep disbelief in much the same way alchemy was looked at before it became known as chemistry. Those few parapsychologists with PhDs fortunate enough to have a home at an academic body continue to search for irrefutable proof that paranormal phenomena really does exist.

And they’ve been doing it for a long time. In the late 1800s, Harvard psychologist William James risked his reputation by studying things like “crisis apparitions,” a clairvoyant event in which final farewells and messages are claimed to be received in dreams from the departed before it is consciously known they are dead. In the early1900s, Joseph Banks Rhine helped to pioneer the study of ESP by founding a prestigious parapsychology department at Duke University.

Parapsychologists advise that these ghost hunting shows are doing a gross injustice to those pioneers by intensifying the troubles that have historically plagued the field because the scholars without a show at their disposal are replaced by the glitz and glamour of Hollywood, and the promise of a client’s chance to cash in their 15-minutes of fame.

Many parapsychologists rely on a substantial part of their income and research funds coming from speaking engagements and lectures. But the well is running dry.

Loyd Auerbach, a noted author and field investigator with over 25 years of in-field research, is one of those parapsychologists to feel the squeeze from Hollywood. In 2006 he was paid for 14 events in autumn alone. That number dropped to five for all of 2007. The year after that? Two. In 2009, one.

Once a prominent and sought-after man in his field, he’s been traded for these celebrities because TV stars bring more ticket sales then the stereotypical scholar with a turtleneck and suit coat. “I was making a good part of my living lecturing and doing events. Now the TV stars are getting all the lectures,” he said. “It’s been difficult to pay my mortgage.”

Over the years of my own pursuit of the unknown I get frequently asked, “Why this fascination with having all the lights off?” Simply because it adds to the creepy factor and draws the viewer in like any other b-grade horror flick. Dr. Andrew Nichols, an expert who did research for the U.S. Army (and who received the only grant ever awarded to study alleged hauntings), believes that these shows also push questionable science on the public. Nichols provides a list of what he calls bad science in these shows: Investigations always take place at night. Why ghosts would only come out then is illogical? How can anyone be a good observer in the dark? Instead, as Nichols puts it, “they just run around like little girls.”

“We get painted with the same brush,” said John Palmer, PhD of the Rhine Institute, one of the only parapsychology institutes in the country. If there’s one thing that skeptics, mainstream scientists, and the general public can all agree on, it’s that this image of the bumbling reality-TV amateur is the first thing they all think of when the subject of ghost hunting comes up in conversation.

GhostDivas, a popular podcast, interviewed former TAPS member Donna Lacroix back in 2009. During the course of the segment she made some very interesting revelations. Ghost Hunters, first and foremost, is completely entertainment and everyone is a backstabber. Jason Hawes and Grant Wilson are ‘the kings’ in front of, and behind, the camera. Long-time fans of the show will remember Brian Harnois. Jay and Grant, she asserts, had their whipping-boy in Brian, and she feels Brian was exploited to the point of mental abuse. Donna gives insight into just how “brutal” and “mentally abusive” they were towards Brian. She even addresses the rumors that the network employs a staging crew. Anyone remember the Moss Beach Distillery fiasco?

You can listen to the full interview yourself here.

Diehard fans of these shows must understand that true parapsychological research is not, and can not, be done through a weekly reality show where ratings and advertiser revenue are the real decision-makers of the show’s survival. It is done through tedious, often boring, study and analysis over a period of time determined by each individual case. To rush through countless hours of data for a final report a day or two later is just bad science.

All of this can be summed up with a classic scene from 1984’s megahit Ghostbusters when Dean Yeager comes to kick the hapless trio off Columbia University’s campus.

Dean Yeager: The University will no longer continue any funding of any kind for your group’s activities.
Peter Venkman: But the kids love us!
Dean Yeager: Dr. Venkman, we believe that the purpose of science is to serve mankind. You, however, seem to regard science as some kind of dodge, or hustle. Your theories are the worst kind of popular tripe, your methods are sloppy and your conclusions are highly questionable. You, Dr. Venkman, are a poor scientist.
Peter: I see.
Dean Yeager: And you have no place in this department or in this university.

I think that’s the only time Hollywood and the scientific community will ever see eye to eye on this issue.

Hmm, maybe there’s some common truth in this Real vs. Reel conundrum after all.

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