Photos That AREN'T Paranormal

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The Camera Strap

Camera strap
Photos That AREN'T Paranormal Camera strap. Photo: J.D.

How to avoid mistaking common glitches for the paranormal

This website receives many photographs from readers and ghosthunting groups that they suspect show paranormal images: ghosts, spirit activity, demons, etc. The truth is, convincing ghost photos are very rare, and most of the pictures I receive can be explained in other ways -- sometimes quite easily. The photos in this gallery are common examples. They do not show ghosts or other paranormal phenomena... probably. (I say "probably" because when we're talking about paranormal possibilities, nothing can by ruled out definitively. Yet, I think we can be 99.9% sure that they are not paranormal.)

When examining photos for possible paranormal elements, we have to be very careful and skeptical. So many things can spoil the photographic image, which by its very nature is sensitive. Stray light, reflections, dust, hair, and insects can all cause photo anomalies. Just because you didn't see something in the viewfinder that later appears in your photo does not mean it's a ghost. For example...

This is a very common mistake. Many people see this strange formation in their photos and wonder if it's some kind of energy vortex or long-dead great-grandma materializing to say "happy birthday". A close look at this "vortex" will make it quite evident that this anomaly is merely the strap that is attached to the camera which has fallen in front of the lens. This often happens when the camera is titled to the side to take a portrait-oriented picture, like this one. You can plainly see the loop of the strap and its braided texture. It is illuminated by the flash.

When I receive photos like this, I diplomatically respond by asking, "Do you think this could possibly be the camera's strap in front of the lens?" Oddly, they very often respond by saying something like, "Oh, but this camera does not have a strap on it...."

Oh, really? Then that must be the ghost of a camera strap in the photo. What is the motive of the photographer's response when it is quite obvious that the photo has captured the camera's strap? There's some psychology here, I think, that demonstrates how much people WANT to possess a photo that shows something paranormal -- even to the extent of denying the obvious cause.

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Photos That AREN'T Paranormal Orbs. Photo: J.D.

Orbs, orbs, orbs.... Unfortunately, too many ghost hunting groups still latch onto orbs in their photos as evidence of ghostly activity. I think it's because they desperately want to come away from an investigation with some kind of evidence, and because orbs are so plentiful -- and because they cannot be seen with the naked eye -- they are regarded as something supernatural.

As anyone who has read my article "Enough with the Orbs Already" knows, I am highly skeptical of those balls of reflected light. It has been proved, to my satisfaction at least, that they are nothing more than particles of dust, insects, and other airborne matter caught in the camera flash. Don't take my word for it. Try it yourself. Kick up some dust on a dirty basement floor and take a flash picture. You'll see orbs galore. Or should we assume that the souls of the long departed are passing eternity on our basement floors?

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Double Exposure

Double exposure
Photos That AREN'T Paranormal Double exposure. Photo: R.F.

Double exposures were common with old film cameras. They occur when the photographer neglects to advance the film after exposing a frame and exposes another picture on top of it, resulting in ghosted images. In the case of this photo, it looks as though the film was only advanced half way. Although I've blurred the faces, it is obvious in the original photo that the boy on the bottom is the same boy further up, only in a slightly different pose. Although it's a ghosted image, it's not a ghost.

As film cameras became more sophisticated -- even inexpensive point-and-shoot models -- they had mechanisms that prevented double exposures. And with today's digital cameras, I don't think it's even possible to accidentally create a double exposure.

Double exposures were often used to hoax ghost photos. The trickery was done either in the camera or later in the film darkroom by combining multiple negatives. One of the most notorious practioners of this hoaxing was William Mumler, who in the 19th century created many such photos, sometimes with famous people as ghosts. In the photo on this page, you'll see one of his more famous multiple exposures depicting the widowed Mary Todd Lincoln and the "ghost" of President Abe.

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Pareidolia, Matrixing, or Simulacrum

Photos That AREN'T Paranormal Simulacrum. Photo: K.R.

Oh, my God -- it's a demon! Oh, wait... no it isn't... it's a rock. The phenomenon of seeing a familiar shape or form in random combinations of shadows and light is known as pareidolia or matrixing, and the thing itself is called a simulacrum. It's very common to see what looks like a face in jagged rocks (like this photo), grass, dirt, water, clouds, flames, clouds of dust, visible gas -- even a pile of crumpled clothing on the couch. (Haven't you put that away yet?)

The human brain seems to be wired to recognize faces. That's why it's so startling to sometimes see them in pictures like this. Although the rock formation is completely random in nature, gosh darn it that looks like a face! It must be a spirit! It's especially disconcerting to some people when the face, again like this one, resembles the traditional depiction of the Devil. It freaks them out.

In fact, look closely at all of the rock in this picture and you'll see several faces. So either we're just seeing things or this wall of rock is seriously haunted. Which do you think is more likely?

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Streaks of Light

Light streaks
Photos That AREN'T Paranormal Light streaks. Photo: L.

Technically, I'm not sure exactly how streaks of light like this are created, but I am pretty sure that these are not ghosts of dead theater patrons. You'll notice that the two streaks of light have the same pattern, which was probably caused by the movement of the photographer's hands as he or she snapped the picture. Combined with that movement, the shutter was open long enough to smear the brighest objects in the photo, two lights in the background. It may also have something to do with the mechanism of the camera's shutter itself.

I have captured very similar light streaks myself when taking pictures in a darkened cemetery. Sorry, but these are just not paranormal.

Reader Brian Miller provides this explanation:

"The steaks are from an exit sign and a walkway light. This is caused by hand-holding the camera and setting it to automatically balance the flash and the available light. The shutter hangs open a bit, and the light streaks follow the holder's hands. If this had been done with the camera on a tripod, then the streaks wouldn't have been there."

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Photos That AREN'T Paranormal Rods. Photo: D.P.

I will admit that I was puzzled by "rods" for quite a while. However, experiments by many people have convinced me that they are nothing more than quite conventional bugs and other flying things whose shape has been distorted by the still or video camera. (See the article "Flying rods and insects".)

The phenomenon is created by a combination of the speed of the flying insect, the exposure of the photo, or the way video cameras capture fast-moving objects.

So, rods are not some kind of new species of insect, interdimensional entity, or spirit energy. They are bugs. And so, ironically, I am not bugged by them anymore.

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Photos That AREN'T Paranormal Reflections. Photo: M.M.

Ghost faces in windows are a type of photo I receive quite frequently. I don't think I've seen one yet that didn't seem to me to be just a reflection of trees, clouds, parts of the building, or other surrounding things. Such reflections are just other instances of pareidolia or matrixing -- seeing faces and other familiar objects in random patterns.

In the case of this photo, the photographer sees the image of President James Madison peering out the window of his Virginia home, and provides a picture of one of his portraits for comparison. Do you see it? I almost do, if I let my imagination go a little. Do I think it's James Madison's ghost? No. He could be haunting the place for all I know, but I don't think that's him. I think it's just a reflection.

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Be assured, I am not attempting to belittle or criticize ghost hunting groups or readers who send in photos like those I discuss in this gallery. I understand your curiosity about them and even your eagerness to find something paranormal. However, if we are to take the investigation of the ghost phenomenon seriously, then we have to be as skeptical as we can possibly be (while remaining open-minded) to root out anomalies for which we can find ordinary, plausible explanations. This will help us get closer to understanding the real phenomena.