QUESTION: More about camera artifacts and 'orbs' by Dave Manganelli.

ANSWER: We've all heard the cliche "The camera never lies."

Well, actually – yes, it does, and sometimes it lies a lot.

By now, everyone has seen dozens (if not hundreds) of photos of purportedly ghostly 'orbs' spread (with gleeful, giddy abandon) all over the Internet. There are little circles of light, swirling mists, blinding streaks, eerie sprays, luminescent swarms, globular clusters, and they all come in a variety of intensities and colors. The bulk of them are considered to be 'anomalous'; photographic images, things strangely out of the ordinary, manifestations of ghosts or ghostly activity.

The thinking goes that these orbs turn up in photos/videos that should otherwise be normal, clear, and free of such curiosities. Even more to the point, these photos/video have been taken in a haunted location; therefore the photographic anomalies must be manifestations of the ghosts themselves. If not of the actual ghosts, then, they are at least manifestations of the spirit energies in the place. Furthermore, the thinking goes that the advanced technology of today's cameras is sensitive enough to finally be able to record this elusive paranormal activity, hence the notable increase in the number and variety of things caught through the eye of the camera.

My observation: I don't think so.

To reach the conclusion that orb photos are pictures of paranormal energies/entities, go ahead and drill right down to the core premise that these images are, in fact, beyond the expectations of what a camera would record, and that the images themselves (colors, shapes, textures, etc.) can only be attributed to paranormal causes.

Here's the problem: many of those images, colors, shapes, and textures are things that can and will appear in photographs for reasons that have nothing to do with ghosts. Why are so many people currently convinced that they are "ghost" pictures? Three reasons: 1) They've been told repeatedly by both ghost enthusiasts and TV shows that the images are ghosts; 2) They're not accustomed to seeing photographic artifacts, so the images are indeed unfamiliar and mysterious to them; 3) Relatively few investigators try hard – if at all – to seek out alternative explanations.

A common notion that certain cameras, microphones, video recorders, audio recorders (whatever) are more "sensitive" to paranormal phenomena is simply not supported by any evidence of which I'm aware. If any equipment was more "sensitive," results should be more concrete and consistent in haunted places – but they aren't. There's not a single manufacturer of photo, video, or audio equipment that would support the claim that their product records paranormal phenomena – to do so would suggest that engineers have identified certain wavelengths and frequencies as "paranormal." They have not.

In reading through many results from other investigators (most poorly done, others much better), the range of equipment and methodologies used is so all over the map so as to render the whole business incoherent. It's almost better to say that if ghosts want to show up on photo, video, audio, etc., then they'll show up regardless of what equipment you're using. The reason I bring this up is that many investigators prattle on and on about their equipment, provide long laundry lists of what they're using … and by doing so, they imply that the technology is central to capturing anomalous images and sounds.

It's not.

Here's my own laundry list of stuff I've used over the years: 35mm negative film, 35mm slide film, 16mm film, infrared film, infrared video, Polaroids, digital cameras, reel-to-reel analog audio, audiocassette, microcassette, MiniDisc, DAT, U-Matic video, 8mm video, VHS video, S-VHS Video, Hi8 video, Beta-SP video, MiniDV, and DVCAM.

When I first began investigating haunted houses 25 years ago, it was from behind the viewfinder of an Arriflex BL 16mm film camera. My goal has always been to attempt to capture some manifestation of paranormal activity on motion-picture film, photographic film, videotape, or audio.

I am here to tell you that it's not easy.

In fact, I feel comfortable saying that it is extremely difficult to obtain good evidence this way. I have been smack in the middle of several investigations that involve other phenomena breaking out in the room, yet the cameras and tape recorders pick up nothing unusual. If the cameras and recorders were particularly sensitive to ghostly phenomena, then I would expect to have a more vast collection of images and sounds than I do … which is precisely why I don't think ghosts are inclined to manifest that way.

Let me be even more direct: for the last 4 years, I've been actively researching the former West Virginia State Penitentiary at Moundsville. The place is haunted (a combination of place memory and a few honest-to-gosh ghosts). The prison was the scene of executions, murders, beatings, stabbings, burnings, and other episodes of mayhem that, quite frankly, boggle the mind. In this 4 year period, I have taken hundreds of photographs, and hours of video and audiotape – most of them taken while I was alone and standing right in the haunted spots. I do not have any inexplicable photos or videos of orbs, streaks, mists, hazes, starbursts, etc. Some people claim they do; I've seen many of their photos. I'm not convinced.

Now, why is it that others have orbs and I don't? I can only think of two explanations: 1) darn it, the ghosts just don't like me and won't appear for me (though they apparently have no trouble bothering me in a zillion other ways when they feel like it) 2) I'm a bit more careful than the average bear when I take a photograph.

Over the years, I've also paid a lot of attention to photos/films/videos taken by other investigators in other cases. To my dismay, I have found some of the most famous ones are hoaxes and fakes, even though some of them have received continuous publicity (in books, websites, and TV shows) as real evidence of ghosts. Even when they're not hoaxes or fakes, then the investigators tend to fall into the trap of thinking that the equipment is more sensitive, etc., etc. In that case, they're putting the cart before the horse by assuming that their 'sensitive' equipment will pick up ghosts. My question: why are you claiming that the equipment is sensitive to ghosts? (This usually prompts a nonsensical response akin to Nigel Tufnel of Spinal Tap claiming that his guitar amplifier is more powerful than others, because his goes to '11' while the others only go to '10').

Makes you wonder how anyone saw or heard ghosts before the advent of cameras and recorders!

The orb photos began to appear on a wide scale in the mid-to-late 1990s. There is no doubt in my mind that they came to prominence with the rise in the Internet itself, since it became pretty easy to share these photos on a mass scale with all sorts of interested parties. To paraphrase an old joke that a friend of mine loves: "They wouldn't put it on the Internet if it wasn't true." And so, apparently, a lot of people have taken orbs as the truth about ghosts.

But it's unfortunate that most of the ghosts look exactly like lens flares, bright dust, and rowdy reflections. Before the rise of the 'orb' era, most visual reports of ghosts tended to be of generally human forms and shadowy figures – one would have to assume that, somewhere along the way, ghosts suddenly changed their visual manifestation to look a helluva lot like lens flare. Plus, they decided that it was better to appear only on film/video as orbs. Call it the "Tinkerbell Mandate," if you will.

Listen – all that's required for orbs to appear on camera is a lens and a light source (room light, street light, window, headlight, firefly, camera flash, moonlight, etc.). Oddly enough, that';s also all you need to get any image to appear on film or video – so it's hard to support the argument that some anomalous photographic process is going on with orbs.

Static electricity can cause bright spots of light to appear on both traditional film negative and on the CCDs of modern digital cameras. I have been in regular film shooting situations where static has caused bright points of light to appear on the image, and where we've had to take special measures – grounding the chassis of the camera with a physical wire, for example – to remedy the problem. (By the way, this same static also interfered with the wireless microphone units, causing pops and crackles in the audio.)

Infrared light – used in the "night vision" mode of many camcorders – can appear as wildly bright light in the night vision image and in images from digital still cameras. Since you can't see the infrared with your eye in the same way that the camera sees it, then of course it might seem to be something that just mysteriously appears in the final photo or video. But that doesn't mean it's a ghost! It's more likely that your source of infrared illumination has found its way back to the camera, probably via reflection.

Polaroid cameras? Pretty cool – but also prone to producing photo artifacts. It has been standard practice in the TV/film world to use Polaroids for taking location photos and snapshots of auditioning actors. Goofy artifacts turn up from time to time – but I have yet to classify any of them as 'paranormal.' To do so, you'd have to assume that these cameras always take photos that are free of flaws; hence, an artifact must really indicate something. Nope.

It's also not a good idea to take photographs in the middle of an entire group of people who are taking pictures at the same time – there's too much wild light flying around! These are not what you would call 'controlled' conditions.

Not to be gross, but human skin (shed in very small flakes) is one of the chief components of dust. It sticks to your clothes (this is one the reasons that all clothes dryers have lint filters). If you're moving around, you can shake the dust into the air, where it can float for longer than you think — and it only takes a speck the size of a pinhead to produce an image on camera.

Worse, some people carry their cameras around in their jacket or coat pockets, which only increases the chances for dust to be in or on the camera itself. In professional photographic situations, it is part of the gig to be attentive to dust and all the ills it can wreak on the lens. My guess is that it's not the main concern of most casual ghost snap shooters.

I have yet to work with a professional cinematographer, photographer, or videographer who genuinely thinks that the 'orbs' are paranormal. Why, then, do they get so much attention in the media? Because they're an easy story, that's why. They provide a quick visual hook for news or documentary segments on ghosts – they look good, and if you write some narration that's appropriately spooky, you can create a little ghostly mystery, which is always good for ratings. People love ghost stories – many don't particularly care if they're real or not.

In other words, a ghost story does not mean that there is actually a ghost. I'm amazed at the number of investigators who haven't gotten this through their heads.

While most of these 'orb'; photographs are hardly important in, say, the scheme of world events, they are actually troublesome to serious investigators because they increase the 'noise' level surrounding paranormal phenomena. By that, I mean that otherwise well-meaning people are more prone to identify something as ghostly (as a result of their photos), and are then more inclined to report their experience as paranormal.

Now, don't get me wrong – there is absolutely a need for good research on what constitutes truly anomalous evidence from cameras and audio recorders. Frankly, it's why I keep doing it, despite the disappointments. But let's be more careful out there – we don't want to be caught spooking ourselves.

When I was a cameraman in broadcast sports some years ago, the directors were occasionally heard to yell over our headsets: "Hey – get your head out of the viewfinder!" It meant that you needed to look beyond the limited point-of-view of your camera to see a bigger picture of what was actually going on.

So, if you're serious about puzzling out true anomalies while ghosthunting, make sure you get your head out of the viewfinder.

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