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The (Non)Mysterious Orbs

Skeptical Inquiree

Ben Radford

Volume 31.5, September / October 2007

Q: People keep showing me pictures that have “orbs” in them. They usually look like round spots of light. Some of these people claim that the orbs are angels or ghosts. Any idea what they really are?

—R. Wilber

Figure 1. A ghostly orb photographed in the haunted soldiers’ barracks at Fort George, in Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario, Canada.

Figure 1. A ghostly orb photographed in the haunted soldiers’ barracks at Fort George, in Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario, Canada.

A: Orbs appear over my desk on a regular basis. Well, actually, they come across my desk every month or two, when someone sends me, either by e-mail or postal mail, photographs of “mysterious” orbs they find scary, amazing, or simply puzzling. Orb photos are essentially like Rorschach cards, though the forms are usually white and round instead of black and blobby. The interpretations of both, however, reveal much about how the viewer sees the world.

According to most books on ghosts and hauntings that are written by authors with more enthusiasm than critical-thinking skills, just about anyone can find evidence of ghosts using a common device in nearly every home: a camera. Orbs have also been reported in connection with crop circles and UFOs; they are a good, all-around “unexplained” phenomenon that can be adapted to fit many paranormal scenarios.

Most orbs are simply round or oval white shapes, though they may take a variety of forms. There is not one blanket cause for all orbs; many things can create the phenomena, ranging from insects to dust. In a series of experiments, I was able to create orb photos under a wide range of circumstances. The easiest way to create orbs is to take a flash photograph outdoors on a rainy night. The flash will reflect off of the individual droplets and appear as dozens of white, floating orbs. (The effect is most pronounced in a light rain, though even a little moisture in the air can create mysterious orbs.) CSI Senior Research Fellow Joe Nickell (1994), in his own studies, found that flashes reflecting back from camera straps are a common source of orbs, as are unnoticed shiny surfaces that can reflect a camera flash.

During one investigation I conducted at Fort George (“Canada’s most haunted place,” in Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario), I examined a large, wooden barracks where both ghosts and orbs had been reported. I took several flash photographs of the area, and I noticed that the building (essentially, a barn-like structure) was quite dusty, which can create orbs. As a television crew interviewed some ghost hunters, I noticed one orb, photographed it, and wondered what it might be (see figure 1). It was at about chest height and did not move at all, suggesting that it was neither an insect nor a dust particle; instead, it seemed supernaturally suspended in the air. It was several feet away from the nearest post, wall, or other visible means of support. It was quite odd, I had to admit. I showed the image to one of the ghost hunters, who seemed pleased that a skeptic had indeed captured what was obviously a ghost orb.

Figure 2. Further investigation reveals that the “orb” was simply a tiny dust particle, caught in a spiderweb, reflected by a camera flash.

Figure 2. Further investigation reveals that the “orb” was simply a tiny dust particle, caught in a spiderweb, reflected by a camera flash.

Not content to simply declare my orb a sign of the supernatural, I searched harder for a solution. Sure enough, closer investigation revealed that the orb was in fact a tiny piece of dust or lint that clung to the remnants of a spider web (see figure 2). It was a very unusual place for a web, and, had I not traced the long, nearly invisible line to its arachnid anchor, I would have rejected a web as an explanation. But it was a very long strand and just far enough away from the walkway that all but the tallest passersby would not run into it. It was very difficult to see, and only apparent when a dark color was held up in the air behind it for contrast—or when caught in a flash photograph.

Orbs may seem otherworldly because they usually appear only in photographs and are usually invisible to the naked eye. They are often unnoticed when the photo is taken; it is only later that the presence of a ghostly, unnatural, glowing object is discovered, sometimes appearing over or around an unsuspecting person. To those unaware of alternative explanations, it is no wonder that orbs spook them. Most ghost investigators will admit that at least some orb photos are of mundane phenomena and are not necessarily ghosts. Still, they insist, there must be some orbs that defy rational explanation, though none has yet been found. But even if that is true, no one has proven that anything but photographic and optical mechanics can create orbs.

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Benjamin Radford is a scientific paranormal investigator, a research fellow at the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry, deputy editor of the Skeptical Inquirer, and author or co-author of six books and over a thousand articles on skepticism, critical thinking, and science literacy. His newest book is The Martians Have Landed: A History of Media Panics and Hoaxes. Radford is also a columnist for Discovery News and LiveScience.com.