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Mysterious Beings or Mere Accidents?

Dawn M. Peterson

Skeptical Briefs Volume 14.2, June 2004

People use cameras every day. It isn’t unusual to get strange shapes and lights in photos even when they were not present at the time the pictures were taken. Almost everyone has experienced this. But the question is, what are these things that keep popping up in photographs, and why can’t we see them with the naked eye? The problem arises when tracing the source of these appearances.

Many times I have taken pictures and later discovered that light reflecting off a mirror in a corner, for example, had created a large, orb-like light. Sometimes there might be smoke, mist, or fog, which the photographer simply was not aware of at the time the picture was taken. When this occurs it certainly isn’t the result of a fraud, it’s simply a mistake. This is how most unexplained photographic effects occur. But the infamous William H. Mummler is a good example of turning an accident into a profitable attraction.

Mummler is the grandfather of fraudulent ghost pictures. In fact, the first claims of ghosts caught on film were made by Mummler in 1862. Mummler’s first “ghost pictures” were an accident. Because of poor cleaning of his glass plates, an old image ended up on the same plate with a new picture. But Mummler soon realized he could use his mistakes for making money by claiming to have the ability to take pictures of spirits that were watching over us. Years later he was exposed as a fraud.

But what about the real ones, the genuine pictures of ghosts? Do genuine ghost photographs even exist? How could one be certain that something more probable wasn’t causing the appearance? What we have to know is if there are ghosts among us, then what are they? Theories range from ghosts being the spirits of dead people coming back from an afterlife to energy that the earth (or ground, or air, etc.) has recorded and plays back when triggered or when conditions are right. Some experts believe that there are multiple types of ghosts, which would fall into different categories depending on the ghost’s characteristics.

Maybe it is possible for ghosts, angels, and other beings to defy science and try to show us that they are very real. But how can one be sure, especially with the chance of being fooled by either an accidental apparition or a purposely faked one?

M.F. “Chance” Wyatt certainly chooses to take his chances. Wyatt is a Melbourne, Australia, ghost hunter who wrote Spirits Visit Earth: Documented and Recorded Spiritual Happenings. He says that orbs are actually the fingerprints of spirits caught on film.

“Some of us can see them with the naked eye,” said Wyatt on Halloween 2001 in an article in Florida Today. “But they're the ones that decide whether or not they want to be photographed. So, when you get one in a picture, essentially what you've photographed is the result of pure thought or consciousness.” He justifies the “choice” of sphere shape (orb) by stating, “Spirits are magnetic energy fields that take on any shape they want, and a sphere is the easiest shape to attain, because it gets stronger when you apply equal pressure to all sides.” So there you have it. Orbs in photographs are spirits, which result from a thought process, and the chosen orb shape is justified because it’s the easiest to produce. However, the skeptics have a different explanation.

Robert Baker, an investigator with the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal (CSICOP), has a different view. In the same article, Baker suggests that orbs might be “electrical emissions coming out of the ground.” The orbs in photographs could be simply the result of processes that create subterranean heat leakage, which apparently shows up on film and looks odd.

Joe Nickell, Senior Research Fellow for CSICOP, notes that orbs never appeared in photographs until modern cameras came out. Yet there have always been dead people. Thinking that the dead are just beginning to make contact since modern cameras have been available is absurd. Since the “ghosts” from earlier cameras have been exposed as fakes, how can one truly believe that the dead are just waiting to be photographed?

Back in the days of Mummler, one would have to sit still for a long time in order for a picture to be taken. A common trick was to have a person (the spirit) quietly come up behind the people getting their picture taken. Since they could not move during the process, they would never know that anyone had come up behind them. When the picture was developed the people would be delighted to see their “spirit guide.”

Benjamin Radford, an investigator for CSICOP and managing editor of the Skeptical Inquirer brings up this interesting point. “There should be billions and billions of ghosts everywhere,” states Radford, “but there aren’t.” He goes on to say, “Why are ghosts seen with clothing? Do your jeans die with you?”

But what about the unintentional apparitions, the ones without a fraud behind them?

Nickell says, “We do know that dust, fingers, camera straps, mist, and lint can reflect the camera’s flash and produce ghostly effects. Dust particles are a major source of orbs. We do not know that ghosts are the explanation of any orbs.” In fact, Nickell has intentionally produced orbs in experiments.

I have gotten a few pictures of orbs myself. In many cases, the explanation of dust seems plausible. In figure 1, for instance, I was at a horse show riding Virginia Intermont College’s Tux. Dust produced by the horse’s hooves might have caused that brilliant orb above my head and the two smaller orbs under Tux’s jaw. I do not know, however, that a spirit or ghost (of any type) was the cause of it. I certainly have no high hopes that I have a little spirit guide following me around while I’m riding! In figures 2 and 3, the bright sphere is simply a reflection of my camera flash in the mirror, not a “ghost light.”

Figure 2 & 3: Bright spheres, Camera flash. . . or ghosts?

So why is it that people are so quick to jump to the conclusion that spirit activity is the cause of circles of light in photographs when those phenomena can easily be explained by natural effects? Often the first-and the only-explanation offered is a paranormal one. What about the possibility that something natural has occurred? Skeptics call this true-believer syndrome, in which a person continues to believe in something despite clear evidence to the contrary.

Just because it’s proven fact that dust, lint, mist, etc. can produce orbs does not mean that every single orb captured on film falls under this category. The true believers will therefore base their beliefs on a foundation that upholds that orbs could be ectoplasm left behind by traveling spirits. In their minds this is perfectly acceptable, and they choose to ignore the possibility that their beliefs are potentially based on a misunderstanding.

M. Lamar Keene, who came up with the expression “true-believer syndrome,” says that when it comes to true believers, “No amount of logic can shatter a faith consciously based on a lie” (Keene 151). True believers often exercise what philosophers call an ad hoc hypothesis (Blackburn 6), which often runs arguments in circles. For instance, if Bob believes that ghosts exist, I would ask how he knows that they exist. He might then refer to an orb in a photograph as proof of a spirit. When pushed further into how he knows that a ghost caused the orb, he would say because nothing else could have caused it so it must be a ghost. And how he knows ghosts exist is because he has “evidence” of them in a photograph, etc. . . . So basically we've gotten nowhere, and Bob has convinced himself that ghosts exist because he is arguing from ignorance.

While a few arguments for ghosts may seem logical, there simply is not enough evidence to support these arguments. This is based on the assumption that an argument is invalid if, for instance, there is no evidence to support theory A, therefore theory B is the answer even if little or nothing is known about theory B. Perhaps one day there will be proof that ghosts can and do appear in photographs and that some orbs are something more than just lint, mist, and photographic error. Skeptics are only asking for good evidence.


I wish to thank Kevin Christopher, Joe Nickell, and Benjamin Radford for sharing their valuable insights and field experience.


Dawn M. Peterson

Dawn Peterson is an investigative equestrian and former CSICOP intern.