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The Phoenix Driveway Ghost

Skeptical Inquiree

Benjamin Radford

Skeptical Inquirer Volume 41.4, July/August 2017

Q: I was watching a program on the Discovery Channel and saw you. I have tried very hard to get an explanation as to why this image appears on my driveway every night. I have a security camera that records this strange image; it looks like illuminated smoke or mist. It creeps up from the ground and travels across my driveway.... Can you review the tape and explain to me what’s happening?

—Kay M.

A: I received the above query from a woman named Kay, who lives in a suburb of Phoenix, Arizona. I replied asking for more details, which she supplied over the course of two or three emails (condensed here for clarity and brevity):

It creeps up from the ground and travels across my driveway. When it reaches the other side it just rolls over the side of the driveway like water falling over a waterfall back into the ground. It’s very bright and has no particular shape. It is sometimes big and sometimes smaller. It starts at the driveway nearest the house and every night it moves down further away from the house until it reaches the end of the driveway and then it starts over again. It sometimes changes shapes; sometimes it’s smaller and sometimes it’s larger. I have hours of video of this strange sighting. I attributed this image to the disturbances I’ve had in the house such as ringing, bumping, popping, and rattling noises. I’ve had knocks on the front door and nobody’s there. . . . I’ve had my silverware turned upside down in the drawer and other nuisances in my kitchen. This is just a little of what’s been happening to me.

I asked for a copy of her video, and she sent me a VHS tape of a grainy surveillance video. The time/date stamp read April 30, and the video covered that evening and the early hours of the next day. Sure enough, there was an eerie, round, glowing image that appeared from 22:20 (10:20 pm) until 2:15am. It crossed the driveway, moving diagonally and very slowly. In fact the glowing ghost (if that’s what it was) took about four hours to cross the driveway. I asked for a better quality video on DVD, but she only had a VCR hooked up to her security camera and could not provide it.

A few days later I got another email from Kay:

Just to let you know, this thing on the driveway is very smart. I don’t think it wanted to be recorded or it wanted to confuse me. From the 8th of June to the 20th it wasn’t there. Then, on the 21st of June just as it was getting dark (about 7 pm), I went in to get the system set up and the image was there in the middle of the driveway. Before that, I think it just started early in the day and completed its trip across the driveway before I turned the camera on. That’s why I say it’s very smart.

Upon reviewing our correspondence, it was clear to me that Kay associated what was going on in her driveway with strange events in her home (such as popping noises, knocks on the front door, etc.) even though there was no clear connection. In her mind, these disparate phenomena were somehow related. This is fairly common in paranormal mysteries, where eyewitnesses will often lump random things together, confusing the issue and creating red herrings. I had no idea who might be knocking on her door or why she might hear rattling or popping (traffic, neighbors, and other ambient sounds seemed plausible), but I was not asked to investigate—nor was I given any evidence of—anything other than the driveway entity, so that’s what I focused on.

It’s important in investigations to determine the scope of the claims and not get bogged down with irrelevant information, as it’s easy to go on a wild goose chase. I soon realized that I was dealing with an unreliable witness; while her information was interesting, it was important to stick with the facts and the evidence available. She was not only convinced that the glowing orb was sentient (and trying to trick her) but also that it was causing other minor mischief.

After doing some research, I concluded that the ghost or glowing entity Kay videotaped was in fact the reflection of the moon crossing her driveway—very, very, slowly. Though most people assume that asphalt, being black, absorbs rather than reflects light, oils in the tar do reflect light. The video itself shows this quite clearly; the white area in the top right hand corner of the image is light reflected from a street lamp. Thus we know that light can be reflected. By consulting an almanac, I determined that the night of April 30 was a full moon. So there was a full moon that evening, which would have likely been reflected by the driveway. But my hypothesis falls apart (or is severely weakened) if the weather over Phoenix was overcast that evening. Further investigation revealed that the skies over Phoenix were clear that night, and the city had a high of 98° and a low of 74°. Further evidence for this solution was her information that “From the 8th of June to the 20th it wasn’t there.” Consulting a lunar calendar, I found that June 8 was the date of the last quarter of the moon, thus the moon was about half as illuminated as during a full moon. And, not coincidentally, the ghost reappeared around June 20—just before the first quarter of the full moon.

This information was very strong evidence for a solution but didn’t conclusively prove that the moon was mistaken for a ghost. I wanted to test my hypothesis with a falsifiable scientific test. I wrote to Kay and asked her to record the driveway on the night of May 13. Consulting my calendar, I saw that there would be no moon that night; if the mysterious image appeared on that night, then the image could not possibly be the reflected moon, and I’d have to keep looking for a solution. I queried her on May 15, asking to see the videotape. She replied about a week later: “I didn’t have the camera pointed at the driveway on May 13. It didn’t show itself for about a week.”

At that point I considered my investigation complete. I had specifically asked for a key piece of evidence, and for whatever reason Kay didn’t do as I instructed to collect that evidence. Perhaps she had in fact recorded the video and was embarrassed that the ghost hadn’t appeared, as I predicted. Perhaps she just forgot. But Kay admitted that recorded or not, the ghost had not appeared that week, so either way my point had been made.

I patiently and diplomatically explained to Kay what I thought the solution to her mystery was, outlining for her my evidence, research, and reasoning. Kay wrote back to me saying, “I’m sorry but I disagree with you unless there is a full moon every night. I have taped this image over and over every night for months on end and I don’t believe we have a full moon every night.” (Of course the moon would not necessarily have to be full to appear in the video, and in any event the only tapes Kay ever sent me were recorded during full moons.)

She continued, “Thanks for your review, but I know it is something else. I’ve even taped this image during the day once and I don’t think we can see the moon during the day.” Kay never provided the daylight video for me to examine, so that evidence was not presented to me for analysis. And though I doubt that even a bright moon would be reflected through full daylight, it might be in the late afternoon since the moon is often visible during daylight. Kay just needed to look at the sky to test her theory. Though I prefer to do field investigations when possible, I didn’t have the budget to do an onsite investigation; it would have been both impractical and prohibitively expensive to fly to Phoenix and stake out this woman’s driveway for days (or weeks). In any event, I had the video evidence I needed in the form of the videotape. Investigators must weigh the costs and benefits of an onsite investigation and work within their means while making a diligent effort to solve the case. I did the best I could and wonder if to this day Kay tells her friends and neighbors about her driveway ghost.

Benjamin Radford

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Benjamin Radford, M.Ed., is a scientific paranormal investigator, a research fellow at the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry, deputy editor of the Skeptical Inquirer, and author, co-author, contributor, or editor of twenty books and over a thousand articles on skepticism, critical thinking, and science literacy. His newest book is Investigating Ghosts: The Scientific Search for Spirits (2018).