“The host who can boast the most ghost” (Ghost hunting)

Purported psychics meet with continual failure when tested under controlled conditions or when asked to demonstrate their ability in the presence of someone who knows their tricks like James Randi or Susan Gerbic. Some genuinely believe it, which are the types that lend themselves to these tests. Meanwhile, the charlatans know to stay away from skeptics and prefer to ply their trade in the presence of grieving family members.

Then we have aliens, which are cool and exciting, but which are seemingly restricted by distance or which require the granting of super-advanced technology to an unknown species without evidence this has occurred.

Then there are crypto critters, also an intriguing idea and which requires no wormholes or triple warp speed travel. Zoologists discover species all the time, right? Sure, but assuming the existence of a new terrestrial creature of significant size necessitates that all such representatives escape capture, hunters, cars, and steady cameras for decades.

But what about ghostly apparitions, which are confined to a time and place? McGill University professor Jonathan Jarry looked into this with the skeptic community’s leading ghost expert, Kenny Biddle, and reported his findings. Biddle was once a believer but he used ghost-speak as a prank during a hunt and this ended up being reported by credulous attendees as the real deal. When Biddle revealed the ruse, they refused to believe it.

Jarry notes that ghost hunters have adapted for the time and “have traded the embroideries and candlesticks of the Victorian era for” whirring, whizzing electronic gizmos.

For example, most bring a electromagnetic field (EMF) meter to the hunts. Whenever the device is triggered, ghost hunters count this as a spooky score, ignoring or being unaware that the device merely picks up EMF activity, with there being no reason to think disembodied spirits are communicating via this spectrum.

Jarry explained, “In a world ever more reliant on electricity, we are surrounded by electromagnetic fields and it is the duty of ghost hunters to rule out normal explanations for their readings. But in Biddle’s experience, they typically do a very cursory look around to rule out anything obvious before concluding that it could be ghosts.”

Flashlights are also used, the purported idea being that the ghosts will communicate to “yes” or “no” questions by flicking on and off. While this sometimes works in the sense that the light comes on, it has nothing to do with a Medieval knight or a 19th Century Baltimore aristocrat contacting us from the nether realm. Rather, Jarry writes, it is merely heat science at work. And even then, it has to be a Maglite sporting a xenon bulb. Additionally, it must be a screw-on model turned to where it is almost on. A vibration can set it off, and if that fails, Jarry writes that “the light will cycle through its on and off states if its head remains on the cusp of its on position. The plastic lens in front of the bulb heats up by 13 degrees Celsius when the bulb is on. This causes the plastic to expand, which results in the flashlight head turning by 2.6 degrees, which puts pressure on the metal spring at the bottom of the lamp, resulting in the electrical contact being broken. The bulb goes off.”

Now let’s move from the visual to the auditory. For this we have a spirit box, whose ostensible purpose is to capture ghost speak. Like an EMF meter, it uses scientifically sound principles incorrectly. It scans radio frequencies but does not stop when it picks up a signal. The ghost hunter will ask a question and listen for white noise and passes off any seeming hits as spirit communication.

Jarry also notes the REM Pod, SLS camera, and the Ovilus (a monitor with antennas) are also used to seek ghosts, but again are being misused and apparent successes are just the devices acting as they would without an associated poltergeist present. Having primed the audience, and combined with humans’ desire to find patterns, these noises appear to be working.

In conclusion, the notion of ghosts accessing and utilizing electromagnetic field is supported by so studies or sound evidence. The devices are working by picking up and sending off signals but there is nothing to suggest the animated deceased are responsible. And while the devices are modern, the ghost hunting method of talking to the dead without ever hearing back, and still claiming success, is the way the field has always operated, and this stagnation is a pseudoscience hallmark.

“Creep like a baby” (Ravenswood Devil)

Today we will examine evidence for the Ravenswood Devil’s Baby, a most excellent moniker bestowed upon a infant/monster hybrid who purportedly scurries about an Appalachian cemetery in the West Virginia town that bears his name.

In this cemetery stands a gravestone commemorating the brief life of George Elwood Sharp. The marker contains a ceramic photo that includes what was once a clear image of the deceased baby but which proponents believe has morphed into a demon child sporting fangs, horns, and hollow eyes. Some claim the plate releases a mysterious glow at night, while some go further and say the infant’s tortured wail can be heard at the same time.

Daniel Reed examined these assertions in a piece for Skeptical Inquirer. He learned that like many good legends, there are kernels of accuracy in this one. As stated earlier, there is a George Sharp gravestone with a ceramic photo plate. But as to whether it depicts Satanic spawn – especially one that can emit auditory and visual evidence of its existence – is another matter.

Reed explained that the child’s portrait appears devilish or vampiric because of discoloration and fading due to weathering. Additionally, a crack in the plate produces the illusion of fangs. Reed considers interpreting horns and fangs from the heavily-weathered image to be an instance of pareidolia.

Next, he tackled the claim that the ceramic plate emits an unearthly glimmer at night. Reed visited the cemetery and deduced that when the sun began to set on the western horizon, the glow proved to be merely light reflected off the plate’s relatively white surface. Also factoring in is a security light about 100 feet from the gravestone. This illumination hits directly on the plate, making for even more of a glow.

As to the putative crying, Reed wrote that considering the cemetery’s location in a residential area, one could expect to hear people talking, dogs barking, televisions running, animals running, leaves rustling, and more. That some of these could be misinterpreted as something ghostly is unsurprising, especially in a cemetery and by someone who is expecting or hoping to hear it. These are reasonable, albeit mundane, explanations, that make more sense than a disembodied spirit cavorting about.

“A dispiriting time” (Rock Island Arsenal ghost hunt)

When practical, I prefer to offer first-hand accounts in my posts. Explaining the history, methods, claims, and counterclaims of reflexology is fine, but it’s better if I can visit a practitioner myself and report the results. Poring over arguments and retorts from the anti-GMO crowd is OK, but not as good as attending a seminar where these ideas are highlighted. One of my favorite aspects of this blog has been my annual trip to the Quad Cities Psychic and Paranormal Fair. Alas, all aforementioned treks have been on hold the last 18 months as the pandemic took hold and has continued even with vaccines, masks, and distancing, since only about 60 percent of the country is on board with such mitigation measures. The pandemic has shown Americans to be incapable of handling a national emergency requiring mild inconvenience. But things have improved enough that I was able to get back in person and attend a putative ghost hunt at Rock Island Arsenal’s Quarters One. The mammoth structure is the second largest federal residence behind the White House and contains 51 rooms of potential poltergeists.

The cost was $25, which is the best bang for your disembodied spirits buck. Similar evenings run $150 or more in other locales. It was set for a three-hour block, beginning at dusk. These hunts are always held in the dark even though there is no reason to think spirits of the deceased are more active at night. The times are chosen to create more mood and drama, which is fine if it’s being presented as entertainment, such as with campfire stories. It’s another matter when promotors are suggesting that sinister spirits are real.

Also playing on stereotypes was the locale, a four-story, 19th Century mansion. Along with castles and asylums, huge antique homes are favored ghost-hunting spots. Ghosts always seem to bypass split-level ranch homes, subdivisions, and Dillard’s. On a related note, battlefields and mass terror scenes are conspicuously apparition-free. For all the photos and audio taken at the World Trade Center, Pearl Harbor, Hiroshima, Waco, and Oklahoma City, none have shown images or captured audio of a spirit detached from its deceased body. Were ghosts real and as tethered to their place of demise as advertised, such locations should be literal ghost towns.

The hostess began the evening with a loquacious recounting of the home’s history. There were a few factual croutons tossed onto the word salad but it was primarily a string of conditioning, expectation-building, and plying us with spooky, unverifiable anecdotes. This included the requisite reference to “energy,” so during the Q and A session, I inquired as to which type of it the spirits emit. The hostess looked as if she had finally succeeded in capturing a ghost. She was used to softball questions, not late-breaking curves. After some awkward silence, she spit out, “It depends on the ghost,” a kind of catch-all response that covers all the bases while still saying nothing.

Speaking of nothing, that’s what happened during this supposedly spooky sojourn. I don’t consider this a spoiler because that would entail giving away what happened and nothing did.

The tour started in the basement, where I whispered notes to myself into a handheld tape recorder. This caused one of my fellow attendees to shudder and exclaim, “I heard a man’s voice!” A couple of others were certain they had felt an apparition touch their hair or skin. This was probably a physiological manifestation of the mood and expectation that had been built at the presentation’s opening. In any event, this is something there is no way to test, prove, or disprove. There was one claim that a breeze of some sort was felt, which coming in the basement of a 19th Century home, falls well within the natural explanation purview.

The 30 minutes were mostly spent staring in the direction of three flashlights. They were the types that turn on and off by twisting the circular portion near the front. The hostess put the flashlight in the ‘off’ position, but as close to ‘on’ as she could. Addressing this jury-rigged ghost locator, she asked if any deceased persons were present, then subsequently asserted that any illumination was the result of such a presence. Her first eight queries were answered with silence, other than some teeth-chattering among the credulous and a sigh of boredom from myself. After the ninth summoning, the light came on. This is a normal and explicable occurrence for this type of flashlight positioned in such a way. Whenever it turned off, this was touted as the ghost saying it no longer wished to chat. For a control, the hostess could have tried this experiment while making no requests of the flashlight and seeing if it still came on and off at random intervals. Further, if this were really the work of the ghost, it could have turned the flashlight on from the fully-off position and it could have communicated in Morse code. Of course, control experiments and a skeptical questioning of the results were not what the evening was about.

There were two more rooms to visit, but I was working all weekend, it was getting late, and I had seen nothing, which ironically was more than enough. I scooted out, thanking my guides (I cannot bring myself to call them their preferred title, researchers) for putting on the event and told them I was leaving. They had requested this courtesy since previous attendees had absconded without telling them. In a spin that would make any marketer proud, this was explained as the guests being so panicked they had to split. But my early departure was due to an hour-long snoozer masquerading as a history lesson and the follow-up 30 minutes of ghost-hunting that netted three seconds of flashlight flickering.

While nothing interesting happened, the hostess was ready with an ad hoc explanation for this bust. She played back a portion of her recording and claimed to hear a voice, and told us that even when nothing seemed to happen, further ‘investigation’ may reveal that something very much did.

Along those lines, the hosts highlighted a variety of gadgets, gizmos, and doohickeys they employ in their searches, but none of the items were used for their intended purpose. None of them were manufactured for the purpose of capturing Casper and less-friendly apparitions. Promotional pamphlets at previous Quarters One hunts referenced “Weird EMF spikes” that “can be found in certain areas on the second floor.” Such spikes likely occur but there are reasons beyond ghosts that can explain them. As one example, the mansion rests on the banks of the Mississippi River, where ships and their electronic devices incessantly pass. Moreover, EMF sounds that resemble speech are often the result of misuse by the operator or flaws in the equipment.

Another claim is that, “Visitors experience hot and cold spots.” Again, likely true, but nothing mysterious. This is very common for huge homes that have seen their sesquicentennial.

The pamphlet further noted that, “Mists have been photographed.” Sure, but those can be explained with basic photography terminology. Shots taken in dark by amateurs will likely increase these flaws.

Additionally, even if no answer can be found for these or other phenomenon, it only means that the event remains unexplained. It doesn’t mean we can adopt a default explanation that the living dead are responsible.

Ghosts, or at least our image of them, have adapted with the times and technology. In earlier manifestations, they were said to resemble a floating white sheet, an idea born from the burial cloths which were lain on the dead. In the days of Dickens, Poe, and Irving, ghosts were humanoid apparitions that were somehow still wearing clothes. Later, ghosts became less concrete, such as how they were portrayed in The Amityville Horror. Today, a ghost is more likely to take the form of an orb, flash, or flare, which are portrayed as auras which transcend spiritual planes, but which are more likely the result of camera shortcomings, operator error, and lighting and environmental conditions.

Many ghost hunts, including this one, employ a K2 meter that purportedly serves as a conduit between the hunt’s host and the poltergeists they are chasing. However, the K2’s purpose is to locate sources of electromagnetic radiation, be they magnetic, electric, radio, or microwave. The meters also provide a reading of the strength and direction of the field being detected. It was designed to read a small part of the electromagnetic field from household devices and give a general measurement of strength. There is no reason to suspect that ghosts have the desire and ability to communicate via the low end of the electromagnetic spectrum. Nor, for that matter, is there any evidence that the departed continue on in any form. Ghost hunters are looking for evidence of something without having first ascertained that thing exists.

So when ghost hunters employ an infrared thermometer or motion detector to pinpoint a cold spot in a room, they might find such a location. But while there is no reason to think ghosts are responsible for temperature changes, those chasing them might be causing it since more persons in the room will raise the temperature. Changes are also caused by heating, air conditioning, insulation, studs, wiring, pipes, radiant heat, sunlight, and wind.

Usually touted as the spookiest fruit from hunts is ghostspeak on audio, such as the one the hostess claimed she heard while trying to recover from the unintended Comedy Half Hour. These mystic missives might seem unsettling, but that’s only because they are so garbled and distorted. They are drenched in static, vary in pitch, and produce an unpleasant sound that can come across as someone who is pained, scared, or angry. In the many thousands of hours of these recordings, we have yet to have a ghost articulately announce in plain language, “Here I am, the ghost of King John’s tailor.”

When one can make a phrase out of EVP, it is likely the result of apophenia, the mind’s tendency to perceive patterns in random stimulus. It is what causes people to see a Face on Mars or Jesus in their Post Toasties. Other factors in hearing spirit voices on recordings are expectation and desire, but the biggest influence is equipment shortfalls.

EVP are usually recorded by raising the noise floor, which is the electrical noise created by all electrical devices, in order to create white noise. When this noise is filtered, it can be made to produce noises which sound like speech. When you factor in other aspects of physics, such as cross modulation of radio stations or faulty ground loops in equipment, you have a lot of people thinking they are listening to ghosts when in fact it is nothing more than a controlled misuse of electronics. Sample rate conversion, vibration isolation, and noise alteration can all cause recordings to assume qualities separate from what they originally picked up.

Still, EVP remains popular among believers since bodily noise, rustling clothes, wind, creaks, whistles, stray radio signals, whispers, camera sounds, and magnetic interference can all be interpreted as ghostly. A more incredulous observer would be asking, “How does an immaterial being bump into something or make a noise while walking (or even walk, for that matter)?” Or, “How does an entity lacking vocal chords and a tongue manage to shriek and babble?”

Again, the problem is that ghosts are made the default explanation. Noises can never be the house settling, a board creaking, or the wind blowing. No explanations are offered as to how this equipment would reveal the existence of ghost. No criteria are given for what constitutes a capture, the alleged point of these hunts. If what I experienced qualifies as a capture, I retract my earlier statement about $25 being a good value.

“For Whom the Bell Toils” (Tennessee witch)


According to legend, a farm family near Adams, Tenn., was tormented in the 1810s by a ghost or similar spirit that came to be known as the Bell Witch. She assaulted familial patriarch John Bell and caused the dissolution of the engagement of his daughter, Betsy. Among the curious visitors who came to investigate was Andrew Jackson, who like most everyone else got spook and high-tailed it out of there. During the multi-year ordeal, furniture slammed into walls and other objects, while shrieking, staccato laughs and demented songs were heard. The apparition entered bedrooms and pulled both hair and sheets during the terrifying nights.

The spirts was not just spooky, but deadly, as the demise of John Bell is attributed directly to the Witch. Family member discovered him deceased one early morning in 1820 with a vial of undetermined liquid next to him in bed. The witch taunted the grieving family members with an admission that she had done it.

The nightmare Started when John saw a hideous dog-rabbit hybrid one night. This odd encounter was followed in the next few days by scratches at the doors and windows, sounds that next moved inside. What began as whispers grew louder and became a disembodied female voice that sang hymns, quoted scriptures, and proved capable of carrying on a conversation, unlike most ghosts, who can only moan or utter disjointed communication via a medium.

However, these tales are almost exclusively from one source, which itself has little in the way of substantiation, documentation, or backup, That work is the Authenticated History of the Bell Witch, written by Martin Ingram in 1894, 75 years after the eerie events. The terrifying tome is based entirely upon the supposed diary of John Bell’s son, Richard. Richard was 6 when the trials started but wrote nothing down for 30 years, and died soon after doing so. However, Ingram never produced the diary, which seems to have disappeared like Mormonism’s golden plates. The alleged Bell manuscript had never been referenced until Ingram mentioned it in 1891, more than 30 years after the putative author’s death.

In his book, Ingram claims the Saturday Evening Post ran a story about the Bell Witch in 1849. But investigators searching for the article never found it. Researcher Jack Cook poured over microfilm of the periodical for several years on either side of 1849 and found no such article. Like the diary, this alleged source has yet to be verified.

Other than Ingraham’s writings, the story of John Bell’s murder at the hands of the Bell Witch was never described in any published account, nor was a future president identified as leaving the Battle of New Orleans to go ghost hunting.

Another issue with the disappearing diary is that its vernacular parallels Ingram’s’ writing. In the Skeptical Inquirer, Joe Nickell noted several consistencies that seem too voluminous and exact to be coincidental.

Bell and Ingram both made reference to the witching events as “high carnivals” and “the greatest of all secrets.” Both refer to one’s facial features as “physiognomy” and characterize John Bell as “always forehanded, paid as he went.”

Additionally, both authors use multi-page paragraphs consisting of sentences that ramble for more than 100 words. And both use distinctive words (or possibly non-words), such as declamation, vociferator, beneficience, and felicity, lodgement, unregenerated, and mordacity. Both also reference the same Biblical stories. Nickell wrote, “Applying to samples of both texts a standard readability formula based on the average length of independent clauses together with the number of words of three or more syllables shows that ‘Bell’ and Ingram had reading levels….at the sophomore level of college.”

So the Bell Witch might make for a good story, but not good history. Ingram would have been better off using it as inspiration to pen an admitted work of fiction rather than trying to pass it off as the documenting of an actual occurrence.

“Ghostly presents” (Spirit sex)


While most persons think of ghosts as spooky or non-existent, there walk amongst us those who see a more amorous side. They claim to have had romantic relations with spirits of the deceased, with a majority of such reports coming from the UK and Ireland. It’s not surprising that countries with deep histories and medieval castles would be home to such tales, if one can ever consider reports of sex between ghosts and the living to be unsurprising.

To be sure, tabloids across the pond report on phantom trysts with semi-regularity. They have profiled Sian Jameson and fellow Brit Amethyst Realm, who says she’s had ghost sex for so long that she goes to spirits exclusively for her erotic needs. Irish citizen Amanda Teague even claims to have exchanged nuptials with her ghost host, giving her a spirit spouse. Guess the warning about same-sex marriage leading to other unholy unions was correct.

Not letting British tabloids have an uncontested race to the bottom, the Travel Chanel has run pieces on spooky sex as well. These erotic ethereal encounters are often described as feeling like a force is moving against a person, with the sensation being cool and gentle while slowly building to a climax.

Playboy quoted Patti Negri, a self-described medium and spirit sex expert, who said, “They can go beyond your skin, in and out. It’s pure energy.” There’s that word again. In four and a half years of covering the paranormal, supernatural, and alternative medicine, I’ve learned I can never go five blog posts without one of the believers making an undefined reference to energy.

Ancient texts seem to allude to spirt/person romps. This includes references in the myths of many cultures to incubus, who are demons who have their way with unwilling women. Their female counterpart is the succubus. Whereas incubus are out to torment women, the succubus is said to inflict a slower demise upon its victim, who eventually succumb to deterioration of health and wealth. Whereas the incubus rape, the succubus seduce. This reinforces ingrained sexual stereotypes and serves as a morality tale against careless sex and a not-too-subtle description of females as being wily, cunning, and evil. It is comparable to the Biblical labeling of prostitutes as being foul temptresses who lead men to ruin, while their customers are reviled for succumbing to Satanic temptations of the flesh.

While ancient tales of ghost sex involved men and women, it seems to be only the latter reporting such occurrences these days. Actress Natasha Blasick, who appeared in Paranormal Activity 2, apparently practiced for the part by having some spirited sex, so to speak, and she opines that men may be experiencing this but are less included to talk about it.

She could be onto something. By way of comparison, an actress who comes out as bisexual may experience a career boost for doing so, while an actor likely would not. That’s not due to any more open-mindedness, but because there is a subset of society who find gay male sex revolting, but consider woman-on-woman action to be “cool” or something they can get off on. Such observation is hardly evidence that men are experiencing ghost sex, but Blasick could be right about them keeping it to themselves if they think they are.

If this belief is happening more often to women, it could be because they have concerns for their safety in dating and courtship that a man would not and this rectifies that. An added appeal is that this control allows the woman to take the experience wherever she wants.

While this might provide the desire to believe, we here prefer more scientific explanations. So let’s mention sleep paralysis, which occurs when the body emerges from slumber but the person continues dreaming, opening the possibility of nocturnal visions morphing into waking hallucinations that coincide with an inability to move. The latter is likely an evolutionary safety measure that prevents sleepers from acting out their dreams.

Another possible explication is hypnogogia, a dreamlike trance that produces auditory and visual hallucinations. This can lead to tingling and sensations of being crushed or suffocated, in addition to hearing noises that aren’t there and sensing the presence of an animal or humanoid.

Skeptic leader Joe Nickell posits that an individual’s disposition causes them to view these happenings through a personalized lens. A skeptic might think they experienced sleep paralysis, a Tarot Card and ESP enthusiast might think they’ve had sex with a ghost, and a UFO fan might think they’ve been probed. So the putative experience reflects the person. We can see it as something with a rational, scientific explanation, a horrifying ordeal, or a satisfying sexual experience that serves as a grown up version of having an imaginary friend.



“Chance of a ghost” (Spirit photography)


For a decade, Kenny Biddle has hosted workshops and maintained a vlog in order to explain the causes of ghostly images in photographs and videos. These apparent apparitions are usually the result of long exposures, lens flare, and dust particles, though sometimes fraud is the answer. His expertise in photography and his focus on this specialized area have made him the go-to skeptic on such matters.

This year, Tim Scullion put out a book he described as the “world’s first photo study of ghosts,” which naturally attracted Biddle’s interest. Where Scullion was seeing floating transparent corpses, Biddle was seeing lighting and equipment issues.  

In a column for the Center For Scientific Inquiry, Biddle wrote, “Long exposures seem to be the technique of choice, evidenced by motion blur, use of ambient light  in low light environments, and even examples of light painting, a technique where a light source such as a flashlight is used as a “paint brush” to paint designs or words with light during a long exposure. Ghost hunters often accidentally get this effect when they turn the camera flash off, causing the camera to take long exposures. Any background lights or other ghost hunters who are carrying devices with lights can cause streaks of light to appear in photos.”

In the early days of “ghost photos,” the pictures were of humanoid apparitions somehow still in clothes. This interpretation was consistent with an era of Dickens and Poe. Today, the ghost is more likely to be an orb, echoing the notions of auras and transcending spiritual planes. Biddle noted that in many of Scullion’s shots, a straight line can be drawn from the orbs to an overexposed light source. Also, most of the orbs form hexagons, which Biddle explains is a common feature of lens flare which occurs when light reflects off the inside of an aperture.

Scullion addresses these criticism in his book, writing, “Until I can get a thorough, scientific explanation that debunks anything paranormal, I have to dismiss the lens flare explanation of these light anomalies. If my camera is stationary on a tripod, then by the definition of a lens flare, the lens flare would not move nor would it shape-shift!”

But even if it were not lens flare, Scullion is not allowed to go unchallenged when he tries to make ghosts the conclusion. He is saying nothing more than, “We don’t know what this image is, so it has to be a disembodied spirit.” This is the argument from ignorance, a logical fallacy where a fact is assumed because of a lack of contrary evidence.  

Scullion is also inverting the burden of proof, putting the onus on skeptics, scientists, and photography professors to prove he’s NOT taking pictures of floating dead persons.

While Biddle has no such burden, he still offers a retort, citing Scullion’s failure to employ proper testing controls when trying to get snapshots of Casper. He wrote, “Rather than taking multiple images consecutively from the same angle using the same camera without moving the camera/tripod, he changes multiples variables with each image. He took the images at different times of the year, different angles, different lighting conditions, and different cameras. The camera was in a different position each time, which changed the angle of the images, thus changing how the light entered the lens.”

This reveals sloppy research and a misunderstanding of intermediate photographic principles. However, another example from Scullion’s collection morphs into outright fraud. He blogged about visiting Gettysburg and taking images of ghosts – this time the throwback variety, fully upright and dressed in military garb.

According to Scullion, “I picked up a white figure near the trees, and it turned navy blue — indicative of a Union uniform.” Biddle examined this image and, with help from his friend and Gettysburg resident Andy Keyser, quickly determined it was of a statue that had been reworked in PhotoShop.

There may be still more intentional deception from Scullion. Biddle wrote, “Looking through more images on his blog, I found many faces, most of them appearing in window panes from various historic sites and a few appearing in fog or mists. They are not actual human faces such as in a photograph or real life. They appear to be paintings and/or chalk drawings that have been edited into the photos. The faces share an artistic style, the proportions are slightly out of proportion and/or irregular, and it’s painfully obvious they are artwork, not ghosts.”  

Biddle offered to interview Scullion and go over his work. Scullion initially agreed, but since then his only response to Biddle’s inquiries has been to remove the altered Gettysburg photo from his website. Not that he’s been quiet. He’s been plying gullible, credulous media with tales of his poltergeist photography.

When geniuses bestow a monumental change on society, they want it known and their methods revealed. They announce what they did, how they did it, and welcome questions and scrutiny. That’s how Copernicus, the Wright Brothers, Alan Turing, Jonas Salk, and Albert Einstein operated.

Uncovering proof of an afterlife would be a substantial development that would have monumental impacts far beyond the photography field. Scullion has been offered the chance to have his potential proof put to the scientific test by arguably the planet’s foremost expert on ghost photography. So far, he has bypassed that offer to instead have chummy chats with TV news producers and to blog that skeptics, whom he won’t meet with, have yet to prove him wrong.

“Idiot lights” (K2 meters)


In an episode of King of the Hill, the no-nonsense titular character chastised juvenile cut-ups for placing a trash canister on its side, positioning a board diagonally across it, then using this as a makeshift launching pad for skateboard antics. Hill sternly pronounced, “That is not its intended use.”

I could go for a crossover show between King of the Hill and the glut of ghost hunter shows that infest the airwaves. For most of the latter employ a K2 meter that purportedly serves as a conduit between the TV hosts and the poltergeists they are chasing. However, the K2’s purpose, or intended use in Hank vernacular, is to locate sources of electromagnetic radiation, such as magnetic, electric, radio, and microwaves. The meters also provide a reading of the strength and direction of the field being detected.

Skeptic leader Kenny Biddle did a series of experiments, with ghost hunters on hand, to demonstrate how the K2 can be manipulated, and also showed how responses from the device are no evidence of a haunted locale.

First, the basics of the K2. Biddle wrote, “The K-II meter is a simple, single-axis electromagnetic field meter. A pressure-sensitive switch on the front turns the device on, using your thumb to maintain pressure.  It was designed to read a small part of the electromagnetic field from household devices and give a general measurement of strength.”  

Most meters consist of five light-emitting diodes that indicate the strength of the signal being detected. When powered on, the K2 performs a self-test, twice flashing the diodes in succession and back again. Per Biddle, the device “can detect Extremely Low Frequencies and Very Low Frequencies,” these two together covering the range from 50 to 20,000 Hertz.

However, there is no proof ghosts exist, much less that they have the desire and ability to communicate via the low end of the electromagnetic spectrum. Some spirit chasers claim their K2 devices have been calibrated or altered to perform paranormal hunts, but Biddle’s investigation found this was limited to adding a toggle switch to the instrument. But regardless of how much a K2 is altered, there is no reason to deduce that the changes turn it into an apparition apparatus.

Ghost hunters normally ask questions of the spirits and interpret any dancing signals as a result the hunted is answering. They may stipulate that it should be one flash for yes and two for no, or something similarly simple. But this is just the K2 detecting the low end of the electromagnetic spectrum and performing as it is supposed to. If the ghost hunters asked the spirit to speak though the lights in Morse Code and this occurred, that could be worthy of further investigation, but the K2 performing as designed requires no supernatural explanation.

Often, even the K2’s standard performance can be manipulated by the ghost hunter. Biddle explained that this is done by “applying just enough pressure on the switch so that it appears to be fully depressed even though the switch is making the slightest contact. This allows the operator to manipulate the device, causing the LEDs to dance crazily or flash twice” because he is forcing the K2 to perform the self-test mentioned earlier.

In his experiment, Biddle met with a group of paranormal investigators who had staked out a hotel it suspected of housing ghostly guests. Biddle first determined what implements he could get the K2 to respond to, and he had positive results from the powering on of a video camera, the turning on of a camera flash, and the presence of two-way radios. Next, all these devices were removed and the ghost hunters allowed to attempt dialogue with their prey. The two parties agreed to bypass the standard “two beeps for yes, one beep for no” protocol to avoid mistaking normal operation for a ghostly chat.

Under these controlled conditions, the hunters were unable to get the device to respond. This contrasted sharply with the rainbow of supposed proof that highlights paranormal shows. Of course, these shows have the advantages of editing, multiple takes, toggle manipulation, two way radios being present, and there being no skeptic on hand to monitor the situation. Under conditions much more friendly to the investigators, the K2 lights up regularly and this is presented to a credulous audience as a deceased spirit crazily trying to communicate. This fuels more shows doing the same premise, boosts the ratings, and keeps the advertisers rolling in. And that, for the network, is the K2’s intended use.

“Free spirits” (Quad Cities Psychic and Paranormal Expo)


Each year, the Quad Cities Psychic and Paranormal Expo rolls into town. Another tradition is me having 86 cents in my expendable income account. That has kept me from paying for any paranormal products or psychic services, but I have some magic of my own and always come away from these events having gotten something for nothing.  

My first stop this year was at an essential oils table, where I was assured the merchandise was “100 percent certified pure therapeutic grade, with nothing synthetic.” When it comes to the only oil I ever buy, motor, synthetic is a good thing, so I’m curious what this is all about.

I asked the two women what they could tell me about the oils and they inquired if I had any aches or pains. Indeed, my head was hurting so they referred to their chart that recommended peppermint. Later, I checked other essential oil businesses and websites for their headache cures and among those listed were lavender, eucalyptus, rosemary, spearmint, roman chamomile, magnesium, turmeric, frankincense, wintergreen, birch, jasmine, sage, marjoram, bergamot, ginger, and basil. By the time I tracked all those down it would be way past the four hours my headaches normally last and it would be gone anyway.   

As to these ladies’ recommendation, per their instruction, I put a couple of drops on my fingertip and lathered up my forehead and the back of my neck. This caused a pronounced burning sensation, meaning the pains on the inside of my head were now matched by ones on the outside, so I at least had symmetry going for me.

Brushing off the unpleasantness, I asked if the oil had healing properties. Assured this was the case, I asked if they knew the science behind it.

“There’s lot and lots of science. Our company is all about science.” What they lacked in specifics, they made up for in enthusiasm and assurance, so I continued.

“If there’s an active ingredient in it, is there a chance you could use too much of it?”

“Other companies, yes, but not ours. This is 100 percent pure.”

“But if it has healing properties, I would think there would be a danger of overdose. If you take a bottle of Excedrin, you’d be dead.”

“But that’s not all-natural.”

“Natural could still do you in. Hemlock is natural, too. So with the peppermint oil, is there a way to determine the proper dose?”

There is a look I get from psychic and paranormal fair merchants when I start lobbing anything beyond remedial inquiries at them. They are used to being asked, “What can craniosacral therapy do for me,” not, “Can you explain the mechanism behind craniosacral therapy?” Questions about the science are answered with “lots and lots” as opposed to providing examples of peer-reviewed articles and double blind studies.

I got that look, which they then turned on each other. They traded stammers before one of them offered that I should start with a drop or two and work up to what works for me. Of course, if no amount worked, I would keep going until I overdosed, which is what I was trying to avoid.

I was about to make this point when one of them changed the subject by offering me oil-infused chocolate chip cookies. I can’t ask probing questions if I’m chewing on confectionaries. To wash it down, they handed me water with lemon oil added.

“What does this do for you?”

“It helps with dehydration.”

Water helps with dehydration. Really glad I’m not paying for this information.

Glancing at the comparison chart that recommends oils in lieu of over the counter medication, I asked, “So for body aches, instead of Tylenol, I should take chamomile?”

“That’s right.”

“Why not just take Tylenol?”

“Because ours is pure.”

Oh, that’s right, you told me that. I need to look and see what oil helps with memory.

I then made my way to another table, where I asked a middle-age bespectacled woman with shoulder-length blond hair what she was offering.

“Readings, Reiki, and energy clearing.”

“What’s a Reiki healing?”

In a dreamy voice she intones, “Oh it’s wonderful. I love it. It holistically heals you from the inside. A week ago I got arthritis real bad and had Reiki done and I haven’t had it since.” There have been about 10 million such anecdotes in Reiki’s favor, none of them accompanied with an explanation for the mechanism behind it.  An eternal optimist, I hoped to be the first to track this down.

 “How does it work?”

“It’s spiritual. It’s the universe. It’s the angels. It’s the spirit guides and all the energy they use to heal you.”

“What type of energy does it use?”

“Well, we’re all made of energy. The Earth is made of energy, you, me, all living creatures, that type of energy.”

So someone would take my energy then give it back to me. Again, glad I’m not paying for these services.

Turning the subject to another of her offerings, I asked, “What’s energy clearing?”

“That clears away the energy we pick up from other people as you’re walking around or you’re living with them.”

“But that kind of contradicts the Reiki healing. Wouldn’t the energy clearing cancel out the Reiki energy you received?”

“No, it’s not connected. The energy that’s been cleared is low level. Depression, for instance, does not have a high vibration. The session helps to clear the clutter that builds up from negative thoughts and actions,” she told me. “Have you ever been talking to someone that just makes you sad for what the world has come to?”

Boy, she nailed that one. Why isn’t she manning the mindreading booth?

Moving on, I found a merchant who focused on a haunted house south of Buffalo, N.Y. He owns the house, he told me.

“Do you live in it?”


“Does anyone live in it? Besides the ghosts, I mean?”

“No, I’m fixing it up.” He’s probably using sub-contractors for the various tasks, like remodeling, wiring, and ghostbusting.

He further explained, “I’ve researched the spirits in this house and its history. There was a failed exorcism there, another guy died there. Some people left after two months. Another family got out quickly and left all their stuff behind. People have tried to live there but it’s hard.”

I tried living in upstate New York for a while, I know what you mean.

“How do you research it?”

“There’s lots of scientific ways of researching it. Then there’s the personal, the feelings you get when you’re there.” So he bases it on science and feeling, and I have a feeling he’s exaggerating the science part.

This fellow was giving a free (there’s that key word again) presentation about this, so I followed him into the speaking room. Wonder if all this makes me a paranormal investigator investigator.

Once there, he enthralled audience members (well, with one exception), telling tales about these spooky surroundings. He assured us, “There’s definitely a dark entity there.” I imagine that’s called nightfall.

His talk contained the phrases, “something’s holding the spirit there,” “there’s a portal in that room that can’t be closed,” and “spirits are crossing a threshold.” There was talk about “an Indian chief” and “a woman in white at the pond,” both of whom he reported capturing on film. He also related a story about how a K2 meter stayed lit when he attempted to contact a former resident. “There was no explanation for it,” he said.

That’s because he didn’t ask me. The K2’s purpose is not to enable the dead to communicate via beeps and flashing lights as you walk up creaking stairs. Its function is to detect electromagnetic radiation and indicate the radiation’s strength and direction. There is no evidence deceased homeowners have the ability to leave this radiation behind.

When I asked if the K2 meters were designed to chase ghosts, he said no but added, “When your body dies, energy can’t be created or destroyed. There’s still that energy somewhere. If you ask a question and it flickers, perhaps it’s paranormal.” And perhaps it’s from the cell phones, video cameras, and computers you brought in.

Other audience members asked questions like, “Are you worried about driving off the friendly ghosts and leaving only behind the evil entities,” and “If the house burned down, would the spirits go back out the portal?” Meanwhile, I got in a second question, about why ghosts in his photos would still be wearing clothes. He answered that they did that somehow, some way, so that people in the present could recognize them. By this point, I realized the peppermint oil wasn’t helping any and my headache had gotten worse.



“Remember the data” (Anecdotes vs. evidence)


While “Don’t knock it until you try it” is the cliché, skeptic leader Brian Dunning thinks a better suggestion is, “Don’t try it until you knock it.” He was being somewhat sarcastic, as no opinion should be formed until all available evidence is considered. But his point was that personal experiences are inferior to data.

When it comes to favoring personal experience, this mistake is most frequently committed with regard to alternative medicine therapies and products. People often trust their perceptions more than any other source. But clinical test results provide a much better assessment of efficiency than someone’s word that it worked.

Our senses are prone to error and not everyone’s are as pronounced as the next person’s. Further, we all carry preconceived notions, biases, and expectations. Then there are mood swings, good days, bad days, and medium days. Hence, the assessment of a person grabbed off the street will be filtered through his or her prejudices, biases, preconceptions, preferences, and forgetfulness. It is impractical that their anecdote will be proof that the product or procedure will work (or fail) for everyone.

That’s why scientists use controlled, randomized trials. These will overcome the biases and other weaknesses addressed in the previous paragraph. As Dunning explained, “If you want to know whether listening to a binaural beat will make you fall asleep, a science fan knows not to try it to find out. She knows her sleepiness varies throughout every day and she knows that the expectation that it’s supposed to make her sleepy skews her perception. Instead, she looks at properly controlled testing that’s been done. Those subjects didn’t know what they were listening to, they didn’t know what it was supposed to do to them, and some of them unknowingly listened to a placebo recording. She knows the difference between real, statistically-sound data and one person’s anecdotal experience.”

Trying an untested product compromises a person’s ability to objectively analyze testing data about that product. This is also true in areas beyond alternative medicine. It can come into play while reading a horoscope, seeing an alleged ghost, or attending a psychic seminar. A cousin of mine did the latter and afterward, she excitedly posted there was “NO WAY” the psychic have known what she did, save an esoteric ability.

This is known as subjective validation, where an experience being personally impactful is considered evidence that the phenomenon is authentic. But with psychics, there are issues regarding cold reading, selective memory by audience members, and the lack of confirmatory testing. In my cousin’s case, the experience resonated with her because she had an intense experience, but that is not controlled data. A test could be designed, and in fact have been carried out, and no medium has ever consistently performed better than chance.

Still, persons will insist they know something works because it did for them. But this is not necessarily what happened. During the 2016 Olympics, athletes tried cupping and elastic kinesio tape, two alternative therapies completely lacking in evidence and with no plausible working mechanism behind them. Desperate for the extra edge against fellow world-class athletes, Olympians tried them and their personal experiences convinced them it worked. Yet these swimmers, runners, and gymnasts also had access to personal trainers, excellent nutrition, regimented rest periods, massage, icing, and other attentiveness that guaranteed they would perform at their peak. Giving the credit for victory to cupping wins the post hoc reasoning Gold Medal. Michael Phelps, after all, had collected plenty of first-place finishes before he started overheating, misshaping, and discoloring his back. There’s also the issue of those who tried these techniques and came in 17th.  

Now we will examine another instance in which personal experience is treated as preferable to tested evidence. An Answers in Genesis chestnut is “Were you there,” which they genuinely consider a solid retort to proof about the age of the universe, Earth’s earliest days, and the development of homo sapiens. This is a vacuous, absurd reply. No one questions if Thomas Jefferson wrote the Declaration of Independence by asking historians if they were there when he dipped his quill into ink.

This supposed “gotcha” question reveals Young Earth Creationists’ substantial ignorance about how science works. As Dunning explained, “Scientific conclusions are never based simply on personal reports, but upon direct measurements of testable evidence. Nobody’s been to the sun, either, but we know a great deal about it because we can directly measure and analyze the various types of radiation it puts out.”

Likewise, chemists can’t see quarks and astronomers can’t see dark matter, but these entities can be measured and their attributes analyzed. The answer to a time-honored riddle is that a tree falling in forest does indeed emit soundwaves whether anyone is there to perceive them. Likewise, Earth formed, heated, and cooled regardless of whether this was being witnessed. Researchers understand the science behind the various dating methods that are used to determine this. In the same way that DNA is preferable to a witness at trial, radiometric dating, carbon 14 dating, and the speed of light are more important than the fact that no one from Earth’s earliest days is alive to recall it.

From those that deny something has happened, we move to those who assert that something has happened despite lacking concrete evidence for this claim. Specifically, some persons will wonder what’s the harm in using a product or technique if it makes a person feel better.

The harm can come in such forms as using Therapeutic Touch instead of antibiotics. Such methods not only waste time and money, but the patient may bypass legitimate medicine that would work. And in certain cases, such as with colloidal silver, black salve, and some essential oils, active ingredients are being ingested and overuse can be dangerous.

Another way in which personal experiences are trusted over clinical evidence is to claim, “I know what I saw.” Yet senses are prone errors, deficiencies, and bias. A popular video asks viewers to count the number of times a basketball is passed between a group of persons. When most respondents are asked to give that number, they usually give the correct response. But they also fumble when asked the follow up question, “What walked through the group while the ball was being passed?” It was a man in a gorilla suit ambling by, yet most viewers missed it because they were so consumed with keeping track of the number of tosses.

“Our memories change dramatically over time and were incomplete to begin with,” Dunning wrote. “And who knows how good was the data that your brain had to work with was to begin with? Lighting conditions can come into play, as can movement, distractions, backgrounds, and expectations of what should be seen. Possible misidentifications and perceptual errors all had a part in building your brain’s experience.”

That’s why Bigfoot sightings are not considered to be “case closed” proof of the beast’s existence. Anthropologists would need to look at testable evidence, which in the case of Sasquatch, is utterly lacking.

Out of frustration, aficionados of alternative medicine, conspiracy theories, cryptozoological critters, and a Young Earth will sometimes label scientists and skeptics “closed-minded.” But closed-mindedness includes refusing to change ideas no matter how much contrary evidence one is presented with. Since phone calls from 9/11 hijack victims described Islamic terrorists, Truthers concocted an evidence-free ad hoc assertion that those victims and the family members they telephoned were in on the government’s plot.

Meanwhile, being open-minded means changing your position when you discover you’ve been mistaken. I balked when I first heard that race was a social construct instead of a biological one. Using some of the reasoning addressed earlier, “I knew what I saw,” and clearly race had to be biological since I could see the difference between someone from Canada and someone from Nigeria. But as I learned about alleles, gene frequency, migratory routes, blood types, and the Human Genome Project, I changed my mind.

There are mounds of evidence that disprove such notions as chemtrails, chiropractic, a flat Earth, vaccine shedding being the cause of disease, and the first man being spoken into sudden existence 5,000 years ago. Yet hardcore adherents to these ideas consider the skeptic or scientist to be the closed-minded one.

People who assert this think of science as an unbending set of dictates from dour men in crisp lab coats or arrogant academics perched in ivory towers. However, science is a process that continually adapts, refines, improves, adds to, subtracts from, and alters data, according to where the evidence leads. And that refinement is subject to still further peer review, examination, and testing. That is why scientifically controlled data on the ability of a eucalyptus rub to cure rheumatism will always be preferable to what Aunt Tillie says.

“Picture of stealth” (Ghost photos)


This spring an alleged ghost photo made the social media rounds, with even USA Today taking a somewhat credulous view of the apparent apparition.

While most supposed ghost photos feature vague or distorted imagery, this one looks like a girl romping through the woods in upstate New York. The photo is clear and what’s unclear is why anyone was thinking it was a ghost.

There was some mention of a local legend about a girl having been killed by a train in the area, though no name was assigned, nor was there even confirmation such a tragedy had ever taken place there. The USA Today story also reports that a caller claimed the girl was his visiting granddaughter. This claim was anonymous so cannot be corroborated, but that still leaves us a long ways from any confirmation the youngster has risen from the netherworld. And why are ghosts are always said to be sticking around the farmhouse, asylum, or palace where they lived and died? They are seemingly freed from the laws of physics and could presumably travel the world for free, not even needing food money, yet they remain under self-imposed house arrest.

While this was a case of a clear image with a fuzzy claim attached it, many ghost pictures are the other way around: A fuzzy image accompanied by a strong declaration that it is someone who met an unfortunate fate in the area. Sometimes their names are offered, at other times it is just referred to as a nurse, soldier, maid, or other designator. In any case, the images are proffered as evidence we prance about in the afterlife, still fully clothed. These assertions are sometimes augmented with speculation that photography captures an intermediate dimension not visible to human eye. This claim remains void of any proof or an explanation of how this process would work, and is an instance of Tooth Fairy Science.

Whatever changes photography undergoes, ghostly images continue to be inferred. In the field’s earliest days, before film, photographers worked with glass plates which were cleaned after each photo and used again. If the cleaning wasn’t done thoroughly, faded remnants of the previous image might show up in subsequent photos. This would make for a freaky appearance to the uninitiated, which when it came to photography, described 99 percent of the country in the 1850s.

Also of consequence is that the advent of photography was simultaneous with the birth of spiritualism. Adherents of this faith felt the dead continued to exist as conscious spirits and could communicate with the living. To spiritualists, death was viewed as another realm of existence as opposed to being merely the permanent cessation of vital bodily functions. Interaction with these spirits was considered more likely thorough avenues like mediums and séances.

William Mumler fused photography and spiritualism, ironically mixing a scientific advancement and a religious regression. He created ghost photos and presented them to a gleefully gullible consumers eager to exhibit subjective validation and confirmation bias.

Alas, he was a 19th Century Peter Popoff. Mulmer conspired with mediums, who would collect details about a dead person from relatives in exchange for half the profits Mulmer made from grieving family members. When he repeated these tales to the relatives, they were convinced he was in touch with the deceased’s spirit. Besides information about the dead person’s achievements and idiosyncrasies, mediums also provided Mumler with photos of the deceased. He then scoured his collection for someone whose appearance was similar and he dropped a faded image of that person into a second photo.   

His most famous client was Mary Todd Lincoln. I suspect finding images of this customer’s dearly departed would have been easier than in most of his cases. Mumler was eventually busted for his fraud, and while he was acquitted, he had been exposed and his career tanked. But the idea he promulgated lived on, and persons to this day continue to champion the idea that spirits are captured in pictures.

Many alleged ghost photos from the early 20th century resulted when someone inadvertently moved through a scene photographers were capturing with long exposure settings. This early photobombing created images similar to the multiple exposures on poorly-cleaned glass, but they also featured blurred motion or a repeated figure.

The double exposures continued with film-based cameras if the photographer forgot to advance the film. This was usually instantly recognizable as a mistake, but it infrequently would make it appear that a ghostly face or figure was looming.

These apparitions were consistent with an era of Dickens and Poe. Today, with the notions of auras, chakras, and an undefined New Age energy, orbs have replaced Victorian gentlemen and wailing damsels as the most popular poltergeists. An orb is usually explicable as being dust particles bathed in a camera’s flash, as opposed to it being Great Aunt Erma in aurora form.

Another frequent misinterpretation focuses on insects flying in front of or landing on security cameras. Probably the most-known instance of living six-legged creatures being mistaken for dead bipedal animals took place at an Ohio gas station in 2007. A blurry, mostly transparent image seemed to be hopping and darting around the cars and customers, and was the result of insects walking on the lens.

Even a camera strap partially obscuring the lens and being out of focus from the rest of the photo can appear ghostly, whatever that is. It’s hard to say precisely whether something is a ghost when we have never captured one, despite a decade of Ghost Hunters and hundreds of professionals engaged in precisely this pursuit. 

Such hunts are almost always done at night even though there’s no reason to suspect ghosts are nocturnal. It’s done for effect and to increase ratings. But if also done during cold nights, the visible breath can be combined with camera flash to create something spooky looking. This is where pareidolia comes into play, especially in photos that aren’t hoaxes. Hoaxes involve inserting an image of a real person into a second photograph. But with the orb, insect, camera strap, and cold-breath photos, the images are impossibly vague and in many cases it’s unclear what a viewer is supposed to be seeing until it’s pointed out. Even then, what is supposedly revealed is nothing more than half a face or part of an arm, and is often covered by smoke, mist, trees, or stairs. 

While a few ghost photos might be of a form resembling a human figure, the scarcity of these pictures works against the idea that spirits of the dead are being captured on film. If these really were ghosts, and photography captured an in-between land of the not-quite-living, not-quite-dead, one would expect to see ghosts every day on every hospital camera. This is not the case. Similarly, photos of battlefields and mass terror scenes are conspicuously apparition-free.  Photos taken at Waco, Oklahoma City, the World Trade Center, and Pearl Harbor should show a booming poltergeist population.

Instead, we have no ghosts from those locales, and the ones that supposedly show up in other places are the result of the effects of shadows, fog, exposure, sunlight coming through cracks in a forest, and similar factors.

For those who engage in deliberate deception, hoaxes are much easier to pull off with PhotoShop. At the same time, such advancements also make it tougher to fool multiple experts. Finally, if no answer can be found, that only means the photo is unexplained. It doesn’t mean that the default explanation is that it’s a ghost.