Parapsychologist Steve Parsons discusses the fallacy of ghost photography

That picture of a ghost probably isn't a picture of a ghost.

Ghost Photography
"Orbs" like the one in this photo are often touted as evidence of ghostly presences. This image was taken with a Nikon point-and-shoot in the so-called Pinewood cemetery (real name: Forest Park Cemetery) in Brunswick, New York, which is known for its supernatural history.Stan Horaczek

Steve Parsons is one of the world's leading parapsychologists and he's spent the vast majority of his life investigating ghosts and other such paranormal phenomena. But a better way to describe him might be as a professional empathizer. "I deal directly with people's beliefs and their desire to believe in certain unknowns," says Parsons. "What they really want is for me to come along and justify what they already think they know."

As it so happens, the proof many want justified is often presented to Parsons in the form of a photograph. It could be the image of a strange light orb floating over the favorite chair of a recently deceased relative or an image that appears to show a pale specter peeking out from a staircase. But Parsons, by nature of the fallibility of modern technology and the simple fact that people often infer what they want from an image, doesn’t put much stock in them.

“If someone saw or claims to have seen something, we’d obviously be interested in photography and video as a way of trying to understand their experience,” he says. “But it’s often an environmental cause that created the anomaly—and we’ll explain the precise cause.”

Now, before we go any further, Parsons is no pseudoscientist or spirit-hunter debutante sashaying from abandoned asylum to graveyard in search of ghosts. He’s an investigator with more than 30 years of professional experience and is regularly cited as the most respected ghost-hunter in the U.K. His methods combine psychology, forensics, and general science, and he takes an extremely technical approach, having engineered new methods of infrasound equipment that helped bring a measure of credibility to the field. He spends most of his time deciding whether or not he should let people down easy because he knows how to prove what has an explanation and what doesn’t.

“We’re not here to bunk to debunk what people are saying,” says Parsons, when it comes to photography. “We’re there to understand what their experience consisted of and then figure out what’s going on.”

But Parsons really does want to find—and claims to have found—evidence of paranormal phenomena. He’s just smart enough to know that photographic evidence is most often misleading. We spoke to Parsons about ghost photography and the fine art of finding evidence of the supernatural.

Ghost Hunting Full Spectrum Camera
The adorably named GhostPro is a modified action camera sold on Amazon with a full-spectrum modification billed as specifically for finding supernatural subjects.Amazon

Ever since photography became available to the masses, pictures of ghosts have started appearing.

It’s true. Photography has long been used as evidence of the paranormal. And it makes sense to a degree because anomalies have appeared in photos that, for a time, were beyond explanation. But for nearly as long there have been doctored photos used to fake people out.

Such as?

Oh, there are so many. One of the most famous cases of this was the photographer William Mumler. He was a spirit photographer in the 1800s and made a living off his images. He took the famous photo of Mary Todd Lincoln that appears to show the ghost of Abraham Lincoln hovering over her, his hands on her shoulders. But he simply started using double exposure before anyone knew what the technique was. He made quite a lot of money before he was outed as a fraud. And many images either follow this trend or are simply anomalies for which people think they have no explanation.

Ghost Photography
William Mumler's photo of Mary Todd with a "ghost" Abraham Lincoln. Public Domain..William Mumler

Throughout the years, have there have been any photographs that you think have some credibility?

Oh yes. One of the most famous ones is the Brown Lady of Raynham Hall. It was taken in Norfolk at the hall and appears to show a pale woman hovering in the middle of the staircase. It’s a rather convincing photograph, as it lined up with the conditions.

Such photos were snapped with film cameras. How has digital equipment changed the game?

Well, digital photography ruined the credibility of photographs because they are now so easily fabricated. It’s easy to create a ghost photograph using an app or very little skill with a photo editor. You can so easily move people and buildings and insert ghosts and whatever you like.

How does this affect an investigation?

Well, we don’t have a negative to work back from. We can forensically go through the file data but even that isn’t a perfect solution. And I think, largely now, the credibility of photographs and video has been pretty much destroyed in terms of producing any form of paranormal imagery.

Throughout the years, have there have been any photographs that you think have some credibility?

Oh yes. One of the most famous ones is the Brown Lady of Raynham Hall. It was taken in Norfolk at the hall and appears to show a pale woman hovering in the middle of the staircase. It’s a rather convincing photograph, as it lined up with the conditions.

Such photos were snapped with film cameras. How has digital equipment changed the game?

Well, digital photography ruined the credibility of photographs because they are now so easily fabricated. It’s easy to create a ghost photograph using an app or very little skill with a photo editor. You can so easily move people and buildings and insert ghosts and whatever you like.

How does this affect an investigation?

Well, we don’t have a negative to work back from. We can forensically go through the file data but even that isn’t a perfect solution. And I think, largely now, the credibility of photographs and video has been pretty much destroyed in terms of producing any form of paranormal imagery.

So your work doesn’t really rely on photography.

We have equipment but it’s used to really test the claim of the person having the experience. And we’d obviously be interested in using it if someone claims to have seen something in a photograph so we can better understand their experience. That would be, for example, trying to be at the same place at approximately the same time under the same general lighting conditions so we can see if we’re dealing with some sort of normal lighting effect that maybe the cause. Often, an environmental cause is a likely outcome.

So your work doesn’t really rely on photography.

We have equipment but it’s used to really test the claim of the person having the experience. And we’d obviously be interested in using it if someone claims to have seen something in a photograph so we can better understand their experience. That would be, for example, trying to be at the same place at approximately the same time under the same general lighting conditions so we can see if we’re dealing with some sort of normal lighting effect that maybe the cause. Often, an environmental cause is a likely outcome.

Bachelor's Grove cemetery is another place famous for ghost photography, particularly for a ghost known as "The Madonna."

And when you do that, are you using the same exact setup they used?

If a client is presenting a photograph, we will try to replicate as close as possible, if not actually take the camera from them—with their consent, of course. Because, were we to replicate the picture taken on a $50 point-and-shoot consumer camera with a $3,000 DSLR, we wouldn’t be making a formal direct comparison. Let me state that we’re not there to bunk or debunk what they’re saying; we’re there to understand the experience and try to test: Could they have seen what they claimed to have seen or experienced? What were they doing? How did it come about? We’re not interested in trying to figure out whether it’s a ghost or if it’s a hallucination. We are simply trying to understand the nature of the experience and so that involves a degree of replication as close as we can.

A lot of modern ghost hunters say that thermal imaging and ultraviolet photography are the now the keys to spotting ghosts. Is there truth to this?

This idea of modern ghost investigators using thermal imagery and infrared photography and ultraviolent photography and so-called newfangled full-spectrum photography realistically is all pretty pointless.

Why?

Because you’re dealing with a person who saw something with their own eyes. Or took it with their own camera. And what you’re dealing with there is visible light spectrum. So you then go along with something entirely different and you’re going to end up confusing yourself and possibly even constructing an anomaly with the equipment that you’re using.

Flir thermal camera for iPhone used for ghost hunting
The Flir One is a thermal camera that attaches to a smartphone and detects heat instead of visible light. Official site.Flir

Do you have an example?

Sure. The modern trend is thermal imaging, thermal photography because you can now buy these little clip on devices for iPhones for $200 and take a thermal photograph. Now, that’s infrared thermal data presented in pictorial form, which we understand. However, it’s not a photograph. Thermal energy works much differently than light and photonic energy. And so when you see something that looks unusual on a thermograph, it’s actually pretty normal. But because you’re thinking of it in terms of a photograph, it looks anomalous and you think it’s something paranormal. And you see this regularly presented on social media as proof of a ghost we can’t explain it.

So often the evidence is just a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Yes. I’ve often been tempted to respond to people on social media that, “just because you can’t explain it, doesn’t mean you can’t explain it.” At least not the paranormal. We have access now to so much advanced technology, but the problem is most people—and I think here we’re all guilty of it to an extent—when we get the new gadget, do we read the instruction manual? When we started working with thermal imaging cameras in 2003, the first thing we did when we got the camera was to invest in the three-day training course, the certificated course, to learn how to use this piece of technology. Now, you can spend $200 on a thermal camera and that’s it. And you can plug it into your iPhone and look at the pictures, and you can pore over and make with them what you will, and you will inevitably find a ghost.

When someone presents you with what you think is a photographic anomaly, do you recreate it to show them why you think this?

Yes. Once we understand the nature of the anomaly, we often can recreate it satisfactorily. By using either the client’s own camera and replicating it the way they did using as close to the same environmental conditions as they did. And if we get the anomaly again the second time, we can demonstrate to them why. But sometimes we can get some old lenses and tell them beforehand, if we draw it out on bits of paper for them, and show them that pointed this lens in a particular way it will, say, make that circle turn into that particular shape and the light coming through there. And we have explained some of the anomalies to clients in this manner.

I assume clients are sometimes not as receptive to this as they should be?

[Laughs] Correct. The problem you encounter when you offer an explanation is the “I know what I saw” syndrome. Remember: You are dealing with somebody’s beliefs and desires. Often, what they want when they show you the photograph is not for you to come along and explain the photograph. What they really want is for you to come along and justify what they already think that they know. You’re dealing with people’s very hard, fast beliefs. It’s almost akin to telling someone that their religion is wrong, in many cases.

One thing that I know you’re famous for debunking is the “orb phenomenon,” which is the appearance of floating lights in digital photographs that are often believed to be supernatural in origin.

Well, when I went into digital photography around 1997 or 1998, I started to discover these light anomalies, these blobs of light that appearing. Now, digital photography was brand new, so it was new to us. We started to see them and we were really quite excited about these things appearing. But then they kept appearing and that’s when the alarm bells started to go off, because paranormal phenomena should always, if it can be defined, be rare. And so we tried to do some basic experiments to test the idea and realized the picture in which these objects tended appear was when the camera was using its flash or a powerful backlight. And it kind of dawned on us that what we might be dealing with was airborne particulates—dust and moisture. We did some other tests and experiments—throwing stuff around, taking pictures of snowflakes and raindrops and mist and fog_and we started to see there was a definite pattern.

A lot of people had trouble with it because they say, does it explain moving orbs? The name “orb” itself is misleading because people are most often describing a two-dimensional disc on an image. The manufacturers of cameras recognized the problem. And the problem arises because the digital cameras is so small that the flash is very close to the lens axis, and you get this bounce back of sorts from the objects that are very close by. And all of the major digital camera makers all include notes to this effect and little diagrams to this effect in their consumer digital camera instruction manuals to warn people about these little blobs of light that appear.

Regardless of the content, you often decide whether or not a person is up to hearing the truth.

Well it’s often a great deal of reassurance that the blob of light is proof that grandma has gone to a better place. You have to think very carefully about whether you want to disabuse them of that idea, because that idea is really quite a powerful comforting idea to them. And it’s not doing anybody any harm to think that. People can be incredibly strong and incredibly vulnerable. And I don’t think your average ghost hunter has the necessary psychological or sociological skills in order to differentiate. They are there really with a desire to hunt ghosts and to see demons. And you see some very bizarre explanations put forward with complete disregard to the client’s well-being or sanity. And you see some really bad results coming off the back of an investigation or an interaction by one of these so-called expert investigators. It happens too often.

In your career, how many instances of the paranormal have you seen and believe to be authentic?

It has to come down to the personal experience. Because I have been in a situation where I know that all of the things that I would seek as explainers have been sought and there are no comfortable explanations for any experience. But there has been a handful where I’ve been confronted by a situation by an apparition, by an experience that really I cannot explain, even after going through all the appropriate steps. And I know other investigators would likely debunk my feelings, but I think they’re true. But the number? Four or five really convincing instances over the past 30 years.

You can buy Steve's book, Ghostology, on Amazon.

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