What ought to be the passing bell for ‘orb’ phenomena rang in the autumn in the form of research published by Steve Parsons of the group Para.Science. Photographs of anomalous luminous spheres and dots have dogged ghost-hunting since the end of the 1990s, and most informed opinion now considers them nothing more than artefacts generated by modern cameras. The reflections of tiny particles in the air appear on pictures because the typical flash unit of a camera in use today is much closer to the lens than with older models. Thus, those particles of dust you see in a beam of sunlight, bobbing around with air currents and Brownian motion, show up as orbs when digital cameras are used.
In findings presented at the conference of the Society for Psychical Research in September 2010, and published in the November 2010 edition of Anomaly, Steve Parsons reports the results of his exhaustive experiments using a Fujifilm W1 3D digital camera, whereby matched stereo images are taken of the same view. A total of 1,870 stereo pairs of images were taken at over 20 locations in the UK and Eire, including a number of allegedly haunted sites. Some 630 orb-like images were obtained. If orbs are not reflections of particles less than 2–3cm (roughly an inch) from the lens, then the orb should appear in both images. In 491 pairs obtained, the orb was only present on one image, and in 139 pictures orbs were present on both images, but not in a position that corresponded to the individual orb being the same object. Steve Parsons concludes that “all 630 that we obtained in the survey were readily explained using the stereo photography technique. That is 0 per cent paranormal but 100 per cent explainable.” At the end of the article he expresses the hope “that this extensive series of pictures will finally remove much of the confusion and nonsense that has surrounded the orb.” (Source: “Orbs!… Some Definitive Evidence That They Are Not Paranormal” by Steve Parsons in Anomaly, the Journal of ASSAP, vol.44, Nov 2010). However, I suspect this won’t happen just yet, given the widespread wish to believe orbs are paranormal.
In October 2010, the Scotsman newspaper carried a remarkable claim that “Voices of the dead and ghostly orbs of light ‘prove airbase is haunted’” [FT265:4]. Two Scottish-based paranormal researchers, Cat Perks and Linda Williamson, claimed to have obtained conclusive evidence that a former airfield near Montrose is “a major centre of paranormal activity” based upon orb photos and some strange audio recordings.
“We are scientific researchers and not ghost-hunters and we were using a range of voice recorders as well as night vision camcorders and digital cameras” Ms Perks told journalists.
Similar claims were being made a month later and hundreds of miles away along the Suffolk coast, at Languard Fort, Felixstowe. The fort is a favourite site with ghost-hunting groups, and on 11 November 2010 a special “Connecting to the orbs” fund-raising evening took place with a prize for the best orb picture. The event was promoted by Peggy Weber, who until recently ran an interesting website arguing that orbs are spirits. This site displayed many images of orbs, including an emerald-coloured one that Peggy considered held the likeness of the face of her husband. Ms Weber previously appeared at a 2008 gathering in Glastonbury entitled “Orbs: Interacting with Other Realms Prophets Conference”. A similar conference was held in Arizona, and in the same vein, a book appeared in autumn 2010 entitled Orbs Their Mission and Messages of Hope, receiving widespread publicity in the United States. Written by Klaus and Gundi Heinemann, it argues that orbs are spiritual energy with a special revelation for humanity. Heinemann holds a PhD in physics and is a specialist in electron microscopy. He states: “There is no doubt in my mind that Orbs may well be one of the most significant ‘outside of this reality phenomena’ mankind at large has ever witnessed”. He has previously co-written The Orb Project with Dr Miceal Ledwith, who discovered “orbs through the teaching of Ramtha”. Heinemann warns that some orbs have ordinary explanations, but others are a vehicle of revelation, emanations from non-physical entities.
Like many people, I was initially intrigued by the appearance of the first orb photographs during the course of investigations at haunted sites using digital cameras. But soon it became apparent that the alleged orbs were very common and were turning up in mundane situations. Paranormal phenomena tend to be elusive and unpredictable – orbs were just showing up too often. In 2005, a short film by photographer Philip Carr, Riddle of the Orbs, demonstrated that anyone who wanted orb photos could obtain them by taking pictures in a dusty environment. Or just thump a pillow, take photographs and you may get some orbs. It is hardly surprising orbs appear in pictures taken in dusty old buildings and ruins that ghost-hunters like to frequent.
A piece of negative evidence supporting the view that orbs are artefacts caused by modern technology is their almost total absence in photographs taken before digital cameras. Occasionally, you can see what might be taken as an orb in an old photograph – for example the 1973 photograph of the Rollright Stones in Oxfordshire/Warwickshire in Anthony Hippesley-Coxe’s Haunted Britain. But this photograph was an attempt to catch sunrise at the stone circle, with the ‘orbs’ produced by sunbeams hitting the camera lens. More significantly, prior to digital photography, no one suggested spirits of the dead routinely took the form of luminous dots. Before the 1990s, ghost-hunters taking photographs expected (and indeed claimed) that their pictures would show recognisably human shapes and features, not specks of light. But the real difficulty with accepting orbs as a paranormal phenomenon is that the notion is belief-driven rather than evidence-driven.
Over the years, I have noticed that regardless of any explanation put forward, believers in orbs insist that their orb photograph is a genuine one. Regrettably, the criteria for distinguishing a natural orb from an allegedly paranormal one is nowhere clearly defined, suggesting identification rests purely on personal belief, not on any independent evidence.
Such attitudes are similar to those displayed during the 19th-century heyday of spirit photography and which ultimately contributed to its demise. Even some spiritualists gave up on spirit photography. By 1875, the medium Stainton Moses had personally examined some 600 alleged ghost photographs, showing just how widespread such images were. But his conclusions were damning: “Some people would recognise anything. A broom and a sheet are quite enough for some wild enthusiasts who go with the figure in their eye and see what they wish to see… I have had pictures that might be anything in this or any other world sent to me and gravely claimed as recognised portraits” (Human Nature, May 1875, p202). In no more than about a dozen of his 600 examples did Moses think that psychic activity had been captured on film. Despite his views, he himself was fooled by the French spirit photographer Jean Buguet, who confessed to faking pictures at a sensational trial the same year. Nonetheless, despite Buguet admitting his guilt, many of his victims pathetically continued to assert that their photo of a deceased loved one was genuine; they were never interested in learning more.
This lack of curiosity was in marked contrast to efforts at investigating other mysterious radiations detected by physicists at the close of the 19th century. These included Roentgen with his detection of X-rays, Henri Becquerel’s discovery of radioactivity and the Curies with radium. Indeed, a number of notable physicists of the period were interested in psychical research, including the Curies themselves, Sir JJ Thompson (discoverer of the electron), and Sir Oliver Lodge. Yet despite the creation of a Society for the Study of Supernormal Photographs in 1919, spirit photography failed to make any advances. As the public became more visually sophisticated, spirit photographs were recognised as double exposures. The arrival of infra-red photography from 1945 also seemingly terminated many alleged séance room phenomena such as ectoplasm.
These lessons should be remembered today by proponents of orbs. Certainly, it would be highly significant if orbs were a genuine paranormal phenomenon capable of being recorded on camera. It would tell us something about the energies underlying psychic phenomena, indicating they can take the form of light radiation, or some component of the electromagnetic spectrum. If these energies are capable of interacting with digital technology, better ways of detecting or measuring such effects might be developed, leading to testable theories. There are many directions in which research might go, but no one seems intent on making any progress.
Just this reluctance beset the previous generation of believers in spirit photography, with a few exceptions such as the 1930 investigation by Dr Eugene Osty into the Schneider brothers, two Austrian mediums. Another exception was Cyril Permutt who built up a large collection of alleged paranormal images, some of which are being republished today (see the Ghosts Caught On Film series 2007 and 2009 compiled by Dr Melvyn Willin). In his own book, Beyond the Spectrum (1983), Permutt suggested: “The date of a supernormal photograph can often help us determine the wavelengths of the radiation recorded in it. When the first psychic photographs were taken, in the days of wet plate photography, the active ingredient in the emulsions used were silver chloride, which is only sensitive to ultra-violet and violet light, and silver bromide, which extends the sensitivity to include blue light, and only these shorter wavelengths could be recorded.”
Today, advocates of orbs do not seem interested in thinking along these lines or about how research could develop. Indeed, no one seems to want to take on the mantle or title of ‘discoverer of the orbs’ (if orbs are a genuine psi effect, surely there is a Nobel prize waiting!).
Instead, many advocates of orbs seemingly want them to remain a mystery, content to go on snapping them without gaining any further insight. Instead of being used as equipment for investigation, digital cameras are being deployed as ritual objects to gather what believers interpret as traces of a spirit world. Effectively, spiritualism has moved from the séance room to photography. Meanwhile, non-believers and people who have no interest in the topic simply dismiss orbs as glitches spoiling their pictures.
Why should believers want to keep orbs a mystery? At the most basic level, orb photos add excitement to otherwise uneventful evenings. As at Languard Fort, participants gain a feeling they have got something for their money. This is illustrated in an account by journalist Tan Parsons of a “psychic dinner” at the Down Hall Country House Hotel, near Hatfield Heath, in February 2007. He wrote: “Much was made of ‘orbs’ that appeared in some of the photographs taken in the cellar – little white blobs seemingly floating in the air. What some might call photographic abnormalities caused by dust or mote of reflected light are actually, according to the experts, bubbles of ‘spiritual energy’.” (“Is there anybody out there or is it just imagination?” Harlow Citizen, 16 Feb 2007).
Orbs can also provide an excuse for showmanship and one-upmanship. Any ghost-hunter or medium can expect an orb photograph and claim it as a result, even before the investigation takes place. For example, members of “Light Pen Ghost Club” attended the Sandrock Pub in Shirley, Surrey, after landlord Steve Gilmour tired of jokes about his pub being haunted. He had not seen any ghost and complained: “[T]he locals are always going on about it and making ghost noises.” Investigator Julian Dryden told journalists: “We’re going to be focusing on the cellar of the pub, because that’s where staff say they are experiencing strange feelings and seeing twinkling lights, or as we would say, orbs.” Thus, before the investigation had even occurred, orbs were already identified as manifesting. (Sutton and Epsom Advertiser, 25 May 2007).
Certainly, it will be interesting to see how the research by Steve Parsons is received by believers in orbs. Will proponents of orbs be prepared to use stereo photography or eschew its use?
Dr Heinemann states: “But in the end, the paradigm will have been shifted. The authentic orbs in your and my pictures are leading the way toward inevitable recognition and acceptance that there is more to Life than life. The movement in this direction is unstoppable!”
Unfortunately, without knowing more, such an assertion perhaps provides yet further grounds for rejecting orbs as any kind of revelation. Obviously, I will have to read the Heinemanns’ book, but if this is all that orbs mean, it is a rather disappointing notion. Why would entities create emanations merely resembling dust and water droplets if they are attempting to convey an intelligible message to humanity? Such revelations are clearly surpassed by the innumerable spiritual and religious communications accumulated over the centuries, all of which are far more impressive, inspiring, and æsthetically pleasing than snaps taken in dusty locations with digital cameras.