Thursday, January 24, 2008

Chance of a ghost

Most paranormal photographs are optical illusions. Our minds dislike random stimuli, and try to make recognizable patterns out of anything that vaguely resembles an object. The last few days have given us a couple of possible examples.

First, there was the "man" (or woman) on Mars. I don't know about you, but it still seems incredible to me that we are taking pictures of the Red Planet right there on its surface. Throw in a human-like figure, who seems to be sitting on a rock having a think or conducting an extraterrestrial orchestra, and the boggle factor pegs the meter.


Ghost or "spirit" photographs, when they're not crude fakes, are often insubstantial — not inherently suspicious, since what they allegedly show is acknowledged to be insubstantial. Now and then, they look reasonably authentic. Today's Daily Mail has one of the better examples I've seen. The paper says, "Frightened teenager Matthew Summers was given the creeps after taking a snap of seven friends — and finding a mystery eighth face staring back. The photograph appears to show the floating ghostly image of a child, which appears to be peeping through between the legs of his friends."

Wide shot


I am completely ready to write off the Person on Mars as no more real than the Man in the Moon, if only because the planet has less atmosphere than my local Chinese take-out, and what it does have is mostly carbon dioxide, with little if any oxygen. Conceivably there could be Martians whose physiology is based on carbon dioxide — I wouldn't put it past the Maker of the Universe to create such beings, considering the incredible variety of species on Earth — but whatever this photo shows, it is not a human.


The ghost photo, however, can't be dismissed on prima facie grounds. It might be what it looks like.

The Daily Mail is oversimplifying (although I give it credit for not obviously scoffing, like most popular media do) when its writer says, "Ghosts are said to be the apparition of a deceased person, frequently similar in appearance to that person."

There is much debate in psychical research circles as to what apparitions actually are. Among those who accept that apparitions are not simply hallucinations or imagination, and actually represent a form of reality (there are skeptics who are also psychical researchers), there is a fairly general agreement that
not all apparitions are the same phenomenon.


In cases of haunting, where the same figure is seen repeatedly in the same place, it is argued that the image is not of the actual spirit of someone departed, but rather a sort of psychic imprint left on the location, like a recording, that reappears under certain conditions. It has no "intelligence," cannot interact — a "read only" memory, so to speak. Some occultists say that haunting apparitions are discarded "astral shells," which a spirit leaves behind after exiting its astral body (similar to the physical body but less dense, and inhabiting more or less the same space as the physical body), just as a person leaves the physical body at death.

Other, rarer, manifestations seem as if they still have vitality. Someone appears to be "at home" there, and it is said that they are aware of their surroundings and sometimes communicate with the living. They can appear quite solid, and there are many cases on record where people didn't realize they were seeing an apparition until the figure suddenly disappeared or left the room without bothering to use a door.

The face in the young Mr. Summers's photo might be no more than a remarkable anomaly caused by some technical flaw. It could be a hoax. Could be. Or not.


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