Extraordinary claims. Ordinary investigations.

Archive for the 'Ghosts' Category

Seeing is not believing


What do you see in the picture above? The quality of the image is not very good, but it’s possible to see a man covered in a bed sheet with his hand over another fellow lying by the bedside. He has something covering part of his face. Nothing extraordinary.

Except that for Urbano Pereira, a Brazilian physicist who published the images in a book, “Spiritual Surgeries” (1946), it captures something somewhat different:

“In one of the images [captured during the séance] the medium appears covered in a bed sheet and with the mask of a strange face. Father Zabeu [the directing spirit] says its doctor Francisco Costa, a deceased physician, whose identity has not been established.”

This may seem confusing because it actually is quite extraordinary. Pereira published the book defending some amazing claims, including the materialization of spirits from beyond curing diseases of the living. And yet, right there you can find one photograph that clearly shows how the “medium” capable of such extraordinary things simply covered himself with a bed sheet and a mask.

Despite this clear evidence of hoax, the author believes and writes that the mask was somehow supernatural, and it’s very probable that when he refers to bed sheets he is referring to supernatural, ectoplasmic bed sheets. All because the supposed spirit, “Father Zabeu” explained so. Of course, the spirit spoke through the medium, the man who covered himself with a bed sheet and a mask, whose name was Francisco Bello.

As fellow Vitor Moura pointed out, if Urbano Pereira was a hoaxer or an accomplice he certainly wouldn’t have published these photographs. He was there and he actually realized it was a person covered in a bed sheet. But his beliefs included the rationalization that mediums materialized supernatural ectoplasm that covered their material bodies, which coincidentally looked like bed sheets, gauze and masks.

It’s only because he believed these things that he published them, but unless you share that, shall we say, very firm belief that such supernatural feats look exactly like crude hoaxes, and yet are not hoaxes, you may only see evidence of crude hoaxes and a poor gullible physicist. Occam’s razor is natural for most of us.

There are other “extraordinary” images from Pereira’s book in Vitor Moura’s post. In Brazil, the main spiritualistic leader, Chico Xavier – who is promoted in English by Guy Lyon Plaiyfair – was also involved with similar, crude alleged materialization photographs.


Curiously, in the 19th century William Crookes, noted for his involvement with Florence Cook and the spirit of “Katie King”, asked for his photographs in the séances to be destroyed after his death. Not all of them were, and the ones that remained clearly show the spirit was the medium. Peter Brookesmith has an excellent article on the fascinating story of Crookes and Cook.

Covering yourself in bed sheets may seem like a comical thing nowadays, but even to this day some still believe these can be the real thing. The saddest aspect is that such strong will to believe in the afterlife is often derived from personal tragedies and the ultimate will to believe beloved ones never really died. Hoaxers usually convince themselves they may be serving a greater good.

In the process, however, the living may look like fools and the memories of the deceased, which is the only thing we can actually prove that survives us, is left stained and gradually replaced by a silly simulacrum. Extremely silly, at times.

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Adam Curtis on Enfield, Ghostwatch (plus some Philip)


Two of the greatest creators I profoundly admire for their always insightful and ever balanced overview are Carl Sagan and Adam Curtis – there’s not a thing they produced that I can’t get tired of appreciating. While Sagan was an inspiring author for our scientific dreams, Curtis offers cautionary tales regarding those same dreams. Curtis’ “Pandora’s Box” in particular is required viewing just as Sagan’s Cosmos is.

But they don’t contradict each other, as Curtis never once blames science itself, that ideal thing we try to practice. Instead Curtis exposes how science paradoxically vanishes when people try to promote it with too much eagerness, as that eagerness often translates into misapplied science through political struggle, and that misapplication, that struggle, is his main focus.

Unlike Sagan, Curtis is still with us, actively producing great material, and sharing a lot of it on his very own blog at BBC. His latest post is a gem with great film snippets on “The Ghosts in the Living Room”. How the depiction of ghosts evolved in the small screen, and the link between the Enfield Poltergeist and Ghostwatch.


Which is an opportunity for me to comment a very interesting piece on the Poltergeist mania of the 1970s, the Philip Experiment. A fictional ghost was invented, with a background story full of holes. And they managed to contact the imaginary spirit!


This was a thought provoking isolation of variables, and the results are promoted by those proposing Poltergeist phenomena may be actually psychic manifestations of very living people. Given that a fictional “ghost” manifested mostly all the same paranormal phenomena as allegedly real ghosts, one could do away with actual ghosts and work solely with the collective unconscious. Very well, but Occam’s razor may cut deeper.

I bought and watched the 15 minute documentary on “Philip, the Imaginary Ghost”. It’s fascinating,  but exactly because I couldn’t see a single instance where the alleged physical manifestations of the imaginary ghost couldn’t be attributed to the ideomotor effect, that is, movements made unconsciously by the participants.

Stack-Name-Art-coastersIn the clip above, one participant mentions the “doily nights’”, where they put doilies under all the hands over the table, to make sure that no one was moving it – in which case the stacked doilies would slide and be behind the hand, showing the direction and origin of movement. This method comes directly from the original protocol used by legendary Michael Faraday in the 19th century to prove that precisely table-moving was the result of the ideomotor effect. The stacked cards he put under the hands of “very honourable, very clear in their intentions” parties all showed that whenever the table moved, the hands moved first and further. Never the other way around.

So why did the Philip Experiment obtain results that Faraday couldn’t? Perhaps they had actual paranormal powers, or perhaps their controls were not as good as Faraday’s. One thing all the recorded film that I could see shows is that it’s always the table top that goes forward in one direction, with the legs behind. Though their doilies allegedly contradict Faraday’s cards, the table itself may be evidence they were unconsciously, but very mundanely, moving it by the top, doing away with the last paranormal thing in the experiment and providing another look on how very honourable parties may be integral part of the Poltergeists they investigate, blurring the distinction between their imagination and the reality.

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Pulled by a ghost

Duppy is a Jamaican Patois word of West African origin meaning ghost or spirit. Much of Caribbean folklore revolves around duppies, generally regarded as malevolent spirits.

Well, one of them is allegedly haunting an 11-year-old boy, causing commotion in Martin Street, Spanish Town. You can jump to 0:40 and then 1:55 for some duppy action. At first glance, the boy really seems to be pulled by an external force. A classic “Poltergeist” case involving a child, thrown objects and distraught families.

Though the two action scenes above may look interesting, these ones below, in a follow-up by the same news channel, of the same boy now confronted by a local bishop, Rohan Edwards, will probably not be that much. The not-so-interesting new duppy action scenes start at around 1:35.

It’s clear the boy is throwing himself, and in retrospect, one can note that although he does a much better job at it in the first scenes, one can also interpret them without resorting to any external force. Much less any supernatural force.

When it looks as if he is being pulled from his chair, note that he moves before the chair, indicating that he is source of motion. Michael Faraday used the same tell-tale sign to prove people moved spiritualistic tables, and not the other way around, back in 1853. The effect is also helped by the fact the “duppy action” only lasts for a few seconds, as the boy is almost immediately grabbed by his mother, into which he finds support, in more than one sense. Something that can’t be ignored.

The immediate consequence of the boy’s behaviour is the comfort of his mom”, told us Psychologist Ana Arantes, suggesting an hypothesis to better understand the events. “The ‘paranormal phenomenon’ can be maintained by very strong social reinforcements – social attention, comfort and protection from the mother and probably other members of the family – and in this context, it’s quite possible it has been modelled and learned within that community.

On one level this is simply a boy making some interesting moves, but this is certainly not everything that’s going on here, just as almost all Poltergeist cases are not simple hoaxes – nor simple Poltergeists. From the original story of the Fox sisters and the Cottingley fairies, to modern Poltergeist cases such as Enfield, each and every one of theses cases has a very long story and background.

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Wem ghost photo solved


I’m a couple of months late on this, as even the Daily Mail exposed the case in mid-May, but here it is. As you may remember, we initially thought the intriguing British Wem ghost photo could be an impressive example of pareidolia, but then discovered that Will Stapp from the National Museum of Photography in Bradford, had concluded the face of the ghost had a series of horizontal lines, indicating that it was a hoax.

When confronted with the verdict, photographer Tony O’Rahilly nervously denied having tampered with the image. This was on 1996, just a year after the photo was taken, and it’s interesting that rather than the skeptical verdict and evidence by Stapp from the National Museum of Photography, the photo circulated instead for all these years along with the conclusion by Vernon Harrison, former president of the Royal Photographic Society, that it showed “no sign of having been tampered with”.

A decisive piece of evidence came up on April of this year, when the local paper “Shropshire Starpublished a postcard in its nostalgia section:


"We’re in Wem today with a postcard which was franked on September 11, 1922. Shops visible include Mortons on the left, and Jarvis Ironmongers on the right.  The message on the back of the postcard was: “11.9.22. Dear Shie (? – the writing is difficult to read), This will give you some idea of the quaintness of Wem.  “There are heaps of ideal places to be snapped, but the sun is not too obliging. We are leaving this afternoon for the ‘Grange’. George’s sister telephoned me this morning. Love to all. Reg.”  It was posted to Miss Sewell (? – again, difficult to read), 89 Maring (?) Road, Tooting Common, London. This postcard was published by F. Hiden, Wem.  Picture: Ray Farlow."

If you have a keen eye as reader Brian Lear had, you will recognize the little girl on the left of the postcard. “Her dress and headgear appear to be identical”, he said. A blown up detail comparison confirms that this is no mere similarity or coincidence, it’s an exact match down to every detail.


If you are in still in doubt, check the interactive comparison by Richard Deeson. It’s amazing Lear managed to recognize the little girl from the original low-resolution image.

Unfortunately, photographer O’Rahilly passed away in 2005. But considering the exact match between his ghost photo and a postcard published by a local Wem company and the strange horizontal artifacts seen by Will Stapp in the original negatives, there’s little doubt the photo was hoaxed.

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[The credit goes to Brian Lear, the Shropshire Star, and thanks to Umbriel, José Ildefonso and others who suggested this solution]

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New column for the CSI: Counterclockwise


I started to write a new column for the renewed website of the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry, a great honor as CSICOP was one of the initiatives that led me to write, among other things, this very blog (and a major skeptical website in Brazil). And as a Brazilian, I will try to write more about things around here, thus the title, ‘Counterclockwise’, referring to a common misconception. Water can drain counterclockwise in this hemisphere.

For my first column, I wrote about the photo above. The man in sunglasses is Francisco “Chico” Xavier, one of the most respected mediums and religious leaders in Brazil. What seems to be simply someone covered in a white sheet in the center is allegedly the ectoplasmic materialization of sister Josefa. Yes, we had materialization seánces taken very seriously in Brazil in the 1960s. And they are still taken seriously by many.

Be sure to read the whole story about Spiritualism in Brazil: Alive and Kicking.

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