Monthly Archives: April 2011

Interpreting The Personal

Those who observe and dissect anomalous incidents are often spurred into a continued quest for answers by seemingly paranormal experiences of their own, usually while quite young. Some accept these events on face value and happily weave them into a personal mythology that fails to live up to outside scrutiny, such as exhibited by most Spiritual or Magickal belief systems, while others attempt to find a place for them within a more rational world-view, striving to find answers without sacrificing their intellectual integrity in the process.

to see isn't always to believe...I have dipped my toes into the mindset of the former, less questioning group and paddled around in their viewpoint for a while, but ultimately I asked too many questions of the events that I have witnessed and soon enough drained all of the magic out of them. Just like Occam’s ever-present razor cut, I have come to realise that the bottom line in all of this is a simple one. No matter how special the feeling, anomalous the experience or frightening the encounter, the explanation is usually delightfully mundane, if you know how to ask the right questions. And as skeptics, asking the right questions is what we do.

As an example, I present an experience which I went through personally back in 2007. I was recovering from a simple, but painful operation which had required the deep, Sevoflurane induced sleep of general anaesthetic, and lay bored out of my otherwise active mind in a sparsely furnished side room on an equally drab hospital ward, awaiting release back to the much more colourful real world. It had been almost fifteen hours since I had been under the knife, and I was convinced that the anaesthetic had long worn off. As later events would show, I was most definitely wrong. Bored and preoccupied, I sat on the end of my bed looking listlessly out of the window over the roof of the hospital as the clouds rolled over, the prospect of another night spent in the building dampening my already deflated spirits far more than the slowly building rain ever could. Yet even as I sat there I was suddenly overtaken with such a compulsion to sleep that I found myself powerless to resist, and laying down on my side facing the window I passed into a deep and fitful slumber.

And then, even though I realized that I was still dreaming, I seemed to be awake, my already drab surroundings colourless but largely unchanged, my mind seized by such unrelenting terror that every movement seemed to be counterbalanced by the very real desire to just curl up into the smallest possible ball and ride out the experience, hoping that it would be over as quickly as possible. Yet instead I forced myself to roll onto my other side on the bed, away from the window and towards the door of my room, where I knew something terrible was waiting for me. The anomaly in question appeared, at first, to be a young girl of no older than ten or eleven, wearing an old-fashioned pastel blue party dress, the kind with puffy sleeves and a long, ankle length pleated skirt, and long blonde hair tied into ringlets that fell heavily to her shoulders. Yet her face was a blur of motion, indistinct and unknowable, not a blank but rendered to appear so by the all too quick vibration of her features, and her words, when she eventually did speak to me, were deep and forceful way beyond her seemingly tender years, though sadly mostly gibberish.

The whole time the entity was speaking the images associated with her voice continued to change. The most notable example of this was the outward appearance of the girl herself, for as I watched her dress evaporated and her flesh dissolved, to be replaced by an odd, clear blue gelatinous substance, her face still hidden from my perception by the undulating movements of the ooze which made up her now bloated and hairless frame. Then she turned and faded from view, to be replaced by an extreme close up of a human brain, the whole mood of the experience suddenly darkening as a blood-red filter was placed across my vision, leaving me to stare in confused and paralysed silence as a gnarled and rusty pair of tongs began to lift little clear plastic bags full of oddly inconsequential items and place them into draws which appeared for a second or two in the surface of the brain tissue itself, before closing again. Needless to say, when unconsciousness took me for the final time, I was more than a little grateful.

I was still exhausted, numb with shock and sweating profusely when I finally regained consciousness. I rose unsteadily to my feet and headed to the door of my room, intending to go down to the canteen for a can of cola and a chocolate bar to help steady my nerves. Yet my door was locked, the orderly explaining through the tiny little observation window that the elderly lady in the room next to me had passed away earlier that afternoon, while I had been asleep, and that I would have to stay where I was until they removed the body. An odd coincidence considering what I had experienced a mere few metres away, and made all the stranger by the fact that I had not been awoken by the understandable commotion caused by the nursing staff’s many and varied attempts to revive her. When the consultant released me back into the real world later that evening I couldn’t wait to tell my small but delightfully left-field circle of friends what I had experienced, and how it had occurred at the same time as the elderly woman’s passing; proof positive of its paranormal validity, or so I joked. Thus, for a while at least another interesting paranormal tale was born, discussed and soon enough discarded as more interesting events from my day-to-day life replaced it as topics of conversation. But I could not let it rest, and soon decided to get to the bottom of it.

This is where asking the right questions comes in. The first place I looked was in the medical literature, easily available online. A good example was authored by Wilson, Vaughan and Stephen (1975) in their study into awareness, dreams and hallucinations associated with anaesthesia. The trio investigated 490 adult patients undergoing operations requiring general anaesthetic, and reported an 11 percent incidence of, as they put it ‘mental aberrations’, including a majority of 8 percent involving dreams. But could I have experienced an inescapable chemically induced dream anything up to 15 hours after the initial procedure? Surprisingly, yes. General anaesthesia stays in the patient’s system for at least 24 hours, which is why medical professionals refuse to allow postoperative patients to drive themselves home. Coupled with the mental trauma and pain associated with the build up to the operation itself it is not no great a leap of faith to assume that whatever dreams may come would be more like nightmares, and have a decidedly surgical feel, gnarled tongs, bloody brain tissue and all.

Researchers in the field should also be aware of unrelated incidents that seemingly add secondary layers to the context of the anomalous event being reported, but in fact bear no relation to it whatsoever. Such events should be identified early on in the evaluation, and while acknowledged, need to be respectfully disregarded to prevent the investigator wasting their time chasing inconsequential issues down the rabbit hole. In my case, there was the purely coincidental, but nevertheless compellingly timed death in the room next door. As if the dream itself had not been weird enough, this concurrent event was just begging for the natural human desire to seek patterns in otherwise unrelated incidents to kick in. Indeed, while I sat on the bed waiting for the door to be unlocked I let my mind wander over the whole situation, both that within my room and the slightly more morbid one next door, and found myself happily adding two and two together with very few facts to play with. Needless to say, my calculations erroneously resulted in something closer to seventy-three and a half than four.

The danger of taking such immediate conclusions on face value without leaving the back door open for changes based upon cold hard facts is obvious, and the mistake of the non-critical thinker. While it is difficult to alter the perceived acceptance of the initial interpretation of events based purely upon later evidence, it is the obligation of the investigating party, be they personally involved in the anomalous incident or just making notes after the fact, to allow the ever-present cut of Occam’s Razor and good old clear thinking outweigh the need to explain the improbable in impossible terms. It might not be popular, but it is what we do, and I like to think that the world is a little more stable because of it.

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Photo analysis: Mecca Bingo anomaly

BARsoc were recently contacted by Gavin ‘Fox’ Marriner, a member of ‘The Ghost Club’ and a mature psychology student at Goldsmiths (who works with the APRU from time to time). As a member of ‘The Ghost Club’, which is the oldest organisation in the world associated with psychical research’, Gavin took part on a paranormal investigation held by the club at The Mecca Bingo Hall in Morden, London last weekend.

He reported that he had taken a photograph while sitting in the disused upper circle of the old cinema which still sits above the bingo hall below. Nothing unusual was seen until he looked at the hundreds of photos he had taken afterwards and spotted an anomaly that he couldn’t explain in one of the photos.

Surprisingly, when Gavin contacted The Ghost Club, for whom he is a paying member, and who had actually organised the paranormal investigation he reports that “[he] thought they would want to discuss the photograph, but they completely swept it under the carpet and would not even entertain the idea that it was strange”.

After speaking to representatives from The Ghost Club is has become apparent that an opinion was offered from their investigation organiser but it was deemed by Gavin to be dismissive. I discuss this further in the article but firstly I want to detail the examination of the anomaly.

I think it’s important to point out that Gavin wasn’t claiming the anomaly to be paranormal in nature, he simply couldn’t work out what was causing the effect. This is the information we were provided with about the photo:

“The area was almost completely unlit (fire exit lights only), and flash was used in each photo taken. The camera was a GE Z150 10.1 megapixel hand held, and the photo’s were taken without the use of zoom or other custom picture settings.

[The anomaly] sits almost dead centre of the photograph, poking out between the blue wooden panels which form the back rest/banister for the old cinema seating. The anomaly itself seems to be half of a smokey edged orb. This is especially strange, as to my knowledge, orbs (which are just particles caught in the flash as we know) do not usually have such smokey edges, and are almost never seen obscured by intervening objects such as this one is. If you zoom in, you can clearly see that it is indeed obscured behind the panel as I have described, and this has me puzzled. I have tried not to get to caught up in debates about what the image looks like, a face or head or whatever, or if there indeed does indeed appear to be an eye poking through the blue wooden paneling near it (which can admittedly be seen when it is zoomed in on a large screen) but I am stumped as to what is causing the effect.”

Here are the original photos, click each to view larger version – the first with the anomaly and the second taken from the other side of the blue barriers showing where the anomaly was ‘poking through the barriers’ from. I have also included smaller copies of the photos that have been circled to help you see the anomaly and the area in the comparison photo.

Fig 1. Original anomaly photo

Fig 2. Original comparison shot

Fig 3. circled for your convenience

The conclusion we have reached is that the anomaly in question is actually just the arms of the fold up cinema seats causing an illusion because of the angle from which the photo was taken in relation to the style in which the seats (and thus, the seat arms) curve around with the room.

Don’t just take our word for it though. BARsoc researcher, Bob, examined the CCD information from the anomaly photograph. For those who do not know, a CCD is an analog device and when light strikes the chip it is held as a small electrical charge in each photo sensor. These charges are converted to voltage one pixel at a time as they are read from the chip, additional circuitry in the camera converts the voltage into digital information which produces graphs like the one below:

fig 4. CCD analysis

With the knowledge that the camera flash was used when taking the photo in Fig 1, and the image in Fig 4 mapping the light intensity, it becomes clear that the architecture of the room itself has something to do with the effect seen in the photo. The walls are curved and tall and there are numerous large and flat surfaces coated with gloss paint. This would have effected the flash refraction.

Fig 5. lightened version of original

Fig 6. lightened comparison photo

When the photo is lightened, the arms of the seats become much more clearer to see and when you consider the angle from which the photo was taken it’s easy to understand how the seats may have been mistaken for something independent in the area indicated in Fig. 3 due to the photographers perspective of the area.

It was quite an easy photo to analyse as independent researchers who hadn’t been present on the investigation and we were glad that we were able to offer Gavin an answer that satisfied his curiosity about what he had photographed.

I do acknowledge that The Ghost Club have told me that they did offer an opinion about the photograph and I do not believe that Gavin approaching BARsoc should be seen as a negative action. However I feel that perhaps the opinion offered to Gavin about his photograph may have been interpreted as dismissive or suggestive, (i.e. there is an eye in the picture which is actually just pixellation).

When BARsoc are approached with something that somebody wants our opinion on we provide as much dialogue and detail in our analysis as we can. I feel it is important to make sure the person who has asked for your help is well-informed and even made part of the analysis process.

Paranormal investigation is a huge, diverse field with people approaching it from many different angles. Putting aside for now the fact that many of these approaches are incorrect or flawed, the one thing all paranormal investigators have in common is the fact that people view investigators as sources of information and with this comes responsibility.

When somebody has a weird experience or has captured something odd on film or tape, they’re going to see a paranormal investigator or society as a possible source for help. Especially when said paranormal investigator/society has an impressive past as The Ghost Club does.

If contact is made with an investigator for their opinion or help – be it from a member of an organisation or a member of the public – ensuring they are happy with the information they are presented by way of analysis is vitally important and can have an unethical effect if done incorrectly, depending on the circumstances.

It took BARsoc no more than half an hour to analyse the photo (Fig 1.) and produce the graphs, images and explanation we provided. We are always willing to help people regardless of their backgrounds or belief systems and we are always happy to offer second opinions.

No pseudoscience, no superstition, no nonsense.

New Bownessie photos – BARsoc exclusive!

Knowing that a BARsoc researcher was camping out in the Windermere area overnight, I really should have waited to publish the article I wrote yesterday until today – to see if he had anything of significance to add to the case. I thought I’d chance it though, and it seemed I was wrong to do so.

I received a phone call from our researcher in the early hours of the morning explaining that I wouldn’t believe what he had just seen and he had some photos he wanted to send by email so was heading back to his car to get home as soon as possible. That’s all he would tell me. So I’ve been awake most of the night and morning waiting for an email to arrive.

What I received has left me in a bit of a tricky situation as I had information to hand about a less credible investigator involved in the Bownessie case (whom I shall not mention, though if you’re psychic… you’ll know) being involved in the recording of a pilot episode  for a tv show about hunting for British Lake Monsters after their involvement with Bownessie.

I had been made aware of this when the producers behind the show asked me if I was willing to talk on camera about my research into the Tom Pickles photo. They clearly hadn’t done their research though as when I mentioned I was a skeptical researcher they asked if I would “glam up” the research I had done to lend ‘weight to the idea that the photos and sightings could be paranormal, for effect’. I declined.

I hadn’t wanted to reveal this information until I knew the filming of the pilot episode was over, but after the discovery by a BARsoc researcher today I feel I have to bring people up to speed about what is really going on with the Bownessie monster case before it gets out of hand.

There have only been a few photographs involved in the Bownessie case. The first was apparently taken by Steve Burnip in 2006 when he and his wife spotted what they described as a twenty-foot eel like creature swimming in a straight line across the lake in front of them, possibly two hundred or so yards away (the distance they said they could not be certain of).

The Burnip photo has not been released to the general public, but, according to Jon Downes of the CFZ, shows what could be described as humps in the water.

The best known ‘Bownessie’ photo was that taken by Linden Adams in 2007 that shows ‘a creature’ breaking the water and leaving a wake behind it as it travels through the water. He claims it was about 50 foot in length and that is had a labrador-like head, but it looks vague and you can’t really tell if it’s just a bird landing on the water, or something similar.

one in a series of photos by Adams

Tom Pickles and Sarah Harrington were brought to the worlds attention in February when, on February 11th, they were kayaking across the lake and claim that a large creature the size of three cars swam across the lake in front of them. Tom Pickles had managed to grab his mobile phone to take a photo that shows four humps above the water leaving behind a wake. This was the photo that first brought my attention to the Bownessie case.

Trimmed version of Pickles photo

I wrote an article for BARsoc yesterday explaining how (and why) I felt that the sightings of the Bownessie monster were simply misidentifications caused by peoples expectations, media hype and people jumping on a bandwagon.

I also touched upon how the CFZ felt that giant eels were the cause of the sightings and how Dean Maynard seemed to think something paranormal was the cause.

In my article about the Pickles photograph from February I concluded that it was probably a tyre that had been sliced into four humps. I said it could have been dumped in the lake and happened to drift past Tom and Sarah at the wrong (or right…) time, making them think they had seen something paranormal. Others said it was a hoax, an explanation that I felt couldn’t be ruled out. A tyre was found but it didn’t necessarily mean it was an intential hoax…

Discovered by tourist

It would seem though that something fishy is occuring in the lake, but it doesn’t have anything to do with the Artic charr.

I’m guessing it’s to do with adding ‘weight to the idea that the photos and sightings could be paranormal. For effect’, for the pilot show I mentioned before. I did wonder if such a project in the pipe line could have encouraged sightings, but I couldn’t be sure… until now.

I have just received an email from the BARsoc researcher who had been camped out at Windermere, and attached were some photos taken on their Canon EOS Rebel XS with the Canon EF-S 18-55mm f/3.5 – 5.6 IS zoom lens that showed how the cause for the Bownessie sightings was something altogether more mundane that any of us at BARsoc had imagined. Click on each photo to be taken to the full size version. I’ll let you make your own minds up…

shot one

shot two

shot three

It was old Mr Maynard all along, and he would have gotten away with it if it hadn’t been for us pesky kids!

Written by Hayley Stevens for BARsoc.org

Disclaimer: None of this is true, apart from the bits about the actual photos, but not the last few… or the TV show. We hope. April fools!