A few weeks ago a security camera video went viral on You Tube that reveals a man shopping in the Whitstable Nutrition Centre, a health food store in southeast England. As he browses, he is oblivious to a box of tea that floats off the shelf behind him and then appears to “levitate” mid-air. A second box flies off the opposite shelf and drops to the ground. The startled man bends over to pick up the box, at which point the box suspended in the air, drops to the floor. The video has some people convinced that this is a case of “paranormal active-tea”, and is the handiwork of a very British ghost who likes a nice cuppa tea.
Shop manager Michelle Newbold discovered the activity when she was reviewing footage from the store’s CCTV. In an interview with the Huffington Post she said, “I was perplexed I suppose. I just couldn’t believe it. I have no idea about how it has happened. It is just a complete mystery. I have never seen anything like it since I’ve been running the shop.” Newbold adds that she doesn’t believe in ghosts. However, the story has been good for business and the video has received over 800,000 hits and counting.
The Huffington Post interview also includes comments from my fellow investigator Bryan Bonner who suspects that the video is a hoax. He observes, “In the opening shot, it looks like there is one other person at the end of the aisle, but it’s actually two and they are in a perfect position to choreograph the tea bags. Also, the security camera is positioned so it focuses halfway down the shelf, not where it normally would be.” Bryan & Baxter and a few of our friends decided to make several recreations of the phenomena in the video. These can be viewed on YouTube.
The first recreation was filmed in a restaurant in Arvada, Colorado. Bryan and Baxter are seated at a table discussing the tea ghost video when a box of tea flies off the table. It is picked up and placed back on the table whereupon it occurs again. Behind them, another box of tea slides off the surface of a table and floats for a few seconds before it darts to the ground. This movement was achieved using fine thread stuck to the boxes. I sat off-camera holding a thread attached to a box of tea. I simply pulled the thread each time, causing the box to fall off the table, as though a poltergeist was at work. (In the original video it looks as though the box on the left-hand side of the aisle may have been pushed out from behind.) Our friends Joe and Michael sat facing each other on opposite sides of the room as they controlled the movements of the second box.
The second recreation takes place in our friend Rick’s kitchen. In the video, a box of tea glides across a table and hovers in the air before dropping to the ground. To create this illusion an empty box of tea was placed on a knife with a long blade that is used as a platform. Given the lighting in the room and the poor quality of the filming, the knife isn’t visible. The knife was then slowly pushed across the table, giving the appearance that the box floats through the air and then levitates. With one good puff of air, the box falls to the ground. This was a better approach than the original video, where the box tips forward, as though it was on a platform that was tipped slightly.
The third recreation was filmed in my home. Bryan & Baxter are chatting in front of a fireplace. They’re absorbed in their conversation when a box of tea floats off the mantelpiece and levitates for a few seconds before falling to the ground. The first two videos involved very simple tricks using everyday household items. In the third video our friend Stu used computer-generated graphics to create the “paranormal activity”.
These recreations demonstrate just a few of the ways that the phenomena featured in the original video could have been hoaxed. Yet again, before we jump to paranormal conclusions we need to investigate the many natural explanations first.
With thanks to Bryan Bonner, Matthew Baxter, Stu Hayes, Rick Duffy, Joe Anderson, and Michael Samarzia for their assistance with this project.
Dr. Karen Stollznow is a linguist, author, skeptical paranormal investigator and a research fellow for the James Randi Foundation. You can follow Karen on Twitter here.