A few years ago I was involved in a project where my investigative team tested a local ghost-hunting group. We invited them to investigate a home we said we feared to be haunted, to see if they found something where there was nothing. After a few hours of trudging about the house with digital recorders and KII meters in hand they declared the place to be haunted. In fact, they gushed that the house was “worse than Amityville.” The full story can be heard here at the Token Skeptic.

A few weeks ago the opportunity arose for another similar project. Local skeptic “Charles” whose home security camera captured an image with an interesting anomaly approached me. He showed it to his colleagues at the hospital where he works but only two out of eleven people thought there was a natural explanation for the image. The rest believed the image showed either a demon or a spirit.



Charles wanted to send the image to a number of local paranormal groups to ask them for their opinions. How would they explain the photo? Would they ask meaningful questions? Would they ask for the images taken before and after? Would the image go viral? He penned the following email to accompany the image.

Can you guys help me? 

I came across this image from my security camera. When I showed it to people at work they got spooked. Two of them won’t come near my neighborhood anymore. One thinks it’s a demon.

Is someone playing a trick on me?

Any help is appreciated!!!

We have created a database of local ghost hunting groups and the email was sent to all of them. However, we were surprised to learn that many of these groups are now defunct. We were also surprised to find that these groups weren’t quite so quick to resort to paranormal explanations as we’d assumed they would. Here is a selection of some of their replies.

Group 1

Is this multiple frames in the video? Can I see a few frames before and a few frames after?  Can't provide any feedback until I see more of the video. Can you send a clip of the video? Well let me examine it a little more closely and I will give you my input on it by tomorrow night. 

From what I can see just on my phone it looks interesting. But I’ll let you know what I think tomorrow. Thanks for sharing.

Group 2

Security cameras have a slow frame rate so they often distort light and objects reflecting IR light back to the camera lens. Also, with a single photo, it is virtually impossible to make a determination of what may be appearing in the picture. If there is moving video of the object, it becomes much easier to identify it. But just by what I’m seeing in this photo, there appears to be a light source directly behind the object so there is a high possibility that this is lens flare from that light. It could also be a bug or other moving object such a leaf that is distorted by the slow frame rate of the camera in night-vision mode. I would not say that it is anything paranormal or anything to worry about.

Group 3

Without being there, it is hard to say what it is or isn’t.  It could be an entity of some sort such as a ghost or demon.  I myself have never experienced any demonic situations, but there isn’t anything in that one frame that leads me to think it is demonic.  What comes to mind is that it could be a ghost, but it could also be other explainable things.  I do, however, encounter a lot of people who use the term 'demon' for anything scary or unexplained. With a little more information, I could probably give a better opinion.

Where is the location?
What day?
What time?
Where is the camera located and how high/low is it?
What is it mounted to?

(Nb. The individual was supplied with the additional information requested but he never followed up with a response.)

Group 4

We received the image you submitted and I hope I can put your mind at ease on this. What you see in the image is not paranormal and no one is trying to trick you. What you are seeing is a light effect caused by a water drop on the lens of the security camera itself.  The infrared camera is made so that you can "see in the dark".  Since the camera is viewing the scene in the infrared part of the spectrum, light sources from the visible end of the spectrum appear much brighter.  That is why the cars headlights appear so bright compared to the rest of the scene.  The water drop on the lens of the camera is refracting the brightness of the headlight and causing the effect you see.  I’ve attached an image showing a very similar effect caused by a water drop on the camera lens.

In short, you have nothing to worry about.  If you have any other questions about this picture or anything else paranormal, please feel free to contact us via email anytime.

Group 5

[We] looked at this carefully and discussed it. I am inclined toward seeing this as a drop of moisture on the IR camera lens, that started to leak downward and thinned out. The sharply defined top of the image and the veil-like effect beneath suggests an image distortion caused by water.

What we don't know is whether that light source behind it is a light on your property, or something that shouldn't be there at all. If the light source itself is anomalous, then you may have something of a paranormal nature. I presume by the jpeg timestamp this image was captured in the very early morning?

Do you have any other reason to believe that something is going on at your property? Unexplained voices, dark shapes, objects moving or being moved inexplicably? We’d be happy to discuss an investigation there if you believe there is cause (beyond this photo) to warrant it. We don't know if you’re in our area.

We were pleased to discover that these groups didn’t immediately jump to a paranormal conclusion. Judging from some of the responses, perhaps they may have, had we included paranormal claims and “haunted house” descriptions to accompany the image. For example, if we reported that the house had cold spots, that we’d recorded Electronic Voice Phenomena, captured images of “orbs”, and other stereotypical “paranormal” phenomena.

Overall, these groups were more rational in their assessments than we expected them to be. Of late, there has been a small turn in the media against the paranormal, with the backlash against Sylvia Browne, the popularity of the TV show Joe Rogan Questions Everything and friends of the JREF appearing on this show and Nightline. Perhaps this has been enough to incite ghost-hunting groups to inject a little critical thinking into their work? At any rate, this is a good sign.

In the end, what does the image show? This is simply a photo of a water droplet on the lens of the security camera. Lighting and wind, and definitely not spirits or demons created the droplet’s “ghostly” shape.

With thanks to Charles Wallace, Matthew Baxter and Bryan Bonner 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.