Sunday, 29 October 2017

A Rough Guide To Debunking Fake Ghost Videos.

Earlier this month the Null Hypothesis/Skeptic's Boot blog hit a quarter of a million views, a milestone that is pretty insignificant in comparison to other skeptical blogs and podcasts, but it still represents a massive achievement for a  bloke from the North West of England with few discernable skills. In celebration of this and the fact that it's Halloween the idea time for spooky videos, I've decided to do something self-indulgent and go back over a few samples of alleged ghost video footage in order to demonstrate some of the techniques I use to get to the bottom of supposed video "evidence" for ghosts and the paranormal. The list I'm running through is in no way exhaustive. As soon as I post this I know I'll think of another ten things I should've mentioned.

When reading this list, remember, I'm not an expert, anyone could get to the bottom of these videos, the key is perseverance and attention to detail. The list isn't particularly technical. You'll also notice from the first example, that many of the lessons I've learned regarding debunking have come from mistakes I've made. You can consider this rule zero in getting to the bottom of this footage: Learn from your mistakes and never be too proud to admit them.

As always with the video footage that I feature, there is a Youtube compilation available at the foot of the page.

1. Seek Multiple Sources

One of the first lessons I learned in debunking alleged paranormal footage came as a result of me making a mistake in accepting footage as is when offered by the tabloid press. In April 2014, the footage below circulated around social media and the tabloid press. It purports to show a shadowy figure running through a Bolivian stadium during a soccer match.

When I assessed it, I believed that it may be the shadow of the stadium's "spider cam" which records ariel images of the pitch. I was wrong. If I'd have searched for alternative versions of the footage, I'd have discovered that it's clearly a guy running down the stadium steps and across the bleachers.

I had this own goal in mind when I examined alleged Chilean poltergeist footage from the Daily Star for the Spooktator podcast in March this year. In searching for alternative footage I found the Star had taken an old video produced by a Facebook user called Ashy Murphy, removed the soundtrack and attached it to a completely unrelated story.

Whilst we're on the subject of the Ashy Murphy footage....

2. No Strings Attached....

Here's that Ashy Murphy footage. You'll be unsurprised to learn that the effect below was achieved with fishing line.

The key to spotting a fishing wire hoax is watching on zoom, and very slowly. What you're looking for are moments when the light in the room hits the wire. You aren't going to spot this at full speed unless it's particularly clumsily done. Don't restrict your view to the edges of the moving objects. Watch the negative spaces between objects, as in the second image above you'll often spot the fishing wire in what appears to be empty space.

Be careful to look in places you might not necessarily expect. In the "banging morgue door" video from March this year. The wire isn't attached to the edges of the door as you'd expect. It's attached, instead to an inside fold in the door.

Also be on the lookout for motion blur, a wagging loose wire in slow motion is easier to spot than a tight wire. That's how I caught YouTuber "Sam Strange" in the video in which she alleged a poltergeist had yanked the head off a Darth Vader toy. When her partner held the head up to the camera the wire could be clearly seen. Unfortunately, I can't show you this footage as the videos are removed, unfortunately, and the channel now has a new age/reincarnation theme.

In both cases above the only reason, I was able to spot the method of fakery was that the hoaxer revealed too much. Both cases they brought the camera too close to their "haunted object" and allowed anyone attentive enough to spot their fakery. Watch carefully for this moment in your footage, when your hoaxer overplays their hand.

That said, some hoaxers are more careful than others.

3. Managing Misdirection....

There isn't much difference between a faked piece of ghost footage and a magic trick, other than the fact that most magicians aren't interested in actively deceiving you. Sure, they want to mislead and confound, but most are open to the fact that they are doing this. Both parties use the technique of misdirection, they want you to look in specific places without noticing other things. Get around this by looking at the entire frame. Often this means directly avoiding the phenomena you are meant to be paying attention to, which feels weird at first. This means being aware of areas of the screen the camera tries to avoid. If your hoaxer has an accomplice they'll often give you a full view of an area except where the accomplice is hiding. 

Take this footage from UK Ghost Hunts, an English paranormal tourism group, for example:

Our intrepid cameraman bravely chases the hallway spook just slow enough to allow him to duck into a side room off the corridor, which of course, our cameraman never investigates.

A striking example of this was provided by the aforementioned Youtuber Sam Strange, who faked a series of ghost videos on her channel back in 2015. In a video that Sam claimed featured a Darth Vader toy being disassembled by a "ghost". Sam gives us a panoramic view of her bedroom, which seemed to show her cats and her were alone. She then leaves the room gives a brief tour of her apartment, before returning to find the toy taken apart. During the shot, Sam tries to keep the camera above waist height. Her trip through the apartment allows her partner time to take the toy apart. But how did he get in the bedroom?

Of course, Sam's boyfriend was present in the room the whole time, but if I don't see him can I prove this?

4. Consider the Environment.

The key to discovering Sam's fakery was to consider the environment of the bedroom before and after the phenomena occurred. Remember how I said Sam "tried" not to show us below waist height in the bedroom? Well, she failed. One brief shot of the bedroom floor revealed some items such as a show and a large cardboard sheet poking out from under the bed.

 When Sam returns to the bedroom, the items that were under the bed have shifted. Could this possibly be because Sam's partner has slid out from under the bed, disassembled the toy and then whilst Sam is at the back of the apartment, moved to the front door and shouted "I'm home!" as a cue to let Sam knows she's clear to move back to the bedroom?

5. Get Shady. 

Watching the environment also helped me highlight some discrepancies in Adam Ellis' "Dear David" footage from a couple of months ago. In footage that was alleged to have taken place over a short space of time, it was clear that the natural light had moved from one end of the room to another.

Watching the effects of light on an environment can expose a multitude of sins. In a video that purported to show a soul leaving a prone body in a Chinese hospital, there were clear signs of a "lightening" of the screen during the period in which the "phenomena" was occurring. This is most visible on the wall at the foot of the screen on the left.

Screen lightening of this type is a very good indication of the use of screen overlay. Two separate pieces of footage are shot, one with a figure moving across it. They are then overlaid, resulting in the moving figure appearing in the composite as a ghostly, transparent shape.

6. Watch the clock. 

Another dead giveaway that this method has been used is the clock on the footage. As one part of the footage is "held still" whilst the phenomena occurs. This can result in the clock also holding still. This is the case with a piece of footage which may well be one of the most widely spread and shared on the internet. The footage, shown below, alleges to show a "possessed man" failing to the floor in a Malaysian supermarket, after which a ghostly figure is said to appear by the man.

Notice that from the time the shadow moves across the chiller cabinet to the moment the stock hits the floor the clock freezes. Look at the two separate time codes circled below: the youtube time code is 1:04 whilst the security footage time code is at 01:29:21.

Now looking at the point just before the stock has hit the floor. The store time code is at 01:29;22, so one would expect the youtube time code to read 1:05. It doesn't. It reads 1:08. This is because the store clock spends three seconds at 01:29:22.

The three seconds of 01:29:22 clear evidence of alteration of the video.

Also just before this point at 1.03 watch the "possessed" man's left foot. You'll see clear evidence of an edit as his foot jumps from one position to another. It's difficult to display this. Watch at 0.25 speed and focus on the foot you'll see a clear jump edit. It's for this reason you'll often see hoaxers remove or alter the clocks in their faked videos. Remember that "Chinese hospital" footage mentioned above? Here's the clock as displayed in that footage.

Notice how poorly formatted it is? The numbers on the clock almost run together and overlap. Also, the date isn't written in a way found in China. Culturally, the Chinese rank dates from the highest unit to the smallest, specifically year/month/day. Other aspects to look for in this bar include the seconds counter being missing and the fact that there are no camera numbers. Most places with CCTV have more than one camera and it's vital for security reasons that these cameras are labelled separately as is it that seconds are available for precise timings. If these things are missing it's a good sign your footage has been tampered with or wasn't CCTV to begin with.

7. Explore the extras.

Just as CCTV footage normally has camera details and a clear date-line, there are a few things they normally DON'T have. Sound for instance. The video "Ghost screaming in a hotel room" was uploaded by YouTuber "JimmyNut22" on September 4th, 2012. "Jimmy" also uploaded the video with the alternative title "Alien screaming in a hotel room" the day after this but has since deleted it. 

You'll notice that we hear the dispatcher talking on the radio to John, who is investigating the room, who is recording the dispatcher? Also, we can hear the screaming coming from the room but we can't hear John's voice talking to the dispatcher whilst in or outside the room. Also, look at the way this camera is positioned in this footage. A good proportion of the screen is occupied by the ceiling. This wasn't fitted by a professional security company.

Other factors to consider with CCTV footage are the screen resolution and light sources. CCTV doesn't tend to have particularly good screen resolution, and it doesn't tend to have its own light source. A good example of this is the recent "poltergeist" footage allegedly filmed at a school in Cork. The footage is supposed to be CCTV but look at the strong light source around the area of activity. 

The lights are off in the building, and public spaces such as this generally have lighting fixtures on "rings" meaning that if you turn one off, the whole bank is turned off with it. So where is this strong light source coming from?

8. A Neat Orderly Queue of Paranormal Phenomena.

Ok, so this particular observation may not help you debunk any particular paranormal footage, but it's a common feature that you'll find in every hoax video you'll ever watch. Paranormal events almost never occur simultaneously. Take the above video as an example. No two events occur at the same time! This is always the case with poltergeist footage. There are two options: either, ghosts are very bad multitaskers or hoaxers generally only have one pair of hands.

9. Question everything.
Earlier this year, UK ghost hunting show Most Haunted created a media sensation when they publicized what they claimed was the first genuine footage they had ever captured of a ghost. The British tabloids went into a frenzy and the subsequent attention briefly revived waining interest in the show. The first thing that struck me about the footage was the behaviour of Karl Beattie. 

Karl allegedly spots a ghostly figure on the stairs and for some reason places the camera down. He even gestures to Stuart Torvil to show him where the apparition will appear on the lens of the camera. This behaviour is highly unusual, especially as Karl "sees" the ghost through Torvill and before it appears on the stairs. When he places the camera down, he carefully adjusts it to get a particular shot. Then he almost immediately picks up the camera and runs down the hallway with it. Why do this?

Because the overlay method of creating a ghostly figure I mentioned above requires a still shot. It would be very difficult to achieve with the camera hand-held. That's why Karl put the camera down, that's why he carefully adjusts it, that's why he checks with Torvill that it's positioned correctly.

Another example of the necessity to question the logic of behaviour and choices made by the author of such footage comes from the Adam Ellis "Dear David" case mentioned above. In Ellis' video footage we see his rocking chair placed by the front door gently rocking apparently without influence. 

What are we to question here? Why has Ellis placed this chair by the front door? It isn't there in any of his other footage, and it's quite clear that its placement would make it difficult for Ellis to enter or exit the apartment. Worrying, since Ellis is supposed to be out of the home whilst this footage is being recorded. How did he get out without disturbing the chair? Why place the chair in such an awkward place? Perhaps it's because that's somewhere in the apartment where pressure on the floorboards elsewhere can cause the chair to rock?

10. And Finally, Hyman's Maxim.

Very basically, Hyman's maxim, developed by skeptic Ray Hyman, states that before we strive to explain something we should ensure there's something to explain. Let me demonstrate this with an example. The footage below alleges to show a poltergeist or some other paranormal entity flipping several cars on a busy crossroads in China. 

The key to debunking this one is observing the right-hand side of the screen, where a street sweeper is going about its business when it suddenly halts at the same time as the cars flip. This is because the sweeper snags a fallen telegraph wire and pulls it taught. The wire is under the cars and this is what flips them. But it isn't necessary to do a lot of legwork on this as it was reported in the press before the footage was attributed to a poltergeist. A Reddit user who speaks Mandarin here explains the incident as it was reported on Chinese news. Despite this and the fact that the solution was widely reported in the western press, the story and the footage are still widely circulated on social media. 

That's my list. As I said it's not exhaustive and I'd love for you to share your own tips in the comments. There are numerous people I'd have to cite for helping me come to the conclusions I have here but I simply don't have space to list them all. Even though I'm not an expert in analysing video footage there are some people I do consider experts chief amongst them Mick West of Metabunk and Kenny Biddle. In addition to them, UK paranormal investigator Hayley Stevens has an almost encyclopedic knowledge of techniques to produce fakes. Again this list is far from exhaustive but these are three of the people I've learned the most from. I guess we could call these recommendations tip 11.

Finally, if you enjoyed this post please like and share it. There's a reason this blog hit 250,000 views and exists at all today, and that is because of the support and the shares it has received on social media. Thank you to everyone who has shared the blog and supported it and me.

See you at 500,000.

If you are still in need of more spooky content for Halloween check out my post on the laws of physics and ghostly properties on Scisco media's site.

The Youtube compilation of the footage featured in this article.

Apparently the Youtube compilation for my "rough guide to debunking fake ghost videos" was hit by a copyright strike by the owners of the banging morgue door video. Funny they didn't seem to care about the thousands of shares the video has had by channels who believe it is genuine though! Here's a re-edited version with the offending content removed.

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