“Junkyard Ghost”

May 3, 2013

As mentioned in a recent blog, I assisted with, and appeared on, an episode of MSNBC’s Caught on Camera, “Mysteries and Monsters” (April 21, 2013). It consisted of six videos or films of allegedly paranormal events, the probable solution to one of which I now treat at greater length.

Known as “the junkyard ghost” case, it involves an Oklahoma wrecker-service lot’s surveillance cameras. In 2002, it recorded a sequence of video images that—some believe—depict the ghost of a woman who died in a truck accident some weeks before. Various debunkers have attempted to recreate what they feel must have been a hoax, by jiggling a small figurine or doll on a string in front of a low-light camera. But is it really necessary to make accusations of deception?

Early on, I had consulted with colleague Vaughn Rees, formerly of CFI–West, who actually visited the Oklahoma site and came away convinced that an insect was instead the culprit. When NBC contacted me about the case, I enlisted CFI video expert Tom Flynn, and Vaughn Rees not only provided his input but also donated a video camera he had purchased, the same model used in the auto lot security system. Tom Flynn subsequently concluded:

“The anomalous object in the video is highly consistent with a flying insect hovering very close to the camera. On close inspection one can detect a segmented body that hangs vertically. Wings are essentially invisible, as you’d expect given their rapid motion and the image latency typical of low-light video cameras of the period. It also makes sense that the anomalous object is bright yet indistinct; the security cameras were mounted on the same poles as the parking lot lights, so there was plenty of spill light where the cameras were. And an object hovering just inches from the lens would be seriously out of focus when the lens was focused at infinity, as it would be to cover a parking lot. Finally, the cameras were mounted inside enclosures, each shooting through a glass cover plate. The glass would reflect other lights, perhaps even an image of the insect itself, which might well cause a passing bug to hover for a moment and check things out.

“Some might object that the anomalous object is too large in frame. If it were on the plane of the car lot, it would be the size of a person. It seems larger than even a sizeable insect should appear when hovering a few inches from the lens. But security cameras of this sort are usually fitted with wide-angle lenses, to maximize their coverage, and one of the characteristics of a wide-angle lens is that objects tend to grow rapidly in size as they approach the lens—far more so than they would with a ‘normal’ lens. Everyone has seen pictures taken with long telephoto lenses, such as pictures looking down a street where objects blocks away seem almost the same size as objects nearer the camera. It’s exactly the reverse with a wide-angle lens: close objects read far larger than they appear when further away. So it makes sense that a largish flying insect hovering just inches from a wide-angle lens would appear far larger than intuition would lead a viewer to expect.”

Just as light reflects off of particles of dust close to a camera to produce “orbs” that so mystify ghost hunters, photographs of insects—given the vagaries of their different flight stages and other variables like blurred motion (which would render an exact replication difficult)—can produce a great variety of mysterious white shapes. These include even humanoid ones which, in the eye of the beholder, can be seen as “spirits,” “angels,” or other entities. The “junkyard ghost” images appear to represent just such a phenomenon.