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  • The Optics of Paranormal Activity
Oct 2012
Oct. 18, 2012 — The site of the now-shuttered Camp Evans, in Wall Township, N.J., has played host to the Ku Klux Klan, former Nazi scientists and Senator Joseph McCarthy, and is said to be among the most haunted in the state. A group called Behind the Wall Paranormal regularly conducts investigations of the site, using a variety of optics-based instruments. I joined them a few weeks ago to see what I could learn.

I stood in a darkened room on the second floor of the abandoned dormitory, fumbling with the settings on my camera. Every few seconds the flash from another camera – from somewhere in the hallway behind me – lit up the room, casting a larger-than-life shadow of my form on the opposite wall.

Events earlier in the evening had left me on edge, and this fearsome, flickering silhouette, like something out of a Saturday morning cartoon featuring dogs and drug-addled teens, was almost more than I could bear. A young woman was standing several feet away – in ghost hunting you never enter a room alone – and I said to her, without turning, “I am literally afraid of my own shadow right now.”

A second’s pause; another flash. “Well, you cut an imposing figure.”

I appreciated the attempt to boost my confidence but I had already forfeited any claim to tough guy status – maybe an hour before in the attic, where a pulsing, diffusely glowing light in the corner had all but swept away my skepticism and journalistic objectivity and forced a paroxysm of wide-eyed credulity (“What was that? Did you see it? DID YOU SEE IT?”), my voice an octave or so higher than its usual dulcet tone.

Popularized by the TV show “Ghost Hunters,” laser grids help to detect shadows and other visual disturbances during an investigation. Images courtesy of Tony Abello.

My night at Camp Evans was eye-opening, to say the least. Among other things, I discovered that ghost hunting is simply all about optics. It’s about the technology, of course – the infrared detectors, the full-spectrum cameras, the laser grids – but it’s also about the intangibles of the optics realm, about shadows and reflections and afterimages. Almost everything I touched that night, almost everything I experienced, somehow involved a phenomenon of light.

Not least: the instruments we used during the investigation. Sure, ghost hunters have relied on compasses since the 18th century – spirit activity is said to cause disturbances in the electromagnetic field, making the compass needles spin – and EMF meters are still an integral part of the ghost hunting kit. But it would be hard to imagine a modern-day investigation without cameras – specifically without infrared night vision cameras, in which the blocking filters are removed from the light path, making the devices sensitive to infrared light.

You can find these throughout the ghost hunting community. Some folks hand-modify cameras into the infrared or the full spectrum, by changing out the filters, etc. Behind the Wall uses only commercially available IR cameras – so as not to void the warranties of conventional digital cameras by opening them up and altering them. Tony Abello, co-founder of the group and leader of the expedition that I joined, told me that Behind the Wall primarily uses Sony cameras with the NightShot or NightShot Plus facility and equipped with one or more external infrared lights.

Behind the Wall Paranormal uses a range of infrared night vision cameras in its paranormal investigations at Camp Evans in Wall Township, N.J.

Such cameras serve a dual purpose in paranormal investigations. First, the night vision capabilities help to capture events in darkened rooms and even to guide investigators in unlit hallways, attics, etc. (with the investigators keeping an eye on the viewfinder of an IR-equipped camcorder, for example). Just as important, though, the cameras can catch anomalies that might not appear in the visible range of the spectrum.

“We have caught several things with the cameras with IR extenders,” Tony said. “And yes, we could only see the matter upon review, not with our naked eyes or a regular, non-IR camera.”

Encouraged by early findings with infrared cameras, ghost hunters started thinking about other regions of the spectrum. During the Camp Evans investigation I met a young man named Adam, co-founder of another paranormal investigation group (in the small hours of the morning, in the far corner of the dormitory basement, he and Tony would argue over which group would get to recruit me as a full-time member). Adam demonstrated for me the full-spectrum camera he’d recently purchased. The camera can image from the infrared up to the ultraviolet, he said, potentially revealing a host of additional anomalies.

Toy trains and talking to spirits

Several days after my Camp Evans experience I spoke with Marti Haines about the technologies used in ghost hunting. Haines, store manager at The GhostHunter Store in Mt. Holly, N.J., and member of the paranormal investigation group South Jersey Ghost Research, told me that she and colleagues had caught a number of anomalies with full spectrum cameras, either in the UV or the IR – “anything from light rods to full-body apparitions,” she said.

She also described devices called REM pods and trigger objects – trigger objects will be things like lanterns or toy trains that might attract spirits. These work on a static-field basis, and can be used for detection or even for communication with spirits. “It seems easier for the spirits to manipulate these,” Haines said. “They can give you a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ answer by breaking the field.”

REM pods work by creating their own magnetic field and detecting any disturbances in that field, but the concept – at least in terms of communicating with spirits – is similar to the older, lower-tech “flashlight work” approach. Here, you simply unscrew the top of a flashlight to turn it off and ask the spirit to give a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ response by turning it back on.

I had my own experience with flashlight work in the Camp Evans dormitory. It was well after midnight in a room on the second floor where several people had earlier seen an indistinct mass with glowing red eyes. Tony was sitting at the end of a table attempting to establish contact with whatever spirit was in the room. “Spirit,” he said, “if you are here with us please give us a sign.”

I was sitting at the opposite end of the table fiddling with my flashlight, and at the very moment he said this I accidentally switched the flashlight on.

“Holy crap!!!” It was the voice of one of the investigators.

“Sorry!” I cried. “That was me!”

In the darkness I could feel five paranormal investigators glaring at me, and then I heard them laugh. I may never be a seasoned ghost hunter –wielding laser grids and full-spectrum cameras while chasing down shadows and apparitions – but I was having a good time. And that has to count for something.

Note: Infrared cameras have also been linked to another, less reputable pursuit: trying to see through people’s clothes (find a history of X-ray vision and assorted other attempts to see folks naked here. In 1998, Sony shipped some 700,000 camcorders with infrared night vision technology that, unbeknownst to the company, enabled people to do just this. Sony recalled those cameras but people have since worked out how to modify the technology themselves to achieve that particular goal.

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