We all grow up telling ghost stories and watching movies about aliens or other supernatural phenomena, and come to formulate our own ideas about those things in the world that occur that aren’t easily explained. However, what few people know is that many instances of weird supernatural or paranormal phenomenon can actually be explained by science. And yes—that includes some reports of ghosts, UFOs, and extrasensory perception. We hate to ruin the fun, but here are 42 credible facts about easily-explained supernatural phenomena.
42. Angel Glow
According to Civil War legend, the wounded soldiers of the Battle of Shiloh lay on the banks of the Shiloh River for two cold, rainy days waiting for help and fearing that, if their wounds didn’t kill them, exposure would. Many later recalled that those who survived seemed marked by a mysterious blue light some called “an angel glow.” What those soldiers couldn’t know was the Shiloh is home to Photorhabdous lumiscens, bioluminescent bacteria which, in addition to thriving in cold temperatures, is also extremely hostile to other infectious bacteria. Seems like germs were the real angels.
41. Jesus Wept
One statue of Jesus Christ drew visitors to a Catholic church in Mumbai when the statue began crying. Sanal Edamaruku was not swayed and quickly discovered the pips in the wall behind the statue had become clogged, causing leaking water to run over the statue. To say churchgoers were disappointed would be an understatement: Edamaruku received death threats and was even charged with blasphemy, forcing him to flee to Finland.
40. Rock and Roll
The sliding rocks of Racetrack Playa in California’s Death Valley National Park have puzzled visitors for more than 200 years. The massive boulders seem to have taken slug-like sentience, slouching across the valley, leaving a tell-tale trail behind them. Sadly, the rocks of Racetrack Playa are no more alive than any other, they simply glide on the frozen water beneath them when winter comes along and come to rest in the summer.
39. What Are the Odds?
The Mumbai Christ was, if not a hoax, then at least a misunderstanding. Still, one should expect a miracle to happen sooner or later. Statisticians rely on something called “the Law of Truly Large Numbers” which states that the larger the sample size, the more likely something inexplainable will happen.
38. He Did the Math
Mathematician John Littlewood later simplified the Law of Truly Large Numbers into “Littlewood’s Law”: “one should expect a one-in-a-million event about once a month.” Sooo…not so one-in-a-million really, if you’re expecting it.
37. Won’t o’ the Wisp
A similar effect might behind the will o’ the wisp of folklore. The eerie lights which lead hikers astray are similar ignitions of the gasses which result from decaying plants and animals.
36. At the Sprite Place at the Sprite Time
Have you ever seen a UFO? You’ve probably seen “sprite lighting.” This happens when lightning encounters an electrical field, 35 to 80 miles above ground. The result is a disk-like flash of light which looks suspiciously like the traditional “flying saucer.”
35. The Phoenix Lights
The mysterious object which flew over Phoenix in March of 1997 was observed by thousands of people, caught on camera, and even reported in news media around the world. The footage was, to be fair, pretty convincing, so much so that many UFO enthusiasts refuse to accept the official explanation of a combination of light illusions and flares from the military aircraft which were performing exercises over the nearby air force base that night.
34. Getting High
Other explanations for UFO sightings have included light phenomena, misidentified astronomical objects, and even airborne spiders. Cases which fail such obvious explanations are referred to by ufologists—yes, that’s a real word for someone who studies the field of ufology—as “high strangeness” cases.
33. Fantastic People
Perhaps you think people who claim to be abducted by aliens are “crazy.” That isn’t the case. Studies have shown no pattern of mental illness among “abductees.” They do show one thing in common, however: FPP, or fantasy-prone personality syndrome, which makes them more apt to believe in things like alien abductions and to assume that events with normal explanations are supernatural or paranormal in origin.
32. Get Hyp!
Some abductees have been willing to undergo hypnosis in an attempt to prove they are telling the truth. Unfortunately, people with FPP are especially susceptible to suggestion and leading questions. Hypnosis is frequently criticized for relying on such tactics.
31. Seeing Spots
America is littered with “Mystery Spots,” towns like St. Ignace, Michigan, and Santa Cruz, California, where the rules of gravity don’t seem to apply. Visitors to some of these mystery spots feel queasy or lightheaded as they watch houses sway forward and back, chairs creep up walls, and water flows back into the tap. Virtually all such “mystery spots” rely on optical illusions, and most were created in the 20th century to draw in curious tourists.
30. Uphill Both Ways
And then there’s Canada’s Magnetic Hill, a natural formation near Moncton, New Brunswick, where idling cars begin to roll uphill. Surely, a natural formation isn’t a trick, right? We’re afraid that’s just an optical illusion, too. The surrounded environment contributes to a shifting perspective which makes a downhill slope appear to run uphill.
29. Full of Hot Air
The mysterious glowing orbs which sometimes appear of Marfa, Texas, have been attributed to everything from ghosts to space aliens. The real explanation is much more mundane: as the local natural gas industry can attest, Marfa is rich in methane and phosphine, two gases which can ignite when met with oxygen.
28. A Chilling Sight
Suppose a gigantic monster had spent millennia camouflaging itself as a shelf of polar ice. Now, wounded by some careless arctic explorers, the monster now seeks its revenge! Sounds like the premise of a pretty good sci-fi movie. The steady stream of bright red liquid oozing out of Antarctica’s Blood Falls isn’t blood at all, but a vein of extremely salty water pouring out of the rapidly melting glacier. Actually, given the implications of climate change, it might still be a pretty scary sight despite the explanation.
27. The Bermuda Triangle
Superstitious travelers live in fear of the dreaded Bermuda Triangle, a large section of the Atlantic Ocean where ships and airplanes just disappear at an alarmingly high rate. Or do they? Covering a swath of ocean near the United States, the Caribbean, and South America, the Bermuda Triangle is a high-traffic area for ships and planes; while more planes and ships may “disappear” from this area, the percentage of shipwrecks or plane crashes is actually no higher than anywhere else in the world, due to high traffic. Apparently, you have to break some eggs to make an omelet.
26. The Perfect Storm
Indeed, the mystery which kicked off the whole Bermuda Triangle phenomena, the disappearance of five US Navy fighter pilots, has a reasonable—if not definitive—explanation. The night of the squad’s disappearance, flight conditions were notably poor. A storm sent 50-foot waves up from the mid-Atlantic and reduced visibility. Not to mention that squad leader Lt. Charles Taylor was famously unreliable: he would often turn up to work hungover and had a propensity for getting lost. Taken all together, it seems more likely the disappearance of “Flight 19” was an avoidable accident rather than the work of space aliens or some demonic force.
25. Witch Is to Say…
Throughout the middle ages and well into the colonial period, Europeans were ever mindful of witches in their midst. Scientists now think that many of the behaviors ascribed to these witches—and their supposed victims—might have been the result of ergot, a hallucinogenic fungus which can contaminate wheat. Researchers have noted that 1692, the year of the Salem witch hunt, was a particularly bad year for ergot.
Psychics are useful people, helping people anticipate their future, communicate with dead loved ones, or even solving crimes. Psychics can make reasonable guesses about people or situations based on context clues. Anyone can do that, and studies have shown that if normal people try they experience the same rate of success. So how do “psychics” get away with it? Simple—they make literally ten times as many predictions as a detective would, and couch the predictions in descriptive language.
23. Make Believe
To be fair, not every person who claims to be a psychic is some snake-oil selling huckster. That doesn’t mean they aren’t making things up, it just means they don’t realize they are. When a psychic “clears their mind” to channel another spirit, what they’re really doing is inviting their brain to fill in some gaps subconsciously. This is called “automatism,” which is a fancy way of saying “using your imagination.”
22. Beyond the Body
An out-of-body experience (OBE), where someone feels they are floating above themselves, looking at their own physical body, can be caused by damage to the angular gyrus, a section at the back of the brain which, in cooperation with other nearby sections of the brain, integrates senses like vision and spatial awareness. Studies have shown people prone to OBEs often have damage to this section of the brain, making it difficult to control motor functions and properly visualize their own body.
21. Near-Death Experiences
3% of Americans have reported experiencing a near-death experience. These were usually accompanied by some supernatural event, like seeing their life flash before their eyes, hearing God, or seeing their loved ones at the gates of Heaven. It turns out, however, that more than half of people who report a near-death experience were not near death at all. Some may even be suffering a brief bout of “Cotard’s Syndrome”—the belief that one has died in response to trauma.
20. That’s Dope
Those who do suffer a genuine near-death experience often experience sudden bursts of dopamine and noradrenaline, chemicals which can cause hallucinations and tunnel vision. Furthermore, noradrenaline is released by the locus coeruleus, part of the brain which relates memory to emotion.
19. Ghosts and Parkinson’s
Parkinson’s sufferers also experience abnormal releases of dopamine, explaining why they are prone to ghost sightings.
At the height of the spiritualist movement, mediums were happy to sell photographs of their séances, in which one might see evidence of spirits in the form of ectoplasm—the physical product of a ghostly presence. Granted, we of the 21st century may be more sophisticated to the ways of photography and photo manipulation, but it’s hard to imagine anyone took this “ectoplasm” seriously: it was often just gauze or cheesecloth which had been hidden somewhere in the room.
17. Put Your Money Where Your Mouth Is
Like his idol Harry Houdini did before him, magician-turned-debunker the Amazing Randi offered a reward of $1 million to anyone who could provide conclusive evidence of the supernatural. First presented in 1996, the “Million Dollar Challenge” went unclaimed for 20 years before it was retired.
16. The Amityville Horror
The 1977 “based on a true story” book The Amityville Horror spawned dozens of movies and books, making it arguably the most famous haunting in American history. The house had the right credentials—a former resident had murdered his entire family there—but there was nothing supernatural afoot in Amityville. Claims of poltergeists made by the Lutz family, who bought the house after the murder, were refuted by several independent researchers. Even the family who bought the house from the Lutz family confirmed nothing out of the ordinary happened there.
15. I Thought I Heard…
A favorite tool of television ghost hunters is “electronic voice phenomena,” which allows them to record the ghostly conversations of spectral presences. All that’s happening here is an audio version of pareidolia. As the ghost hunters play back the recordings of amplified ambient noise (which can be found in any room), the brain automatically begins sorting these sounds into something recognizable: music, footsteps, voices.
14. Breaking the Mold
Imagine a haunted house. I bet you didn’t picture a well-kept split-level ranch in the suburbs. There’s a reason we think of haunted houses as old, decrepit Victorians. Or, rather, there’s a reason those types of houses seem to be the haunted ones. No, not because of all the tragic history and blah blah blah. The answer is mold. Spores from mold can cause depression, anxiety, hallucinations and something called “brain fog,” making your typical haunted house—an old, drafty house in a grey, rainy village—the ideal environment for ghost sightings.
13. CO No!
Or, if not mold, how about carbon monoxide? At least one notable “haunting” turned out to be the result of a gas leak, causing the residents of the home to suffer from neuritis, an inflammation of the nerves that can lead to hallucinations and numbness.
12. I Spy
But what about those seen ghosts—the white blur at the end of the hall, or the shadowy shape on the stare? Surely, seeing is believing. Not necessarily. The world around us is constantly vibrating with sound and moving air. Some of these vibrations are too low to hear, and some too low to feel, but some are juuuust high enough to be seen: the eye can catch any vibration as low as 20 Hz, about the same as the ear. Air from an open window, for example, moving at 18 or 19 Hz is too low to be seen clearly, but could create a brief, distorted image.
11. Perfect Pitch
What’s more, studies have shown that sounds that hover just below that 20 Hz “audible” threshold are not only still perceivable but can cause feelings of paranoia and dread. Some low-frequency vibrations can even cause physical pain.
10. The Power of Suggestion
There are as many scientific explanations behind hauntings, probably, as there are haunted houses themselves. But like anything else, the simplest explanation is the most likely: people believe things are haunted because they are told things are haunted. Numerous studies have shown that merely suggesting the presence of a ghost increases the likelihood of a “paranormal experience.” As you might expect, those who believe strongly in ghosts are especially vulnerable to suggestion.
9. All the Right Moves
The power of suggestion doesn’t just work on your eyes and ears, either. Think of a Ouija board. The cursor spells out the thoughts of many a dead relative or celebrity because of something called the Ideometer Effect. Given enough suggestion, your muscles will move unconsciously towards a particular result. Thus, that cursor doesn’t move because of some spirit, but rather your own body trying to make sure you have a spookily fun time.
8. One of the Crowd
There is a social component to our susceptibility to suggestion. One 2014 study showed a video of a man bending a key “with his mind.” Test subjects were paired with an actor who would either express belief or disbelief in the video. In either case, the test subject usually sided with their neighbor.
7. Quiet Riot
Take, for example, the incident at Gazipur, Bangladesh, in 2013. When a garment worker fell ill, she concluded that her illness was caused by an evil spirit. While no one else felt sick or saw this evil spirit, more than 3,000 workers at the garment factory became so certain of a demonic presence that they went immediately on strike, leading to a massive riot in the city. No doubt there were several contributing factors to this riot, but it seems pretty unlikely that “ghosts” was one of them.
6. Frozen in Fear
During REM sleep, the body locks into place. Sometimes, however, the mind “wakes up” before the rest of the body, leaving a person paralyzed. People who suffer sleep paralysis report hallucinations and feelings of terror. Indeed, they literally feel paralyzed with fear. And sleep paralysis has been used to explain such paranormal experiences as alien abductions and demonic possessions.
5. In the Shadows
One common feature of sleep paralysis—and an awful lot of creepypasta—is the appearance of “shadow people,” malevolent spirits who look like shadows without people attached. There are several explanations for these—hallucinations, for one, or pareidolia, where the mind responds to a stimulus by seeing a pattern that’s not actually there. But the strongest explanation might be electromagnetic fields, which can trigger the synapses in the human brains. Some studies have shown shadow people and ghosts are often reported in places which have strong or abnormal magnetic fields.
4. The God Helmet
Neuroscientist Michael Persinger wanted to test the theory that supernatural occurrences, like ghosts and shadow people, were the result of electromagnetic fields. Using his “god helmet,” a Ski-Doo helmet he’d rigged to produce magnetic fields, Persinger subjected participants to a series of magnetic patterns. Persinger found that just fifteen minutes of exposure to abnormal magnetic fields resulted in the feeling that some unseen presence was in the room.
What if science proves ghosts are real? Some quantum physicists have put forward the theory that human consciousness stems from microtubules in our brain cells, microtubules which can survive outside our body, even once the rest of our body has deceased and decayed. Essentially, our conscious can haunt the earth long after we’ve passed on—just not in the form of a floating white sheet.
2. Up in Smoke
Most mysterious deaths attributed to “spontaneous human combustion” can be adequately explained with something called “the wick effect.” The wick effect suggests that an external spark (an ember from a cigarette, for example) catches in the clothing of the victim, concentrating the fire in a single spot on the skin. This small breakage in the skin releases subcutaneous fat, which seeps into the clothing of the victim and acts as an accelerant, fueling the fire as it spreads.
1. Something Stinks
One of the internet’s favorite spooky stories is of the dying woman brought into an emergency room whose blood smelled so putrid it poisoned the air around her and made several doctors sick. To this day, no one knows what was wrong with Gloria Ramirez. Or so the story goes. In reality, Ramirez had tried to self-treat her cervical cancer with dimethyl sulfoxide, a popular – though unapproved – alternative medicine. When the dimethyl sulfoxide interacted with the large amount of oxygen given to Ramirez, it created dimethyl sulfate, a literal chemical weapon.
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