In Search of Photographs
I’d like to begin with the following account, submitted to the archive of the Religious Experience Research Centre (RERC) by a lady who was fifteen years old and a wartime evacuee when her experience occurred:
The mistress of the house had the task of telling me my brother had been killed in Italy. This was naturally a terrible shock.
That same evening I went to bed as usual in a bungalow attached to the main building. It was a dark night & the employers had gone out to a party so the main house was in darkness. I mention this for a reason which will become clear later on.
Feeling utterly depressed &, as I am not ‘religious’, except for the usual Sunday School & occasional Matins (C of E) – also feeling lost I pondered over the great mysteries. Why are we born? Where are we going? What’s life all about? Etc.
Suddenly there was a misty ball of light towards the door of my room, I will repeat, this door opened on to the garden & in any case my employers were all out for the evening. My mind seemed to ‘change gear.’ I use car terminology to suggest a change of normal activity difficult if not impossible to describe. It was as if a voice spoke in my head ‘Don’t worry any more about X he is quite well and happy.’ On ‘hearing’ this I suddenly felt quite relaxed after the great emotional storm of the day. I have never since then worried about the after-life & have been content to leave it in God’s hands. (982)
This account, reproduced exactly as it was written, generated lively debate when I included it in a talk I gave at a CFPSS event in Malvern several years ago. One question in particular stands out in my memory. “Do you think” the questioner asked “that this light could have been photographed if the lady had had a camera with her at the time of her experience?” It stuck with me for all sorts of reasons: not least because it raised a series of deeper questions concerning what sorts of experiences these odd and anomalous events might be. Could the light have been photographed? If so, what might this tell us about similar odd and/or anomalous events?
Of course, during the Second World War very few people carried cameras around with them on a regular basis. But in recent years this has changed significantly, and even before the advent of smart phones there were cameras that could be slipped into pockets or handbags: digital cameras in particular. It comes as no surprise, therefore, that the photographing of unusual lights has become much more of a possibility in recent decades: at least, for those who believe that such things can be photographed, such as orb enthusiasts. For them, photographing such things is more than a possibility: it has become an actuality. In fact, the wave of enthusiasm for orbs coincided rather neatly with the emergence and widespread use of digital cameras in the 1990s: ‘orbs’ being defined as odd or anomalous lights that appear on photographs either because they were deliberately photographed at the time they were first spotted or because they were spotted retrospectively upon photographic examination.
I must admit that when I embarked on this post on orbs I was somewhat apprehensive. Almost twenty years ago, before the advent of smart phones but well after the appearance of digital cameras, I had studiously avoided them in a book I wrote on unusual lights based on almost 400 accounts from the RERC archive similar to that with which this paper began.. I ignored them for several reasons: I had more than enough accounts without extending the research in the ‘orb direction’ and orbs didn’t seem to produce the same fruits for life that many other light-experiences did. In addition – and I will return to this point, below – there were no actual photographs in the archive that would make it a suitable place to look for the obviously visual aspect of the phenomenon. Shortly after my own study was published, another researcher, Annekatrin Puhle, also published a study of unusual lights and she, too, ignored orbs, arguing that there was no evidence that they were anything other than photographic aberrations and rejecting the notion that they could be viewed as images of the souls of the deceased.
Circles of Confusion
Were we right to ignore orbs in our studies? Up to a point, it certainly seems so. After all, orbs do not seem to have generated anything like the amount of debate in the opening decades of the twenty-first century that they did in the 1990s. However, there are very recent signs that we might have been too hasty: not least because interest appears to be picking up again. In a recent piece in the journal De Numine, for example, researcher Mara Steenhuisen has drawn attention in a preliminary study to a major research project on orbs which she is currently undertaking at the University of Wales Trinity Saint David. In common with Puhle and others, Steenhuisen is well aware that conventional optical explanations account for ‘a great deal’ of alleged orb photographs. However, for her, a residue of genuinely inexplicable orb evidence persists. She writes: ‘But here it is: despite the eradication of the possibility of ‘circles of confusion’ and the endeavours to make the public aware that orbs can be created as photographic effects, there is something just very peculiar about these orbs.’ In what, then, does the peculiarity lie? For Steenhuisen, it exists in those cases where there is interaction – sometimes ongoing interaction – between the orbs and their experients. Thus: ‘[C]onventional optic explanations…account for a good deal of the orbs in photographs and video footage. It gets very interesting though when cases present themselves which indeed account for the presence of orbs in someone’s life over a longer period of time.’
A number of questions arise at this point. Firstly, and perhaps most obviously, who is to say that any single orb photograph is ‘very peculiar’? Ongoing interaction with an unusual light – whether described as an ‘orb’ or not – is one thing, but the alleged photographic ‘evidence’ for this is surely another. Can Steenhuisen – or any orb enthusiast, come to that – be absolutely sure that any and every orb photograph cannot be explained by more conventional means? Camera technology may indeed be in the process of becoming ever more sophisticated but it is surely for photographic specialists – and not enthusiasts or those working in other academic fields – to decide whether or not any given photographic image is entirely physically inexplicable.
And then there is the question of the source of Steenhuisen’s research material for her preliminary study. For her, the archive of the Religious Experience Research Centre (RERC) offers the promising possibility of researching orbs via its unparalleled collection of testimonies to spiritual and transcendent experience. Readers familiar with the literature on religious, spiritual and paranormal experience will be no strangers to the RERC; a collection of some 6000 accounts of religious and spiritual experience originally established by marine biologist Alister – later Sir Alister – Hardy in 1969 in a bid to forge a reconciliation between the worlds of science and the spirit. Indeed, Steenhuisen’s De Numine paper is largely based around a preliminary search of the archive for testimonies to orbs and orb-like phenomena. She presents three, and alludes to several possible others. Yet there are problems, again, here. As already noted, above, the RERC archive is almost entirely made up of testimonies along with a much smaller number of questionnaires. There are no photographs at all, as Steenhuisen acknowledges, despite her assertion that the latter are ‘an intricate feature of the orb phenomenon.’ A critic might observe that it seems a little odd to use an archive containing no photographs – even for a preliminary study – when photographs are an ‘intricate feature’ of what is being examined.
Ongoing Interaction and the RERC Archive
The ‘ongoing interaction’ motif, however – ‘the presence of orbs in someone’s life over a longer period of time’ to use Steenhuisen’s phrase – might be a different thing. In fact, as an aside, there is considerable evidence that it was Alister Hardy’s original intention to uncover ongoing – and not ‘one-off’ – experiences when he first set up the RERC archive in 1969. His invitation to those ‘who have been conscious of, and perhaps influenced by, some such power, whether they call it God or not, to write a simple and brief account of these feelings and their effects’ was designed to elicit testimonies to a continual experience of the transcendent, not single ‘episodic’ encounters. Indeed, he was later to reflect: ‘Perhaps the use of the term ‘religious experience’ in the name of our Unit tended to give the impression that we were only concerned with particular isolated unusual experiences rather than a continuing feeling of a transcendental reality or of a divine presence.’
In the remainder of this paper I will present a number of testimonies from the RERC archive which might go some way to aiding the kind of twenty-first century orb research pioneered by Steenhuisen and discussed, above. In particular, attention will be paid to the ‘ongoing interaction’ motif which she has highlighted as central to the phenomenon per se. As far as I am aware, these testimonies have not been examined or cited in any extant orb research – including Steenhuisen’s – and one will be published here for the very first time.
The first episode, unusually, occurred outdoors. The subject writes how, ‘anxiously wondering in my mind about a trouble connected with my daughter’, she was out in the garden ‘wondering and pondering’ when
suddenly a wonderful Light appeared before me…I can’t describe the brilliance of it – but here again was the complete assurance that all would be well, and I felt a feeling of ecstasy, & again great happiness – twice I have had this wonderful Light – it shines against anything even a light blue sky, or dark trees, or in a room. (2454)
This certainly sounds like an orb: at least according to the definitions discussed above. It appears to have been a single light, experienced on more than one occasion, standing out clearly against both indoor and outdoor backgrounds and engendering in the subject uplifting feelings that – at least on the surface – seem to have had no earthly point of origin. Could the respondent have photographed it? This remains hypothetical, and yet to her naked eye it seems to have been clear enough: if, of course, her naked eye was what actually conveyed its presence to her. Her assertion that it stood out against any background before which it presented itself certainly suggests some sort of physical, optical, phenomenon, but we cannot be sure.
A second account – one of the very earliest submitted to Hardy – seems, if anything, even more striking. In it, a freshly bereaved man begins by describing a series of voices that started twenty-five days after his wife died. Twice a male voice spoke, followed shortly by his wife’s voice, saying ‘Take me to see him now.’ Just over a month later, the lights first appeared:
Early in February 1964, strange lights began to appear in all parts of the room where I happened to be. Beautiful pale blue, slowly fading-in, and staying for a few seconds, then slowly fading out. They were at their best in a darkened room while I was by myself and thinking of her. Sometimes they came singly, very bright and large, sometimes numerous and smaller. In about the middle of February, just before settling down for the night, the lights were extra numerous, fifteen or twenty, but more numerous than previously. While contemplating them and wondering as to their significance, a different light appeared, more like a flame of light, about as large as my hands, golden flame-colour, high up in the room, approximately ten feet away. This startled me and brought an exclamation to my lips, unfortunately so, as the flame-light immediately vanished and has never returned. The other lights are now a daily experience. Over the five years from my bereavement no day has passed but that they appear. They come at all times of the day and night, in any and every part of the flat where I happen to be. They come when I am thinking of the ordinary business of life or doing the most mundane of things – a perpetual reminder of whatever it is they signify.
As an addendum to this curious sequence of events, and drawing attention to the oddness of the voices he heard before the appearance of the first lights, the writer adds, almost matter-of-factly: ‘Incidentally, I am acutely deaf, and cannot hear ordinary conversation. There was no difficulty hearing the voices.’ (31)
This is an extraordinary account bearing several clear orb ‘hallmarks’. According to the subject the lights appeared singly or in groups, were strongly suggestive as having some sort of transcendent origin, and were a daily occurrence spanning at least half a decade. However, there are some admittedly rather unusual features too. What, for example, are we to make of the curious ‘flame of light’ that appeared ‘high up in the room’, only to disappear upon the subject’s startled exclamation? And what of the voices? They do not seem to have been the sorts of voices that could readily have been recorded if the subject had recording equipment to hand, given his addendum that he was ‘acutely deaf.’ Indeed, something non-physical is strongly implied. Might the same be said of any attempt to capture the lights on camera? Given that the voices ‘bypassed’ the usual ways of hearing, it might be concluded that the lights were of a similar, non-physical, nature. If so, it seems doubtful that they could have been captured by camera via conventional means. But we cannot know this for sure and the RERC archive cannot tell us.
A further – hitherto unpublished – archival account also possesses features both typical and atypical when compared with alleged orb ‘encounters’. Writing to Hardy within a few months of the establishment of the archive, the respondent wrote:
Not long ago I lived in a bungalow alone. One evening I made preparations as usual, about ten o’ clock, to retire. I switched off the electricity at the mains leaving the place in total darkness. I went into the hall and bent down to lock the door. As I did so the hall was illuminated with a soft light. Accompanied by a loud hissing. I stood up and turning around, saw a brilliant light, its edges flickering, and its centre in motion. I stood gazing at it for a period of fifteen or twenty seconds then it went taking with it the hiss and glow. I thought I had seen God.
That was the beginning of a series of phenomena continuing to this day. Soon after, occurring in the day and at night the bungalow shook under the concussion of terrific bangs upon one wall. One evening cooking in the kitchen I heard a loud bang from the dining room, and an intense feeling of being uplifted happened to me. I rushed into the dining room, but it was quite normal. Often phenomena have happened. If I listen at night I hear voices whispering around the room. (1093)
Where does one begin with a remarkable account such as this? The light certainly sounds vaguely orb-like, but the presence of the hissing noise and subsequent phenomena suggestive of a poltergeist manifestation complicate the picture somewhat, as does the feeling of uplift, the ongoing presence of whispering voices, and the subject’s identification of the initial light phenomenon as ‘God.’ This being said, there seems little question of the physicality of that initial light: at least, in some sense. Not only did it present as an actual, photographable object, it also made a distinct sound, suggesting that if the person had possessed a camera with video mode he could have captured audio-visual evidence of its original appearance.
What, then, of orbs in the twenty-first century? Whether they are really anything more than photographic anomalies is surely something for photographic experts to rule on. In addition, the fact that so many of us walk around with gadgets capable of filming in HD quality might yet result in a fresh ‘wave’ of crisp, clear orb pictures as the century progresses: although there is little sign, yet, of that actually occurring. This does not mean, however, that orb research cannot move forward as the decades advance. Perhaps ditching the insistence on photographic ‘evidence’ and concentrating on other aspects of the phenomenon – the presence of unusual lights and their ongoing attachment to certain people or places, for example – might yield useful research results over and above those already presented by those interested in unusual lights. Indeed, orb researchers have much to contribute to the ongoing interest in odd and anomalous light phenomena that many of us already possess. It is to be hoped that future decades will reveal answers to the questions about these lights that still remain: presenting us, perhaps, with the elusive physical proof of their existence that currently remains tantalisingly beyond our grasp.
 Numbers in brackets are archival reference numbers.
 Mark Fox, Spiritual Encounters With Unusual Light Phenomena: Lightforms. Cardiff, University of Wales Press, 2008.
 Annekatrin Puhle, Light Changes: Encounters In The Presence of Transforming Light. Guildford, White Crow Books, 2013.
 ‘Orbs: A Preliminary Search in the RERC Archives’, Mara Steenhuisen, De Numine, 68, Spring 2020, pp 9-12.
 Steenhuisen, op. cit. p. 9
 Fox, op. cit. p. 23
This article first appeared in The Christian Parapsychologist, New Series Vol 2, No. 4, March 2021, pp. 10-18.