It’s that time of year again: Halloween season. Here in my home state of Pennsylvania, the weather is starting to get cooler, the leaves have begun changing colors, and social media will soon be flooded with overhyped fluff pieces of alleged “ghosts,” enticing the general public to click on a story devoid of common sense yet overflowing with wild speculation. Boo!
I recently received messages about two videos being circulated on social media. The first was posted on September 15, 2020, by the New York Post. They added a video to their website and YouTube channel titled “Gettysburg ‘Ghosts’ Run across Road in This Bone-Chilling Video” with the description, “Two ‘ghosts’ at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, were spotted—157 years after the infamous Civil War battle. See the spooky sight for yourself, filmed by New Jersey resident Greg Yuelling, as he drove through the historical battleground with his family on Sept. 2, 2020.”
Before even getting to the actual “ghost video” itself, there is an automatic expectation built into the title of the video: Gettysburg. Gettysburg has been known throughout the world for the Battle of Gettysburg, a major engagement of the American Civil War that occurred July 1–3, 1863. The small town of Gettysburg was overrun when the Army of the Potomac under Gen. George G. Meade met the invading forces of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee. The battle of Gettysburg was recognized as a turning point in the war, and the number of casualties made it one of the most costly. Of about 94,000 Northern troops, casualties numbered about 23,000 (with more than 3,100 killed); of more than 71,000 Southerners, there were about 28,000 casualties (with some 3,900 killed).
Sadly, it seems that over the past twenty years, Gettysburg’s draw has shifted toward the paranormal, causing “spooky” videos such as the one shared by the New York Post to go viral quite easily. In my experience, just mentioning “Gettysburg” usually prompts someone to respond with “that place is sooo haunted.” When visiting the small town, you will see many sidewalk signs advertising ghost tours all along Steinwehr Ave. and Baltimore St., the two main streets just south of the town square. Locations such as the Jennie Wade house and the orphanage offer regular ghost hunts, inviting enthusiasts to “investigate spectral and spiritual anomalies with your team and your equipment.” Ghosts have become a solid part of Gettysburg’s popularity and big business.
Getting back to the video, which has gained over 1.6 million views as of October 2. It is about thirteen seconds long and shot along South Confederate Ave. at Gettysburg Auto Tour stop #7. As dramatic music plays over the video, we watch as Yuelling drives his car toward two cannons on the right side of the road. Yuelling seems to be the one taking video with his phone while driving the vehicle, something I would not recommend anyone doing (and which would be introduced as evidence of recklessness in the event of an accident). As the vehicle approaches a curve, two animated arrows (edited in by the New York Post) point to two anomalies that seem to be gliding across the field before seemingly disappearing into nothing.
It took one viewing to recognize what the “ghosts” actually were: rainwater trails on the windshield of the vehicle. That’s right. We are not viewing two ghostly soldiers running across a famous battlefield but rather the reflected light from the cannons being bent through a trail of rainwater on the windshield. In the beginning of the video, we can see that the road is wet—not drenched but obviously wet. Weather reports do verify there was a light rain that day.
When we start breaking down the video, we can see what appears to be a black dot on the lower part of the windshield. This black dot is actually a drop of rainwater, which is at the end of a more prominent streak down the windshield. Tracking this drop as the video plays out, we can see that it tracks perfectly with the second “ghost.” After viewing the video a few more times, you will easily spot the water trail early on. It extends from the top of the windshield to the drop near the bottom. The first “ghost,” which is caused by a much shorter trail of rain higher up on the windshield, isn’t as noticeable due to the darker background behind it (the night sky).
When light passes from air into water, it slows down due to the greater density of the water. This is refraction, the change in direction of a wave passing from one medium to another caused by its change in speed. When we view an object through water and glass (e.g., a windshield), the reflected light from that object bends as it passes through different media on the way to your eye. This bending of the light causes a visual distortion to occur, just like we see in this video.
The next day, I got into my car and noticed it had rained overnight. After the wipers did their initial pass, rainwater trailed down my windshield. I immediately took out my phone and filmed a short video (see screenshot below). Since I filmed in daylight, it is much easier to see how light coming through the water trail gets distorted.
Of course, when we look at the headline for the video, “Gettysburg ‘Ghosts’ Run across Road in This Bone-Chilling Video,” the word ghosts is presented within quotation marks. Perhaps this is the Post’s way of being more tongue-in-cheek. Because it is a tabloid paper, this would not be surprising.
The Menehune Mystery
The second video that soon came to my attention is recycled from October 2019 and seems to be making the rounds again this year. The headline reads, “Military Family Encounters Possible ‘Menehune’ at Marine Corps Base Hawaii.” According to legend, the “menehune” are a mischievous group of small people, or dwarfs, who lived hidden in the forests and valleys of the islands before the first settlers arrived from Polynesia.
Jim Underdown, the executive director at the Center for Inquiry West, was the first to reach out to me about this video (and I had inquiries from three others by the next morning). According to the article, “Kelsea Marie Yoder moved to Marine Corps Base Hawaii in July 2015. Shortly after moving in, her family started experiencing something strange, especially inside one particular room of the house.” Yoder further claims her older daughter, who was three-and-a-half years old at the time, heard weird noises in the room. Other activity was reported in the house, such as they “would hear someone walking up and down our hallway upstairs, banging on the wall, cupboards and doors opening and shutting.” These are all common claims associated with hauntings, though none have been proven to have a supernatural source.
The alleged activity soon increased, and the family purchased several security cameras and installed them in their kids’ rooms so they “could monitor the care our daughters would get from the nanny and to watch and make sure the dogs didn’t tear up anything while we were gone,” Yoder explained.
As one might expect, something strange was captured one night on video. According to the article, the camera in the oldest daughter’s room went off several times, which sent alerts to Yoder’s phone. It woke her up, and when she checked the video clips to make sure her daughter was okay, “there was something else in there with her. I never believed in the paranormal until that moment.” The article has a still image with a white line encircling what the writer is interpreting as a “menehune.” If you squint your eyes and use your imagination, you might see an oddly shaped face on an oddly shaped body sitting (or leaning awkwardly back) on the edge of the bed.
Two videos are embedded in the article, both of which are only six seconds long and of low quality. In the videos, we see a large bedroom with toys and objects spread out all over the floor. In the far-left corner is the child’s bed. There is no time/date stamp on the videos, but we know from the article that these videos were taken in 2015. At the head side of the bed we can see movement in both videos, which is what Yoder is claiming is a legendary dwarf.
Looking at the video alone, it may appear odd that there’s only movement at the top half of the bed. In fact, the full lower half (foot end) of the bed is not disturbed at all, nor does it appear to have anyone under the blanket (it appears flat). Where’s the daughter? The simple answer is, she’s lying diagonally across the top with her feet hanging over the edge of the bed while under what appears to be a Minions blanket (from the Despicable Me franchise). My son used to sleep like this quite often, so I found the positioning quite familiar. Refer to my semi-professional sketch for a better idea. Keep in mind that the child is only three-and-a-half. Children that age are on average 34.5 to 40 inches, a size that fits perfectly in the top area of the bed.
However, I don’t want to go on personal anecdotes alone. I loaded the two video clips into my editing software for easier replay and enhancement. There is a nightlight in the lower left of the scene, determined by the shadows being cast by the many objects strewn about. This also allows us to see the shadows made by whatever is on the bed as it moves. The shadows that appear during the movement we see also look exactly like a child repositioning herself and her blanket. At the end of the second video, it appears that the child lifts her head, as we see by the shadow on the wall. The video stops just at this point, which deprives us of a chance at identification. I do see what appears to be a Minion’s face (from the blanket) at one point, which may be what caused the mother to perceive a face.
The video quality is extremely poor. As it plays out, the movements from the daughter are highly pixilated. This is often due to a poor signal from the camera/base to the device the video is being viewed on. A low-strength signal can cause distortions, pixilation, and lost frames as the camera strains to send data. We can see these issues throughout both six-second videos.
Something that stands out to me with this case (and others like it) where a child is thought to be in danger from a supernatural entity: Why don’t we see a video clip of when the mother enters the room to check on her daughter? Yoder claims the camera alerts woke her up and that she “checked [the video] to make sure she was okay,” but the article doesn’t make any mention of what Yoder found upon entering the room. In fact, the next thing we read is that Yoder is calling the local (Marine Corps) chaplain the next morning. Perhaps that part was unimportant to the author of the story. I have no doubt that if we could review the subsequent video clips, it would quickly resolve the mystery.
Although most of the article promotes the idea this is a creature of legend (or ghost), there’s a spark of skepticism at the very end. Yoder’s husband is reported as saying he “does not believe in ghosts and thinks it may have been dust on a camera or a trick of the light.” In this case, I don’t think the mother is making up the story. I just think she misunderstood what she saw. Granted, she looked at the video at four in the morning and was likely not even close to being fully awake. Add in a slight case of pareidolia, and I can see how a strange creature/ghost could develop.
In conclusion, the Halloween season will bring about a surge in spooky fluff pieces from the media, which will be spread (and recycled) throughout the virtual world of social media. Although it may seem like these two cases are easily solved mysteries (some might say “low-hanging fruit”), it’s important for us, as skeptics, to show our work. Simply stating “it’s fake!” is no better than someone else stating “it’s real!” We need to show the data that supports our conclusion and explain how we got there, whether it be a simple matter of a raindrop or pareidolia or something more complex. In either case, there will be people looking for clarification, looking to better understand. That’s how we can help.