Kenny Biddle lives in Pennsylvania and was a paranormal investigator until he began questioning ghost photographs he and his peers kept shooting. He is a professional photographer, blogger, writer and science enthusiast. He will be speaking at CSICon 2017 Thursday, October 26 – Workshop 2B – Explaining Paranormal Photography and Video 1:30– 3:00 pm.
Susan Gerbic: Kenny, I’m hearing more from you these days: a nice long interview on the 15 Credibility Street podcast and now I see you are giving a workshop at CSICon. I’m really looking forward to learning more about this topic. Can you give us a preview of what you will be talking about?
Kenny Biddle: I hope what you’re hearing is good! I have to give a shout out to my friend, Sharon Hill, for having me on her podcast. It was a great discussion that got deep into critical details.
So you want a sneak peek, huh? Well, I try to make my presentations fun, informative, and interactive. I’m not a “stand at a podium” kind of guy. I don’t like talking at people; I like to get them involved. I like to get them playing with their cameras. I want the audience to create the anomalies themselves! The best way to understand how something is done is to do it yourself.
One of the points I want to get across is what kind of weird things you can do with long exposures. So many ghost hunters, Bigfoot hunters, and UFO hunters are using cameras, yet many only know how to “point and shoot.” We’re going to see what happens when the lights are low and we turn the flash off. We’re going to see how time and light affect images. We’re also going to duplicate (as best we can) the most famous ghost photo out there. You’ll have to show up to find out which one.
We’re also going go over some basic photography and the common “ghosts.” Audiences usually contain photographers of varying skill levels, from casual camera owners that only know to “push the button” to pros that own thousands of dollars’ worth of equipment. We’ll cover how orbs and ecto mists are created and apparitions from “shadow people” to phone apps. I’m going to jam as much as I can into this workshop, which means I’ll be ramped up on Monster drinks all morning long. I’ll also be around for the whole conference, so if anyone has questions later they can always ask me.
Oh, and if anyone has seen my videos or blog posts, they know I have a slight tendency to curse when a topic really pisses me off. I try to be PG during conferences, but you should be warned just in case.
Gerbic: I see you are a professional photographer with a bit of this and that. Have you ever captured anything that you thought was paranormal? Or have you ever been shown something that made you wonder if they had caught a ghost?
Biddle: I love to dabble in every aspect of a hobby or interest, learning little tricks here and there. I’ve done weddings, family portraits, headshots, product photography, nature photography, and so on. I’ve never taken a class on photography; I learned it “old school”—by reading books/manuals, tagging along with other photographers, and simply pushing all the buttons. I follow the idea of “What will happen if I do this?” It’s a great way to learn.
Twenty years ago, I called myself a “ghost hunter” and believed that orbs, ectoplasmic mists, and “energy” vortexes were genuine evidence of ghosts. Mostly because I was ignorant—or an idiot, I haven’t decided yet. So if you asked me back then if I had caught something paranormal, I would have said “yes.” Over the years I’ve learned so much that I was able to apply that knowledge to past images. I haven’t taken a single image that contained something that could be labeled “paranormal.” The majority of them I’ve been able to extract a plausible explanation, which I can recreate! Showing people that it’s possible (and sometimes quite easy) to recreate a ghostly effect has a much better impact than just a skeptic saying something “ain’t a ghost.”
As for images from other people…. Well, I get sent some crazy shit. But again, as I learned more and more, I found that I wonder less and less. “Ghost,” as a conclusion, is at the very bottom of my list of possible causes—like below the fine print. My thinking process has evolved so that if I get through hours of intense scrutiny (because my OCD won’t let me “let it go”) and still can’t figure out how an anomaly was created/captured, then I will admit that I don’t know long before I call something a ghost. If I don’t know what it is, I can’t conclude it’s a ghost—that would be fabricating a conclusion!
Gerbic: With everyone carrying a camera with them everywhere you would think by now we would have lots of great images of spooks, UFOs, and cryptozoological creatures. At a certain point, it’s getting silly to continue to think these things exist but for some reason we can’t photograph it.
Biddle: Agreed. Almost everyone in modern society owns some type of camera. Paranormal enthusiasts usually own several! Paranormal hunts are going on every weekend, yet after decades and decades of trying, we still don’t have a valid photo of a ghost, a bigfoot, or an alien spacecraft. I tend to blame the power of belief, confirmation bias, and misinterpretations.
You’re right: it’s getting really silly. All the “great” (classic, popular) ghost and crypto photos came from a time when cameras were not as commonplace. But today, with teams setting up camera systems by the dozen, we don’t get shit. Ghosts are still odd lights and shadows, and Bigfoot is still a blurry fuzz ball despite cameras having advanced image stabilization. The equipment gets better, but the photos and video still look like a two-year-old shot it while learning to walk.
Gerbic: You’re a big fan of Houdini?
Biddle: Houdini was the freakin’ man. Last year I was able to visit the Houdini museum in Scranton, Pennsylvania, where I met Dorothy Dietrich, a famous stage magician and escapologist, as well as a huge follower on Houdini (she’s been referred to as the “female Houdini”). She’s been charged with carrying on the tradition of the Houdini séance, which was passed on from Bess (Houdini’s wife) to magician Walter B. Gibson, who in turn passed it onto Dorothy. Dorothy was kind enough to extend me an invitation to last year’s séance, but I was in Vegas for CSICon at the time. I also had a chance to visit Houdini’s grave site in New York last year.
I just recently finished reading A Magician Among the Spirits, which is an amazing work detailing Houdini’s investigations into psychics and spiritualists. I love his dedication to finding all the details, working out how mediums performed their tricks, and most especially not pulling any punches when he exposed con artists. He was a critical thinking badass, who never backed down from a challenge. Despite the countless mediums he exposed, he still maintained an open mind. He would still attend events to see if the claims held water. To me, Houdini was the the skeptical paranormal investigator, and I strive to be as good as he was.
This is how I approach paranormal claims that I investigate. I attend ghost hunts, sit for readings, and look at the evidence presented. I go in giving them a chance to prove their claim. Then I research the crap out of it, looking at all the details and putting the pieces together until the mysterious puzzle presents me with a picture of what’s really going on. I let the data lead me to a conclusion.
My next step will be attempting to acquire some (or at least one) Houdini memorabilia. That would be an awesome item that I treasure forever. I take donations and have a good home. Anyone? Anyone?
Gerbic: What was your gateway into scientific skepticism?
Biddle: For me, the “gateway” had several doors right after each other. I had a growing curiosity with photography and the alleged ghost photos I believed I was capturing. Every paranormal enthusiast was getting the same kind of pictures…EVERYONE! I wanted to know “How the F@*k is this happening?” It was around this time that I had begun seeking out more and more skeptical and science writings. I had doubt about the photographs and my beliefs. I not only wanted to know what skeptical-minded people thought, but why.
Enter Benjamin Radford. The guy has written about a ton of places, and he’s appeared on quite a few TV shows as the “token skeptic.” His approach was always professional, polite, and focused on the claims. This really stuck with me, especially when he was able to explain and duplicate alleged ghost photos just like the ones I had. His work helped me question what I was doing and helped me figure out how ignorant I was to all the possible and perfectly normal explanations out there.
Ben’s work lead me to Joe Nickell (who I had the chance to spend an entire day with!) and his in-depth investigations and books (of which I own all of them). I particularly enjoyed his book Forensic Photography. The man has probably forgotten more than I know. Joe’s work led me to James Randi, who is a freakin’ legend! The guy boldly challenged psychics and other extraordinary claimants, offering a ton of cash if they won! That took balls. I totally respect that.
I had found DoubtfulNews.com and spent hours reading the critical reviews of fantastic new stories. Sharon and her partner-in-crime Torkel Ødegård do an amazing job of cutting through the bullshit and presenting a critical look at these stories. Of course, Houdini became a huge influence once I really started learning about him.
I’m not trying to “name-drop.” These people really inspired me to look deeper into the claims, to seek information beyond “just enough,” to look at all angles rather than just my own. They helped focus my curiosity into something useful, and I can’t thank them enough. Like I said, there were many doors that led me to where I am today. These were the first few.
Gerbic: Tell me a story about meeting someone “famous” at a skeptic conference?
Biddle: To be honest, I’ve only been to one skeptic conference, and that was last year’s CSICon. It was an amazing experience for me, because there were so many people attending who I admired and looked up to. There was one person I totally geeked out over: James Randi. I’ve always wanted to meet him, but my budget usually kept me from attending events he was at. When CSI announced the CSICon last year with Randi being a guest, I really, REALLY, R-E-A-L-L-Y wanted to go. My wife and I talked about it, cut back on a few things, and we were able to go. BOOYA!
When we got to the lobby on the first day of the conference, it only took a minute before I saw Randi calmly wandering around chatting with people. To be honest, I was nervous—but the good “OMFG, IT’S JAMES FREAKIN RANDI” kind of nervous. I walked up and asked if I could get a picture with him, and he was all for it. Once my wife took the picture, he looked at me and said “That will be $29.95”…then winked at me. I asked if I could give him a hug, and he said “As long as you don’t break me.” Randi is a very sweet, friendly, and still quick-witted gentleman. He was so nice to me and my wife, Donna, chatting leisurely with us for a few minutes. He sat next to me during a few lectures, and autographed my treasured copy of Flim-Flam—playfully arguing that he was going to address it to my wife instead of me, because she was “cuter” (well, she is…so I had no argument). It was a great experience that will stick with me until I kick the bucket.
Gerbic: CSICon this year will have a zombie disco party. Can you tell me what you have planned?
Biddle: My wife and I do have something planned, but you’ll have to attend to see. NO HINTS!!!
Gerbic: What is next for Kenny Biddle?
Biddle: I always have (too many) projects going on. I’m currently working on three books; two are the “then and now” type where I revisit my experiences as a former ghost hunter. I apply the knowledge I’ve gained over the years to what I experienced then, and present plausible explanations for the many strange events I wrote about. The third book will be an update to a self-published one that focused on alleged paranormal photography, explaining how common anomalies are “caught on film.”
I have a ton of videos I need to work on for my YouTube channel, and I’ll continue to write pieces for my blog. I have a few para-conferences that I speak at talking about critical thinking and photography. My ultimate goal would be to get a call from Joe Nickell when he’s ready to retire, telling me “Hey Kenny, pack your stuff and move into my office. I named you as my successor. Barry Karr said it was OK.” Ha ha ha. (Call me, Joe).
Gerbic: For those who would like to learn more about Kenny Biddle, he has recently published a Special Report for the Skeptical Inquirer website, “The Xbox Kinect and Paranormal Investigation,” and has written a section for the upcoming (still untitled) investigating paranormal claims book by Ben Radford. Biddle focuses on some of the photographic anomalies of the photos sent to Radford. Subscribe to Kenny Biddle’s YouTube channel here. Kenny is offering a free drink to the first person who attends his workshop and mentions reading this article who sees him at CSICon. So please take him up on it. CSICon attendees keep in mind that workshop attendance requires a separate ticket. Arrive on Wednesday afternoon and hang out with your peers. Join the CSICon Facebook group for up-to-date news.