Adelaide Ghosts and Hauntings - Paranormal Field Investigators

Go to content

Pareidolia and the Paranormal

Articles > By PFI


By Alison Oborn

Face staring in through window at the Old Adelaide Gaol

"Wow - Great catch Alison!! I bet you are going to put THAT one up in the P.F.I. photographic evidence gallery!!"

Well actually.... no... no I am not, and why is that, I hear you ask? After all, it is a lovely clear example of a face caught in the window. Well it is because of a condition called Pareidolia, and oh yes... how this is a great example of it.

"Para... what???"

Pareidolia - pronounced pair-reed-ole-lee-uh


How many of us, as children, used to lie down or sit in the car on those long trips and look at the clouds floating past. How many of us also found it fun to make out faces, dragons or even cute fluffy bunnies? Well, if you were one of those children, then you have already experienced Pareidolia, or as the paranormal field seem to like to call it these days... 'matrixing'. Most of us do experience it at some point in our lives.

The term pareidolia first came up in 1994 and was used by Stephen Goldstein. It is a form of apophenia which is where the mind will attempt to find connections in random events, thoughts or patterns where none actually exist. Pareidolia concentrates more on the visual and audio aspects of the brain perceiving a vague stimulus as something more important in a persons mind. It is so well known in the field of psychology/psychiatry that they will occasionally attempt to induce a form of pareidolia in a patient to be able to assess them better, e.g. with the Rorschach Ink Blots (although this too is controversial).

Rorschach Ink Blot


Our brains appear to be hotwired at birth to recognise human faces. In fact a young baby will be drawn more to faces then any other stimulus. This is an important ability within us all and helps us through life to recognise friend from foe. It would have been life saving in tribal situations and would also have helped us to recognise the dangers of predation. It wouldn't have mattered that we made many false positives... at least we would have lived to see another day. We may not depend on, or even be aware of this skill now, but it doesn't mean that it isn't with us still. Most of us will recognise that these illusions are just that, but there are some that turn an illusion into a delusion to fit in perfectly with their own perceptions and belief systems.


Image of the Madonna and child in plaster at Yankalilla -

The most famous recent case of pareidolia that hit the media, was the case here in South Australia involving the supposed image of the Madonna and child that appeared in plaster. This was first noticed in July 1996 at the Anglican Christ church in Yankalilla, by Fr Andrew Nutter. It has since become famous worldwide. Is it a true image or just a good case of pareidolia??

It is interesting that a large amount of cases of pareidolia do seem to occur in the field of religion. Images of Jesus and Mary frequently appear in all manner of mundane items, e.g. trees, fence posts, food and yes even a piece of toast that sold for $28,000 on Ebay after the image of Jesus was found to be on it. Of course the question would have to be asked as to why such powers would take their time to simply vandalise our food? Why would they even consider to appear in such mundane objects?

The real problem seems to lie in the fact that our brain will take these vague stimuli and then will try and fill in the details, depending on what our perceptions and beliefs are. For example religious people seem to commonly see Jesus or the Virgin Mary, UFO believers often see alien faces and 'ghost seekers' commonly will see demons and ghosts. Interestingly Muslim and other religions do NOT see Jesus or the Virgin Mary and it is probable this is because these images have no place in their belief systems... and visa versa... the Christian religions will not see Muslim icons. Likewise, Paranormal investigators won’t see the Virgin Mary in their pictures of faces on dirty glass either, but often interpret them as demons and ghosts. Once again it seems to be based on what our perceptions and beliefs are as to how these images are interpreted.


So lets head back to the original photo. How do we know that this isn't a REAL face that we captured? Well... it is simple, when we changed the angle slightly the face changes and you can make out a different image. In fact each time we take a photo there, we can produce an image on this glass.

First Image of face and then Image from different angle

It should be remembered that older versions of glass when produced, were uneven on the surface, unlike the glass that is produced today. For this reason alone, it is capable of producing all manner of strange shapes and images when photographed. If you add to it the fact that the glass hasn't been cleaned in a while and has surface dirt then you are going to increase the chances of producing images when using a flash directed on this glass.

Another example of glass pareidolia:

face in window - always there in our photos

But these images are not just confined to glass, they can be captured by photography on other shiney yet dirty surfaces such as this one on the floor of the Old Adelaide Gaol.

P.F.I. are certainly not immune to being caught out by pareidolia. We have been fooled a couple of times with photos that have intrigued us, only to find on closer inspection and with further experimentation that it was, in fact, simply a natural trick of light and shadow.

Two cases in particular are:

a) Figure slumped in the Gaol tunnel and b) Chinese figure in robes on wall

Photograph a.

The Old Adelaide Gaol has a long tunnel leading to another building and it was within this tunnel that one of our team members took a photograph. When a certain area was enhanced, we found that there seemed to be a figure slumped there, which we hadn't seen at the time. For a while we accepted that this was just a 'great' photo... that is until recently we took a closer look.

We soon had a suspicion as to what it could be that was causing the effect, so to make sure I went and sat in roughly the same spot that we assumed the figure had been slumped. As you can see in this photo, I have lined the door up. As you can also see, the figures' head is much lower then my own. If this figure was closer to the camera then myself, then the image should look larger and higher then my own. It couldn't be any further away as I am sitting as far as I can down the hallway. So immediately the size and placement of this figure makes no sense. You will also see a blue line leading from the base of the door from one photo across to the base of the door in the other. Why?

Pipe work running down doorframe which turned out to be the explanation for the head

Because this structure sits at the base of the door frame and, with the right light and shadow, it can give the impression of a head. Shadow and light at night with a flash can complete the illusion of the body and hey presto Pareidolia will do the rest.

Photograph b.

The figure of a Chinese person against the wall where the portable gallows was used. Again we found this photo intriguing until we took a closer look at it. Looking back over our other photos we found that it had popped up time and time again, although not as distinct. For this reason we had overlooked it.

As you can see it is still present many years later in the background of the Torchlight Tour that I was conducting. So we looked harder. We soon found that during the daylight period, although certain parts of the image were present, it wasn't until the sun went down and the fluorescent lights came on that the image became more distinct largely due to the old security camera casting a shadow to finish off the head.

Image in stonework during daylight hours and then the image at night on the wall

The shape of the lighter coloured shoulders and the dark middle sash are clearly visible in the stonework. All that is missing is the shadow that is cast over the head by the camera. As you can see in the Tour photo, I am 5ft 3" for comparison so the image is much smaller then I am, so again doesn't make sense. Yes, yet again, pareidolia seems to be playing a clever trick on us.

Oh and here is my most favourite photo. When driving across the Nullarbor last year, I came across an enormous wombat burrow. Sadly the wombat that made it lay dead on the side of the road, another wasted fatality. I took some photos of the area and the burrow and this is what I caught.

Error File Open Error
Error File Open Error

Is that an Orb????.... and it seems to have a face too!

Error File Open Error

There... a face of the wombat!

Could this really be the spirit of the dead wombat or again that tricky pareidolia at work? I will leave you to your own conclusions.


Demon faces in the Twin Towers

Face of Jesus in the Eagle Nebulus


So, how do we feel about having just discounted a large part of our photos? Actually we feel rather good about it. We didn't get into this field to delude ourselves but to attempt to find TRUE evidence to indicate that the paranormal exists. That evidence bears no weight whilst we are busy being distracted by what isn't rather then what could be. Too often I see evidence presented that has no basis to it apart from 'it looks like'.

Our brain is the biggest deceiver out, and we must be aware of this. So I encourage others to take those great photos and take a close hard look at them again. Go back and re-photograph the areas, try your hardest to recreate the image again. Look for patterns in the dirty windows or on the walls that could have caused that image. If the photo still stands up after close scrutiny, then you are going to be more confident to answer the questions when they are asked. Let's not just blindly believe.

Always remember our constant companion... Pareidolia!


Although in a foreign language this has some great examples below.

Home Page | About Us | Investigations | Interviews | Articles | Community | Evidence? | Site Map


Back to content | Back to main menu