Explaining the unexplained: 10 famous mysteries solved
Author Rebecca Northfield
Edited By Alex Santiago
The most famous supernatural phenomena can be explained by science. Or can it? Well, yes, it can.
Brown Lady of Raynham Hall
This picture captures one of the most famous ghosts in Great Britain, the Brown Lady of Raynham Hall. Or does it?
It has been said the Brown Lady haunts Raynham Hall in Norfolk, England. She is supposedly the ghost of Lady Dorothy Walpole (1686-1726), sister of Robert Walpole, who is regarded as Britain’s first Prime Minister.
The image was taken by Captain Hubert C Provand, a London-based photographer working for Country Life magazine, and his assistant, Indre Shira. They were taking photographs of Raynham Hall for an article, and had just taken a shot of the Hall’s main staircase.
Allegedly, Shira saw “a vapoury form gradually assuming the appearance of a woman” coming down the stairs, and the duo snapped a picture under his instruction. The later negative showed the ‘Brown Lady’, which was published in Country Life in 1936, along with Shira and Provand’s written account of events.
Critics claimed Shira put a greasy substance on the lens to create the figure, or moved down the stairs during an exposure. There is also a theory of double exposure upon detailed examination, as well as one picture being superimposed over the other due to a patch of reflected light at the top of the right hand banister appearing twice.
The magician John Booth said the ‘Brown Lady’ could be duplicated by natural methods. By covering fellow magician Ron Wilson with a bed sheet – like a last minute Halloween costume – and instructing him to walk down a staircase, the faked image looked very similar to the Lady.
It is also said the ‘Brown Lady’ closely resembles a standard Virgin Mary statue that is found in a Catholic church.
The public were bamboozled by cheap camera trickery. Good effort, though.
The infamous region of the Atlantic Ocean, which earned its reputation due to claims of planes and ships disappearing between Bermuda, Puerto Rico, and Miami, Florida without a trace, turned out to be not as scary as it seemed.
In 1975, Larry Kusche, a research librarian at Arizona State University, found some disappearance claims were either exaggerated or wholly false. Additionally, the Bermuda Triangle doesn’t actually have an unusual number of shipwrecks or plane crashes when compared to any other areas that experience similar traffic. To explain the mysterious absence of wreckages, the strong current of the Gulf Stream is powerful enough to wash away any evidence of destroyed ships and planes.
Coast Guard records also proved that many disappearances were down to human error, boat failure and other natural sea-based problems. Also, it would be strange for there not to be vanishings due to the colossal size of the triangle.
Ah, some stacked, Neolithic stones. Wonder what this could be?
Stonehenge is a circle of old stones in Wiltshire, England. Carbon dating makes it between 4,000 to 5,000 years old, so it puzzled many when you look at how advanced the architecture is, given what kind of tech was available back in the day.
Slave labour and even alien activity populated the theories about how the mysterious rocky collection came to be.
We may never know what the structure was used for, but to disprove the notion that its construction was somehow magical, Michigan carpenter Wally Wallington built a Stonehenge replica in his garden, on his own, using only what was available to humans back then. This proved at least the possibility that the celebrated stone circle was pretty much a doddle for even an ancient group of builders if they were tech-savvy enough.
Sailing stones in Death Valley
At California’s Death Valley there are hundreds of trails from large, rough blocks of rock in the aptly-named Racetrack Playa. It clearly means the stones are moving, but nobody pushes them, and no one has seen them move. Ooooh.
Supernatural theories for the phenomenon include the rocks being remains of a UFO crash, mysterious ‘unseen hands’ that move the rocks, or magnetic fields of some kind.
So what was the best way to figure out how these creepy rocks were moving? Fit them with GPS units, use time-lapse cameras and study the weather, obviously.
Scientists figured out that although Death Valley is blisteringly hot in the summer – its highest recorded temperature stands at 56.7°C – during the mild winter, rain collects to form a shallow lake, which subsequently freezes into thin sheets when the temperatures drop at night.
In the morning, the sun warms the ice, which breaks into small plates. If a plate is under a rock – which can weigh over 300kg – wind and flowing water slowly pushes it. A rock can move 224m in the winter, leaving a trail in the mud.
Is it a bird? Is it a plane? No, it’s probably a moth.
In photographic and video recordings around the world, a strange solar entity – lines of light dashing across the sky – would sometimes occur, with no clear reason why. A common interpretation of these rods was – you guessed it – an incident of the paranormal, or tiny alien life forms. Adorable, right?
Jose Escamilla is a spokesperson for the rod aliens, as he claimed to be the first to film them back in 1994. The location? Roswell, New Mexico, no less. This guy has gone on to lecture on the subject, as well as make more videos of the tiny ‘aliens’. So it must be true?
Alas, this totally plausible theory wasn’t paranormal. It was, well, normal.
Tonghua Zhenguo Pharmaceutical Company in Jilin Province, China, thought Escamilla’s claims were poppycock. With huge nets and surveillance cameras, they captured the spooky rods doing their thing. When they checked the nets, there were no aliens. Just moths and other flying critters.
The rods were actually motion blur – ‘afterimage’ traces of bugs and wingbeats – caught on camera. It’s an optical illusion, and is more likely to occur in interlaced video, where slower recording speed makes moths look like aliens.
A weird connect-the-dots moment occurred in 1921, when archaeologist Alfred Watkins noticed that many ancient sites seemed to line up in a too-straight-to-be-a-coincidence way. He called them ‘leys’, and later, ‘ley lines’.
This sort of finding doesn’t go unnoticed by believers in the supernatural. They think where the leys intersect there are pockets of concentrated energy: deep and mythical power which can be harnessed. There’s one line, from Ireland to Israel, that connects seven locations linked to St Michael.
Sadly though, it all seems to be bogus, and the lines pass through the sites by chance. Watkins himself believed ancient Britons used landscape features as navigation points.
The Nazca Lines of Peru
Discovered in the 1930s (when we could finally fly high enough), the Nazca Lines are massive white geoglyphs – some being 275m across – made from shallow lines dug into the ground. The whole area is about 190 square miles (500km²). They are thought to have religious significance to the Nazca culture.
Given that aeroplanes are thought to have been in short supply between 500 B.C.E. and 500 C.E., how could the Nazca people see what they were doing?
Author Jim Woodman thought it could have been done by using a basic hot air balloon and shouting directions to the diggers below. To test the theory, Woodman made a functioning balloon with materials they would have had back then. The only problem is there is no proof the Nazca people even knew what a balloon was. Popped that theory.
However, wooden stakes at the site, carbon-dated to the Nazca period, have given researchers a hunch that people at the time may have drawn long ropes between stakes to make the lines. So Dr Joe Nickell and three assistants – including an 11-year-old – used the method to make a giant bird. And it only took them a few hours.
Ball lightning is a potentially dangerous atmospheric electrical phenomenon. It’s reported as looking luminous and spherical, and can vary in diameter – from pea-sized to several metres long.
Ball lightning doesn’t happen very often, so it hasn’t been recorded under natural conditions.
It is said to occur during thunderstorms, but it lasts a good deal longer than your usual split-second lightning. Early reports noted that the ball explodes and leaves a sulphurous odour.
I know we’re all about explaining the unexplained here, but the cause of ball lightning remains unclear; scientists can only really theorise about how these little devil balls are created.
The best explanation comes from a team of Brazilian scientists back in 2007. They passed large amounts of electricity through a silicon wafer, which created a vapour. When it cooled, the vapour condensed into an aerosol which glowed when recombined with oxygen, leading to little balls of electricity bouncing around like jumping beans. Because of this, the Brazilian scientists reckon the ball lightning phenomenon occurs when bog-standard lightning strikes quartz-or-silica-rich ground – like sand. The theory has gained such traction that other scientists are rumoured to have agreed. Shocking.
Spontaneous human combustion
Have you ever been so angry that you feel like you’re going to burst into flames? Well, these people look very much as if they did. Spontaneous human combustion was first described in the 1600s: someone would burn to death without an obvious source, the head and trunk being reduced to ash. All that would remain would be the leg or legs, poking out from the remains. Quite horrific.
However, investigation into this frightening phenomenon has shown that exploding fiery humans combusting into dust was actually widely exaggerated.
People are, it turns out, mostly made of water, so the likelihood of us actually randomly bursting into flames is negligible. If you look at images of supposed spontaneous combustion, victims were often near a source of flame, like a fireplace. One further explanation would be the person’s clothing being set on fire by a candle or cigarette. Old age or physical condition justified why the victim couldn’t put out the fire or move away from it. Clothing acts as a sort of wick and when the skin breaks, fat from the body is fuel to prolong the burning. How pleasant.
The name is a bit gross to begin with. Rather like spontaneous human combustion, but more manufactured.
It’s not how it sounds, though.
Back in the day, when you were transporting your dead loved one to the cemetery across the gloomy marshes, a flame or ball of light would float just above the Earth, seeming to travel with you to and from the burial ground. This was aptly named the corpse candle, following you in your time of deepest grief.
Mystery and folklore surrounded this strange occurrence – many associated the corpse candle with pesky spirits of the dead, or other supernatural wanderers like stillborn and unbaptised babies that were in limbo between heaven and hell. How depressing.
Science has determined that the creepy corpse candles were in fact luminescent barn owls that had fungus growing on them, or, more likely, methane gas made by rotting organic material, which is usually found in swamps and marshes. The gas can produce a low-temperature ‘flame’ through chemiluminescence.
So instead of seeing an attentive spirit, you’d be witnessing the Earth doing a glow-in-the-dark fart. You’re welcome.