MIND Guest Blog

MIND Guest Blog

Commentary invited by editors of Scientific American Mind

Perception and the Paranormal: The Tea Box Ghost


In July, 2013, a video entitled “Is this paranormal activity caught on CCTV in a Whitstable shop?” appeared on YouTube. This contains footage from a security camera in the Whitstable Nutrition Centre, a health food store in southeast England. A man browses an aisle in the store, oblivious to a box of tea that floats off the shelf behind him and then appears to “levitate” mid-air. A few seconds later a second box flies off the opposite shelf and drops to the ground. The startled man bends over to pick up the tea at which point the box suspended in the air drops to the floor suddenly.

The video has been steeped in mystery and some people are convinced that this is the handiwork of a very British ghost who likes a nice cuppa tea. Is this an example of paranormal active-tea or just a prank?

Shop manager Michelle Newbold discovered the activity when she was reviewing footage from the store’s CCTV. In an interview with the Huffington Post she said, “I was perplexed I suppose. I just couldn’t believe it. I have no idea about how it has happened. It is just a complete mystery. I have never seen anything like it since I’ve been running the shop.” Newbold adds that she doesn’t believe in ghosts. The video has received over 800,000 hits and counting and the story has been good for business.

There are some clues that the video could be a hoax including the fact that the original footage has not been offered for analysis. The video quality is poor; it shows a clip from a CCTV recording that was filmed with a camera phone. The film is also edited; it only focuses on one camera on a quad screen, so we can’t see what’s happening in the rest of the store. Also, there are two people visible at each end of the aisle who may have been in position to pull a prank. There are many simple tricks that could be used to make the boxes appear to float or fall to the floor. For example, the box on the left-hand side of the aisle may have been simply pushed from behind.

A few of my friends and I decided to make several reenactments of the events in the video to demonstrate that this phenomena can be faked, and that the paranormal can be a matter of perception.

The first of these recreations was filmed in a restaurant. Two men are chatting at a table when a box of tea sitting on the tabletop flies off and falls onto the floor. It is picked up and put back in place although a few seconds later it flies off the table again. Behind them on a second table, another box of tea slides off the surface and floats for a few seconds before it darts to the ground. Just like a magician’s illusions, the tricks behind these events were simple and mundane. This movement was achieved using fine thread stuck to the boxes. I sat off-camera holding a thread attached to a box of tea. I simply pulled the thread each time, causing the box to fall off the table, as though a poltergeist was at work. Two assistants sat facing each other on opposite sides of the room as they controlled the movements of the second box using string.

The second recreation takes place in a kitchen. With no one in sight, a box of tea glides across a table and hovers in the air for a few seconds before dropping to the ground. To create this illusion an empty box of tea was placed on a knife with a long blade that is used as a platform. Given the lighting in the room and the poor quality of the filming, the knife isn’t visible. The knife was then slowly pushed across the table, giving the appearance that the box floats through the air and then levitates. With one good puff of breath, the box falls to the ground. This was a better approach than the original video, where the box tips forward, looking as though it was sitting on a platform that was tipped slightly. In the third recreation two men are chatting in front of a fireplace. They’re absorbed in their conversation and don’t notice a box of tea that floats off the mantelpiece and hovers for a few seconds before falling to the ground. This final clip was created using computer-generated graphics.

These recreations show just a few of the possible ways that the phenomena in the original video could have been hoaxed. We have a tendency to want to believe in the supernatural while at the same time we have a dislike of being fooled. Before we jump to paranormal conclusions we should explore the possible natural explanations first.

With thanks to Hayley Stevens, Bryan Bonner, Matthew Baxter, Stu Hayes, Rick Duffy, Joe Anderson, and Michael Samarzia for their assistance with this project.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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