EXCLUSIVE: Courthouse 'Ghost' Video Mystery Solved

The supposed Santa Fe Courthouse ghost is circled in red in this screen capture of a YouTube video.

SANTA FE, NEW MEXICO—Over the past week, a glowing, fuzzy white blob became an unlikely international star. It was captured on videotape early Friday morning, June 15, by a security camera at a courthouse here.

The “ghost video” has been seen over 75,000 times on YouTube; what started as a local curiosity soon became a national, then international, story.

Theories abounded: Some said that the image was the ghost of a murdered man. Others thought it was just a video glitch, or a hoax, or a spider, or maybe a reflection from a passing car.

As a scientific paranormal investigator, I was asked by a Santa Fe newspaper to look into the case. Over the past decade, I have conducted dozens of investigations into lake monsters, psychics, ghosts, crop circles, and many other “unexplained” phenomena. This was certainly unexplained, and I was intrigued.

What it is not

After the first day of investigations, I eliminated most of the theories. It was almost certainly not a hoax, because it’s unlikely anyone would think to make a blurry, indistinguishable blob on a courthouse surveillance video. Nor was it a reflection or a video glitch.

I’ve seen dozens of “ghost” videos and images very similar to this. Usually they're simply misperceptions, camera artifacts, or common objects like dust or insects. The quality of the image is often inversely proportional to the belief that the object is a ghost; the fuzzier and more ambiguous the form, the more likely a ghost will be offered as an explanation. In cases like this, however, you have to eliminate all alternative explanations, and while a ghost remained a possibility, it was pretty far down on the list of likely candidates.

In the case of the courthouse ghost, nothing in the video is in focus, and it’s hard to know how far away the object is from the camera; is it a tiny object near the camera, or is it a large object farther away? Logic suggests that people living in the condominiums across the street and driving nearby would have noticed a giant glowing ball near the courthouse. So it was instead small, and probably close to the camera. But what?

What it is

To find out, I conducted experiments at the courthouse to test the two most likely explanations: floating cottonwood seed and insects. First, I dispersed cottonwood tree cotton into the air near the camera to see if the image looked similar to the “ghost.” Upon reviewing the tape with the court’s deputies and security officers, we had mixed results. The cotton did make a fluffy ball, but it did not glow, nor did it move as the ghostly image had.

The second set of experiments involved the bug hypothesis: could a spider or insect have created the image? It was a common explanation, but some scoffed, saying that the glowing image didn’t look like a bug at all. I suspected that the glow was simply a reflection, but I wasn’t sure what the camera would see.

I arrived at 7 a.m. and carefully placed ladybugs and other insects on top of the video camera. I waited for them to crawl around, and soon went inside the courthouse to check the videotape. While some of the images of ladybugs were obviously too large and dark to be ghostly culprit, at 7:26 a.m. we hit paydirt: The ghost appeared in the video.

Using the insects, I duplicated the ghost image. Everyone agreed that the image was exactly the same as the courthouse ghost in every respect, including size, shape, color, and movement.

The weeklong mystery is solved: The Santa Fe Courthouse Ghost was a bug. While I can’t identify the exact species, there is no doubt that it is the unwitting YouTube star. The insect or spider explanation fits all the facts. The object looked like it was purposely moving, not floating; the object is blurry because it is close to the security camera’s lens, and it is glowing because direct morning sunlight is hitting it from a low angle.

Certainly, the object was mysterious. Anyone can be fooled by such an image, and the lesson is that just because something seems mysterious or unusual doesn’t mean there isn’t a good scientific explanation if you look hard enough. Calling something unexplained is often simply the result of giving up too easily. Just ask the YouTube bug.

Benjamin Radford is an investigator with Skeptical Inquirer science magazine, a LiveScience columnist, and author of hundreds of articles and several books on science, skepticism, and the paranormal. His latest book, co-authored with investigator Joe Nickell, is "Lake Monster Mysteries: Investigating the World’s Most Elusive Creatures." This and other books are noted on his website.

Benjamin Radford
Live Science Contributor
Benjamin Radford is the Bad Science columnist for Live Science. He covers pseudoscience, psychology, urban legends and the science behind "unexplained" or mysterious phenomenon. Ben has a master's degree in education and a bachelor's degree in psychology. He is deputy editor of Skeptical Inquirer science magazine and has written, edited or contributed to more than 20 books, including "Scientific Paranormal Investigation: How to Solve Unexplained Mysteries," "Tracking the Chupacabra: The Vampire Beast in Fact, Fiction, and Folklore" and “Investigating Ghosts: The Scientific Search for Spirits,” out in fall 2017. His website is www.BenjaminRadford.com.