Monday, October 29, 2018

Guest Post: The Figure on the Heath, by Tim Gardiner

Note from Amelia: I reached out to friends and followers in hopes of gathering some true ghostly encounters to share each week during the month of October. Last week, we heard from Nanette Fabros about an unsettling experience in an old apartment. This week, I would like to conclude the round of creepy tales by welcoming ecologist, poet, and children's author Tim Gardiner, who shares this detailed encounter and analysis from Little Baddow Heath in Essex, England:

I have been recording glow-worms Lampyris noctiluca on Little Baddow Heath in central Essex for over a decade. The Essex Wildlife Trust nature reserve comprises ancient woodland intersected by bridleways with a small area of open heathland nestled in the middle. On Friday 11th July 2014 I was accompanied by Laura Jane Weir and we were searching the open heathland for glow-worms when we both noticed a white figure (approximately 50 m distant as determined from a follow up daytime site visit) on the edge of the heathland at around 10.30 pm. We had no torch (artificial light makes seeing glow-worms more difficult) and our eyes had been accustomed to the dim light for approximately 40 minutes. At first we thought it was a deer (either fallow Dama dama or muntjac Muntiacus reevesi) due to the light colour of the figure.

We decided to investigate and moved closer to the white figure which appeared to correspondingly move towards us making no discernible sound as it passed over the ground. As we got closer it became clear that it was a white, cloudlike shape, with an indistinct form. We stopped around five metres from the figure and noticed that it was constantly changing shape but no features were clear, although it was not transparent. It was pitch-dark, with a little natural light on the open heathland to illuminate the figure which we could see was approximately one metre in height. The figure’s features were indistinct (we could not see a face for example) with no recognisable attributes of human or animal form. Distinctly unnerved we decided to leave the heathland and search other parts of the woodland for glow-worms. We came back at around 11 pm to see if the figure was still there but it had disappeared.

Discussing it on the drive home we debated the possible rational explanations for the white figure we had seen. Misperceptions of natural phenomena are behind many supposed sightings of ghosts. The most obvious misperceptions (in no particular order of likelihood) in this case are as follows:

1. A deer. This seems extremely unlikely as the figure made no sound as it moved towards us. A deer crossing ground would disturb vegetation making some sort of discernible noise. We also got very close to the figure and it did not run away as a deer would normally do if close to a human presence. The figure also had no definite shape as a deer would have.

2. A swarm of insects. The constantly changing shape suggests that a swarm of insects (possibly moths) may have been the cause of the figure and would also account for its apparent movement. However, it is rare to see a swarm of moths and other insects such as bees would probably make a discernible buzzing noise.

3. Marsh gas or mist. The white shape did appear to be cloudlike with an indistinct shape like mist or marsh gas (will o' the wisp). However, it did not glow as marsh gas does and it was not a misty night ruling out these as likely explanations. The shape also appeared to move towards us which marsh gas or mist would not do. It was a humid night though; perhaps this could have produced some form of atmospheric anomaly?

4. A birch Betula spp. tree stump. One possible explanation is that the figure was just the misperception of a white birch tree stump observed in poor light conditions leading to the perception that the tree stump moved when in reality we were moving towards it. A visit to the site at 3.30 pm on 17th July 2014 found a one metre high birch stump in the approximate location of the sighting. Nearby a shorter birch tree stump (less than 50 cm tall) had a 1.5 metre high young birch tree behind it and the leaves were swaying in the wind which at night could have been misperceived as a moving figure set against the backdrop of the dull white stump. The stumps remain the most likely natural cause of the sighting.

5. Reflection or shadow from a light source. The night was overcast with no moon ruling out lunar reflections off vegetation or the ground. There are no artificial light sources within several hundred metres of the heathland and any light would have had to penetrate dense woodland to reach us, which is not very likely.

6. Hallucination. The fact that two people saw exactly the same thing rules out delusions of the mind.

The strong mitigating factor for the observation was the poor light conditions. The dim light meant that our vision was undoubtedly impaired; however, our eyes had been accustomed to the darkness for at least 40 minutes as we wanted to maximise the chances of seeing glow-worms. With this adjusted vision we still could not make out a clear shape for the figure and it is easy to misjudge object distance and movement in poor light conditions. There was also the problem of expectation due to the spooky nature of the site, although neither of us was expecting to see a "ghost" as we were focused on the glow-worm survey. I have surveyed the site alone many times in the last decade and have never witnessed any unexplained figures or shapes before.

Daytime reconstruction

One of the most important facets of paranormal investigation is to undertake a daytime visit to a site to determine possible reasons for the phenomenon i.e. it could be xenonormal which is something which appears paranormal but has natural causes. A daytime survey was undertaken on 17th July at 3.30 pm to determine the exact location and environmental conditions of the sighting. On the visit, a one metre high birch tree stump was present in the approximate location of the sighting and could be seen from a distance of 50 metres. Nearby a shorter birch stump (less than 50 cm in height) had a young birch tree growing behind it and was swaying in a gentle breeze. It is possible that this may have accounted for the apparent movement of the white figure when we got within five metres of it. Therefore, the movement of the figure may have been down to misperception of the shorter tree stump in the poor light conditions. No other features on the heath were seen which could have been misperceived as a figure in poor light.


Taking into account all of the above logical explanations and information from the daytime reconstruction, it is probable that we experienced some kind of misperception of a natural phenomenon such as the birch tree stumps. The least likely explanations based on the rationale presented above and the daytime reconstruction includes a misperceived deer, mist/marsh gas, shadow and a swarm of insects. The possibility of hallucination was ruled out as the figure was seen by two witnesses. This leaves only the possibility of misperception of the birch stump and swaying tree caused by poor light conditions. We will never be sure of what we saw on the heath on 11th July but the sighting must go down as a likely case of the xenonormal instead of a genuine paranormal experience.

Dr. Tim Gardiner is an ecologist, poet, and children's author from Manningtree in Essex, UK. His haiku have been published in literary magazines including Frogpond, Modern Haiku, and The Heron's Nest. His first collection of poetry, Wilderness, was published by Brambleby Books in 2015, while a second, On the Edge, appeared in 2017. Tim's debut children's book, The Voyage of the Queen Bee, was published by the Bumblebee Conservation Trust in 2016.

"The Figure on the Heath," copyright 2018 Tim Gardiner (first published as "White Enigma" in Fortean Times Issue 323 in 2015, and as "The figure on the heath" in Essex Field Club Newsletter No. 76 in 2014)