Supernatural Magazine

The Theory of The Maglite

If you’re a fan of ghost hunting TV shows you might already be familiar with this new technique for spirit communication. Using an AA mini Maglite the investigator turns the torch on and places it unattended onto a table. The spirits are then called upon to interact and respond to the investigator’s questions by switching the light on and off. Normally, this experiment produces dramatic and intriguing results as the light is turned off and on, or flickers and flashes dramatically as questions are put to the spirit.

The reaction of those witnessing these responses is generally a mixture of amazement and disbelief. Often, the torch is dismantled and people are encouraged to examine and verify that the torch is absolutely standard, with no hidden devices or wires connected to it. Returned to the table, the spirits will begin to quickly affect it once again. As the torch is only capable of two basic responses i.e. on or off, then questions must be simply put and require only a Yes or No answer. The flickering and flashing is sometimes interpreted as a Don’t Know or Uncertain response by some investigators. Sometimes the torch is used in addition to more conventional séance methods, the group of investigators sitting in a darkened circle surrounding the torch. It is a well-established convention that spirits prefer red light and fitting a red filter to the torch satisfies this.

Fortunately, Maglite make a set of filters that can be quickly pushed onto the front of the torch. Investigators using this new communication method claim that is often more reliable than other techniques that rely upon the spirits interacting with or affecting an electrical device, such as the legendary KII. It is a widely held opinion that spirits and ghosts are able to manipulate energy and there are countless accounts of batteries being drained or electrical equipment malfunctioning in haunted locations. This belief forms the basis of the Maglite theory, the communicating spirit merely has to manipulate the electricity flowing from the batteries and illuminating the bulb.

The idea that a simple electrical circuit, with a light bulb as an indicator is far from a new one. Harry Price and several other psychical researchers included a small bulb, wire and batteries in their ghost hunting kit. Similar techniques were also frequently included in séances as a simple test for a materialising spirit. Often elaborate anti-fraud measures were taken, such as placing the equipment under a glass dome. Harry Price took fraud prevention to the next level by additionally placing the switch beneath a soap bubble which would readily burst if anyone attempted to tamper with the switch. Used in séances with the Medium Stella C., the device called a Telekinetoscope was a development of a similar device used by researcher Dr. W. J. Crawford in séances with the Golligher circle in Belfast between 1915 and 1920.

The AA Maglite is a simple device; two batteries supply power to a small 3v bulb. There is no switch in the AA Maglite model, it is turned on and off by simply twisting the bulb housing. As the user turns the bulb housing the bulb is moved into contact with the batteries making the circuit and turning the lamp on. Rotating the bulb housing in the opposite direction causes the bulb to break contact with the batteries and the light is extinguished. The internet has many pages and forums dedicated to the Maglite theory and of course there are lots of YouTube videos showing investigators apparently communicating with spirits using a Maglite. The Maglite theory has its supporters and detractors: Are spirits able to manipulate and communicate by causing the bulb to switch on and off? Are the explanation more mundane, and simply the result of the Maglite’s design and its switchless method of illuminating the bulb?

Of course, the reason that the light switches alternatively on and off, without any living person touching or manipulating it is not paranormal - but you probably knew I was going to say that regardless of any psychic abilities. The Maglite Theory is an easy trick to perform. The investigator simply rotates the head of the Maglite until the bulb just illuminates. The bulb, when lit, produces heat as well as light.

When the light is on, the bulb heats the metal case which expands slightly. This small amount of expansion is just sufficient to cause the contact between the bulb and the batteries to be broken and the bulb is turned off. Once off, the metal casing cools and contracts. When it has sufficiently cooled, contact between the bulb and batteries is once again restored and the bulb once more illuminates. The cycle of heating and cooling, expansion and contraction, then continues at fairly regular intervals. The actual frequency of the on / off cycle will vary slightly from location to location as it is partially dependent upon the ambient temperature too. Once the cycle has been determined it is then a simple step for the investigator to time their questions to work with this sequence of on / off switching of the light; either wittingly or unwittingly.

The trick doesn’t work with Maglite’s which have a push switch as contact between the bulb and batteries are held by a physical device which overcomes the small thermal expansions and contractions of the case. In order to work effectively, the contact must be barely made and the twist to operate AA Maglite permits this. It is also worth pointing out that it also doesn’t work quite so well if one of the new AA Maglite models which replace the bulb with an LED (Light Emitting Diode) is used. For those interested in seeing this effect in action simply Google using the search term “Debunking Maglite Theory” The same search will also produce several links to sites which claim that the Maglite theory is unexplained or paranormal. Of course, if you have an AA Mini Maglite you try it yourself, you won’t be disappointed! But can use this simple demonstration of thermodynamics to help us develop our understanding of psychical research?

I was recently asked to participate in a public ghost hunt and to demonstrate some of the techniques used by investigators. In my introduction, I demonstrated how to manipulate a KII emf meter using a simple magnet to make it seemingly respond to a series of questions and cautioned the participants that often simple tricks can be used to create the illusion that something ‘paranormal’ is taking place. Shortly afterwards, I set up an AA Maglite during a séance session, turning the head until the bulb just lit. I placed in on a table next to the table tipping group and waited. I also explained that as spirits are said to be energy then they might find it easier to manipulate a torch rather than tilt a heavy table. After a couple of minutes without any further interference from me or anyone else the light went out. The group immediately took notice and diverted their attention toward the torch, which after a short pause illuminated once again. Without further prompting several within the group asked that the spirits should turn off the torch, which of course happened. By now, the majority of the group had suspended any disbelief but I gave an assurance that this was an unmodified Maglite and I was not influencing it in any way, directly or remotely, which of course was perfectly true.

My assurance removed any lingering doubts that some might have had. Over the next 15 minutes the group progressed quickly from just asking the spirit to respond to their requests to switch the torch on and off, to interpreting the responses into a series of Yes / No answers; the answer being determined by the whether or not the bulb was lit or extinguished following the question. The dramatic effect of the bulb’s apparent response to questioning was further accentuated for the participants by several of the group stating that they had become suddenly cold and felt shivers running through them. At that time I gave no explanation as to the actual cause of the torch’s seemingly paranormal behaviour.

At the end of the séance, several of the group asked if they could examine and dismantle the torch, verifying that it had not been modified in any way. During a following session, this time led by a Medium, I once again produced the Maglite and placed it on the floor within the centre of the séance circle. After switching the torch on, I retreated to sit outside of the circle. Again, the torch began its cycle of switching itself on and off. Once more, the group diverted their attention toward the torch and quickly developed a line of yes / no questions. The medium leading the séance was also readily drawn to believe that some spirit was communicating by turning the torch on and off, seemingly in response to her requests for it to do so. Of course, at the end of the ghost hunt I explained that the torch was not being affected by a communicating spirit and that the actions of the torch were in reality completely explainable.

The group reacted well to my explanation and understood the point I was making. The medium was less pleased however, believing that I was using the torch to demonstrate that she was in some way fraudulent. Of course, during the séance she, like everyone else in the group believed that spirits were communicating and responding; but this was not a test of mediumship, neither was it a demonstration of fraudulent mediumship. It was however an excellent demonstration of human fallibility and the medium like everyone else in the séance group was human. In a previous experiment conducted as part of my Infrasound research I had asked a medium to walk around a building and note down his psychic impressions onto a location plan. Later, when the measured infrasound was compared to the notes of the medium it was noticed that there was a strong correlation between the impressions of the medium and the levels of infrasound. Discussing this with the medium, we both appreciated that he was simply interpreting the psycho-physiological effects of the infrasound in terms of his own psychic beliefs.

The unheard and otherwise undetectable infrasound, was affecting him but he was interpreting the unusual sensations it created as having a psychic cause rather than the physical cause, which in reality was the case. The experiment proved to be an excellent example of fruitful cooperation between the medium and Para. Science; one of several such collaborations in which we participated and which served to admirably demonstrate that cooperation between ‘psychics’ and ‘scientists’ is an excellent way of extending our knowledge and understanding in this uncertain area. The Maglite experiment too, demonstrated that mediums are like the rest of us - normal human beings, complete with all our full range of normal human failings and fallibilities. It does not demonstrate that the medium was behaving fraudulently or lacked psychic skills - in fact I don’t believe that such a test yet exists. It is sometimes all too easy to find oneself being drawn in by something that appears to be amazing, regardless of whether or not you claim to have some special extra sensory abilities and people will always colour their judgement in terms of their own beliefs.

As a footnote I should add that one member of the investigation team who was aware of my intention to demonstrate some of the ‘less scrupulous’ methods employed by some remained dubious of the torch’s antics and did eventually work out that there was some regularity in the way the torch was turning itself on and off and suggested that it was not quite so paranormal as it appeared

Steve Parsons

Steve Parsons

Steve is a unique paranormal investigator whose background, peer recognition, experience, and knowledge separate him from a domain full of pseudo-scientific amateur ghost hunters. He has operated as a full time investigator for more than 21 years and is currently acknowledged by both peers and leading academic parapsychologists to be one of the best paranormal investigators in the UK.