Is That The Pope In My Pizza?
A few notes on simulacrum
From credited sources and original material
Bruce W. Burns 2005
People arrive in droves to view them: Holy images that appear—many believe
miraculously—in the most unlikely places. They include the figure of the Virgin Mary
formed by a stain on a store’s bathroom floor, the face of Jesus in a giant forkful of
spaghetti illustrated on a billboard, and the likeness of Mother Theresa on a cinnamon
bun served in a coffee shop (Joe Nickell 1997, 1998).
Supernatural? Probably not. Nothing more than a common type of visual
illusion, a simulacrum, an abstract pattern which produces the
impression to people viewing it of some recognizable shape. These are
quite common and can be found in or on both natural and artificial
There are two types of simulacra. The first is the chiaroscura simulacrum, where abstract
patterns of light and shadow combine to produce a recognizable figure or a face. The
second type, sylvan simulacrum, is where naturally occurring objects, such as rocks, have
weathered and taken on a recognizable shape, such as the outline of an animal or a face.
The chiaroscura effect, by far the most common example of this phenomena, results from
a complex mental process which enables us to "see" figures, or faces, in abstract or
random patterns. As a result simulacra are quite common and can be "seen" in a diverse
range of locations, such as patterned dies or wallpaper, in clouds, on hillsides, or in rock
formations. Another very common location is amongst trees and rocks. Some examples
of sylvan simulacra have been elfin faces, a sleeping puppy, and the Madonna. One can
even see the simulacrum of a running man in the opening screen of Windows '95.
(Laurie Eddie 1996)
The reason that such abstract patterns are perceived as "recognizable" images is closely
related to the complex manner in which our brains process and interpret images of the
external world, for, it is a fact that we do not "see" with our eyes, we "see" with our brain.
The eyes are complex receptors, which convert light from the outside world into at least
four separate components, color, depth, form and motion. These signals are conveyed to
specific areas of the brain. Most travel to the primary visual cortex, but others are
processed elsewhere in the brain. The decoded information is shunted between the
various processing areas, combining all of the parts into a single image. (Laurie Eddie
Just as a television picture is composed of thousands of dots, so too, what we see is
actually millions of separate pieces of information ingeniously blended together within
the brain to create the impression of an integrated image.
In addition to the four visual elements of sight there are two other very important
components of vision. The first is the memory component our ability to recall specific
visual shapes and cues. Learned in early childhood, we refer to this knowledge
throughout our life.
Occasionally, however, we can encounter problems in the recognition of a shape or
pattern, usually because there is insufficient detail to allow us to recognize the object. In
such situations the brain compensates for the lack of detail by adding elements to
supplement the missing detail until it finally produces, at least in the brain, a recognizable
image. Put simply, the brain attempts to create order from chaos.
We, as paranormal investigators, are subject to simulacrum occurrences every day. Every
photo of an orb seems to have a face depicted in it, every mist is a recognizable shape.
Pixilation in digital photographs and videos that become our late Uncle Fred. Not that
every instance is simulacra – some surely must be truly paranormal. The problem is that
once we become aware of (and tuned in to) paranormal activity, we tend to interpret
every orb as a spirit, every mist as ectoplasmic, and every noise not generated by
breathing human as a ghost or spirit making it’s presence known. It’s a form of
hypersensitivity, and it must be avoided at all costs lest we become like the boy who
cried “wolf”. Every attempt must be made to rule out any possibility of the natural before
we label a photo, audio recording, video, or event as supernatural.
As Sagan observed (1995):
“The most common image is the Man in the Moon. Of course, it doesn’t really look like a
man. Its features are lopsided, warped, drooping. There’s a beefsteak or something over
the left eye. And what expression does the mouth convey? An “O” of surprise? A hint of
sadness, even lamentation? Doleful recognition of the traits of life on Earth? Certainly the
face is too round. The ears are missing. I guess he’s bald on top. Nevertheless, every time
I look at it, I see a human face.”
Dr. Carl Sagan, Former Professor of Astronomy and Space Sciences and Director of the Laboratory for
Planetary Studies at Cornell University, Founder and First President of The Planetary Society .
Joe Nickell, Ph. D - Paranormal Investigator, Senior Research Fellow: Committee for the Scientific
Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal (CSICOP), and author of "Investigative Files" column for
Skeptical Inquirer magazine.
Dr. Laurie Eddie, Psychologist and Author.
Bruce W. Burns, Paranormal Investigator, Director of Historical Research, The Foundation for Paranormal