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Just Another Face in the Crowd

November 15, 2003

On November 4, 2003, I had a paranormal visitation.

The day started off normally enough. I had woken up at quarter of 7, as usual, and staggered into the kitchen to make my daughter's lunch for school. After it was bundled up in the box, I wearily stumbled to her room, got her up, and gave her schoolclothes to change into. A seemingly normal autumn morning, with everything nice and natural... or so I thought.

I staggered groggily back into my room, and headed into the bathroom to shower. Little did I know what awaited me there.

Like the morning itself, the shower had a routine beginning. Rinse, lather, repeat. All normal.

After I had finished rinsing myself off, I pulled open the shower curtain just enough to reach my towel hanging on a hook. It was November, after all, and it was cold in the house. Surely that was why I felt a chill pass through me. Just cold air, and nothing more, my rational mind told me.

I leaned out, grabbed the towel, then closed the shower curtain as I fully re-entered the shower. I was hoping the warmth would linger in the shower stall long enough to take the edge off the cold ripple still making its way down my spine. But before I could even begin to towel off my hair, my eyes were drawn to the shower curtain. At first I had a hard time understanding what I was seeing, except that I knew I had the eerie and exposed feeling of being watched-- no, stared at. What could it be?

And then, click, it snapped into focus. There was a face in the shower curtain, looking directly at me. And I knew with uncanny certainty that the face didn't belong to any living soul of this good planet. This was the face of a ghost, an apparition. I could tell just by looking at him that it was a face responsible for deaths, perhaps thousands or more. With terrible certainty, I knew that this was the face of a dead man, come to see me in the shower.

What I did next is what anyone else would do. I ran out the shower! But not screaming, not in fear, no, never that. I ran to the kitchen to get the camera. I was able to snap several pictures of the haunting face. As proof, the picture is offered to you here.

Face in the Shower Curtain
Click on the image to see a larger version

The picture is legitimate, I assure you. The only manipulation I have done is to increase the contrast a bit so that you can see it better in the image. In fact, below is the same picture with the contrast increased quite a bit around the Face.

Face in the Shower Curtain, enhanced
Click on the image to see a larger version

Note the string of lights to the right of the Face. Could those be orbs, the lost souls of departed humans, perhaps the ones I know this Face killed?

It was then that I realized the Face looked familiar. Something from history... and then it hit me.

Lenin. Yes, the Lenin, who led the bloody revolution in Russia in 1917, paving the way for Marxist communism. I went on the web and found an image of Lenin, which is displayed below next to the Face.

Face in the Shower Curtain, enhanced
Click on the image to see a larger version

This explained everything! The deaths I felt were from the Czar's family, and those of the bourgoisie who fought and died in the revolution! That also explains the lights coming from his face in the picture...

... or does it? What do you think? Was I really visited by a strange ghostly apparition, or is there more to the story?

Okay, duh, there's more. The picture is in fact legitimate, and the images are real. What's going in here is that the face of "V.I. Lenin" is in fact water from my arm that got absorbed by the lining of my shower curtain when I opened it to get my towel. The way I brushed against the curtain, coupled with the ripples in the fabric, determined the shape of the face. The lights are not souls of departed Russians, but the row of bathroom lights seen through the gauzy curtain. The chill I felt was real enough: in Northern California, November gets cold. We keep the furnace off at night to save energy.

Oh yeah, I made up the part about thinking the lights were the souls of the dead. I also made up all the scary stuff. I knew instantly it looked like Lenin, and also that it was simply water in the shower curtain. But man, it really looks like Lenin. I showed my wife, and she agreed with me immediately, as did people at work. Lenin was in my shower!

Does the story I wove sound familiar? It might. People are always seeing faces in inanimate objects. We see them in clouds, in smoke, in random patterns on walls and floors. The technical term is "pareidolia". The reason behind it is pretty clear: as humans, we have evolved to recognize familiar faces. We see our mothers mere seconds after being born. We know by sight friends, family, enemies. We read a lot into faces, and our brain is hardwired to fit faces to patterns. It takes remarkably little information to see a face; think of those "Have a Nice Day" buttons that only have two dots and a crescent, yet we see a smiling face in them. Amazing. Natural, not paranormal at all, but amazing nonetheless.

That doesn't stop people from thinking these are paranormal. How many times have you heard of apparitions of the Virgin Mary popping up in unlikely places, like a window, a tree or (yes, this is true) a tortilla? People take a bare minimum of information, and read way, way too much into it. It happens to me too, but you won't see me erecting a shrine to Lenin in my bathtub. And let me tell you, my Lenin face is the best example of this phenomenon I have ever seen. Usually, the resemblance people see is vague at best.

What does this have to do with astronomy? Well, really, writing this was just an excuse to share the amazing Face Of Lenin in my bathroom. But there is a relation to astronomy. Objects in space form semi-random patterns, and it is very easy to see familiar things in them. The ancients saw patterns of stars in the sky, and named them after heroic men, women and beasts. We call those patterns constellations.

Eagle Nebula People see faces in clouds here on Earth, but there are clouds in space, too. They're called "nebulae", and are generally composed of gas and dust many light years across. Perhaps the most famous is the Eagle Nebula, imaged by Hubble back in 1995. It's one of the most famous images of space ever taken.

When the picture was released, it made quite a splash in the news. CNN showed it, and they were stunned to receive phone calls from people who saw all sorts of things in it. Many people swore they saw the face of Jesus in it. Below are two shots of the Eagle. The one on the left is a closeup of one region of the nebula. On the right, the "face of Jesus" is highlighted.

Eagle Nebula Eagle Nebula
The Eagle Nebula closeup The face of Jesus?

If you're like me, you see a rough resemblance to a face, and if you squint your eyes and stand far enough away, it does sorta resemble the way Jesus is represented in Western art. Kinda.

Some people swear by this image. Of course, it's not Jesus, it's just a random swirl of gas in a cloud 7000 light years away. When that light left that cloud, Jesus wouldn't be born for another 5000 years! But that won't stop people. In fact, the images above are from a page saying it's the Face of God.

But wait! Let's look around the Eagle a bit. If we step back a little, and look at the same area... isn't that a Scottish Terrier? It looks like it's sitting up and begging! And hey, a cat! Compare the highlighted images below to the better image above to see them more clearly. Or, check out this bigger image from Hubble (50kb).

Eagle Nebula Eagle Nebula
Dog, highlighted Cat, highlighted

I have also seen a buffalo, another cat, a bird, and several faces in the Eagle. Matter of fact, it looks like just about anything you want except an Eagle! (To be fair, it's called the Eagle because the whole nebula overall is vaguely bird-shaped; the Hubble image is a close-up of just the central region.)

There is another face in there, by the way, worth noting. If you look near the same place some people see Jesus, and flip the image around... hey!

It's veteran character actor Abe Vigoda!
Eagle Nebula Abe Vigoda

So the next time you hear of someone seeing the face of God in a turnip, or a ghost in a picture, or perhaps even a hill on Mars shaped like a face... well, then maybe you'll know better. Before you wonder if it's Jesus or Mary paying you a visit, remember, sometimes it's not really Lenin in the shower. It's just dirty bath water.