The Nutty Case of the Haunted Scrotum

One of modern science’s most famous nutsacks is an incredible example of pareidolia, or seeing a face where there is no face at all — in this case, the MRI of a 45-year-old man’s ballbag
The Nutty Case of the Haunted Scrotum

Of all the things you could ever be told by a doctor, “Your nutsack is haunted” has to be among the worst. But in 1996, the Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine published a picture taken by consultant radiologist JR Harding that seemed to feature exactly such a spectral infestation. It was a CT scan of a 45-year-old Welshman’s scrotum that was prescribed to figure out what the situation was with his undescended right testicle.

However, if you didn’t know what you were looking at, it appeared to be something else entirely. “The right testis was not identified,” wrote Harding, “but the left side of the scrotum seemed to be occupied by a screaming ghost-like apparition.”

Indeed, the Welshman’s nutsack appeared to be a hellscape, filled with a silently screaming large-foreheaded face. Depending on your age and reference points, it is reminiscent of Edvard Munch’s most famous work, Ghostface from the Scream movies, the stretched-out panicking face in the opening credits of The X-Files, the Mekon from the classic British sci-fi comic Dan Dare or any of thousands of fake grainy alien photos.

Whatever the comparison, it was scary. If you were doing that CT scan and you saw that, you’d panic, and then the guy whose nuts you were looking at would panic too, because nobody is calmed by a screaming radiologist, and basically everything would go to hell.

The goods news was, there wasn’t really a ghost in that nutsack. There wasn’t a right testicle either, in fact. As Harding wrote, “What of the undescended right testis? None was found. If you were a right testis, would you want to share a scrotum with that?”

Seeing a face where there isn’t a face is known as face pareidolia. It’s the same thing that led people to think there was a face on Mars, or spot the Virgin Mary in a piece of toast, Mother Theresa in a cinnamon bun or Satan in smoke. It’s a pattern-recognition thing that may even reveal something about the person doing the recognizing — that was largely the idea behind Rorschach tests (which are admittedly largely discredited these days).

It can be cute or scary. The same phenomenon that might make a vending machine seem adorable can, in other contexts, be terrifying — shadows on a dark night seeming to form something hellish and otherworldly.

Recognizing faces is certainly useful. Carl Sagan suggested it may once have been a matter of life and death, writing in his 1995 book The Demon-Haunted World, “As soon as the infant can see, it recognizes faces, and we now know that this skill is hardwired in our brains. Those infants who a million years ago were unable to recognize a face smiled back less, were less likely to win the hearts of their parents and less likely to prosper.”

Obviously, the thought that prehistoric people would really have abandoned babies that didn’t smile back is pretty brutal, but it certainly gets across the idea that there’s more to recognizing a face than just, “Ah cool, I’ll put that on the r/facesinthings subreddit.” It’s evolutionarily useful. Beyond the social and familial advantages of spotting faces, it can also be useful in detecting predators. We’re better off seeing faces where there aren’t really faces than failing to spot real ones on people that might be out to get us, hence adorable dumplings and irate churches.

When we spot something that isn’t a human face but looks like one — a house with eye-like windows that somehow make it look sarcastic, for instance — our brains react in the same way as with a real face. In a 2020 paper published in Psychological Science, scientists from the University of New South Wales tested whether we perform the same kind of split-second appraisal when looking at a non-human face as we do for human ones — not just registering that it’s a face, but looking at the expression, where it’s looking and so on. 

They tested this using a documented phenomenon called “sensory adaptation,” in which what you have just seen affects how you perceive what you see next. Look at enough faces that are facing left, and you’ll kind of correct them in your head so they appear to be looking more to the right than they really are. The scientists found that showing people faces that weren’t real did the same thing — a bunch of face-like vegetables, electrical outlets and so on had exactly the same effect as genuine homo sapiens faces. 

“We know that the object doesn’t really have a mind,” the study’s co-head explained, “but we can’t help but see it as having mental characteristics like a ‘direction of gaze’ because of mechanisms in our visual system that become active when they detect an object with basic face-like features.”

So when we see something that even vaguely looks like a person, we pay them attention, because we’ve evolved to do so — to know that something person-like is worth keeping an eye on, for good reasons or bad. All straightforward enough, right? Except, 13 years after JR Harding saw a ghost in a man’s nutsack, Ontario urologist G. Gregory Roberts was ultrasounding the nutsack of a 45-year-old Canadian man and found another ghost.

One, you can dismiss as pareidolia. Two haunted 45-year-old nutsacks, though? That can’t be coincidence. That’s just downright spooky. In that case, there can only be a single conclusion: Paranormal entities are real, and they’re coming for our scrotums.

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