spirit photography Photographs alleged to reveal Ghosts or nonhuman entities. Spirit photography has been controversial since its beginnings in 1861. Most spirit photographs can be explained as fl aws on the film, fl aws in developing, fl aws in the camera, peculiar pixilations in digital photos, or tricks of light. Some have been exposed as hoaxes.
The birth of spirit photography is credited to Boston jewelry engraver WILLIAM H. MUMLER. In 1861, he took a self-portrait and, after developing the photographic plate, noticed what appeared to be the image of a young woman next to him. He recognized her as a cousin who had died 12 years earlier. He publicly testified that he had been alone when he had taken the photograph and that he had also experienced a strange sensation of a trembling in his right arm. Mumler’s discovery came during the expansion of Spiritualism and the popularity of Mediumship and Séances to communicate with the dead. Spiritualists and photography experts eagerly examined the photograph and accepted it as showing both the living and the dead. Spirit photography quickly became a fad, seen as proof of survival. Individuals sat for photographers in hopes of seeing the faces of dead loved ones revealed in the print. Mumler was besieged by requests to produce more such photographs, and he was able to quit his job and devote himself solely to spirit photography.
Mumler was not without his critics, and he was investigated by experts. One, photographer William Black of Boston, pronounced Mumler’s work genuine. Mumler moved to New York City, where he was able to double his fee to an outrageous $10 per photo. MARY TODD LINCOLN was one of his clients; her photograph shows her dead husband, President ABRAHAM LINCOLN, standing behind her with his hands on her shoulders. Mumler’s critics grew more vocal, and finally city officials charged him with fraud. Experts rushed to his defense, and the charges were dropped.
In 1902, Scientific American magazine published an article explaining how Mumler may have hoaxed his photos by putting the “ghostly” image on a thin piece of glass that was placed in the holder for the plate. Whether or not Mumler actually used this method is not known.
His success encouraged a host of imitators, who set themselves up as “mediums” who could capture images of the dead. In early spirit photographs ghostly faces fl oat above or alongside portraits of living subjects. In some photographs full-form “spirits” appear. In order not to disappoint clients, unscrupulous photographers doctored their work, superimposing extras or creating ghostly effects through double exposures. Many fraudulent photographs— some obviously so—were accepted as real. Sometimes the extras turned out to be individuals very much alive. Perhaps most outrageous were photographs in which rings of famous faces hovered about the living subjects. Native Americans in feather headdresses (as “spirit guides”) also were popular.
One photographer, William Hope of Crewe, England, said he took more than 2,500 pictures of “extras,” as these ghostly images were called, over a period of about 20 years during the early 20th century. Hope was instrumental in the experiments of the Crewe Circle, an English group that attempted to prove the existence of spirits of the dead by capturing their images on film. Unfortunately, they destroyed their negatives out of fear that they would be charged with witchcraft, a real possibility under the laws of England at the time. Like Mumler, Hope was suspected of fraud and was investigated. After he moved to London in 1922 and set himself up as a medium, Harry Price undertook an investigation of him. Price was unable to prove fraud, and his investigation cost him his friendship with Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, who was a supporter of Hope and the Crewe Circle. Doyle, spiritualist newspapers, and psychical researchers Sir William Barrett and William Crookes vigorously defended Hope. Sir Oliver Lodge sided with Price. Eleven years later, information came to light that Hope possessed cutout photographic heads, bolstering Price’s case for fraud. But even if Hope faked some photographs, he produced many that remained unexplained.
In actuality, it was easy to fake a spirit photograph with the technology of the time. Assistants dressed in white, ghostly attire could slip into the background of a sitting for long enough to register a faint image on the plate. Plates prepared in advance could be slipped into place without clients taking notice.
Images of extras that appeared on film that had not been exposed were called scotographs. “Psychography,” a term that medium William Stainton Moses used to describe direct spirit writing, also was alleged to occur on film, in the form of messages written in the handwriting of deceased persons.
During the 1860s and 1870s, spirit photography was both taken seriously as evidence of the afterlife and also sold commercially as a novelty not to be taken seriously. Fraud eventually led to its decline in popularity, along with fraudulent physical mediumship. Fraud claimed some famous victims, however, among them Doyle, who was fooled by amateurish fake photographs of Fairies in the COTTINGLY Fairies case. But despite the fraud, unexplained photos continued to be taken, and prominent people endorsed the possibility that at least some photos were genuine. Alfred Russell Wallace, who codeveloped the theory of evolution, was one such influential supporter.
Among the most famous unexplained photos are the BROWN LADY OF RAYNHAM HALL, a transparent figure captured on a stairs in a house in Norfolk, England in 1936; the QUEEN’S HOUSE ghost, another filmy figure on a staircase taken in Greenwich, England, in 1966; and the Mabel Chimney photo taken in England in 1959. Chimney and her husband went to a churchyard to photograph the grave of Mabel’s mother. She also took a photo of her husband sitting alone in the car. When the photo was developed, an unmistakable image of her dead mother appeared sitting in the back seat.
Photography of ghosts is a much different story in contemporary Paranormal Investigation, in which the camera is the most important tool. Photographs of haunted sites are shot with a variety of still and video cameras, including sophisticated, high-technology equipment, in an effort to capture anomalies on film. Regular and infrared film are used. Cameras are connected to computers and various detection devices and are triggered whenever a device is activated by phenomena. In many investigations, two cameras with different types of film (such as regular and high-speed infrared) are used to shoot the same areas. They are set to have their shutters released at the same time and for the same length of time. The results of the two are then compared. Infrared film will show invisible sources of heat and light, indicating the possible presence of ghosts or spirits.
Explanations of Spirit Photographs
The validity of spirit photographs is a complex issue. First of all, not all paranormal experts agree that ghosts and other spirits can even be captured on film. Most experts hold out the possibility that at least some photographs are “unexplained.” Others, like English researcher Alan Murdie, hold that ghosts are beyond the capabilities of present photographic technology. Murdie, who once supported the possibility of spirit photography, considered the Brown Lady of Raynham Hall to be a photographed apparition. But, in 2006, he published an article in Fortean Times making the case for it as an accidental double exposure. According to Murdie:
I no longer consider that ghosts can be photographed, though I am prepared to consider that fogs, mists and unusual images may be a sign of anomalous phenomena, perhaps electromagnetic radiation of some kind. However, they are not ghosts and may be compared with the ripples you get in a pond when there is an otter about. However, they are not the otter itself! The generally abysmal quality of almost all alleged or claimed ghost pictures has encouraged this view—the claimed pictures simply do not resemble the complex, detailed and often fully formed apparitional forms that witnesses report. Such witnesses need no convincing that they have experienced a ghost. In contrast, most people who claim to possess ghost photographs observed nothing unusual at the time the photograph was taken. The description of the image as a ghost is an interpretation brought after the event to the photograph by individuals hoping to have a confirmation of their personal or spiritual beliefs. My present view is that ghosts represent a deeper level of sensory experience and are closer to visions or dreams. They occur on a level which cannot currently be recorded by instrumentation. Much the same can be said for many other sensory experiences—smell, taste, color, the sensation of a kiss, not to mention dreams, consciousness, etc.
Among those who believe in spirit photography, there is no consensus on how or why apparitions show up on film. Sometimes apparitions are visually perceived but fail to register on film. In most cases, as noted by Murdie, nothing is seen by the naked eye. Only when the photographs themselves are examined are strange balls or streaks of light seen or patches of mist or fog. In unusual cases, filmy human shapes appear.
One explanation advanced is that spirit photographs may be created unwittingly by Psychokinesis (PK) on the part of the photographer or subject, who, by their very thought and intent, imprint an image on film. This phenomenon is called by parapsychologists “thoughtography,” a term coined in the early 1900s by Tomokichi Fukarai, then president of the Psychical Institute of Japan. Fukarai discovered thoughtography in experiments with a medium to test her clairvoyance. In the 1960s, the thoughtography of Ted Serios of Kansas City, Missouri, was studied by parapsychologists. Serios purportedly created images on film by staring into the lens of a Polaroid camera.
Thus, one explanation for spirit photography is that visitors to a haunted site might so intensely desire to experience phenomena that they psychically create their own imprints on film or digital image. This explanation might indeed apply to some cases, but nonetheless there are unusual photographs taken in circumstances in which people expected no phenomena at all.
The Ghost Research Society of Oak Lawn, Illinois, maintains one of the largest collections of spirit photographs from around the world. Photographs are analyzed by scanning them into a computer and digitizing them, which produces images with a higher resolution than those that appear on television. Minute details can thus be scrutinized. Negatives also are carefully examined. Photographic experts are consulted as well.
Orbs and Light Anomalies
With the use of high technology such as digital cameras and camcorders, a development in paranormal investigation in the 1990s, the photographing of ORBS, mysterious round and round-tailed luminosities that are invisible to the naked eye, has become commonplace. Orbs can be caused by pixilation problems, moisture in the air, reflections and refractions of light, and dust and insects close to the camera lens. Orbs are almost always discounted by paranormal experts, but are highly controversial and have attained an almost sacred status among the legions of amateur investigators.
The majority of unexplained spirit photographs show shadows, streaks, mists, fogs, and blotches of light that have no apparent explanation. Troy Taylor, president of the American Ghost Society and an authority on the analysis of spirit photographs, believes some photos of light anomalies, including a small number of orbs, capture a yet-unidentified “spirit energy” that may or may not be ghosts or even related to hauntings.
Spirits in Backgrounds
Some people see the faces and forms of ghosts and spirits shaped out of backgrounds, especially in leafy foliage, striations of rock, and patterns in the landscape or on buildings. Most likely, these are created by random patterns in vegetation or grains in paneling or by shadows. Such effects are SIMULACRA, a term coined by English author John Michell, who wrote about them in a book by the same name, Simulacra (1979). Simulacra is the human tendency to find meaningful patterns and shapes out of randomness.
However, not all pattern anomalies can be dismissed. In the field of Instrumental Transcommunication (ITC), the communication with the afterlife and higher spiritual realms via high technology, researchers acknowledge that “visual noise” often seems to be necessary for invisible presences to manifest images in the physical realm. The visual noise, such as backgrounds, is manipulated by spirits in much the same way as humans manipulate clay. ITC researcher Mark Macy uses a device called the LUMINATOR to capture spirit faces superimposed over images of the living. The photos ware taken with Polaroid cameras. The living subjects seem to provide a background matrix.
Taylor has found “quite a decent number” of photographs that he believes show genuine paranormal phenomena. Nonetheless, most images can be explained naturally—up to 90 percent, according to Dale Kaczmarek. Common explanations cited by Taylor are photos out of focus, dirty camera lenses, light-damaged film, scratched film, objects in front of the camera lens (dust, insects, moisture, hair, camera straps, and so forth), flash reflections and refractions, double exposures, and problems in film developing. Digital pictures may show spots where pixels do not completely fill in. Video images also have their pitfalls. According to Kaczmarek:
Video evidence must be viewed with skepticism as much contamination can occur while attempting to record supernatural evidence, especially video orbs which are often captured with night vision cameras. Many times these are nothing more than insects or bugs and sometimes “dust bunnies” which are often caught moving through the field of vision. However, images that are not orbs and refl ect often especially humanlike images are certainly interesting and may be actual evidence of spirit survival.
Spirit and ghost images can be faked a number of ways. The most common cited by Taylor are the combining of images, collages, multiple and double exposures, and long exposures. Newer models of digital cameras make faking harder—the cameras automatically embed information that makes it easier to see tampering. Still, detecting trickery can be difficult.
The Need for Discernment
Amateurs who join the ranks of paranormal investigators want to believe that they can and do capture paranormal images. Paranormal experts are frequently consulted by individuals who hope they have taken paranormal photos. When told they probably do not have anything paranormal, many people react in anger and disbelief. Some will consult expert after expert, until they find someone who will tell them what they want to hear. This tendency toward uncritical belief stands only to intensify the debate over what is real in spirit photography and hamper the acceptance of genuine evidence.
- Carrington, Hereward. “Experiences in Psychic Photography.” Journal of the American Society for Psychical Research (SPR)19 (1925):258–267.
- Kaczmarek, Dale. Field Guide to Spirit Photography. Alton, Ill.: Whitechapel Productions Press, 2002.
- The Perfect Medium: Photography and the Occult. Compiled by Clement Cheroux and Andreas Fischer, with Pieree Apraxine, Denis Canguilhem, and Sophie Schmit. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 2004.
- Perlmutt, Cyril. Photographing the Spirit World: Images from Beyond the Spectrum. Wellingborough, Northamptonshire: The Aquarian Press, 1988.
- Taylor, Troy. Ghosts on Film: The History, Mystery & How- To’s of Spirit Photography. Alton, Ill.: Whitechapel Productions Press, 2005.