On September 19, 1936, two photographers were finishing up a series of photos for a magazine when one of them suddenly saw a transparent figure coming down a set of stairs in front of them. Captain Provand, upon the request from his partner Mr. Indre Shira, hurriedly prepared the camera and took a photograph that would become the most recognizable ghost photograph in history and would legitimize the possibility of ghosts through this one still shot – or would it? While this famous photograph taken at Raynham Hall of the ghost of the “Brown Lady” is thought to be the best “real deal” photograph ever, there is a little history missing from its backstory that reveals the photo to be a little less glamorous than what we know it. The Society for Psychical Research (SPR) conducted an investigation of the events of that evening in January of 1937. Their findings pointed mostly to a faulty, and out of date, camera as the likely cause to the photograph. The fact that horizontal lines are doubled in the photo suggests a double exposure and the camera itself was found to let light into the lens unexpectedly (the photo previous to the famous shot was in fact overexposed). The facts of this story were ignored and in the 1960s when the photograph was made into a cultural icon. So, if this photograph is the product of a faulty camera, what about other photos taken of purported ghosts?
During the Spiritualism Era there were hundreds of supposed photographs of ghosts and spirits. The act of catching a ghost or spirit on film was simply referred to as Spirit Photography, and was made famous by William Mumler who first photographed a spirit in the early 1860s. His most famous photograph was that of Mary Todd Lincoln, who was seen with the ghost of her late husband, Abraham Lincoln. Mumler was later found to be a fraud as many of the “ghosts” in his photos were living people posing as others. It had been discovered that he had even broken into people’s homes to steal photographs of loved ones to help with the deception. The great showman P.T. Barnum even hired a photographer to fabricate a photo of himself with the ghost of Abraham Lincoln as evidence against Mumler in a court case that would ruin Mumler’s career. We can easily spot these as fakes and fraud nowadays, but many of these were well believed to be real proof of ghosts back when they were taken.
In 1995, an amateur photographer took a picture of a burning town hall building in Wem, Shropshire, England. He later discovered the image of a girl standing in a doorway of the flaming building. The debate over the legitimacy of the photograph was as hot as the flames, but many felt this was truly proof of ghosts on film. That was until 2010, when a man revealed that the image was more than likely taken from a postcard from the area that was from 1922. So, maybe I’m singling out photographs that have received logical explanations over time, what about current “ghost” photographs?
Many people feel that images of orbs in their photographs (orb is an old term used in photography and was not “coined” by anyone in the ghost field) are proof of ghosts. Despite many groups and professionals discounting a majority of orb photographs as dust and debris for well over a decade it is still widely believed to be a form of ghost photography. Many people, however, have moved on but there are still other things appearing in photographs that many feel are ghosts that have logical explanations. A few logical explanations of ghost photographs include; light streaks, blur caused by underexposure, lens flare, humidity/moisture/breath, and even pareidolia. Humidity, moisture, or even breath photographed is reminiscent of ectoplasm, which is thought to be a substance created when a ghost is attempting to form, yet is actually something born from the Spiritualism Era that was part of the fraud that helped perpetuate it through tangible evidence. A photo taken in low light can create light streaks or other blurs from brighter areas of the photo which gives the impression of movement. Pareidolia is the ability to create significant information from random sources. A face in the clouds, random light and shadow creating a face, and even audible stimuli such as many EVPs are examples of pareidolia. These random pieces of light and shadow or noises we mentally construct as words can easily fool anyone into thinking they have found legitimate proof of ghosts.
Even without these camera effects there still exists technology; our largest asset is also the greatest enemy. Photography programs such as Photoshop have given anyone the ability to manipulate a photograph in their favor. Even cell phones have simple software that can manipulate photographs. Smart phones have access to cell phone applications that can add “ghosts” into photographs randomly. From photographs to video it is ever increasingly easier to manipulate images to suit whatever we want, is this enough to cast photo and video to the side as far as potential evidence of anything? Despite the doubt created by potential manipulation as well as through false positive images, there is still the thought that someone somewhere will capture a ghost in a photograph or through video. Is this even possible?
Let’s examine ghosts for a second; are they even real? Science says no, so discussing the photographing of them would be putting the cart before the horse, but for the sake of argument we will assume that science is on our side. Parapsychologists state that apparitions are what is seen, heard, felt, or smelled and are related to some part of the human personality or mind that can somehow exist in our physical universe. Notice there’s nothing about a ghost being a physical form or having mass. Ghosts are seen because of ESP (Extra Sensory Perception, us perceiving them) or PK (Psychokinesis, the ghost is projecting itself), not because they are physically standing before us. We could assume that ghosts could create their images on film with psychokinesis, they could “imprint” themselves on film or in digital media, right? One could make that assumption, but we would also have to take into consideration that a living person present could be the one imprinting something on film. After all, while there are living people present we cannot confirm that ghosts are there and while there is direct observable evidence that living people can effect film there is little (read: none) evidence that ghosts can.
Even if ghosts could be photographed the photos would be evidence, not proof of their existence. In order to have verifiable proof of ghosts on film we will have to first prove scientifically that ghosts exist. Then, when a purported ghost is captured on film or video, there would have to be corroborating evidence to support what was seen or measured. For some folks, that’s just too much work.
See my earlier post on the advancement of technology
Watch an interesting video on this topic