The history of ghost photography and its many problems as evidence.
by Blake Smith
February 24, 2015
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In books promising you a glimpse of the beyond you find page after page of chilling photographic evidence that spirits of the dead walk the earth! A ghostly baby sits on a grave. A translucent figure descends a staircase. A childs face emerges from the flames of a devastating fire. Do these photographs offer real glimpses of ghosts? Or is there a more rational explanation for ghost photography? Let's expose these mysterious images to the light of science and see what develops.
The history of ghost photography is closely tied to the history of photography itself. Early photography was much like all new technology in that enthusiasts had to become skilled with the various equipment and chemicals required for producing images. Before the invention of photographic film the photographers worked with chemically treated glass plates which could be cleaned and re-used to make new images. Early photographers were often running small businesses, using their photography to make portraits for 19th century families. Because of the bulk of their equipment, most worked in small studios rather than moving their equipment about. Sittings were arranged and paid for. The expensive glass plates were often cleaned and re-used, but if not cleaned properly the remnants of the old image could be seen in subsequent photos. This method of producing multiple exposures was certainly widely known within the field by the photographers, but was not well understood by the general public.
Before we dive into the story of the early spirit photographers, it is important to talk about the cultural stage upon which they performed. The spread of photography was happening simultaneous to the rise of a new religion or belief system called "Spiritualism." The main ideas of spiritualism centered around the belief that the dead continue to exist as spirits and maintain their consciousness here on earth after they've died. Interaction with these spirits was said to be possible through the use of psychics or mediums . Spiritualism began in the 1840s and grew through the early 20th century, attracting millions of followers and adherents. In the wake of this growing movement, ideas such as parlor seances grew very popular and it was quite easy to find people who openly believed in spirits as a scientific reality.
A large population of people seeking proof of life after death made it possible for a robust network of mediums to set up shop in the north east of the United States. It was in this environment that Boston photographer William Mumler introduced spirit photography to a community eager for more proof of life after death.
Mumler had been a jewelry engraver before he began his new career as a spirit photographer with a single photo which he alleged showed the image of one of his deceased relatives who had died several years before his self portrait was taken. In a time when photography was already an expensive proposition for a family looking for a portrait, Mumler was able to fetch several times the normal cost of a traditional photograph for one of his special portraits which would show a ghostly image of some alleged dead loved one along with the mundane image of the living subject.
How would he accomplish this? How did he fool people with his blurry but easy to reproduce multiple exposure photographs? It was a success for him because he worked with a network of mediums who would gather details about the dead subject from the grieving loved ones, then in exchange for half the profits the mediums would send these details to Mumler. The mediums told their customers to arrive at Mumler's studio at a particular time. Mumler would have never met them and never been personally told details by the victims - yet he already had everything he needed to find a similar subject from his library of traditional portrait negatives to find a person who somewhat matched the image of the deceased. His portraits were indistinct enough and the customers desperate enough in their wish for a signal from beyond that most accepted the photographs as genuine psychical phenomena. Mumler's wife assisted with the business and they added all sorts of theatrical contrivances to enhance the magical nature of the spirit photography session. In 1868 Mumler and his wife moved to New York - the state that was the birthplace of Spiritualism - to set up shop.
Business boomed and in just a few months Mumler was able to purchase his studio instead of renting it. But then a skeptical news reporter investigated and convinced the Mayor of New York to pursue fraud charges. A sting operation took place and Mumler was arrested and put on trial.
The trial of William Mumler was a spectacle that included testimony from P. T. Barnum, whose cynical and amusing testimony against Mumler often brought the proceedings to a halt as the courtroom erupted in laughter. Barnum had written about the deceptive methods of spirit photography in a book titled The Humbugs of the World. explaining that photographs of famous statesmen had been made by the photographer inserting indistinct reproductions from famous paintings through multiple exposure techniques. In the trial Mumler was criticized and mocked, but the prosecutors failed to demonstrate his fraud and he was not found guilty - though he was financially destroyed.
Mumler moved back to Boston where he made the most famous spirit photograph of his career. In 1872 a woman traveling incognito came to Mumler's studio to sit for a spirit photography portrait. When she returned for her photograph it was everything she'd hoped for - the picture showed her own image being spiritually embraced by the ghostly image of her late husband, Abraham Lincoln.
Mumler's success led to many other early photographers duplicating his methods. It may seem amazing, but even when fraud was demonstrated or when the phony photographers themselves confessed to fraud, desperate clients still believed that the photographs they'd bought were real proof of continued consciousness after death. Were all of these photographs fake? There is ample evidence to suggest they were, but these multiple-exposure tricks were just the first kind of spirit photography.
As Spiritualism grew, mediums began to produce an astonishing array of physical manifestations in their seances. Witnesses saw glowing figures, floating trumpets, and (as famously demonstrated by the ghost called "slimer" in the film Ghost Busters) a mysterious spirit substance known as ectoplasm.
It was not a simple case of Spiritualists versus skeptical scientists when investigations occurred. There were many scientists who were open to the idea that such phenomena was real, and there is a robust body of historical investigations from this time period. Entertainers, scientists, intellectuals and people from a broad spectrum of backgrounds looked into the question. Arthur Conan Doyle, Harry Houdini, Hereward Carrington, Camille Flammarion, Alfred Russell Wallace, Pierre and Marie Curie, Scientific American and the Society for Psychical Research - all conducted investigations. Some found fraud, others found self delusion, but ultimately none found reproducible scientific evidence for the paranormal that could survive scientific scrutiny.
From this era come a variety of strange photographs that are alleged to show ectoplasm emerging from the nostrils and mouths of mediums. Shoddily constructed puppets hang from wires or emerge from closets. To the modern viewer there is little mystery about these photos - they show obvious fraud. But at the time they were taken, many saw them as real proof of the paranormal as scientific reality.
But these early cases represent just one kind of ghost photo: deliberate fraud for profit. There are other kinds of ghost photographs and many of them still make the front page of tabloid newspapers and silly segments of 24-hour cable news networks. Let's take a look at the most common examples.
Glowing dots float in the images but when the photo was taken there was nothing there. Some of these glowing shapes even seem to have faces in them. They call them orbs. Once the darling of the paranormal world, more and more researchers have begun to recognize these for what they really are - dust particles illuminated by the flash of the camera. What about the alleged faces in the orbs? We'll get to that next.
Perhaps the most common cause of alleged ghost photos, a photograph is taken and in the shadows, in a window pane, in a darkened doorway faces appear, or mysterious humanlike forms. What are they? Why didn't the photographer notice them when they took the photo? Science has a term for this - and so do amateur ghost hunters. In scientific terms this is called pareidolia, which describes the human tendency to see faces where there are none. Such faces are called simulacra. It is a type of apophenia - which is the human tendency to find patterns and meaning in chaos. Pareidolia is discussed in more detail in the Face on Mars episode of Skeptoid, but it accounts for a very large percentage of ghost photos. It has also been the source of cryptozoology, fairy, angel and saint photos. Occasionally "orb" photos show tiny smiley faces, made from random pixels. For reasons unclear to me, paranormal enthusiasts have started using the term "matrixing" to describe the same phenomena. It is almost like they are being deliberately unscientific by eschewing the proper terminology and making up their own.
In November 2007 a security video at an Ohio gas station went viral after being picked up by multiple news organizations. A blurry, semi-translucent image moved around on the video and seemed to fly and move through objects around the pumps - but did not seem to be seen by the patrons. The media coverage was mostly uncritical and just seemed to ask, "was this a ghost?" Skeptical researchers were able to identify the culprit as an insect walking on the lens of the camera. This kind of easily explained video phenomena comes up again and again from fixed location security cams. The effect is caused when insects walk on the lens and produce blurred images. Spiders, moths and ladybugs have all been misdiagnosed as spirits in these kinds of videos.
Accidental Multiple Exposure
With the popularity of digital photography this kind of error is becoming rarer and rarer. In film-based cameras, it was sometimes possible to accidentally shoot the same piece of film twice without advancing to the next fame. In most cases, the result would be easily recognized as garbage when the two merged images were developed. Occasionally a merged image would result in a ghostly figure or the face of the recently deceased (who had been photographed while alive) who then showed up in a later photograph as a multiple exposure artifact.
Long Exposures and Moving Figures
Many alleged ghost photos from the early 20th century resulted when photographers took photos with long exposure settings and someone moved through the scene. This type of photo can show a faded figure, similar to those seen in multiple exposures, but the tell-tale sign of this kind of photo is when a portion of the ghostly figure is repeated or motion blurred as they pass through the frame of the shot.
A mysterious glowing blob appears in the photo - yet no one saw anything unusual when the photo was taken. What could it be? Was it an angel? A ghost? Chances are it was your camera strap, partially obscuring the lens and out of focus from the rest of the photo. These weird looking shapes convince many people they've captured a ghost.
A Cold Breath
Ghost hunting on a cold winter night can often produce a creepy looking fog that nobody noticed when the shot was taken. But if the photographer was alive and the air was cold, there is a good chance that as the photo was taken it captured the foggy breath that accompanies such shooting conditions. These foggy patches sometimes even catch the camera flash and create weird shapes and figures - but they're not ghosts.
An Unnoticed Person or Feature
Many alleged ghost photos are shared and published because the photographer says there was nobody in the frame when they shot the photo. This is quite common on photos where the photographer was shooting a beautiful building or a lovely landscape. The photo turns out but shows some unexpected person in the shot who is unremembered. Skeptoid has talked about the fallibility of memory before, but it is worth repeating that human memory is very poor indeed and when we are focused on a particular activity we are not good at noticing background details. Strangers in the background of photographs shot at tourist sites are much more likely to be unnoticed visitors than visitors from beyond the grave.
Sadly, this is a very common source for many famous ghost photos. The urge to hoax ghost photos can be done for fame, for profit or for many other motivations. Some people see ghost photos as a way to help bolster the belief in ghosts and in this sense, like people who fake miracles, a ghost photo may be a type of pious fraud. But there are tabloid papers who will pay very good money for a new ghost photo, and that temptation is enough to drive them to create hoaxes. People will also hoax because it entertains them to fool people. To paraphrase author & artist Daniel Loxton, a hoaxer doesn't need to make a lot of money to self-justify the fraud, they merely need to make enough money to justify the fraud. For some that is a very low bar indeed.
Whatever the source of the ghost photo, whether it is fraud or one of the aforementioned types of errors, the big problem with these kind of pictures is that they are useless as evidence for the paranormal. What they are much more effective at is showing the apparently limitless ability of the human mind to find special meaning in images. To date, no ghost photograph has come close to providing convincing proof of life after death. Even more annoying is the fact that photographs which have been demonstrated to be frauds or accidents are still shared on countless websites and in books as real paranormal phenomena. Yet for grieving loved-ones, even the most tenuous hint that their dear departed connections are still out there somewhere waiting for them is enough to dismiss all evidence to the contrary.
The next time you go looking for ghost photos on the Intenet, please do me a favor: add the word skeptic or explained to your search. Chances are that researchers may have already figured out what is really going on. But even if they haven't, an unexplained photographic anomaly isn't proof of anything except that something hasn't been explained.
By Blake Smith
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Cite this article:
Smith, B. "Ghost Photography." Skeptoid Podcast. Skeptoid Media,
24 Feb 2015. Web.
24 Sep 2017. <http://skeptoid.com/episodes/4455>
References & Further Reading
Brugioni, Dino. Photo Fakery: The History and Techniques of Photographic Deception and Manipulation. Dulles, VA: Brassey's, 1999.
Loxton, Daniel. "Photographing Phantoms - Part Two." Skeptic. 1 Sep. 2014, Volume 19, Number 3: 67 - 77.
Loxton, Daniel. "Photographing Phantoms - Part One." Skeptic. 1 Jun. 2014, Volume 19, Number 2: 67 - 77.
Nickel, Joe. Camera Clues. Lexington, KY: University of Kentucky Press, 1994.
Willin, Melvyn. Ghost Photos: The Paranormal Caught on Film. New York, NY: Metro, 2009.
Wiseman, Richard. "Hauntings: The Science of Ghosts." Science of Ghosts. Wiseman, 10 Apr. 2009. Web. 16 Feb. 2015. <https://scienceofghosts.wordpress.com/>
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