It’s February 2015 at Hampton Court Palace in London. Twelve-year-old Holly Hampsheir grabs her iPhone to take a photo of her cousin, Brook, as she walks alone through the majestic King’s Apartments. Snap.
It’s not until the following day that they discover Brook was not alone in the picture. A tall, grey, seemingly cloaked woman follows behind her. In a second photo, this strange anomaly is gone.
Was it a stunning image of a tortured apparition making a rare performance for the cameras, or something more... well... sensible?
The answer, as we’ll discover, says more about how smartphones take photos than anything supernatural. In fact, this grey ghoul is just the latest apparition in a fascinating history of ghost photography. Ever since the camera was invented, spooks have appeared in photos. And with each advance in camera technology, new types of ghostly traces have emerged – or been deliberately conjured.
There’s not a lot out there that can’t be attributed to some sort of photographic technique – Michael Pritchard
“I am a sceptic from the perspective of a photographer and as someone who doesn’t believe in ghosts… there’s not a lot out there that can’t be attributed to some sort of photographic technique,” says Michael Pritchard, director-general of the Royal Photographic Society.
Sixth sense and sensibility
The roots of spirit photography can be traced back to the 19th Century. During the 1850s and ‘60s, many photographers were experimenting with new effects such as stereoscopic images and double exposure. But some unscrupulous photographers soon realised that these techniques could be exploited for profit.
An enterprising American amateur photographer called William Mumler is thought to be the first person to capture a ‘spirit’ in a photograph in the early 1860s.
This momentous image appeared to feature the apparition of his dead cousin. Ghostly visitation or not, it wasn’t long before Mumler’s knack of capturing dead people on film (normally a relative) had become very popular. At the beginning, experts struggled to find anything fake about Mumler’s spirit photographs. And so the amateur became a professional – with a lucrative business fuelled by the relatives of those killed in the American Civil War – keen to make some kind of supernatural connection with their loved ones.
The most damning moment in the trial came when a deliberately bogus photograph was presented
Mumler may have achieved this by inserting a previously prepared positive glass plate, featuring the image of the deceased, into his camera in front of an unused sensitive glass plate, which was then used to photograph his client. This double exposure technique not only captured the image of the client but also the ghostly image from the prepared glass plate in front.
In one of Mumler’s more famous efforts, the ‘ghost’ of Abraham Lincoln photobombs an image of his wife, Mary Todd Lincoln. The list of his clients grew, but so did his critics.
One particular sceptic of Mumler’s work was the showman PT Barnum, who claimed that the spirit photos were merely preying upon families or individuals clouded by grief. This followed allegations that Mumler had broken into houses to steal photos of deceased relatives, and that some of the ‘spirits’ featured in his photos were actually still very much alive.
Mumler was put on trial for fraud and Barnum testified against him. The most damning moment in the trial came when a deliberately bogus photograph was presented to demonstrate just how easy it was to make one of Mumler’s spirit images. It was Barnum’s coup de grace and featured himself with the ‘ghost’ of Abraham Lincoln. It appeared Mumler was ghost-busted.
Despite the damning evidence, Mumler was acquitted of fraud, but the damage had been done – his career as a spirit photographer was over. The techniques he used were built upon on by others during the late 1800s as popularity for spiritualism and spirit photography grew, though accusations of fraud continued to haunt spirit photographers.
As ownership of cameras grew, spirit photography boomed
An English priest and medium, William Stainton Moses, was one early investigator of spirit images. As Alan Murdie, chairman of the Ghost Club (founded in 1862 and believed to be the oldest paranormal investigation and research group in the world) explains: “By 1875 he had examined over 600 alleged spirit photographs. His view was that there were probably no more than a dozen that might pass muster as something [supernatural]… and he said that there are people out there who ‘would recognise a sheet and a broom as their dear departed’.”
Yet as ownership of cameras grew, spirit photography boomed. "By the 1880s anyone could pick up a camera and take a picture – it opened the door for some of the charlatans who were keen to lead people on and play on people’s emotions" says Pritchard.
Around this period, one of the most famous spirit photographs was taken. In 1891, Sybell Corbet was taking a photograph of the library at Combermere Abbey in Cheshire, England. Sat in the chair in the foreground of the shot is the faint outline of a man’s head, collar and right arm.
It is said to be the ghost of Lord Combermere – who had recently died in a riding accident and who was being buried at the time the picture was taken. The photographic exposure took an hour – leading many sceptics to suggest that a servant had entered the room and briefly sat in the chair whilst the exposure took place. Most household staff, however, claimed that they were at Combermere’s funeral at the time.
By World War One, spiritualism and spirit photography had gained some notable supporters including novelist Sir Arthur Conan Doyle – a member of the Ghost Club.
The sense of loss felt in many countries after the war led some to desire a reunion with their lost relatives and friends. Englishman William Hope, by then already an established spirit photographer, was one of those very willing to put his expertise forward.
Like Mumler, Hope was dogged by claims of fraud, and an investigation by the Society for Psychical Research – led by famous paranormal researcher Harry Price in 1922. Price conducted an investigation that exposed Hope as a fraudster for double exposing two glass plates at the same time - one featuring a ghostly image and the second to record the combination of the client and the ‘ghost’. Unlike Mumler, Hope continued to practise as a medium and spirit photographer after the exposure, supported by many of his ardent followers.
In 1936, a case in Norfolk baffled investigators
More than a decade later, Price also investigated a more baffling case. In 1936, two men from Country Life magazine were pictured standing at the bottom of a grand staircase in Raynham Hall, Norfolk, England. Photographer Captain Hubert Provand and his assistant Indre Shira had been about to take a snap of the main staircase when Shira suddenly saw "a vapoury form gradually assuming the appearance of a woman" heading down the stairs towards them. Seconds later, a photo had been hastily captured. The image was published in Country Life and dubbed ‘The Brown Lady’. Some believed it was the figure of Lady Dorothy Townshend, who was said to have haunted the hall since her mysterious death in 1726.
Price was of the opinion that the photographic evidence was untampered. "I will say at once I was impressed. I was told a perfectly simple story: Mr Indre Shira saw the apparition descending the stairs at the precise moment when Captain Provand’s head was under the black cloth. A shout – and the cap was off and the flashbulb fired, with the results, which we now see. I could not shake their story, and I had no right to disbelieve them. Only collusion between the two men would account for the ghost if it is a fake. The negative is entirely innocent of any faking,” said Price.
It was simply because the camera had been shaken during a six-second exposure
Others, however, were less confident. In 1937, The Society for Psychical Research, concluded that it was simply because the camera had been shaken during a six-second exposure. “I used to think there was maybe something in the Brown Lady of Raynham Hall until I found the original SPR research file,” says Murdie.
Like many investigators, Murdie has himself seen an enormous amount of what people believe are ghosts captured on film. “I think there are very few photographs that might be considered evidence of something paranormal,” he says.
Today’s digital cameras are just as likely to create a fake haunting. The “grey lady” at Hampton Court, for instance, is almost certainly a quirk of the technology in the girls’ camera.
The way smartphones take a photo in stages can lead to ‘spirits'
Unlike analogue film, phones tend to take a photo in stages – in the same way a scanner moves over piece of paper. It is a slower process, especially in darker places where the camera phone’s image sensors need more time to record enough picture information. This is called 'image aliasing'. As a result, anything moving through the shot at the time could appear distorted.
You can also see ghost photography reborn in internet memes such as ‘Slender Man’, a supernatural character that many people have added into photos to create a chill.
Despite our knowledge of computer-generated trickery in photos, it seems some are still willing to believe that spirits can be captured on camera. Indeed, according to a Harris poll from 2013, 42% of Americans believe in ghosts; a similar poll in 2014 by YouGov suggests 39% of UK citizens believe a house can be haunted.
Like the ghostly apparitions themselves, our thirst to see life beyond this mortal coil may itself be immortal – ever shape-shifting to fit the technology and science of the time.
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