Weird Wednesdays: A brief history of spirit photography


Y’know, what with cellphones being pretty much universal in modern first-world America, having a camera in your pocket at all times, you’d think we would have solved a good chunk of the questions about UFOs, the Loch Ness Monster, Bigfoot, your roommate’s Canadian girlfriend and other myths.

Not so, cry the believers! Bigfoot is camera shy! Nessie is in hiding! And yes, her name is Juliette, and I SWEAR she’s visiting next Spring Break…

While some cryptids continue to elude the camera, there’s one type of monster that’s a real lens-hog: ghosts. These undead spectres love making a spectacle of themselves, popping up in pics as smoky projections, strange orbs, shadowy reflections and other mysterious manifestations. From Victorian spooks and blurry cellphone snapshots to Snapchat facial recognition gone awry, ghost photos are here to stay.

Ghost photos have been around since the first fixed-image camera, which used iodine and mercury to fix an image to a dry plate based on how much light came in through the lens. This is why old photos are black and white: they would only capture the light (or lackthereof) of an image.

Iodine fixture takes a while. In the early days of photography in the early 1800s, it could take anywhere from 20 minutes to an hour to expose a photograph. This wouldn’t be a problem for, say, a bowl of fruit, but it would be for someone sitting for a portrait. If they shifted, moved their arm or changed anything, the change would be reflected in the photo by way of a blur called double exposure. (It’s a misconception, however, that long portrait times were the reason people don’t smile in old photos–it has more to with being serious so your descendants would respect you!)

Another form of double exposure was by double plating–taking a finished photo and taking another photo through it. The light would shine through the “light” areas of the photo, creating a shadowy or transparent figure transposed over the developed photo.

If you haven’t guessed already, these techniques were used for Halloween hookum, as would-be ghost photographers used spirit stunt doubles to make otherwise regular pictures paranormal, either through preparing plates or simply having their assistants walk through a frame during a long exposure.

The first in these long line of hoaxters was William M. Humler, who claimed to have captured the first-ever spirit on camera when he spied his dead cousin’s ghost in a self-portrait in 1860.  Mumler went on to photograph other “spirits,” including that of Abraham Lincoln. In 1869, fellow fraudster P.T. Barnum exposed Mumler in court by producing a similar photo using double plates and a stunt-double Lincoln, discrediting the would-be Ghostbuster.

While it all sounds like harmless fun, spirit photographers weren’t just novelty salesmen. In the wake of the Civil War, grieving relatives would pay just about anything for one last glimpse of their loved ones lost to battle. This desperate form of bereavement was what later gave rise to the Spiritualism movement after World War I. The hucksters behind spirit photography capitalized and preyed on people’s loss this way.

With the Great Depression in 1930s putting an end to the Spiritualism movement, and the rise of science during World War II and thereafter, spirit photography all but fell to the wayside–especially as film cameras made it easier to detect tampering.

Modern photography isn’t free from gaffes, of course. While we can easily explain away 21st century ghost photos with cries of “Photoshop!” there are a few undoctored photos out there with spectral orbs and arcs.

While they may have a supernatural explanation, most of these are due to photography mistakes. A flash of light in a graveyard is usually a reflection off of a grave. A strand or strange figure in the corner is usually a dangling hair, camera strap or unfocused thumb in the lens. “Ghostly” orbs are most commonly just bits of dust, rain or snow caught in the flash called “backscatter”. A headless nun it ain’t!

Now, there are a few photos out there that, even when checked for double exposure and tampering, still defy explanation. The Brown Lady of Raynham Hall is one of them.

In 1936, the Londoner Captain Hubert C. Provand, a photographer for Country Life, was taking pictures of Raynham for an article. The hall was said to be haunted by Lady Dorothy Walpole, former lady of the English country house who was said to have died a traumatic death within the manor’s rooms. There had been multiple sightings of ‘The Brown Lady” (named for her brown dress she was fond of) in the halls before, but no solid proof of her existence.

Provand was photographing the hall’s main staircase when his assistant saw a strange vapor descend–just as the photographer took the shot. The photo would then appear to contain a white figure on the stairs–one that’s been hotly contested by paranormalists and photographers alike, but that has never been disproven.

Whatever is the case, whether it’s true or fake is still up and out there. We don’t know what comes after death, though if you ask me, spending the afterlife photobombing people doesn’t sound half-bad. Stay skeptical, folks, and stay weird!

Want to test your paranormal investigator skills? Scrutinize these specters and see if you can tell which ones have been proven fakes–which ones are ‘real’ (so to speak.)







  1. Fake (made with a cellphone app) 2. Real (The Brown Lady of Raynham Hall) 3. Fake (Made with double exposure) 4. Real (The Watcher of Corroboree Rock) 5. Real (The Tulip Staircase Ghost)

Marlese Lessing is the news editor for The Daily Campus. She can be reached via email at She tweets @marlese_lessing.

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