Spirit Photography: Hoax or Reality?

Spirit Photography, or the capturing of a spirit on film, first became known in the 1850’s and 60’s with the rise of photography in general. As more individuals gained access to cameras, as well as the means to sit for photographers, the greater chance there was to witness spirits of the dead or supernatural beings captured on film. At least, that’s what photographers like William H. Mumler would wish us to believe.

Mumler was among the first to see spirits lurking in his freshly developed photos. Allegedly, after sitting for a self portrait and developing the film, Mumler noticed an otherworldly image hovering behind him. Assuming it was merely his inattention to detail and the result of not properly cleaning his lens, Mumler sat for the photo again. After development, the figure appeared once more and Mumler claimed it was the spirit of a deceased cousin of his.

With this newfound ability of his, or his camera, Mumler became the first to turn such a gift into a well-oiled, lucrative business, photographing multitudes of people with the spirits of their loves ones. That is, until P.T. Barnum sat for Mumler just after President Abraham Lincoln was assassinated. Lo and behold, the president’s spirit haunted Barnum’s sitting, appearing behind the circus tycoon in his photo. As it turns out, the self-acclaimed trickster of all tricksters simply enjoyed a good humbug and wanted to see if Mr. William H. Mumler and his medium wife were the real deal.

When Mumler was charged with fraud, Barnum was called as a witness as, according to Oxford University Press papers, an expert on “humbuggery.” Upon reciting his encounter with the spirit photographer, Barnum admitted that he saw the process and even examined the glass himself. Nothing was out of the ordinary, and Lincoln’s ghost appeared as soon as the photo was developed in the dark room. Regardless, Barnum claimed it all to be a hoax. Other spiritualists came forward in Mumler’s defense, claiming their deceased loved ones had truly been there and Mumler had captured them. More skeptics came forward claiming to have seen some of the ghosts in Mumler’s stills walking the streets in living color, alive and well. Ultimately, the court found no true evidence of Mumler’s supposed fraud and he was acquitted. However, his career as a Spirit Photographer was over.

Many skeptics claim that spirit photography is simply a trick of the light, or the result of budding photographic techniques of that day and age. Two methods often blamed for hoodwinking the general public are Double Exposure and Stereoscopic Illusion.

Double Exposure. For an explanation of this technique, we must first understand that in the early days of photography, exposure time was 20-40 minutes at the very least. This means the subject(s) had to remain as perfectly still as possible, lest their image appear blurry. Therefore, if a subject, say, rose from their seat and moved to another, their image would appear twice in the final shot, most assuredly a little blurry at the edges and rather translucent. This effect would also occur if someone shrouded in white linens jumped in the frame for a moment and then jumped back out. This effect can also be achieved post-shooting in the dark room. This is a delicate process, but the layman’s gist is that the photographer essentially sandwiches two negatives together and exposes them for longer than a single-negative image. 

In our day and age, it is commonplace to shoot double exposure, or manipulate it easily within moments using editing software like PhotoShop. To show how easily this can be accomplished, I created this graphic in about five minutes’ time.

Another technique often used was stereoscopic illusion. 

Stereoscopic Illusion creates depth in an image by moving the subject ever so slightly. The brain combines the two (or more) images to create depth. Again, anything recorded with movement during a long exposure time would appear transparent and ethereal.

We can all see where the skeptics are coming from now, yes? But let’s take a journey with the believers…

To delve deeper, we must traverse the difference between Spirit Photography and Ghost Photography. Spirit Photography is when an individual, or individuals, sits for a photo, specifically waiting to see the spirit of one of their loved ones. Ghost Photography occurs when a photo is taken without knowledge of a spirit’s presence and that spirit is only visible on the film or digital camera after the fact.

Here are some of the greatest, inexplicable ghost photographs from the ages between Humbuggery and PhotoShop. 

In 1919 Sir Victor Goddard’s RAF squadron encountered a recently deceased air mechanic, Freddy Jackson, who died two days prior.

In 1963, The Spectre of Newby Church absolutely shattered the conceivable. Reverend K.F. Lord was particularly fond of the altar area of his church and snapped a photograph of it, along with several others detailing the interior of the building. Upon developing the film, the reverend was flabbergasted to find a blurred figure ascending the steps.

Many believe this to be a hoax because the figure is somewhat posed. However, as he claims, the reverend was entirely alone in the church when the photograph was taken. No double exposure was used, and, allegedly, the photos were developed by no one with means to tamper with it. When skeptics came forward, the reverend, guarding his reputation, sent the photo off to scientific experts. The report came back stating that, though the figure in the photo was perfectly poised on the steps and looking at the camera, it was nine feet tall and the photo had not, in any way, been tampered with by any means.

On August 17, 1997, a loving granddaughter, Denice Russell, snapped a photo of her grandmother as they visited that afternoon. Prints were made and almost everyone in the family had the photo of Grandma. It wasn’t until they all sat around one Christmas three years later, looking at old photos, that someone noticed a foggy shape of a man behind her head. The family immediately stated it was the exact representation of their grandfather who had died in 1984.

There is also a distinct case that occurred in Manila in the early 2000’s.  Two young girls in the Philippines posed for a photo, not sensing anything out of the ordinary. When the photo popped up on the screen of their digital camera, the ghostly image of a third person could be seen holding onto one of the young women. They have absolutely no explanation for this occurrence.

There are all kinds of theories and camera tricks, but what do you think? Can film truly capture the spirits of the dead, or is it all a hoax? Leave us a comment with your thoughts.


READERS: Do you have a paranormal true story to share with us? We’d love to read it and maybe even publish it on our blog. Send your non-fiction story to: eic.tds@gmail.com (Subject: Non-Fiction Paranormal Story).

CREATIVES: Did this article inspire your paranormal storytelling? Please write that short story, craft that poem, paint that picture, and then submit it to us for publication consideration: https://www.darksiremag.com/submissions.html.

As always, thanks for supporting THE DARK SIRE! If you’re not following us, please do. We are on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram under @darksiremag. And, of course, you can pick up a digital copy of our issues on the TDS website or paperback copies through AmazonThe Bibliophile Bookstore (Dover, Ohio), and now Poe’s New & Used Bookstore (New Berlin, Pennsylvania).

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