The history of ghost photography is closely tied to the history of photography itself.
Early photography was a 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 were cleaned and re-used to make new images but, if not cleaned properly, the remains of the old image could be seen in subsequent photos.
Now, before we dive into the story of the early spirit photographers, it is important to talk about the cultural stage upon which they performed.
Cultural stage in the 1800s
The spread of photography was happening simultaneously to the rise of a new belief system called “Spiritualism“.
The main ideas of spiritualism centred 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. In the wake of this growing movement, ideas such as parlour seances grew very popular and it was quite easy to find people who openly believed in spirits as a scientific reality.
A large number of people seeking proof of life after death made it possible for a robust network of mediums to set up shops 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 jewellery engraver before he began his new career as a spirit photographer with a single self-portrait photo which showed the image of one of his deceased relatives who had died several years before the picture 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 dead loved one along with the mundane image of the living subject.
It’s not hard to understand why 19th-century Americans in love with the growing Spiritualism movement would have believed that these photographic apparitions were real, even if high-profile skeptics like P.T. Barnum devalued spirit photography as a scam.
When spirit photography appeared in the 1860s, the United States was reeling from the Civil War, which claimed an astonishing 620,000 lives.
Deep in mourning, Americans were drawn to anyone who offered even a brief connection to the souls of their dearly departed.
Self-proclaimed mediums performed meetings in which the living could speak with the dead, and photographers like Mumler granted the wishes of the mourning person to see their lost sons or brothers one last time.
Mumler had a knack for self-promotion and his otherworldly photo was written up in popular spiritualist newspapers like the Banner of Light and also the mainstream press.
Bostoners began lining up at his small portrait studio to pay as much as $10 (almost $200 in today’s money) for their photo with a lost loved one.
Mumler sold himself as someone who could not explain what was happening or why he was chosen to take these pictures.
He was as astonished as everyone else that suddenly his camera could take pictures of ghosts.
A visitor to Mumler’s studio would be told that there’s no guarantee that a departed soul would appear.
Mumler didn’t “command the spirits,” they “came and went as they pleased”.
And if a photograph didn’t come out as the customer expected—the ghost of an old woman instead of lost brother, perhaps—Mumler would help the client search their memory for other spirits who might be eager to communicate with the living.
Since photography was such a new invention in the mid-19th century, few people had other photos to compare with the faint, blurry images of the ghosts.
Did Great Aunt Winifred wear her hair in a bun? Probably!
Mumler’s spirit photography attracted skeptics from the beginning.
Manipulating images was a known part of the photographic artform and other photographers were openly experimenting with double exposures and superimposed negatives, all of which could create the effect of Mumler’s spirit photography.
If Mumler was pushing the medium into plain metaphysics, his colleagues wanted to know how, or to reveal him as a fraud.
A number of investigators visited Mumler to verify his methods, and most were convinced that his results were legitimate.
Success encouraged Mumler, and he expanded the operation to include a mail-order service: send a description of the spirit you hope to see, plus seven dollars and fifty cents, and you, too, could see ghosts “hold intercourse with mortals,” as one spiritualist put it.
Then an unexpected visitor to the studio identified one of the “spirits” as his wife—not a problem, on the face of it, except that his wife was still alive, and had posed at Mumler’s gallery well in advance of his otherworldly turn.
Mumler new life in New York
The skeptics began to outnumber the believers, and Mumler, scared by the loss of faith, eventually moved to New York, where he set up a new shop, in 1868.
But then a skeptical news reporter investigated and convinced the Mayor of New York to pursue fraud charges
A defraud 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.
Mary Todd Lincoln
Mumler moved back to Boston in his final years, mostly retired from spirit photography, though he couldn’t resist one high-profile client: Mary Todd Lincoln.
Mumler’s grim portrait of the widowed First Lady depicted an ethereal Abe resting two comforting hands on her shoulders.
The picture exemplifies the “peace and comfort to the tired soul” that Mumler trumpeted as his hallmark.
He saw himself as a seller of “the bright, bright rays of the spiritual sun”.
If his more credulous customers were too eager to relax in those rays, who can blame them? In the pain of grief, no one asks why the clouds are parting.
But Mumler has created even something good that helped modern journalism.
He invented a technique called the “Mumler process” that allowed the first photographs to be printed on newsprint, transforming the practice of journalism in what we know today.
Craig and I discussed how Mumler and ghost photography are seen from a Medium and Psychic’s point of view, and you can see the video here.
We discussed about the thousands of photos he received that, as the sender wrote, should’ve shown ghosts.
Craig explained really well what’s his point of view, and how he approaches those photos and beliefs, I highly suggest you go and watch his video, and if you are interested in mediumship, psychics, and spiritualism, just head on his channel and subscribe.
Modern Spirit photography
From Mumler’s era come a variety of strange photographs that show ectoplasm emerging from the nostrils and mouths of mediums.
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 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 are called 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 of a window, 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.
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.
In November 2007 a security video at an Ohio gas station went viral after being picked up by multiple news organisations.
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 owners or people around.
The media coverage was mostly uncritical and just seemed to ask, “was this a ghost?”.
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 moving to the next frame of the film.
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 artefact.
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 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. Human memory is very poor 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 support the belief in ghosts and in this sense, like people who fake miracles, a ghost photo may be a type of dedicated 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.
But not all ghost photos are explainable with the mentioned reasons, there are photos out there that are still looking for an explanation and cannot be dismissed so simply. The world is a big place, and life itself is a big mystery, we shouldn’t stop at the first glance of a supposed ghost picture, but first look at it with skeptic’s eyes, this to remove any of the mentioned reasons, only in this way we’ll be able to find some good picture, and trust me, out of hundreds of them, you might be able to find maybe one that might not be explained.
What do you think about Ghost (spirit) photography? Do you believe it’s real? Did you have any personal experience? Let me know in the comment below and don’t forget to share this article and read all the others!
And if you want to see some examples of hardly explainable ghost pictures, and want to know about the Japanese ghost photography, have a look at this other video that explains it in great details and with great knowledge!