Ghouls on Film

Settle down, pull your blankets tight, as we gather around the campfire, and listen to stories of the weird and wonderful. It’s that time of year again… time to carve the pumpkins with dull knives, put up ecologically-unsound fake spider webs, and let your children wander around threatening strangers, who, in turn, give them unmonitored foods. What could possibly go wrong?

How about if you captured a ghost on film? If you’re a normal human being, you’d probably run a mile; but there are various photographers, and photographic groups, out there, whose chief ambition is to actually do precisely that: to go forth with one intent: to capture the ethereal and otherwordly on silver nitrate… or, these days, digitally.

Let’s face it, it’s probably going to be digital ghost-capturing now— which is a shame, in a romantic way; because there’s something so much more apt about spirit forms being ‘trapped’ on those old school light crystals. Maybe, we could postulate, pixels aren’t a suitable ‘home’ for spirit forms, and they are the round ethereal grain that won’t fit into a square hole? has a, perhaps, more practical theory about the benefits of digital versus film:

“Most ghost hunters today are using digital cameras because they are easier and less expensive to work with and easier to upload images to a computer for examination and editing. Plus, you can delete all the images that are not paranormal (which will be most of them). Novice ghost hunters prefer the digital camera to the old standard 35mm models because of the sheer amount of orbs that appear in many of the pictures with cheaper, point-and-shoot cameras.”

Yes, that’s right: if you’re going to spend days, or even weeks, in a moldy house in rural Connecticut, or in a swanky penthouse in New York (let’s not be biased… ghosts can live wherever they want… and if this writer came back in the afterlife, he’d definitely go for the latter option…), you’re going to spend a lot of time waiting. And your chances of capturing a ghost might increase, proportionately, if you can click off a lot of images, rather than running to the lab with a roll of “36- did we get anything?” shots from the inky darkness.

But, technique issues aside (let’s not even get started on infrared, or use of flash, or experimentation with different filters; or even start to open that can of ghoulish worms…) there is plenty of evidence, throughout the history of photography, that photographers have, indeed, claimed to have captured ghosts on film.

Self-portrait of William Mumler, showing himself and purportedly the ghost of his cousin.
Robert Bronner with the spirit of his wife.

William H.Mumler was the progenitor of such images, back in the 1860s… except that his credentials as an authentic ghost hunter do leave a little to be desired; seeing as his ‘discovery’ of a second person in one of his photographs turned out to be nothing more than a double exposure. This may have become a common phenomenon over the subsequent 150 years; but back then it must have seemed that, if you believed that photography was intrinsically “real,” then this must surely be proof of the netherworld!

Even Arthur Conan Doyle, the creator of “Sherlock Holmes” – a character known as a debunker of lies and fantasies – got into the act, and interpreted the infamous “Cottingley Fairies” photographs by Elsie Wright and Frances Griffiths [taken in Bradford in 1917] as clear and visible evidence of psychic phenomena.

But, I hear you say: “Those are just fairies?! And, anyway, in 1980, Elsie and Francis admitted that (most) of the pictures were fakes anyway, using cardboard cut-outs.  So let’s get back to those creepy ghosts!”

Well, according to if you’re going to put on your extra thick fingerless gloves, parka, night goggles, set up your EMF meters [electromotive force], and, even after that, be prepared to sit on a cold floor, then you might as well know what ‘kind’ of ghost that you’re looking for, as you peer into that dusty basement.

They fall into various categories: ghosts in ‘hot spots’ that (conversely) will give you chills; those that appear simply through a ‘gut feeling’ (this must be like a “lucky point and shoot” that wildlife photographers occasionally succumb to, after weeks of tracking, say a snow leopard?); sparkles and flares that usually appear 30 feet away from the camera; translucent circular or spherical shapes knows as “orbs”; or – the grail of grails! – “our old dear (dead) friend “ectoplasm.”

Whatever you might capture: whether it exists in this plane or the next; whether it is benign or malevolent; whether it wants to take you to another plane of existence, or merely lock you out of your children’s nursery whilst it drags them away to inky underworld; whether it glows like a fairy, or hums in the darkness like shingles in a rat; there is only one true, immutable, certainty betwixt this world and the next…

… make sure you get a model release.

And if it’s got to be signed in blood… but then, what else is new? Happy Halloween!

An image of Moses A. Dow, Editor of Waverley Magazine, with the spirit of Mabel Warren
An image of Moses A. Dow, Editor of Waverley Magazine, with the spirit of Mabel Warren.

Images reproduced with permission of the American Museum of Photography.

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