It is said that a picture is worth a thousand words, and I suppose there was a time when that was true, but in this day and age, photos are often only worth the effort someone put in to touch them up and alter them. With the dawn of digital photography and digital manipulation such as Photoshop, you never really are sure what you are looking at. Our technology has allowed us to show whatever we want in a photograph, to mislead and deceive, and whereas once a photo could be used as evidence of something real this has certainly changed with the evolution of technology. This can certainly be felt in the world of the paranormal, where the ubiquitous presence of photo trickery has made photographs of little use at all, with cries of “fake” or “photoshop” immediate, and no one sure whether to believe what they see anymore. Yet there was a time when pictures were captured on real film, with negatives that could be examined, and there was no CGI to muddy the waters, when a photograph could be reasonably relied upon to be an accurate representation of what it showed. Here we look at some of the most famous photographs of the paranormal from this golden era before Photoshop and CG manipulation, to a time when photographs could still be mysterious.
Our earliest photo here dates all the way back to 1919, the year in which a mechanic with the Royal Air Force named Freddie Jackson was killed during World War I aboard the HMS Daedalus, when he was hit by an airplane propeller in a tragic freak accident. Two days later his funeral was held, and his squadron gathered for a group photograph on the ship. When the photograph was developed, it was noticed that amongst them, standing behind the fourth airman from the left in the back row, was the faint yet unmistakable image of Freddie’s face, as if he were joining in the photo op even from beyond the grave. The mysterious photo has been accused of being a hoax in later years, but it certainly is creepy and ranks among some of the best historic ghost photos.
Also related to the war is a photo that begins with the tale of two seamen named James Courtney and Michael Meehan, who served as crew members aboard the S.S. Watertown. In December of 1924 they tragically died while cleaning a cargo tank, when there was a gas leak and they were overcome by the lethal fumes. They were given an honorable burial at sea, but this was not the last anyone would see of them. In the following days many of the crew aboard the ship and even the captain himself saw the ghostly faces of the dead men hovering under the waves. On one occasion the faces were so clear and distinct that a photograph was taken of them, and although it could be just an illusion there seems to be two very clear human faces visible in the photograph. The photograph was found to not have been tampered with in anyway, so what are we looking at here?
Another classic historic ghost photo was taken in 1936 by some photographers from Country Life magazine. They had apparently been taking pictures of the 17th century Raynham Hall in Norfolk, England, and at one point photographer Captain Hubert Provand was preparing to take a picture of the grand staircase on the premises when an assistant saw a ghostly figure come gliding down the stairs. The photographer himself had not actually seen it, as he had been too absorbed with setting up and taking his photo, but when the film was developed sure enough there was a white, spectral figure of what looks like a veiled woman in period clothing. Interestingly, the hall is said to be haunted by the ghost of a woman named Lady Dorothy Townshend who died here of small pox in 1726, and it is believed that this could be an actual photo of her spirit. It has been shown that the photograph was not tampered with in any way, so whether it shows a ghost or not, the so-called “Brown Lady” has become one of the most famous ghost images there is.
A rather creepy and perhaps lesser known photograph of an alleged ghost was taken at a cemetery in 1947 by a Mrs. Andrews. The woman had been taking a picture of the grave of her dead daughter, no one else had been there, yet when the film was developed there appeared what looks like a spectral child sitting atop the grave. Making it even spookier is that Mrs. Andrews claimed that the figure was not her daughter, and in fact no one she recognized at all, meaning that if it is indeed a ghost, then it was that of an unidentified child from one of the nearby graves. The child in the photo was never identified, and it remains a rather unsettling photograph, ghost or not.
From the 1950s comes another quite widely known supposed ghost photo, allegedly taken at the Texas home of the Cooper family on the day they moved in. On this day, Mrs Cooper, grandma Cooper and both children had a family photograph taken with them sitting around a table. At the time it was just a normal family portrait, and there was really nothing odd about it at all, but the family was shocked when the film was developed and seemed to show a spectral form seemingly falling down from the ceiling above as if hanging by its legs. The photograph has been open to much criticism since it was first made public in 2009, with theories including that it is actually a modern clever fake, or that it was actually the ghost of a previous owner. Another idea is that it is simply an example of an anomalous looking double exposure, but the debate rages on, and it has become one of the most well known ghost photos despite the questions swirling behind its authenticity.
From 1959 there is also the iconic photo typically labelled “The Back Seat Ghost,” taken by a Mrs. Mabel Chinnery in England. At the time her and her husband had been been at a cemetery and Chinnery took a picture of him sitting in their car. As with many of these other stories, when the photo was developed they were shocked to see a mysterious figure sitting in the back seat when no one else had been in the car at the time. What’s more, the figure was claimed to Mrs. Chinnery’s mother, Ellen Hammell, who had died very recently and incidentally whose grave they were at. The resulting image has been picked apart and debated for decades, with believers insisting that it could not have been faked or the result of double exposure, a reflection in the window, or camera tricks, while skeptics say that is exactly what it is, saying that the picture of the husband in the car could have been taken over a photograph of Hammell from when she was still alive taken on the same roll of film. A very good skeptical breakdown of the infamous photo can be seen here. However, the Back Seat Ghost photograph is still very much discussed, with many insisting that it is the real deal. What do you think it shows?
Moving on to the following decade we have the famous photo taken at the Church of Christ the Consoler, on the grounds of Newby Hall in North Yorkshire, England. In 1963, a Rev. KF Lord was visiting the church and took a picture that turned out to hold a rather haunting figure in it when exposed. The picture itself was of an altar, and in the picture a towering spectral robed figure can be seen lurking off to the side, with some sort of mask or shroud over its face. The photo has been debated quite a lot, and is suspected of being a hoax as it looks very staged, but no one really knows for sure.
Also in the 1960s is one taken by a Rev. Ralph Hardy at the the Queen’s House section of the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich, England. Hardy had been visiting the location in 1966 from his hometown of White Rock, British Columbia, and had been taking many photographs of the historic place. At one point he snapped a picture of a spiral staircase called “The Tulip Staircase,” and at the time there was nothing amiss. It would not be until he had returned home when a friend pointed out a blurry figure in the photo that appears to be climbing up the staircase. Hardy was rather startled because he was certain there had been no one else there at the time he had taken the photo, and the original negative was subjected to analysis by experts at Kodak, who found it to be un-doctored and untampered with. What does this photo show? Who knows?
Moving on into later years we have a fairly controversial ghost photo taken by paranormal investigators Ed and Lorraine Warren in 1976. At the time they had been investigating the famous Amityville House, where there had once been a family called the DeFeos who had all been murdered by one of the children. The Warrens claimed that they had set up infrared cameras to take sporadic pictures all night, and one of these photos picked up what is claimed to be the ghost of 9-year-old murder victim John DeFeo standing by an upstairs railing. The Warrens have insisted there was no one in the house except them at the time, but of course considering the whole Amityville Horror story has been picked apart as a hoax in recent years the photo is met with its share of raised eyebrows, yet it still manages to be very creepy and much discussed.
Although we have been mostly looking at ghost photographs so far here, there are also other various historical photos that move more into the realm of aliens and UFOs. By far the most famous of these is perhaps one taken on February 25, 1942. On this evening air raid sirens all over the city of Los Angeles, California began blaring, followed by a fierce barrage of anti-aircraft fire. Considering that the United States had just entered World War II just months before, this was thought by the terrified populace to be an enemy attack launched by the Japanese. Although officials would later claim that “The Battle of Los Angeles” had been the result of a false alarm and jumpy nerves, of course conspiracy theorists have said that not only is this a cover-up, but that it was not the Japanese at all, but rather UFOs. A very famous image used as evidence of this is one circulated in the news at the time which purportedly shows spotlights converging on a UFO in the sky over Los Angeles as tracer fire erupts everywhere. The image has been debated and discussed for years, and although accused of being touched up and hoaxed, still often gets placed on lists of iconic UFO images. Just what is it we are looking at here?
Besides UFOs themselves, there is also a well-known photo of the survivor of a supposed UFO attack. In 1967, Stefan Michalak was out at Falcon Lake, in Canada, when he claimed he had come across a UFO landed in the woods, which he approached only to be knocked down and badly burned in a strange pattern when it shot off into the sky. He would be hospitalized and exhibit symptoms consistent with radiation poison, and the source of the burns could never be determined. The photo shows Michalak in bed with his unidentified burns and injuries.
Even more outlandish than any of these photos so far is one which was for years buried away within the archives of NASA photos. In this case the photograph in question is from the Apollo 17 moon landings in 1972, when astronauts Eugene A. Cernan, Harrison H. Schmitt and Ronald E. Evans carried out their mission on the surface with the aid of a rover near a place called Geophone Rock. They took numerous photos of the moon’s surface during their dangerous mission, and this particular photo was written off as an overexposed “blank” at the time, as it seemed to show nothing but a solid background. Yet some curious photo enthusiasts cleared up the contrast and found that in reality the photo seems to show what looks like a pyramid structure. This was immediately jumped on by some in the UFO community as proof of aliens on the moon, but the photograph has been subject to much scrutiny, and accused of being simply an overexposed accidental shot of the rover itself, a compelling argument for which can be read here. Whatever it is at least looks weird nevertheless.
It is interesting to note that with the eras in which these photos were taken, photographs were still mostly seen as reliable evidence for what they showed, at least more so than they are now. This was before the days when every supposed paranormal photograph was instantly decried as fake or photoshopped, and before the age of digital photography it was a lot harder to convincingly tamper with or doctor physical photographic negatives. Pictures carried more weight, but nevertheless there were still people willing to try hoaxes anyway, and they had plenty of other problems inherit to their technology, such as overexposures and double exposures. In the end, whether any of these older paranormal photographs really show anything mysterious or not, they are still intriguing to think about, and interesting relics from a bygone age of photographing the strange.