Photographing Ghosts


Proof positive that I have never captured a ghost on camera

You’d think the spirit world would be camera-shy, wouldn’t you?

But no. Given half a chance they’re up there in front of a lens showing their best side. Ghost photos are many and varied and a brief Google search will prove gratifyingly horrifying and disturbing.

But most of them are proven to be smoke and mirrors. In fact, the very obvious cut-and-paste nature of so many is what gives them away. They are out of perspective, their scale is out of whack. We believe them if we want to, because it’s a good yarn, but in doing so we overlook everything we know about photography in the natural world.

But some are more clever. I’ll show you what I mean.

Wem, in Shropshire. Population: 5,142; named after old English marshes, and famous for the ale it supplied to England for centuries. Wem, part of hanging Judge Jeffries’ patch, James I’s  noose-happy Lord Chancellor. And it was on Jeffrey’s watch that the town was ravaged by a terrible fire.

It started at the upper end of Leek Lane: and according to a contemporary account by Samuel Garbet, it was an accident-prone young lady who started it. “It was occasioned by the carelessness of a girl, about fourteen years of age, called, Jane Churm, who went up stairs to fetch some fuel kept under a bed, in order to make a good fire against the return of her sister, Catharine Morris, of the New-street, who was washing linen at Oliver’s well,” Garbet writes.

“The inconsiderate girl whilst she was gathering the sticks together, stuck her candle in a twig that encompassed a spar, when catching the thatch, it set the house in flames; which being agitated by a violent tempestuous wind, soon defied all human means to extinguish them.”

It was tinder-dry: I can find no record of anyone being hurt but outraged Mr Garbet records that the cost to the town was a monstrous £23,677. 3s. 1d.

Wem has had other fires. One of the most recent was that at Wem Town Hall in 1995; and watching at a distance, across the street, with a 200mm zoom lens,was local photographer  Tony O’ Rahilly.

The results of the evening’s excursion were highly unsettling:



So everyone went bananas, and people were asking, is that wraith Jane Churm? The photograph was sent to Association for the Scientific Study of Anomalous Phenomena, who sent it to Dr. Vernon Harrison, former president of the Royal Photographic Society. And he confirmed it had not been doctored.

But he did add that smoke could make strange shapes, and maybe Jane was just a trick of the light.

Technology forged ahead: and techniques for analysing photography were honed and bettered. And in 2010, the Shropshire star published an old postcard in its nostalgia section. A photograph from 1922, some 245 years after the great Wem fire:

Photograph from Shropshire Star

Photograph from Shropshire Star

See her? The girl on the left in the white dress and mop cap?

Curious, isn’t it, the resemblance? And that’s what local investigators thought. And they started playing with the original image. I urge you to try this link: it’s an interactive image of the ghost. You can fade her in and out of the picture. Photographers discovered horizontal lines on the face of the ghost which simply should not be there.

Naughty Tony.

Ghostly pictures are so elusive that we make most of them up.

But are they all forged, every last one?

Written in response to Side View’s theme: That Elusive Photograph: which you can find here.


42 thoughts on “Photographing Ghosts

  1. I followed your link and I also enlarged the photo taken at the fire.

    There is a remarkable resemblance between the two faces so much so that I now believe in ghosts..

    Whether or not I still believe in them tomorrow morning is another thing, but it’s great fun for which I thank you 🙂

  2. I remember doing about the Wem Fire when we were in Primary School ( we lived in Cockshut) at the time, but I’d forgotten all about it until today. Thanks Kate

    1. Cockshutt. Now there’s a name to wrestle with. Even more when you include it in Cockshutt-Cum-Petton. I must get a better etymological dictionary: mine draws a blank on the names!
      I digress; Samuel Garbet must have been a must-read for local history studies round your way. Fascinating stuff- I’d love to know more about the rebuilding after the fire.

  3. I think all of them are forged or tricks of light and shade. Which doesn’t necessarily invalidate the possibility of spectres, because one would expect that perception of them could quite possibly go beyond a physical plane.

    1. There are a few which have not yet been explained away, Tammy, I believe, though I have no examples. And you should take a look at Nancy’s comment below….she has just such a photo….

  4. Very convincing photos, Kate, even so.
    I love your forest photo as well. I always see faces within leaves, and there are many peering out from those bushes on the right. At the top of them, is a very clear, smiling face. You may not have caught a ghost in the photo, but you’ve certainly captured the Spirit of the Tree!

    1. What a lovely thought, Tom! The place I took it – my forest – is reputedly haunted, but I have rarely felt anything other than companionable there. We have Herne The Hunter, and the marching feet of Roman legions and all sorts. But I have been there in the dark, and always felt just fine.

  5. I took a photo of BFF on a clear day on the coast of Maine. When the film came back from the developer, there was a foggy apparition “standing” beside BFF. It had not been visible when I snapped the shot. 😯

      1. Sorry, Kate. No luck. I’ve gone through a number of our photo albums on years I know we went to Maine. And I can’t find it. Either I’m looking at the wrong years, or it never made it into the photo albums.

        I’ll keep one eye open for it on future forays and will share if I find it.

  6. I’ve never believed in ghosts and think all such images are just tricks of light or some such. Natural, logical explanations for all of them, including fakery. The interactive images of the little girl — to me they look identical, and hence faked. Perhaps by the man who “discovered” the resemblance?

  7. Kate, I have to believe some of these images are real. I say you should go back to the Hampton Court one, because that was a spooky image.

    I also love the forest photo.

    1. It would certainly be much harder to doctor Hampton Court security footage, Andra, you have a point. It just seemed so incrediblt obvious to me. Though why I should expect people to be obvious before death and not afterwards, I’m not entirely sure.

  8. Very good Kate – whilst I believe ghosts exist, I feel that the vast majority of images of ghosts are engineered. They take full advantage of what people wish to see/believe. I watched a programme on BBC a few years back about UFO’s which included footage of videos taken by UFO fans. One classic was a cigar shaped craft at high altitude. It was quoted as an unexplained object. Sorry, but I and probably every other aircraft enthusiast watching would have identified it as a DC-9 / MD-80 at high altitude. The fuselage of those aircraft is finished gloss while the wings are matt and disappear visually in bright sunlight. You want to see a spaceship, you see one! Ghost images are much the same – playing on what people want to believe. I’m not sure that ghosts comply with the physics necessary to become an image on film or digital sensor anyway 😉

  9. I do believe in ghosts. My maternal grandfather saw one when he was riding with friends over a bridge. My Mom’s description of the event was quite unsettling.

    So, can you capture one on film? I don’t know, but I’d agree that the photo does appear to be doctored. (I agree that your forest pic does have a haunting look. Wouldn’t want to walk thru there on a foggy night.)

  10. First off, your photo is atmospherically beautiful, Kate. I can imagine a ghost rising out of your forest. Wonderful.

    I don’t know if that is the ghost of Jane Churm in the picture, but, it is an eerie picture at that! Love you ghostly posts, dear Kate.

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