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:
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.
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.