New “Ghost” at Hampton’s Court

March 4, 2015

At England's Hampton Court Palace, in Middlesex, “ghosts” are always welcome, whatever their true nature. Recently 12-year-old Holly Hampsheir captured a strange figure on her iPhone—as she and her cousin of the same age noticed the following day, while perusing their images. Was it the fabled ghost of the Grey Lady? asked the tabloid Daily Mail. Or was it something else? as I was asked by Alan Boyle of NBC News.

I promptly studied the image with colleague Tom Flynn, a CFI photographer and videographer with expertise in special effects. After some brainstorming back-and-forth, we developed an hypothesis. In a nutshell, as I told NBC's Boyle, “We think that this is consistent with a person in a period-style costume who has walked into the picture. I’m going to assume the girls didn’t stage this.”

Unlike the ethereal ghosts or spirits in photographs of yore, this figure appears entirely solid. Even the British tabloid admitted, “. . . the woman seems real enough in the picture.” However, the next photo taken showed no sign of the supposed ghostly visitor, although that would be the case if the intruder had continued walking. She need not have been noticed, since one girl faced away and the other was busy with her camera. The highlights on the lady’s hair and the shadows in the folds of her dress reveal the effects of light sources, at least two of which are apparent in the photos: the cool white streaming in from the window at the left, and the yellow incandescence of the chandelier's “candles.”

Either the “ghost” is an actual person, or we must believe that a “life energy” (unknown to science) not only emanates from corpses, but fails to dissipate (like real energy does when its source is cut off), that it indeed retains the shape of its former bodily abode—not only the living portions but inanimate ones, like clothing, as well—and that it even functions without benefit of the physical organ known as the brain! (Pause here to consider the dictum known as Occam's razor, that the hypothesis with the fewest assumptions is to be preferred.)

Some see in the palace “ghost” a distortion of the image, an elongation that—if actually present—is attributable to the iPhone’s panorama function. On his website, Metabunk.org, Mick West demonstrates this type of glitch in detail. It illustrates—as I told NBC’s intrepid reporter Boyle—how ghost photos have changed over time.

The earliest photos—daguerreotypes, ambrotypes, and tintypes—showed no ghosts, but when glass-plate negatives made double exposure possible, “spirit” photos (some accidental, most deliberately faked) began to appear. “Ghost” photos proliferated after portable cameras were put in the hands of amateurs in the 1880s, and especially when celluloid roll film became available at the end of that decade. Almost any photo anomaly might be called paranormal whether caused by some glitch (e.g., light leakage from a pinhole in a camera’s bellows) or by deliberate trickery, whether by camera, staged scene, or darkroom manipulation. In modern times, the built-in flash of small cameras bounced light from intruding objects—like dust particles, to create the ghost hunters’ “orbs,” or from wandering fingertips, camera straps, etc., to produce other mysterious effects. As well, digital cameras, computer programs, and human attention seekers help make clever “fauxtographs” easy to create.

(For more on photos and the paranormal, see Tom Flynn’s entry “Photography” in Gordon Stein's The Encyclopedia of the Paranormal, 1996, and my books, Camera Clues, 1994, and The Science of Ghosts, 2012.)

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