Haunted Photographs

A friend took a photograph of me through the window of the coffee bar where I stop on the way home from the gym most mornings. My image, coffee mug in hand, floats in the mirror reversed reflections of New York street life — a couple of trees, a car, the sign for a parking garage, scaffolding, buildings, a van with a ladder and pedestrians. I like the photo because I appear to be less solid than the reversed objects on the other side of the glass. It’s as if I’m a ghost hovering in space.

Haunted photos have been around since the earliest days of photography. A few years ago I saw an amazing show at the Metropolitan Museum of Art called ‘The Perfect Medium; Photography and the Occult.’ I went back to see the show a second time and bought a stack of postcards. I even got the exhibit catalog.

As early as the 1850s people were astonished by the presence of otherworldly images in photographs and it didn’t take long for a few less than scrupulous photographers to capitalize on the desire to communicate with lost loved ones.

Tricks of light could be manipulated and specialists in spirit photography began to market their new service. William H. Mumler was the foremost of these photographers. It helped that this was during a period of serious interest in the occult. The Fox sisters were rapping — on tables communicating with the dead — and other famous mediums were in demand. By the end of the Civil War in 1865, it wasn’t hard to find a spirit photographer willing to create an image of your dead soldier husband or son that would be suitable for framing.

By the 1870s the sprit photography trend arrived in Europe. Frederick Hudson in London and Édouard Isidore Buguet in Paris were very popular. This is not to say that everyone was on board. There were several court cases concerning fraud. WWI gave spirit photography a revival, despite the negative publicity. Death by the millions was the impetus.

Sir Arthur Canon Doyle played a role in a pivotal spirit photography controversy when he wrote a book, “The Coming of the Fairies” (1921), in which he expressed his support of fairy photos that were proven to be a hoax decades later. His belief in spiritualism in general may have started with despair after the loss of his brother and friends in the war. It definitely threw a wrench into his friendship with Harry Houdini — a great debunker of all things magical.

The creator of the most logical fictional character, Sherlock Holmes, wanted to believe that photography was a medium that could act as a spiritual medium and assure him that the spirits of the dead still roamed.


  1. Metan

    Great post, you have inspired me to look for some old articles about spirit photography now!

    One of my favourite magazines is The Fortean Times and people often send in their photos with unexpected ghostly figures in them. People love the strange, we are no exception are we!!

  2. One of the things I love about being human is our amazing capacity to co-exist with paradox. I see myself as a logical person yet I can still believe that ‘everything will turn out for the best in the end’. Must be that left brain, right brain thing.

    • Candy

      Isn’t there a saying about it all coming out good in the end. And if it’s not good, it’s not the end….

      • I haven’t heard that one before but yes, that is exactly how I feel about it. I’m not a fatalist but I do believe that we are constantly being bombarded with opportunities. When we become too fixated on one outcome we become blind to all the other options out there. As I get older I’m learning to let go of things that refuse to work so I can ‘see’ other possibilities that may. In my experience these ‘other possibilities’ often turn out to be far better ‘in the end’!

        • Candy

          It’s like triage — you have to pick where you put your energy while being open to the surprises, as they are often the best things that happen.

          I’m sure I’m not alone among fiction writers in having experienced surprises at what my characters have said or done while I was writing. If I were more spiritually inclined, I’d likely say that I was possessed, but… I’ll go with some far region of my brain communicating with me at the keyboard.

          There are more things on heaven and earth, Horatio, but a whole lot of them are in our imaginations.