Spirit Photography (Or, Ghosts On Film)

In the 1860s, William H. Mumler found something strange in one of his photographs: the ghostly image of someone who had not been with him at the time the picture was taken.

Of course, he later found that this was actually the result of double exposure…but his initial reaction to the haunting visage gave him a conniving idea: he could use double exposure to add “ghosts” of the dead to pictures of mourning loved ones!

William Hope Spirit Photography

So Mumler became a medium, snapping pictures of individuals and adding “specters” of the deceased into them…for fun and profit. Spirit photography was born. 

Unfortunately for Mumler, his work ended when he mistakenly put living people into a set of photos, claiming they were spirits.


However, spirit photography did not die that day (heh).

It existed in its original incarnation — photographs of morose and misty specters lurking behind seated family members — for several years.

Photographer William Hope, for example, continued the strange “business,” even when his own photographs were revealed as frauds. The practice even had support from Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, who was himself an ardent spiritualist.

Spirit Photography

Spirit Photography

Spirit Photography

Other examples of spirit photography include the strange ectoplasm found in the images of mediums, usually “pouring” out of their mouths.

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, however, described it as “a viscous, gelatinous substance which appeared to differ from every known form of matter in that it could solidify and be used for material purposes.” Allegedly, mediums excreted the ectoplasm from their bodies as they channeled spirits from the other side.

And, of course, there’s the famous photograph of the Brown Lady of Raynham Hall. But let’s save her for later, huh?


Today, I suppose spirit photography lives on in those pictures of orbs and ethereal drapes of light in the air.

Ghost Orbs
Image: Flickr/Stephanie Clifford via CC by 2.0

Some even claim to receive ghostly messages on Polaroids, as seen in the video below:

Using photography as evidence of spirits is compelling, but naturally unreliable. I don’t think I need to mention photo manipulation, but even without Photoshop, we tend to see what we want to see.

Pareidolia, the power of suggestion. We can’t always rely on our own eyes, and we can’t always trust the people we most want to believe.

Some pictures, though…

The Ghost In The Fire

Rob Schwarz

Writer, blogger, and part-time peddler of mysterious tales. Editor-in-chief of Stranger Dimensions.