There’s something about a good ghost photograph — particularly ghost photographs from history — that I find phenomenally weird-looking. They’re just sort of… uncomfortable to look at. Maybe it has something to do with the stories behind them (because after all, a picture is worth a thousand words). Maybe it’s about the possibility of knowing there could be something around you that you can’t see with the naked eye. Or maybe it’s just the wrongness of the whole thing. But even knowing what we know about spirit photography today, there’s no denying that many ghost photos taken years, decades, or even centuries ago remain spooky even now.
By “what we know about spirit photograph today,” what I mean is the fact the origins of photography are steeped in fraud. William H. Mumler is usually credited with the popularization of spirit photography; following the discovery of a faint image of a girl present in a self-portrait he took in the early 1860s, the jewelry engraver and amateur photographer leaned incredibly far into the growing Spiritualist movement, claiming that he had the ability to capture ghosts of the deceased in his photographs.
He didn’t, of course; it’s long since been established that Mumler and other spirit photographers that followed him, including proven hoaxer William Hope, used a variety of in-camera editing techniques and other trickery to fake their spooky images. (You’d be amazed what you can do with a double exposure.) Mumler was actually put on trial for fraud in 1869, and although he was acquitted due to a lack of evidence, he was never quite able to regain his formerly robust reputation afterwards.
These days, of course, it’s easier than ever to fake a ghost photo; all it takes is a digital camera, some editing tools available for free on the internet, and a few clicks of a mouse to make it look as though a spirit has been captured in a photographic image. But even so, ghost photos — whether they’re recent creations or from long ago — still look spooky. Sometimes, just the sight of one is enough to send a shiver down your spine. Here are some notable examples that, honestly, I still don’t really like to spend a ton of time looking at — even if I know they’re probably not real.
1. The Brown Lady of Raynham Hall
In the fall of 1936, Hubert C. Provand and Indre Shira traveled to Raynham Hall, the opulent country house in Norfolk, England built in the 17th century known for being the seat of the Townshend family, in order to photograph it for Country Life magazine. The session began without incident — but while they were shooting the house’s central staircase, something curious happened: In between setups, Shira claimed to have spotted “an ethereal, veiled form coming slowly down the stairs.” Shira and Provand hurriedly snapped another shot — and when they developed it, they found themselves with what looked like a ghost on their hands.
The “spirit” in the photo is called the Brown Lady of Raynham Hall. She’s believed to be the ghost of Lady Dorothy Walpole, who married Charles, 2nd Viscount Townshend around 1713 and died under mysterious circumstances — possibly of smallpox, but possible not — in 1726. She’s been spotted in spectral form on and off around Raynham Hall since around 1835, but really shot to fame following the publication of Shira and Provand’s photograph in Country Life and Life magazines in 1936 and 1937, respectively.
Is it possible the photo is a hoax, or even just a fluke? Yes. Is it possible that we’ve misidentified the Brown Lady? Of course. Is it possible the Brown Lady doesn’t exist at all? Yep. But the photograph has gone on to become one of the most well-known spirit photographs of all time all the same — and honestly, it’s still spooky as heck.
2. The Amityville Ghost Boy
The house formerly located at 112 Ocean Avenue in Amityville, Long Island has seen a lot in the decades since it was first constructed — much of which is downright horrifying. It’s the site where, in 1974, Ronald DeFeo, Jr. murdered his entire family; DeFeo was found guilty on Nov. 21, 1975 and sentenced to six consecutive life sentences. It’s the site where, in December 1975 and January 1976, the Lutz family claimed to have been terrorized by malevolent, otherworldly forces. And it’s where, in March 1976, the photograph seen here was taken during an investigation of the house led by paranormal investigators Ed and Lorraine Warren.
Don’t see it? Look closer. Look into the open doorway on the left, just above the bannister. There’s the face of a boy there — a boy half hidden in shadow, but with white, glowing eyes.
There was, the Warrens claimed, no boy in the house at the time the photograph was taken. They believed the image to depict John Matthew DeFeo, who was nine years old at the time of his death at the hands of his older brother in 1974.
It’s worth noting that both the Lutz family’s story and many of the Warrens’ cases are… let’s call it controversial. Although the Lutzes’ experiences as chronicled in Jay Anson’s book The Amityville Horror and subsequently depicted in a hugely successful horror movie franchise are presented as fact, there’s evidence to suggest that it might have all been fabricated; meanwhile, the Warrens have been criticized numerous times for their methods. (At its mildest, the criticism terms them “nothing more than very good storytellers." Ed died in 2006, Lorraine in April of 2019.) As such, it’s possible that the Amityville ghost boy photograph — sometimes referred to as the “demonic boy” photograph — is also a hoax.
That doesn’t make it any less creepy-looking, of course.
3. The Girl In The Fire
In 1995, the market-town of Wem in Shropshire, England lost its town hall, which had originally been built in 1905, to a raging fire. But when photography hobbyist Tony O'Rahilly developed a picture he had taken of the town hall while it burned, he saw something downright spooky: The figure of a somber-faced girl peeking out from a doorway of the flaming building.
It was believed the girl in the photograph was Jane Churm, who, in 1677 at the age of 14, accidentally dropped a candle, thereby starting the most devastating fire Wem would ever see. According to the Wem Town Council, the fire destroyed nearly all of the wooden buildings in Wem and even melted the church bells. The Great Fire of Wem, as it’s known, caused more widespread destruction than the town had seen during the War of the Roses. Who else would appear in an image of the flames that took down Wem’s Town Hall more than 300 years later but Jane?
Despite the fact that O’Rahilly insisted the photo was real until the day he died (he passed away in 2005), though, the photo was soundly debunked in 2010: A reader of the Shropshire Star realized there was a shocking resemblance between an image of a girl visible in a postcard from 1922 the paper had recently reproduced at the time and the image of the girl in O’Rahilly’s photograph. Later analysis has confirmed not only that it’s likely the Wem Town Hall ghost photograph was the result of photo manipulation, but also that the girl seen in the fiery door is, in fact, the girl from the 1922 postcard.
It’s still an incredibly unsettling image, though.
4. The Ghost Of Goddard’s Squadron
Air Marshal Victor Goddard was known as much for his distinguished career in the Royal Air Force as he was for his interest in the paranormal. He claimed, for example to have experienced a clairvoyant episode in 1935 — or possibly a time slip — during which he reportedly saw the then-disused Drem airfield as it would later appear in 1939, after the airfield come back into use. In 1975, he published a book, Flight Towards Reality, discussing this alleged time slip, as well as his wider views on paranormal phenomena.
In the book, he also described the photograph seen here — hence why it’s often known as the “Goddard’s Squadron” photograph. Depicting a large group of servicepeople, the photo, which Blake Smith of Skeptic Magazine reports was taken in November of 1918 (not 1919, as is commonly believed) at a training facility then known as HMS Daedalus and now called RNAS Lee-on-Solent, also contained something mysterious: Lurking behind the fourth airman from the left was the ghostly image of an additional face, which Goddard wrote was identified by the squadron members who had posed for the photograph as an air mechanic named Freddy Jackson. “Capless and smiling, his face being partly hidden by another, his expression seemed to say, ‘My goodness me — I nearly failed to make it! … They didn’t wait, or leave a place for me, the blighters!’”, wrote Goddard.
There was just one problem: Jackson was dead. As Goddard described it, “Freddy Jackson had, upon that very spot — the Squadron tarmac [where the photograph was taken] — three days before, walked heedlessly into the whirling propeller of an aeroplane. He had been killed stone dead instantly.”
As Blake Smith discovered in 2015 thanks to a tip from a reader, there actually was a Freddy Jackson in the RAF whose story kind of lines up with the one that Goddard described. We even have record of his death: According to record 671581, registry number 591269, George Frederick Jackson of the R.A.F. Aeroplane Repair Section died on April 13, 1918 at a hospital in Sheffield.
There are some glaring difference between George Frederick Jackson’s story and Goddard’s, of course — Sheffield is several hundred miles away from Lee-on-Solent; the date of death is seven months prior to the photograph’s date, not three days; and this Jackson died at hospital, not on the tarmac — but the similarities are still eerie. The jury’s still out on whether this one is real or not.
5. The Tulip Staircase Spirit
Commissioned by Anne of Denmark in 1616 and designed by Inigo Jones, the building wasn’t actually completed until 1636; it did, however, serve as a residence for members of the Royal Family until 1805. At that point, it became the home of the Royal Naval Asylum charity before ultimately being taken over by the National Maritime Museum in 1934. Spiraling up through the center of the building is the Tulip Staircase — a beautiful and unique staircase which bears the distinction of being “the first geometric, centrally unsupported staircase built in Britain,” per the travel site Full Suitcase.
But it’s not just a technological and design marvel; it’s also the spot where one of history’s most iconic ghost photographs was taken.
The picture was shot by a retired Canadian reverend and his wife when they were visiting the Queen’s House in 1966. The Tulip Staircase is a popular photo op, due to its stunning appearance, so naturally, the couple snapped a shot of it during their visit. They noticed nothing amiss at the time — but when they developed the photograph after they had returned home, they saw… that. A shrouded figure climbing up the staircase. Possibly chasing after one to two additional figures.
No one knows who the figures might be or how they ended up in the photograph, but it’s generally agreed upon by experts who have examine the photo that the image isn’t a hoax. Of course, we also don’t know exactly what it is — whether it actually captured a spirit, or whether it’s just a weird photographic anomaly — but to be honest, that just makes the whole thing spookier.
6. The Newby Monk
The Church of Christ the Consoler at Newby Hall in North Yorkshire is young, relatively speaking; it was built in the 1870s. Its history, though, is still quite eerie: It was built using ransom money original raised to secure the safe return of Frederick Vyner, who was kidnapped in 1870 at the age of 23 and killed before the ransom could be offered. His mother, Lady Mary Vyner, used the funds to build this church as a memorial to her son.
The church was barely a century old when Reverend Kenneth F. Lord took this photograph of its altar in 1963 — and found when he developed it that the altar wasn’t as empty as it had appeared when he snapped the picture: Hovering on the right-hand side of the image was an unnaturally tall figure dressed in dark robes. The specter’s face was particularly odd-looking, almost appearing as if it were melting; however, it also could just have been shrouded by a mask or piece of cloth. Not that that’s, y’know, any less creepy — it’s just creepy in a different way.
In any event, the figure’s robed appearance led some to assume it was the spirit of a monk; the subject of the photograph, therefore, has become largely known as the Newby Monk, although it might also be referred to as the Specter of Newby Church. Experts who have examined the photograph are often at odds with each other; some claim there’s no evidence of tampering, while others chalk the image up to a good old-fashioned double exposure. Whether it’s a fake, an accident, or actually real, though, it’s… hard to get that melting face out of your head once you’ve seen it.
7. The Veiled Spirit
This photograph was taken by William Hope in 1920 — which means we already know one very specific thing about it: It’s absolutely a hoax. Hope was born around the time that William H. Mumler was just starting his lucrative spirit photography hoaxing business, but his career path mirrored that of the “founder” of spirit photography: He specialized in a trade other than photography (carpentry, in this case), claimed to have gained an interest in spirit photography after finding an alleged “spirit” in a photograph he had taken (this time of a friend, rather than of himself), plied his trade during a time of great grief (immediately following the First World War), and was eventually revealed as a fraud. Hope wasn’t put on trial, but the tricks of his trade were exposed in a feature in Scientific American in 1922. Even so, though, he continued to make his false ghost images until his death in 1933.
But even though it’s well known that Hope’s photos are as fake as Mumler’s, Hope’s somehow also strike me as substantially eerier than Mumler’s. Whereas the “spirits” in Mumler’s images just sort of look like the faint impressions of regular people (which, to be fair, is exactly what they were), the “spirits” in Hope’s images appear much more tragic. They’re somber, serious, and — to be honest — look as if they’re in a great deal of emotional pain. The image seen here, which is usually described as “elderly couple with a young female spirit,” really freaks me out; the “young female spirit” looks downright malevolent.
8. The Watcher Of Corroboree Rock
The rock formation near Alice Springs, Australia known as Corroboree Rock is made of dolomite; formed more than 800 million years ago, it’s considered a sacred site by the Arrernte Aboriginal people. With that much history behind it — and that much importance assigned to it — it’s perhaps to be expected that it would have... something watching over it.
That’s what the spirit is called: The Watcher of Corroboree Rock. No one really knows exactly who or what it is, but the one photo we have of it — the one seen here — dates back to the 1950s. In either 1956 or 1959 (reports vary), a Presbyterian minister from Adelaide snapped the photo during a visit to the rock formation, and it’s been puzzling people ever since. According to the minister, Reverend R.S. Blance, there was no one around when took the photograph; however, when he developed it, the ghostly figure now seen in the image appeared. It’s not known whether the photo is a hoax, the result of something wonky happening when the photo was taken, or actually real — and opinions differ on it as greatly as they do about the existence of ghosts more broadly.
That’s the thing with ghost photos, though; whether they’re fakes or real, they’re always — always — spooky to look at. I wouldn’t go so far as to say the camera never lies… but maybe it tells us more about the things that scare us than you might think.
So: The next time you find yourself somewhere with a history, why not take out your phone and snap a picture or two? You never know what you might find in the image when you go back to look at it later.