‘Ghostly figures’ in St. Nicholas’s Churchyard

I was passing St. Nicholas’s churchyard, one night this week, when I glimpsed a procession of sinister-looking hooded figures moving quickly through the darkness in the middle distance.

In local folklore, the churchyard is associated with sightings of a ghostly ship out at sea and the apparition of a horse and rider (Murdie, pp. 85-7). I’ve not come across any reports of cowled figures in the churchyard, although it was the prospect of miscreants in hoodies that sprang more readily to my mind than any ‘phantom monks’.

optical illusion

‘Moving’ shapes and their ‘trajectory’.

After stopping for a moment to investigate, it became clear what the cause of the ‘figures’ had been: an optical illusion caused by railings around one of the graves.

As I had walked downhill, the change in perspective had caused ‘interference patterns’ between the railings on the near and far-side of the grave, creating an impression of dark shapes moving in the same direction as myself. The proximity of a street-lamp had heightened the contrast between the illuminated railings and the dark areas in-between. My mind had done the rest, interpreting the moving shapes as human figures scurrying through the middle-distance.

The grave of Martha Gunn.

The grave of Martha Gunn, Church of St. Nicholas, Brighton.

When I took a closer look the following morning, I realised the grave earns its railings from bearing the name of Martha Gunn, a famous character from Brighton’s Regency heyday. On passing the cemetery again the next evening, I noticed that the optical illusion was still visible, so I decided to attempt a video.

Although the result from the video footage, below, is not as stark as the illusion appears in real-life, it is good enough to give a general idea. The effect is more apparent when the image is at a smaller size, rather than full-screen.

I doubt that anyone will view this and see what I saw originally – a procession of sinister-looking black figures hurrying across the churchyard – but I think it’s good enough to stand as an interesting example of how a simple optical effect can be seized upon by the mind and transmuted into something otherworldly.

And if I ever do encounter any eye-witness reports of black-robed monks in St. Nicholas’s churchyard, then I’ll have a hypothesis ready to hand.


Alan Murdie, Haunted Brighton (Stroud: Tempus, 2006).