Ghosts looked better back in the 80s!

I was reading through a book, Great Hauntings, a collection of articles taken from a classic part-work called The Unexplained, which appeared in weekly instalments back in 1980-83. What struck me most was how much photographs of ghosts have changed since then.

The photos in the book date back even earlier, of course, but standards then seemed so much higher! In the 80s, ghosts actually looked like people. They weren’t the blobby orbs, fuzzy mists or blurry bars that pass for ghosts today.

They’re not really any more convincing, either. Before the era of digital camera artefacts, ghost photos were more likely to be explained by lens flare, people walking in on a slow exposure, or pareidolia.

Check out these three classic examples.

The ghost in the library at Combermere Abbey.

The library at Combermere Abbey, Cheshire. Check out the ‘figure’ in the chair, identified as Lord Combermere, who was being buried at the time the photo was taken. The photo was taken in 1891 when exposure times were very slow, and someone may simply have sat in the chair.

The ghost in the church at Eastry.

1956, Eastry, Kent. An afficionado of church architecture takes this photograph and produces an image of a ghostly vicar, complete with specs and dog collar. Another double exposure, or maybe even a combination of the wood-grain and sunlight on the pews?

The ghost of St Mary's Church, Woodford.

St Mary’s Church, Woodford, Northamptonshire. This kneeling figure is described by some as a monk or knight, but others have suggested a cleaning lady. (Indeed, is that a bucket to the figure’s right?)

It’s odd that we’ve now come to accept as ‘ghosts’ images that look nothing like people. The finger of blame (as for so much else that has gone awry in the paranormal field) should perhaps be pointed at paranormal TV shows. On a TV programme you need results, and orbs and shapeless blobs are so much easier to reproduce than an effect that actually looks like someone. They’re also easier for people to replicate at home.

The near-death researcher Raymond Moody argued that in our culture the paranormal tends to become entertainment. This process is so inexorable, it seems, that we’ve landed today in this bizarre position, where ‘ghosts’ look nothing like the dead people they’re supposed to be. Yet as long as they can be reproduced by anyone on digital media, with only a little effort, then we’re all having too much fun to care.