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Chasing phantoms on film

Twentieth Century Fox
Click for video: Watch a spooky
scene from the movie "Shutter."

For more than a century, photographers have been capturing spooky stuff on film: semi-transparent figures standing in the cemetery, for example, or glowing clouds of "ectoplasm" above a seance table, or orbs floating in a forest, or arcs of light encircling someone's head.

Ghostly pictures play a key role in the plot for the horror flick "Shutter" - and the movie's producers are asking people to upload their own spirit photographs. Is there anything substantial behind the spookiness?

Even the people who take spirit photography seriously admit that most cases can be explained away as hoaxes or optical glitches. "I'd say 95 percent of it is just crap," said Barry Taff, a psychophysiologist who played a part in one of the most celebrated cases of the past 50 years.

Back in 1974, Taff and other researchers were called in to investigate the case of a single mother in Culver City, Calif., who said she was being tortured by a demonic supernatural being. The investigation team saw flashes of light and snapped pictures. "At one point we had over 25 people in this woman's bedroom," including several photographers, Taff said.

One photograph taken during the case appears to show an arc of light, with the woman cowering underneath. "Whatever this image was, it was in space," Taff said. "Well then, what was it? ... Is it coming from her, or is it her with something coming from us?"

The case stirred quite a controversy, and spawned the 1982 horror film "The Entity" - which starred Barbara Hershey and credited Taff as a technical adviser.

"The Entity" is Taff's biggest claim to fame, but he's seen plenty of spirit photography before and since. "It's one of the elements we've been investigating over the last 40 years," he said.

Taff figures he's taken on about 4,000 cases over those four decades, "and the majority don't go beyond one interview." In most cases, he has seen a correlation between reports of spooky visions and not-so-spooky explanations: a history of epilepsy or seizures, for example, or a tendency toward psychological instability.

"If we don't experience something and/or measure it in terms of video or still film, or if we don't measure it with our instruments, it's just not worth our time," he said.

But he's not willing to write off spirit photography entirely. In addition to the "Entity" case, he's seen some linkages between high magnetic readings and optical anomalies - the sort of thing studied by Canadian-American psychologist Michael Persinger. Taff thinks electromagnetic phenomena, coupled with our own bodies, may explain some of the reports about poltergeists, and perhaps even the "Entity" case.

"No dead people, no ghosts," he said. "This appears to be coming from us - living people."

That's why he's still investigating cases, when he's not involved with his "day job" as co-owner of a medical-device company. He declined to identify the company because of the stigma associated with the spooky business, but said "I think we're getting closer" to the day when such research might seem respectable.

"We're at a point now, after 40 years, that I believe we might be able to electromagnetically drive the phenomenon, whatever it is," he said. "If we can trigger it, rather than sitting around like a bunch of clowns, then we can document it."

Courtesy of Twentieth Century Fox
This photo, submitted to the "Shutter" Web site, shows a misty pattern seemingly
superimposed over the scene. "The articulated detail of this image is quite
fascinating and really makes one wonder as to what other type of paranormal
events are associated with the location or the man in the shot," Barry Taff says.

Reality check from the other side
Researchers from "the other side" - that is, the scientific skeptics - don't think that day will come anytime soon.

Investigator Joe Nickell, who works for the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry, has been looking into purported cases of spookiness almost as long as Taff has. Nickell literally wrote the book on photographic investigation - and so far, he's not impressed.

"To date, since the invention of photography, not a single ghost or spirit photograph has been authenticated by science. Not one," he told me. "And yes, I'm sure."

Nickell makes a distinction between spirit photography, which were the supernatural studio portraits that became so popular during the heyday of 19th-century spiritualism; and ghost photography, which refers to the weird stuff seemingly caught by accident in somebody's snapshot.

Using that definition, Nickell said that all spirit photographs are obvious fakes - while ghost photographs are still fakes, but not so obvious.

"They're always directly linked to photographic trends and techniques of the period," Nickell said. "Once the public is able to get cameras, and you get rolled film, you start getting anomalies. ... Usually it's a double exposure of some kind, or maybe a mysterious blurry spot."

The rise of digital cameras has led to new types of phenomena. "Today, a lot of so-called ghost photographs don't look anything like people," Nickell said.

Some flash photos reveal glowing orbs of light that weren't noticed when the picture was taken. "They're caused usually by particles of dust in the air bouncing the flash back," Nickell said. The light comes back into the camera as an out-of-focus spot, appearing as a bright circle on the picture.

Other photos may show mysterious blurs or complex, smoky-looking shapes.

"Almost anything that can get in front of the camera, and particularly can be emphasized with the flash on, will produce ghostly effects," Nickell explained. "Someone smoking, or even one's breath on a crisp, cold night, can produce misty effects. Some bright object in the background reflecting the flash can make an area look washed out or misty."

Nickell has seen effects created by wandering fingertips, strands of hair, jewelry or tree twigs that get in front of the lens. He said the camera strap is a notorious spook-generator: "That can create what's called an 'energy vortex,' or strands of 'ectoplasm.'"

Ghost-hunters with gizmos
What about the idea that high magnetic fields can generate anomalies?

"There's not good evidence for that," Nickell said. "I've investigated haunted houses for more than 30 years, and the idea that there were high concentrations of electromagnetic radiation in the places where people were experiencing those things is unlikely in the extreme. ... I believe that's a pseudo-explanation. A far more powerful influence is the power of suggestion."

Nickell doesn't necessarily dispute claims that the electromagnetic field meters are picking up high readings.

"The problem is, the instrument may be measuring something indeed, just exactly the kind of thing that the instruments are made to detect, such as faulty wiring or microwave radiation from nearby broadcast towers," he said. "What it is not measuring is ghostly energy."

He said it's a "fool's errand" to look for ghosts by waving around scientific instruments.

"Much of what is offered as evidence for ghosts, or other forms of paranormal activity, is something where the person who is reporting it does not know what it is, but is drawing a conclusion about it," he said. "It's a logical fallacy called 'arguing from ignorance.' Because we don't know what's causing the sound of footsteps on the stairs late at night, it must be a ghost. Well, no, if you don't know what it is, then you don't know.

"You can't say, 'I don't know, therefore I do know.' ... That's at the root of so much of this."

Nickell applies that rule not only to ghost photography ("I don't know what caused this blur on the photos, so because I was at a haunted place, it must be a ghost"), but also to UFO sightings as well as claims of miraculous cures ("My cancer is in remission, therefore it's a miracle").

Psychologist http://www.skeptic.com/archives03.html">Ray Hyman, another skeptical inquirer (and sometime magician), emphasized that most of the fake ghost pictures are not intentional hoaxes, but rather cases of misinterpretation known as pareidolia. Just as some people can see the Virgin Mary in a grilled cheese sandwich, or a man in the moon (and on Mars?), they can also jump to conclusions about a spooky spot in a snapshot.

"Once you've convinced yourself that you see something, you can't undo that," Hyman told me.

For more on how perceptions can add to a scene's spookiness, check out this Halloween edition of Cosmic Log as well as this 2002 interview with Hyman.

Now it's your turn: Have you seen some spooky photography worth a second look - or pictures so scary you don't want to take a second look? Have you had a paranormal experience that turned out to have a normal explanation - or no natural explanation whatsoever? Feel free to add your recollections or observations as a comment below.