We’ll be frank: We don’t believe in ghosts. Neither do most Americans, although it’s close; per a HuffPo/YouGov poll, about 45 percent of people believe in spirits.
Still, that’s a sizeable percentage of the population, and it might help to explain why ghost stories are so popular. Then again, even among non-believers, tales of the supernatural are fairly irresistible—and when there’s photographic proof, ghost stories can spread quickly.
We looked at a few of the most famous unexplained photos of ghastly entities, then tried to determine whether there’s any truth to them. Spoiler alert: We still don’t believe in ghosts, but that doesn’t mean that we can explain all of these away.
A Surprise Guest
The ghost story: Do you believe in soulmates? Sometimes, a bond might be powerful enough to keep people together after death—or at least, that’s what photographer Denise Russell believes.
“The lady in the color photo is my granny,” Russell reportedly wrote. “She lived on her own until age 94, when her mind started to weaken and had to be moved to an assisted living home for her own safety.”
“At the end of the first week, there was a picnic for the residents and their families. My mother and sister attended. My sister took two pictures that day, and this is one of them. It was taken on Sunday, 8/17/97, and we think the man behind her is my grandpa who passed away on Sunday, 8/14/84.”
Apparently, she didn’t realize that there was anything odd about the photo for quite a while.
“We did not notice the man in the picture until Christmas Day, 2000 (granny had since passed away) while browsing through some loose family photos at my parents’ house,” she wrote. “My sister thought it was such a nice picture of granny that she even made a copy for mom, but still, nobody noticed the man behind her for over three years!”
“When I arrived at my parents’ house that Christmas day, my sister handed me the picture and said, ‘Who do you think this man behind granny looks like?’ It took a few seconds for it to sink in. I was absolutely speechless. The black and white photos show that it really looks like him.”
There’s also a hidden bit of spookiness in this photo: If you zoom in over the red van, you can see what appears to be the image of the grim reaper in a black hood with a white face. It’s almost as if the reaper was letting their grandpa have a moment to make sure his wife would be okay in her new home. Either that, or it’s a shadow from the tree—but hey, where’s the romance in that?
A more logical explanation: We couldn’t find any reputable sources for the Russell text we quoted above, so it’s possible that someone saw this photo, thought it looked kind of creepy, then made up a backstory.
Even assuming that the story is 100 percent true, it’s worth noting that the family didn’t notice the ghostly figure for several years. It’s very possible that it’s simply a man who looks like their grandpa. After all, those types of mistakes happen all the time—recently, British police apprehended a thief who was a dead ringer for David Schwimmer (the guy who played Ross on the sitcom Friends, as if you didn’t know that). If Ross has a doppelganger, so does a slightly blurry old guy.
— schwim (@DavidSchwimmer) October 24, 2018
With that said, if this photo brings comfort to a family, we’re certainly not going to deny their account of the events. We just don’t think that this is proof of the afterlife, even if it does make for a great story.
An Unexpected Passenger
Graveyards are obviously a pretty hot spot for ghosts (or a cold spot—we’re not sure which terminology is more accurate). Still, people don’t typically take a lot of photos in cemeteries, since, well, it’s a pretty grim prospect. At best, you’re going to have a photo of some stones; at worst, you’ll get confirmation that your nana’s lonely soul is wandering the earth.
Even so, on March 22, 1959, Mabel Chinnery and her husband went to the graveyard in Suffolk, England, to visit her mother’s grave. Her mother had just been buried a week before, so Mabel wanted to see how the plot was doing. She took a few photos, then headed back to her car.
Along the way, she realized she still had a photo left in the roll, so she snapped one of her husband as he sat in the car waiting for her. When they got the pictures back, they saw someone sitting in the backseat—which wouldn’t have been notable, except that there was nobody in the backseat at the time.
They never could figure out who the figure was, but Mabel suspected it could be her mother. Several critics reviewed the photo that was published in Parade magazine, but no one could come up with a definitive explanation.
A more logical explanation: Except, of course, skeptic Blake Smith, who effectively annihilated the photo’s ghostly backstory in an extremely long blog. It’s incredibly detailed, but we’ll save you the click: The photo is a double exposure, which was common to cameras of that era.
“I think the most likely scenario is that Mrs. Chinnery took a photo of her mother in an armchair shortly before the old woman died,” Smith wrote. “Then, with the same roll of film in the camera, she accidentally took a second shot of her husband without forwarding the film to the next frame.”
That’s…totally reasonable. Sadly, truth is sometimes blander than fiction.
A Curious Little Boy
The ghost story: Children tend to be loveable little characters, until they become demonic entities of pure terror. Or, you know, when they look at you weird. Kids are creepy is what we’re saying.
Watch the video below to see one eerie snapshot that may have caught a glimpse of a ghost child.
A more logical explanation: It’s creepy stuff, for sure, and it helped to launch The Amityville Horror franchise. There’s just one problem: The Lutz family, who lived in the house, made it all up.
As Snopes reports, the Lutzes’ story had numerous discrepancies, and the family’s lawyer admitted that they came up with the hoax late one night. They sold the story to an author, who added additional embellishments.
Then the Lutzes tried shopping their “new idea” around and sold it to a documentarian who constructed a well written but poorly told book about it. The rest is history-Just like when it all came out in the 80s that it was all a hoax and yet people online STILL insist it happened.
— SpudsyDawg (@spudsydawg) April 16, 2018
What about the photo? Well, if you’re going to make up a story to sell books (and movies), you’re going to need some hard evidence. That photo was first shown by its photographer on The Merv Griffin Show…as part of the media blitz for The Amityville Horror movie. While there’s no hard evidence that it’s a hoax, there’s no hard evidence that it’s real, either, and a photo of a ghostly boy with overexposed eyes would be pretty easy to put together.
A Sneaky Mechanic
The ghost story: Freddy Jackson was a mechanic in the Royal Air Force during World War I who reportedly died in a freak accident (he was hit by an airplane propellor—hey, sorry, but it’s a ghost article, there are going to be a few grisly details).
Two days later, on the day of Jackson’s funeral, his unit assembled to take a group photo. Apparently, Jackson decided to sneak into the picture. It seems as though Jackson’s ghost was walking around, unsure of what was happening as the photo was taken.
The photo didn’t come to the public eye until 1975, but it’s now a mainstay of any decent collection of ghost pictures. It’s got everything: A great story, a creepy photo, and a sort-of-heartwarming premise.
A more logical explanation: Skeptic Blake Smith spent an incredible amount of time researching this photo and found that Freddy Jackson didn’t exist—or, if he did, he didn’t die in a propeller accident. Military records do show a Freddie Jackson who died near the date of the photo, but he passed away due to heart failure.
Smith believes that the photo is a partial exposure, and he notes that it’s probably not a deliberate hoax.
“It seems more likely that a photographic error has been interpreted as a ghost,” he wrote. “While Goddard describes folks gathering around to look at the photo and talk about poor Freddy Jackson, it seems more likely that such an astonishing story would have been released to the media at the time it was taken rather than being mentioned in a book with no pictures some 50 years later.”
That’s totally reasonable…and sort of disappointing. We really wanted to believe this one.
The photo didn’t come to the public eye until 1975 but has since become one of the most mysterious and creepy photos that possibly depicts a ghost within the image.
The photo is discussed in detail by Blake Smith here, and even as a major skeptic, Smith doesn’t have any concrete answers or explanations to what the image really is.
A Noble Woman
The ghost story: The famous photo was taken in 1936 by photographers documenting 17th-century Raynham Hall in Norfolk, England, for Country Life magazine.
One story says that the photographer was setting up the shot when his assistant saw what looked like a veiled woman walking down the stairs. She told him to snap the photo, even though he couldn’t see anything.
Once they developed the image, he finally saw what his assistant was talking about. The ghost, known as “The Brown Lady” among amateur ghost-ologists, is presumably Lady Dorothy Townshend. She had been seen by several other people throughout the 1800s—but she died of smallpox in 1726.
Some legends say she was locked in her bedroom by her husband for committing adultery (prior to when she acquired smallpox, we assume). People often claim to see the ghost wandering around the Raynham Hall to this day, and she’s become a bit of a tourist attraction.
This is one of the most famous ghost encounters of all time, and it even convinced contemporary skeptic Harry Price, who investigated the photo.
“I will say at once I was impressed,” Price said. “I was told a perfectly simple story: Mr. Indre Shira saw the apparition descending the stairs at the precise moment when Captain Provand’s head was under the black cloth. A shout—and the cap was off and the flashbulb fired, with the results which we now see. I could not shake their story, and I had no right to disbelieve them. Only collusion between the two men would account for the ghost if it is a fake. The negative is entirely innocent of any faking.”
The Brown Lady of Raynham Hall photographed 1936. Investigated by Harry Price. Real or fake? What do u think? pic.twitter.com/kGpukp0Cpt
— Michelle McKay (@paranormal4u) August 30, 2014
What’s more, the negative of the photo clearly shows the ghostly lady. Is this finally a real ghost photo?
A more logical explanation: Well, probably not; skeptic Joe Nickell believes that it’s another double exposure.
“What likely happened is that the camera was shifted slightly during a long, two-stage exposure, one with a real figure briefly standing on the stairs,” he wrote. “Hence, the negative would be unaltered.”
Other skeptics believe that it’s a double exposure of a statue of the Madonna, as the figure looks remarkably similar to a common statue found in churches in the area.
A Lonely Maid
The ghost story: The photo was taken by Reverend Ralph Hardy, a retired clergyman from British Columbia. He was completely unaware of what he captured when he toured the Queen’s House at the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich, England, in 1966.
He took the photo of the winding staircase, known as the tulip staircase, and only realized that the image had an apparently paranormal figure when he showed it to a friend. The image has been examined by experts, including film company, Kodak, which reportedly noted that the negative hadn’t been altered. That seems to lead credence to the idea that it’s a real ghost photo.
No one really knows the exact identity of the “spirit,” of course, but the most popular theory is that it’s a maid who died on the stairs over 300 years ago. We’re assuming she fell down the stairs—it wouldn’t be such a creepy story if she suddenly keeled over while bringing the laundry downstairs, would it?
A more logical explanation: We don’t doubt that the negatives were unaltered, but to us, this seems like a clear hoax. For starters, the ghost is dressed in a white sheet. It looks pretty much exactly like the popular image of a ghost in 1966 (which is to say, it looks fake).
— Doc Charlie Oughton (@DrCOughton) April 16, 2017
More importantly: Why was the good reverend taking a photo of a staircase in the first place? He obviously snapped the shot in low light, and if the ghostly figure wasn’t in the frame, it’d be a totally pointless picture.
We don’t have clear evidence that this is a hoax, though. Maybe the white sheet has a more supernatural explanation—it fell on the spectral maid while she tumbled to her demise. Now she’ll spend eternity trying to get it off her head while shouting “Who turned off the lights?” in a Jerry Lewis voice.
A Man in His Chair
The ghost story: Lord Viscount Combermere (who is widely considered to have the coolest name/title combo of all time) was hit by a horse-drawn carriage in London and died in 1891 (not nearly as cool).
A few days after he passed, Sybell Corbet, the sister of the Viscount’s wife, was taking photos of the lordly manor, Combermere Abbey. When the photo was developed, the family noticed something strange.
So, what did they notice? If you guessed “a ghostly figure,” you’ve been paying attention.
A man appears to be sitting in the Lord’s favorite chair. The family kept the photo to themselves at first, but it was eventually published, and it’s now one of the most famous ghost photographs of its era. It’s certainly creepy, although the sepia tone definitely adds to the effect (and no, before you ask, that’s not an Instagram filter).
A more logical explanation: We should note that this photo was reportedly taken on the exact day of Lord Viscount Combermere’s funeral (and yes, we’re going to say his full name as many times as possible). If there were ever a case for a ghost to make an appearance in a photo, this was it.
Unfortunately, Lord Viscount Combermere’s family said that the figure didn’t really look anything like the late Lord Viscount Combermere (sorry, we’ll stop). They all believed that it was a trick of the camera, and with good reason; Corbet had set up the camera for a long exposure before leaving the house with her sisters.
The explanation, then, is fairly simple: Corbet left the room, someone else came in and sat down in the chair, said “Oh, my word, someone is taking one of those new-fangled photo-mo-graphs!” in a posh British accent, and left the room promptly. The “ghost” was undoubtedly worried about ruining an expensive photograph.
An investigator named Professor Barrett (we couldn’t find a first name, though we’re guessing it was Viscount) set up an experiment to test that theory. He set up a camera similar to Corbet’s, started taking a long-exposure photo, and sat in a chair. Here’s that photo.
It looks remarkably similar to the ghost photo, and that should have put this legend to rest. Unfortunately, legends are much more reliable than ghosts; once they start, they keep rising from the grave. While we’d love to see a real ghost photo, we haven’t found one yet—but we’ll certainly keep looking.