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Ghosts Caught on Film 3: Photographs of the Supernatural

From the publisher’s website: Ghosts Caught on Film 3 is an all-new compendium of more extraordinary phenomena caught on film. Featuring a selection of contemporary ghost pictures collected as part of a ground-breaking survey by popular psychologist, Richard Wiseman and leading Fortean, Gordon Rutter. Paranormal expert Gordon Rutter explores this intriguing collection which includes shadowy figures, strange mists and ghostly apparitions. It is a treat for all fans of ghosts and the paranormal and another opportunity to explore the unexplainable.

Gordon Rutter is a founder of the Edinburgh Fortean Society, and head of the Charles Fort Institute. He was a co-organiser of the highly successful Science of Ghosts conference in Edinburgh in 2009.

First Author: 
Gordon Rutter
Reviewed for SPR by: 
Tom Ruffles
SPR Review: 

The subtitle does not reflect the analytical approach taken by Gordon Rutter, who replaces Melvyn Willin and Jim Eaton for the latest in David and Charles’s series devoted to ostensibly paranormal (or just plain weird) photographs.  Rutter uses his technical knowledge to try to determine the issues at play in a given image, and supplies a reasonable, if not necessarily definitive, explanation for a surprising number of them.  This should be helpful to people who find some anomaly in their own snaps, but will perhaps disappoint those expecting the supernatural to be displayed before them.

For as Rutter intimates – and can be confirmed by examples which reach the SPR’s Spontaneous Cases Committee – people are often rather optimistic in interpreting some oddity as paranormal.  He covers issues such as orbs, condensing breath, camera straps, slow shutter speeds, pixel noise, pareidolia, and definitely not least, ‘photographer blindness’, which can catch the most consummate professional (always treat the claim “there was nobody else around when I took it” with caution, however sincerely made).  Such explanations should help to educate photographers so that they can rule out the normal before proclaiming uncritically that they have evidence of the paranormal.  This will surely save psychical researchers some time (though orbs seem remarkably resistant to patient explanations featuring the effects of flash on dust particles).

Many of Willin’s examples were drawn from the SPR’s archives, and Eaton’s from his website.  Some of the images included here were passed to Rutter as a result of his talks on paranormal issues and his well-known interest in the subject, but many surfaced as the result of an appeal made as part of the Edinburgh Science Festival in early 2009 for photographs showing anomalies.  The project was called Hauntings: The Science of Ghosts and was organised by Rutter with Richard Wiseman and Caroline Watt.  The criterion for acceptance was that photographs were previously unpublished, either in print or online.

The response was enthusiastic, and thanks to the nature of the internet, international, with a large quantity, largely taken recently, sent in.  Most were easily explained, but there was a small percentage which warranted further investigation.  The hundred best were posted online and comments invited, leading to a huge number of hits and an impressive degree of debate, sometimes to a high standard.  There was a voting mechanism, with the four options being: genuine ghost, normal explanation but not faked, fraud or uncertain.  Totting up the 300,000 votes cast, the five images which voters found most convincing were chosen, and these appear at the end of the book.  A summary of the research was given by Wiseman at the SPR’s 2009 conference at Nottingham.

As one would expect, images cover a wide range of effects.  Orbs/lights and mobile phones have their own sections, and there are plenty of ghostly figures and faces appearing as extras.  Historic locations feature extensively, unsurprising given the number of photographs taken at them.  One odd inclusion is the old picture of a small girl in a gingham dress which seems to show a strange little face peering over a wall.  This is not quite the same image as the one which can be seen on the Science of Ghosts website.  Rutter explains that there were two photographs, one taken after the other.  The earlier one is in the book, the one on the website was taken moments later.  The one in the book was used presumably because the girl is looking down, and there is no need to superimpose a large oval over her features to shield her identity, as in the website one in which she is looking at the camera,.  But in the book there is a red circle to show where the ‘face’ looking over the wall is, and it is in the wrong place, being positioned well in front of the girl, rather than just behind her.  As the whole photograph is included in GCOF3, the salient detail is hard to see, especially if the reader is looking in the wrong place.  The website version is cropped and the pixieish ‘face’ is much more obvious as a result.  It does not appear to be a chance configuration of light, shadow and leaves.

You would think, given the length of photography’s history, and in particular the stupefying numbers of images unleashed by the digital revolution, that there would be a vast supply of convincing examples of the paranormal captured by the camera, and authors would be spoilt for choice.  But having looked at all four of David and Charles’s Paranormal/Ghosts Caught on Film volumes, many of those in the SPR’s archives including the ones collected by Maurice Grosse and Cyril Permutt, as well as samples of those submitted to websites, there are fewer decent ones than might be supposed.  Rutter is naturally conscious of the problem of fakery on top of technological and cognitive limitations, and with Photoshop, and now phone apps, certainty becomes ever-more elusive.  The books put out by David and Charles provide a valuable compendium, produced to a high standard, of historical and contemporary examples, but those taking an open yet critical approach who are hoping for photographic evidence for ghosts must wonder if it will ever be forthcoming.  They can only keep looking.

Reference Information: 
Ghosts Caught on Film 3. David & Charles, August 2011. ISBN-13: 9780715339039