The Ghost Stays in the Picture

Shutter and the history of ghostly images

by | May 4, 2008 | Comments

The Ghost Stays in the Picture

Shutter is another J-Horror remake with technology run awry at its core. This time, it’s not videotape but celluloid that betrays the imprint of the supernatural. But having ghosties appear on camera isn’t new – people have been claiming to capture the undead on film ever since the camera was invented.

Is seeing is believing? Not quite. But seeing is fun! Here’s a potted history of ghosts in the picture.


Picture of Dorian Gray
Dorian Gray – Before.

Let’s start off with really old technology – oil paint, plus, well, magic. Oscar Wilde’s classic tale was greeted with lukewarm reviews due to its then disturbing homoerotic subtext, but since has become a firm fave. Dorian Gray, man about town, lets the secret portrait hidden in his attic accept the corruption that his real life endures. Thus he remains beautiful, yet the painting degrades beyond repugnance. Finally of course, the real Dorian is exposed and it all catches up with him. A lesson for all of us, really. And a thumbs up for plastic surgeons.

Picture of Dorian Gray
Dorian Gray – After. Beyond the help of Proactive.


When it comes to ghostly photography, there’s a very thin line between – ‘could that be real?’ and ‘bad fake’. Either way, the thrill and excitement that emerges the first time is worth the cynical retribution that lingers. Famous ghostly images now even have names.

Here’s one of the first – Lord Combermere’s Ghost, taken in 1891 in Combermere Abbey. This photo, purportedly of Lord Combermere, was said to have been taken whilst his funeral was taking place. Oooh, spooky.

Lord Combermere's Ghost
Lord Combermere. After.


The most famous ghostly photo was taken in 1936, by a Captain Provand. It’s known in paranormal circles as ‘The Brown Lady’ and comes pretty close to replicating the classic idea of what a ghost should look like (because we all do have such firm ideas). The ghost is meant to be Lady Townshend, supposedly locked away in Raynham Hall in Norfolk by jealous husband Lord Townshend until her death. She was said to haunt the staircases, and was even spotted by King George the IV, who saw her standing by his bed, in a brown dress. The photo was taken on assignment for Country Life, and was published in the magazine, which made quite the change of pace from the usual horse and hound stories. The fact that she looks like a superimposition of a statue of the Virgin Mary didn’t come up.

The Brown Lady. Transparent.
The Brown Lady. Transparent.


In 1939, Russian scientist Semyon Kirlian accidentally discovered that objects placed on a photographic plate connected to electrodes, gave off an ‘aura’ or coronal discharge. Kirlian photography soon became very popular in metaphysical circles, where it was seen as concrete proof for the ‘aura’ or life force that surrounds all living objects. This was later annotated when inanimate objects were also seen to produce the same effect. Unless of course spanners have life forces.

The most famous photographic exploration of Kirlian auras was the ‘severed leaf’ where the aura of a leaf blade remained intact, even though the leaf section itself had been chopped off. This has later been explained through simple electrodynamics due to moisture on the plate, but still, looks completely awesome. The movie rights are still available, Michael Bay.

The Brown Lady. Transparent.
Kyrlian Photography. You check out any time you like, but you can never leaf.


The delightfully named Mabel Chinnery gave the world yet another piece of evidence for life after death with this image of her dead mother sitting in the back seat of her husband’s car – on the day that they went to visit her mother’s grave. Oooweeooo. Obviously mum didn’t want to hang out in the cemetery any longer, and who could blame her? It was full of ghosts! Apparently the ghost is wearing glasses, and that’s why it looks like a weird photographic trick. Ah 1959, days of innocence.

The Back Seat Ghost.
The Back Seat Ghost: mother-in-laws – eternal back seat drivers.


Taken in 1963, this is one of the great ghost photos that look so fake it seems almost impossible to believe that anyone ever thought it was real. However, the ‘photographic experts’ claimed again and again that this photo had not been tampered with. A Yorkshire clergyman, KF Lord, was behind the shutter, so obviously he was beyond reproach. By scale, the ghost is over 9 feet tall, and for some reason is wearing a sheet with eyeholes over its head, under a black cowl. Bad fashion sense extending into the afterlife? Of course!

The Back Seat Ghost.
The Spectre of Newby Church. Can I take this getup off yet?


Here’s one of the classic ‘why were you taking a photo of a staircase?’ photos, again with the clergy involved. In 1966, a Reverend Ralph Hardy was said to be so enamoured of the wrought iron balustrade in the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich that he just had to take a photo of it. Once again, photographic experts claimed no tampering with the negative.  The building is said to be literally crawling with ghosties, including a maid who mops blood on the staircase. Although, no mention of a dude in a sheet.

The Tulip Staircase Ghost.
The Tulip Staircase Ghost. Creepy.


William Freidkin’s 1973 classic horror film was, er, officially ‘bedevilled’. The set, in fact, burnt to the ground, leading to a six week layoff for reconstruction. The official line is that nine people connected with the film, including actor Jack MacGowran (Burke Dennings) died during production, and Ellen Burstyn suffered a serious back injury (although more thanks to William Friedkin than Satan). The film, when released, was credited with a spate of fainting fits, institutionalisations and one miscarriage. A seventeen year old boy, Nicholas Bell, claimed to have been possessed after seeing the film and killed a girl. He subsequently recanted, saying ‘he made up the story about being possessed by the devil in the hope that the police would let him go’. There has, however, been no earthly explanation for the Paul Schrader’s diabolical time on the infamous prequel.

The Exorcist.
The Exorcist. Yes, you heard what I said about your mother!


One of the classic urban legends that sprang from the bowels of home rental videos, this rather disturbing child was first spotted when people (for some reason) where hiring 1987’s Three Men and a Baby and pausing to see what looked like the unhappy spectre of a child, forever sentenced to remain on the set of Three Men and a Baby, punishment for some obviously hideous crime.

The boy does actually appear in the picture, but he is in fact a cardboard cutout, as real as Ted Danson‘s hair. No mention of the supernatural forces behind Steve Guttenberg‘s career have ever come to light, however. Paranormal investigators are still on the case.

Three men and a Baby.
Three Men and a Baby and a Ghost.


For our final ghostly image we’ll step into our TV. Or in fact out of our TV. Or in actual fact, from the video tape on our TV. Foreshadowed by Tobe Hooper’s Poltergeist (82), the Japanese series of Ring-u movies broke the mold on how Hollywood stole movies from overseas. Whereas before they had stuck to France (say, Three Men and A Baby) the J-Horror movement gave the likes of Sam Raimi a whole new world to plunder. With the original low budget films highly effective in producing scares, the movement soon spread to neighbouring Asian countries, including Thailand, where in 2004, the original Shutter was born. The Asian tradition of evil spirits continues to be reproduced on celluloid, but nothing, as yet, has come close to reproducing the first true chills of Ring-u. Although the American remake, directed by Gore Verbinski, comes close!

The Ring.
The Ring. Your mother was right, sitting too close to the tellie will actually kill you.

Shutter will be in cinemas in Australia on May 15 and in the UK on May 16.

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