(Camera) Trick or Treat


Ghosts and other paranormal phenomena are popular topics of interest even when it is not Halloween. People want to know what awaits them after they die, and the paranormal provides hints about this mystery. However, there is great debate about whether or not the paranormal is real or just a product of people’s overactive imaginations. The pictures and stories in this week’s post were supposed to help settle the debate as proof of the existence of paranormal phenomena, but mostly what materialized was proof of fraud and deception.

Cottingley Fairies

In the 1920s, two young girls living in Cottingley, England, Elsie Wright and Frances Griffiths, took a series of five photographs that supposedly captured images of fairies. The images became famous after they caught the attention of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, the author of the popular Sherlock Holmes mysteries. He used the Cottingley Fairy pictures in an article about fairies that was published in The Strand Magazine. According to Wikipedia, Doyle described the photos as “clear and visible evidence of psychic phenomena.”

Cottingley Fairies 1


Cottingley Fairies 2


Cottingley Fairies 3


Cottingley Fairies 4


Cottingley sunbath


However, not everyone agreed with Doyle. While initial examinations of the pictures concluded they were not “faked” photos, later studies of the photos in the 1970s and 1980s revealed that the fairies were fake. After many decades of denial, Elsie Wright and Frances Griffiths finally confessed that the fairies were actually figures made out of painted cardboard. However, both of them declared they had actually seen fairies even though they were not able to capture them on film, and Griffiths insisted that the fifth photograph of the fairies was real.


Cottingley Fairies (Wikipedia)

The Cottingley Fairies – Museum of Hoaxes

Spirit Photography

As a visual medium of sorts, spirit photography reunited departed people with living ones (usually relatives or friends). Two notable spirit photographers were William H. Mumler (1832-1884), who began taking these pictures in the 1860s, and William Hope (1863-1933), who began his career as a spiritual photographer in 1905. Here are some examples of their work:

William H. Mumler

Mumler (Lincoln)
By William H Mumler [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Photo Description:

Picture of the ghost of Abraham Lincoln with Mary Lincoln

Mumler (French)
By William H Mumler [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons


Photo Description:

An image of ‘Mrs French’ with a ghost.

John J. Glover
By William H. Mumler [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons


William Hope



Photo Description:

A “Spirit photograph” taken by the Crewe Circle, and the known paranormal hoaxer William Hope.

Taken in 1919, this picture supposedly depicts Mr and Mrs Gibson and the spirit of their deceased son.

Couple with Spirit
By National Media Museum [see page for license], via Wikimedia Commons


Photo Description:

Couple with a young female spirit

Couple with a spirit in their car
By National Media Museum from UK [see page for license], via Wikimedia Commons


Photo description:

Creator: William Hope (1863 – 1933) Date: c. 1920 Collection: National Media Museum Collection Inventory no: 2002-5054/13 Blog: G is for ghosts… the birth and rise of spirit photography Two of William Hope’s friends lean on their motor car whilst a figure – the couple’s deceased son – is revealed at the wheel. Hope had suggested a photo opportunity for the ‘chance’ of obtaining a spirit impression.

For a while, Mumler and Hope were able to find a market for their haunted portraits, but eventually both of them were exposed as frauds. In 1869, Mumler literally faced a legal charge of fraud because of his spirit photography. At one point in his trial, the prosecution was able to show that one of the ghosts in Mumler’s photographs was actually a living person. While the prosecution’s evidence was not strong enough to convict Mumler for fraud, it was strong enough to ruin his reputation and his career.

In 1922, the authenticity of William Hope’s work was called into question after Hope failed a test conducted by paranormal investigator Harry Price for the Society of Psychical Research. In 1932, a second study conducted by Fred Barlow, a former friend of Hope, and Major W. Rampling-Rose for the Society of Psychical Research further concluded that the spirits in Hope’s photos were fake. These findings, however, did not ruin Hope’s career. People still supported him, including Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.


Spirit Photography

William H. Mumler

Do You Believe? The Mumler Mystery – The American Museum of Photography

William Hope

Supernatural (And Supercreepy) Spirit Photos Of William Hope

As I finish writing this post, two questions haunt me:

  • Do these photos have artistic merit despite the fact that they are considered hoaxes?
  • Will we ever be able to capture a truly authentic paranormal photo? With Photoshop and other image editing software, the potential for creating realistic-looking fake ghosts, fairies, and other paranormal creatures exists now more than ever. With so many camera tricks possible now, perhaps photography is not the best medium to resolve the debate about the existence of paranormal phenomena.

3 thoughts on “(Camera) Trick or Treat

  1. Fun to read. The world sometimes wants to be deceived. I am not saying that there is more than we can understand rationally, but these evidences seem a little naive today. Great post!


    1. Thank you for liking my post. Yes, sometimes people will see what they want to see, and both of these hoaxes demonstrate this. For example, Doyle’s perception of the fairies was influenced by his belief in spiritualism. In contrast, Elsie Wright’s father thought the fairies were cardboard cutouts based on his knowledge of photography and Elsie’s artistic ability. I also think that most of the people who sought out spirit photographers were grieving the loss of a loved one, and the emotional comfort arising from the belief that the dead relative or friend was still around them was more important to them than whether or not the photos were real.

      I also agree with you that the Cottingley fairies and spirit photography do not provide convincing evidence of the paranormal today, especially when you consider the level of sophistication of special effects in the present. I am left wondering what proof (photographic or otherwise) would be irrefutable in a world where appearances can be so easily manipulated as they are today.


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