The Paranormal Caught on Film
by Tom Ruffles
[ strangeness | bookreviews ]
After Ghosts Caught on Film: Photographs of the Paranormal, Dr Melvyn Willin brings us the sequel, The Paranormal Caught on Film: Amazing Photographs of Ghosts..., and as the titles' overlap suggests, the contents do as well. Their styles are similar: a photograph containing something weird, and possibly paranormal, with a brief commentary on the facing page.
The new book is divided into a number of sections which also overlap: Ghostly Figures; Strange Lights and Apparitions; Simulacra; The Unexplained: Poltergeists and other Phenomena; and Back from the Dead. As these suggest, categorisation can be difficult, but they break up the text, and each is introduced by Willin's thoughts on the photographs that follow. The net has been cast widely in terms of subject matter, which provides plenty of variety.
Some of these pictures have not been seen extensively before, notably those from the Society for Psychical Research's archives; others will be familiar not just from specialist books and press, but also from newspapers. A few are lifted from the ghoststudy.com website, which is a pity when many less widely available ones are sitting in archives.
Willin is always even-handed in suggesting possible explanations or when acknowledging that he is unable to offer one for a given effect. A number of pictures would seem to have probable natural explanations. Some appear to be the result of double exposures, which can be caused either by running the film through the camera twice or by a faulty winder. With the latter, the fault can be intermittent, so that even examining a strip of negatives may not indicate that there is a problem with the camera. Pareidolia, our tendency to impose meaning on a chance configuration, such as seeing a face in a tree-trunk or in a stain on a wall, is, as Willin indicates, a likely explanation for others, though their inclusion is useful. They show how we can be fooled by our tendency to read meaning into the random.
"Photographer blindness", as he terms it, is also a common problem, and snappers can be surprised to find something present when looking at a photograph, and swear that it was not there when it was taken. Slow shutter speeds causing blurring seem the likeliest explanation for other results. A few are possibly artefacts caused by pushing cheap digital cameras with small sensors beyond their capabilities and finding that pixels do not behave in the same way as emulsion (and even less like our eyes). The rest we just have to put in that catch-all "haven't got a clue" category, given that we do not have full information on the condition of the camera, the circumstances under which the photograph was taken, if relevant developed and printed, or manipulated, and so on.
Unsurprisingly, the provenance of many of the older photographs included is unknown, but it is for more recent ones too. For example, the cover illustration is from a series of video grabs, which of five are shown inside, taken during a "sleep study session", but no information is given on where or when this incident took place, nor how the pictures came into the possession of ghoststudy.com. Given the relatively low numbers of sleep labs in the digital video era, one would have thought that more information would have been available (the acknowledgments simultaneously give the source as 'John P/ghoststudy.com and 'unknown/ghoststudy.com', which adds to the mystery and feeds the sense that it is a hoax). On the other hand, it is nice that names have been given to the pair in the widely reproduced shot of a man 'levitating' a woman on a beach near Durban in 1962 – he is Yusultini and she is his wife Faeeza.
The inclusion of the famous 1976 Cydonia face (on a page entitled Mars Mysteries) is puzzling, as this was shown to be a chance configuration as long ago as 2001; mysterious no longer. The accompanying 2004 photograph, of a supposed figure taken by the Mars rover Spirit shows what happens when an image is heavily cropped and there is no scale. It shows what looks like a bigfoot-type creature walking down an incline on the red planet taken from below. What is missing is the full picture – literally – because this is a tiny portion of the NASA original, which shows much more of the terrain than this fragment suggests. Part of the craft is in the foreground, providing scale, and it is clear that the figure which might be construed as big when that minute portion of the total image is enlarged, is actually very small and the result of a chance combination of rock and shadow recorded from above. Cropping can alter the meaning, and it is in the nature of many of these that information on possible manipulation is unavailable. For the NASA one it is, but this is not mentioned in the text.
Some images in the book will have been taken by accident, but as UFO photographs tell us, fraud is surprisingly common, however uncomfortable that verdict makes us feel, and however much it seems like a cop-out. Willin's assertion that photographs taken before the advent of computer technology are less likely to be faked than more recent ones has to be treated cautiously. Of course it is fairly straightforward to manipulate in the 'digital darkroom', but this suggests that photographs taken before then are relatively resistant to trickery. As the 'Brown Lady' of Raynham Hall (1936), among many others, attests, much can be done in a wet darkroom to alter or even create an image.
Still, Willin makes the valid point that simply because a magician can produce an effect, be it levitating a pair or scissors or an entire person, does not necessarily mean that all such effects are the result of conjuring (in other words, simply because you read about a trick on the back of a cereal box when you were a kid does not necessarily mean that something you see now is being done in the same way). Similarly, because we might be able to theorise that an effect in a photograph was produced in a particular way is no guarantee that it was, though some explanations are more likely than others.
I have to confess that the inclusion of '...on film' in the titles of these books puzzles me. It puts one in mind of moving images but almost the entire content comprises still photographs (though the enterprising publishers have put a selection on YouTube which as well as zooming in on the anomalies, animates the two examples taken from video cameras where several frames have been supplied). But even with the stills, many of these were taken on digital cameras and camera phones, so film does not participate at all in their production.
This is an interesting collection, and Willin is explicit in his aims: to steer a middle course between information-light sensationalism and a heavy-handed academic analysis. The result will provide food for thought, but I suspect many readers would have preferred a more rigorous scrutiny. There is a lot of competition from internet sites these days, so books have to offer something extra to justify the cover price.
Finally, a note to the editor at David and Charles who looked after this book: It is 'The Society for Psychical Research', not 'of Psychical Research (Willin gets it right so you should have too)', and surely the subtitle should read '...and Strange Phenomena', not 'Strange Phenomenon'? Given that there wasn't a huge amount of copy-editing to do on this book, these are surprisingly careless slips. But as the main interest is in the photographs, perhaps only hopeless pedants will be offended.