Thursday, August 25, 2011

Ghostly Roman Soldier Caught On Film?

In October, 2007, George Gunn, a member of the Outwood Community Video club, captured something strange on video in the town of Outwood.

It's a blue-ish/gray shape, and Gunn and his friends feel that it looks like a Roman soldier walking down the footpath on which the video was shot. The apparition vanishes as soon as two people jog through it. The image was, apparently, not visible to Mr. Gunn while he was present on site, but he saw it when reviewing his footage later that day.

Gunn has stated that he does not believe in ghosts, but that the image he captured seems strange, and has him curious. He also has stated that others have reported ghost sitings in the area, though he doesn't buy into those stories.

The only photo that I have been able to find of the alleged apparition is small, and of low quality, from the BBC News website:

I tried to find the unedited video, but could not, I did, however, find this version, with cheesy music and analysis:

Commentary: This story is, in of itself, not all that interesting. There's any number of things that could account for the image on the video - smoke, dust, even just an artifact of the camera itself. But as I read it, it got me thinking of something that I find significantly more fascinating - the evolution of the ghost photograph.

During the 19th century and through the mid-20th century, photographs with images claimed to be the apparitions of various spirits were common. Some of these images seem like obvious fakes to anyone looking at them now, while others are more subtle and require some knowledge of photography in order to figure out what they actually show. However, when photography was new, and people's eyes had not yet adapted to seeing photographic trickery, even the fake photographs might seem eerie and be taken as evidence of a spiritual presence.

Photo from

The famous Brown Lady of Raynam Hall ghost photo.

A rather obvious fake, the Andrews Baby ghost photo.

What all of these photos have in common is that they all try to show a human form, eerily translucent or looking tormented, or even just "out-of-phase" looking. In an era before television and film special effects taught us what to look for in film trickery, and before Photoshop and digital cameras made us only too aware of the many easy ways in which even a rank amateur could fake a photo, those who wanted to show us spirits on film tried to make them look genuine.

Contrast the above photos with what we tend to get now: "orbs" and "streaks":

A rather typical and unimpressive "orb" photo from the forums at

I looked for other "orb" photos, but they're all pretty much the same, so I figured I wouldn't bore you too much. The above photo is pretty typical, and just as unimpressive as the rest. The "orbs" and "streaks" so often used for ghost photos these days are actually a pretty easy-to-explain artifact of the cameras being used. Remember, a camera operates by bringing light in, and turning that light into an image, either on a photographic paper or through electronic sensors. Anything that reflects light will effect the image, and as cameras bring in light in a manner a bit different than how the human eye does, this means that objects may appear on film or in digital images that are not visible to the naked eye. Small objects that can reflect light (raindrops, motes of dust, insects, etc.) tend to reflect it in a spherical pattern that is not visible to the human eye, but does show up on camera. If the object is caught in a particular way or is moving quickly enough, this may show up as a "streak" rather than a sphere. Likewise, small light sources, maybe dim enough to not be noticeable to the naked eye, may show up on film as streaks if the camera or the object emitting the light is moving, even slightly, when the shot is taken. This is especially true in low-light conditions.

A photo of rain illustrating a point, from

What the orbs and the streaks have over faked photos is that they are clearly genuine - anyone can get similar photos, and they don't have the hallmarks of special effects or image modification because they are, quite simply, real images really captured. They are also normal, non-supernatural things that show up in photos. So, spirit photography has really suffered, with people leaving behind outright fraud and instead settling for mediocre bad photography. It's rather like how early 20th century mediums would communicate complex messages from the spirits, while John Edwards appears to be playing a stupid game of charades (or, more likely, cold reading).

So, rather than being convincing evidence of the supernatural, orb and streak photos are evidence that even the early spirit photos tend to be fakes, otherwise we'd still be seeing their like rather than this dull silliness.

Sources: BBC News, Wakefield Express

Monday, August 22, 2011

Ghostly Blood at Camp Sylvester

Camp Sylvester seems like a quiet, idyllic spot in California's Sierra Nevadas. It is used as a get-away for groups ranging from schools to corporate team-builders, and also serves vacationers renting cabins for a mountain getaway.

Most of the time it seems as if there is nothing at all sinister or disturbing about the place. But this changes when it rains.

When rainwater pours over the roads, red liquid begins to appear, and the roads can quite literally be said to run red with blood. In this case, it is the blood of Chinese immigrants, forced to work for low-wages in near slave-like conditions when building California's railroads and working in the mining camps that once dotted the Sierra Nevadas. They are gone now, and unable to tell their stories, but their blood still runs when it rains at Camp Sylvester.

Commentary: When I was a kid, my school sponsored a yearly trip to "science camp" for the 6th, 7th, and 8th grade students at Camp Sylvester in Pinecrest, California. The goal of the week-long trip was, I presume, to teach kids about biology, ecology, and the natural sciences, but for the students it usually became an excuse to engage in all manner of behavior that, while usually safe, they couldn't get away with at home or on the school's grounds. My own experiences at the camp were abysmal (owing to a combination of my various childhood social problems and two camp counselors who thought that getting younger kids to beat each other up was fun), while my older sister greatly enjoyed it and eventually became a counselor there herself (leading to at least one impressionable 12-year old boy developing a lifelong crush on her due to her ability to recite the alphabet while belching...a strange thing to hear from someone who runs into you by chance 15 years later, I can assure you).

As often happens when a group of pre-teen and early teen kids get together in an isolated place with minimal adult supervision, much of the social activity between the kids at the camp revolved around scaring the crap out of each other. One night, I recall a group of girls engaging in a "Bloody Mary" ritual in the girl's restroom, resulting in one of them in hysterics (the adult chaperon's had to be brought out to deal with the situation, and there was serious talk of sending the girl home because of her rather excited state), and there were, of course, many ghost stories, most of them told by the camp counselors around the campfires at night, or in the dining hall during dinner.

This particular story was a favorite, and stuck in our minds I suspect largely because most of us had only recently been learning about the use of Chinese labor in building the railroads and in mining. Those of us who were around when it rained thought of this when the red fluid washed over the roads.

Of course, there was nothing supernatural about the red. Like much of the Sierra Nevada, this location was covered in high-iron clays, and the red was due to nothing more sinister than the water moving these sediments across the road during and immediately following a rainstorm. Anyone who looked closely enough would even see that it was more of an orange than a red.

Still, for a bunch of pre-teens stuck inside on a rainy day, the blood of wronged laborers made for an evocative image.

Sources: Local Folklore

Friday, August 12, 2011

Highway 246, Santa Ynez Valley

The stretch of Highway 246 that runs between the towns of Buellton and Santa Ynez in the Santa Ynez Valley in Santa Barabara County is said to be haunted by a few odd apparitions.

The first is a ghostly horse-drawn carriage, often said to be a hearse, that traverses the road late at night. Some versions of the story update this to an automobile. The hearse continues down the road, headed to the west, unimpeded by any physical object that blocks its way, some say carrying the souls of the recently dead to the afterlife. Some locals have interpreted the hearse as being part of the Santa Ynez Chumash belief that the spirits of the dead must travel westward in order to reach Point Conception, the gateway to the afterlife. A more sinister version of the tale holds that the hearse is bearing the souls of the damned to Hell.

The second story concerns a black, spectral dog that people have reported running along the road at night. Though nobody claims to have been attacked by it, it is said to be a terrifying sight to behold. It is often claimed to not be a ghost, but rather a demon, wandering the road looking to do harm.

Interestingly, the third story concerns the ghost of a young boy that is said to appear on the side of the road. He seems to be lost and frightened, but will accept a ride from any motorist kind enough to stop for him. When the driver reaches the place that the boy asks to be dropped off, he has simply vanished. It is said that this spirit is the ghost of a young boy who was killed in a car accident while his mother was driving. The mother survived, but the boy was dead at the scene, and now wanders the highway trying to get home.

Commentary: The ghost stories of Highway 246 are interesting for a few reasons. The first, related to the story of the ghostly hearse, is the desire to connect the ghost story to the beliefs of the native peoples of the area. The popular view of Chumash folklore holds that Point Conception was thought to be the gateway to the afterlife, but when I have spoken with people knowledgeable about the ethnographic record of the area, it comes out that the Chumash view of how one reaches the afterlife may not be so clear-cut. There was no centralized church that kept the religious canon in order, and so it is entirely possible that some people did think there was a physical gateway, while others did not, and the precise location may have varied by person telling the ethnographers of it.

In fact, the story of the ghostly hearse is a relatively common motif in European ghost stories, and so this is likely an old campfire story that has been adapted to a California setting, and later had a veneer of faux-antiquity added by the reference ot Chumash religion.

Similarly, the ghostly dog is common in European folklore (and served as the inspiration for the Sherlock Holmes novel The Hound of the Baskervilles), and is likely also a transplant. Demonic black dogs show up in Medieval and Renaissance stories, and remain a popular aspect of many European haunted outdoor spots to this day. The connection between these dogs and demonic forces may be tied to earlier pre-Christian folklore, though that is of little direct importance as the story of this dog likely was brought by Christian Europeans.

The vanishing hitchhiker story is interesting because it has all of the common elements - strange, frightened person who will accept a ride, vanishes when you get them to their destination, etc. etc. - but changes the age and gender of the hitchhiker. These stories are normally about young women - between the age of 16 and 25 - and not pre-adolescent children. This has an interesting effect: While one might feel sorry for the young women who are doomed to hitchhike for the rest of time, the stories nonetheless remain creepy. The young boy, though, is simply a sad and lonely character, with very little creep factor to him. It changes the story from creepy but sad to just plain depressing.

Sources: Published Book, Internet, Local Folklore

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Haunted Apartment, Bloomington, Indiana

An ex-girlfriend once contacted me to let me know that she believed her apartment to be haunted. She was, at the time, a graduate student at Indiana University, Bloomington, and lived in an apartment complex near, but not on, the university campus (I believe it was the Regency Court Apartments, but I can not remember with any certainty). Knowing my interest in ghost stories, she sent me an email describing her experience (which I no longer have, this was nearly ten years ago, so I can't directly quote from it).

She stated that the events started one night when she was in bed, and the door to the bedroom slammed shut. Over the next few days doors left open would shut violently on their own, and she heard a shouting voice in the room with her on a few occasions, a voice that seemed to be berating her, though she never told me what it said. As quickly as it began, it apparently ended, as she did not ever mention it again, even though we corresponded by email occasionally over the next several years. A few months after this experience, she left that apartment and moved in with her boyfriend in another part of town, never finding out what caused her experience.

Commentary: I have little to say about the alleged haunting itself - I could provide all manner of explanations for what was described to me, but I have no way of knowing if any of my explanations are valid. What is a bit more interesting to me is the conditions under which I learned of the story.

This ex-girlfriend and I broke up in a way that was not particularly good for either of us, but was especially bad for me. Although I did not know it at the time, she later told me that she felt guilty over the matter. We had been friends for years before anything romantic happened between us, and we both tried, with varying amounts of effort at different times, to maintain a friendship post-breakup. It is in this context that I received the email telling me about the ghost story. I didn't know what to make of it - did she actually have a weird experience that she couldn't explain, and knowing my interest in such things decide that I should know of it? Was she trying to find a way to relate to me post-breakup and, from what she later told me, feeling some guilt, and decide to make up a story that she thought I would enjoy? The way she told the story dropped hints without ever saying that she was seeing someone new, so was she telling me this story as a way of stealthily telling me about her new relationship status without flat-out saying it? I don't know, and that information is in the dust of the past now.

Still, if nothing else, it's a good short ghost story for anyone now living in Bloomington.

Source: Personal Account