How Ghost Pictures Can Be Faked

by Paul

The paranormal can be scary, although most of the time it can be explained. As is often the case with ghostly photographs, they're digitally edited, but how can you tell?

There's plenty of them plastered throughout the internet. All claiming that they're legitimate and in no way tampered with. Most of them genuinely aren't tampered with and are merely pareidolia, but the rest more than likely are.

There are a few easy ways to tell if the picture you're looking at is a fraud. Some images are more obvious than others and some are excruciatingly tough to crack, yet the vast majority contain subtle, but visible flaws that you can quickly locate.

Real Ghosts

Before I begin explaining how it is that most ghost photographs are debunked, I'd like to bring your attention to one of the very few pictures that experts have had a tough time with.

The following picture has a little bit of a back-story. The original photo was taken by spiritualist Arthur Williams in Plas Teg during 1895. Plas Teg is a large Jacobean country house near the village of Pontblyddyn in Wales.

There are many ghost stories attached to the house, including a ghostly figure running out onto the main road and the shade of 'Hanging' Judge Jeffries, who held trials in the house. Naturally they usually ended in a hanging.

But this is the only Plas Teg legend where the ghost was actually photographed.

It's believed to be that of Alice Pryce, a lady of the house whose daughter Eliza was courting someone below her station. At least in the eyes of Alice! The redoubtable mother was convinced not only of the illicit love affair, but that her daughter was planning to elope with a local man. Some say it was the stable boy and some the gardener, while others state that it was the son of a neighbouring farmer.

Plas Teg
Plas Teg

Trinkets of some value kept going missing from around the house.  Alice was sure that her daughter was secreting them out into the gardens, then stashing them in some hidey hole.  When a gold necklace, complete with diamond pendant, disappeared, Alice was sure that the elopement was imminent, though her daughter hotly denied it.

Then Eliza herself could not be found around the house. While servants searched, the anxious Alice went rushing out into the grounds, yelling her daughter's name and looking for any lantern light. Sure that she had seen just that out by the old well, she raced in that direction. But this was night-time and the boggy ground was slippy.

In some tellings of the story, Alice tripped and banged her head, dying almost instantly. In others, it's much more dramatic and she ended up in the well, drowning before anyone heard her screams for help.

Either way, she died that night, but that was not the end of her search. Not by a long shot. It's said that if you're ever in those woods, up the mossy bank behind the manor house, you may encounter the distraught Alice. She's not done yet.

(And incidentally, genealogical records show that Alice was either mistaken or paranoid to the point of being deranged; either that or guilt got the better of Eliza after the accident. The woman married a local squire; a match which would have been very well received by her parents!)

Plas Teg Ghost
Arthur Williams

It wasn't until four years later in 1899 that the ghost of Alice was seen in the image (far left). Since then, the original print has been digitally scanned and restored to what you see above. It's been subject to and passed every test currently known to identify a fake.

Below is the result of one of the latest tests. It's edge-detection designed to contrast the edges of everything physically present when the photograph was taken. Anything added in afterwards would have shown up with a bright white outline as there would be a large, thick "edge" present. Clearly with the Plas Teg ghost, this was not the case.

It's All A Ruse

It's a fake. There was no Alice Pryce. Nor was there ever a spiritualist named Arthur Williams or indeed an Eliza. It's surprising what can be done with a small amount of fabrication.

I created the ghost photograph in less than half an hour as well as the edge-detection image. It certainly wouldn't stand up to any rigorous testing, but if it's provided with a solid story and isn't blatantly edited, it suddenly becomes a whole lot more real.

It's true that a picture is worth a thousand words, but a ghost picture without a suitably macabre story is worth nothing. It's the story that makes the image believable, as is with anything paranormal.

This brings me onto my first point; initially avoid all context. If it were any other picture, you wouldn't  need to the surrounding events to be able to justify if the subject is real or not. Associating a story with an image while you're trying to deny its legitimacy will almost immediately change your perspective. You're here to see if the image is real or not - we're not fact checking.

So, how did I create it? And how would you be able to spot that it isn't Alice Pryce back in 1895?

Well, to begin with, I needed Alice. What's a ghost picture without a ghost? Luckily, Jo Harrington was able to provide her great-grandmother (who, incidentally, was also featured as the thumbnail image of this genealogy article.)

This is an ideal photograph for my needs. It's old and slightly grainy with our subject wearing period-correct attire. The dress is Victorian, with an Edwardian twist and it's also jet black which will help me later.

Bethany was able to provide the background image. It looks lovely in full colour, but has the potential to be turned into something much more sinister with a little bit of photo manipulation.

The image works well because there's tons of dense trees in the background with shrubbery and foliage in the foreground. This allows for a solid backdrop meaning that to some, the "ghost" may be considered pareidolia and the plants in the foreground enable the "ghost" to be hidden behind something solid, ensuring it's not the direct focus of attention.

To convert it into the gloomy, atmospheric background I need, all I had to do was switch it from full RBG colour, to grayscale. I then slightly blurred the image as photos taken c.1890 were not well stabilised and were nowhere near as sharp as photographs that modern day cameras can produce.

I also needed to darken the image simply by turning the brightness down. However, one of the final stages uses a filter that'll take care of that for me, so this wasn't an issue quite yet.

gloomy

Next, I had to add some initial edits to Alice. The first stage (and also the main identifier of a fake) was to remove anything that would prove to be obvious to someone viewing the image that it had been added in at a later date. This meant removing some of her left arm and shoulder as it was located over white bark making it glaringly obvious some trickery's afoot.

I also had to blur some of the other parts of her dress as again, they overlapped lighter parts of the image and it's features like this that make an image extremely easy to tell if something's simply been pasted on.

ghost not transparent

Below you can see why I had to modify the image in the way I did. After making the figure 40% opaque, providing an eerie transparent figure that's still identifiable as a person and the trees are visible through the "ghost" as you'd imagine they would be.

The proportion also had to be altered. As the images were vastly different sizes, Alice had to be scaled down to about .65 of her original size. This had an expected and helpful side effect in that it caused a small amount of manageable blur. Proportion can be difficult to get correct, meaning that this is also a good second indicator of a fake.

ghost transparent

This is all well and good, but when we add the background in and generate an old photo with sepia tones and a decreased brightness, she stands out like a sore thumb.

Why is this? She has far too much definition for something that far away. If you look carefully, you can also see that at no point does her dress touch the ground that it's supposed to - she's floating. Although "ghosts" have the tendency to float, for the sake of increased realism, this one won't.

ghost

To combat these points, I've blurred the entire image losing any potentially identifiable features that scream "this is a person". I've also removed her hands and the flower as again, this was contrasting drastically with the background.

For the same reasons, I dodged parts of her skirt using highlights to create a uniform level of contrast. Remember, this image was supposedly five years old before the "ghost" was discovered in it, so having something blatantly obvious in the photo will quickly arouse attention.

Ghost blurred

Here you can see how just subtly changing parts of the image has a large effect on the look and feel of the image. Even when you're extremely close up, it's hard to tell if there's actually a figure there or if you're experiencing pareidolia.

The edge of the dress is now extremely blurry too, allowing for it to seamlessly flow into the foliage whereas before, it had a very hard edge. This is the third identifier of a fake and potentially the most obvious of them all. The more ghost pictures you look at, the more simply don't feel "right".

ghost
Ghost blurred background

Read More About Pareidolia

Pareidolia is one of the great banes of paranormal research. It rears its ugly head most often in ghostly images, but can also strike during the investigation.

Putting It Into Practice

The following photograph is claimed to contain the image of a ghost. That's all we need to know. We can clearly see that there is something in the foreground, but as for how it got there, we need to compare it with the three main identifiers of a faked ghost picture.

Ghost picture

So, we've got to first check if there's anything incredibly obvious that's screaming that it's a fake and you'd initially be inclined to lean towards it being faultless, but pay closer attention to the surroundings - especially the rood screen.

Ghost perspective

Rood screens tend to be around 1 meter high (3 feet), and as our subject isn't standing that far away from it, this puts the figure at around the 2.5 meter high (8.2 feet) which is highly unlikely.

However, the figure doesn't have much of a prominent outline or shape when it's overlapping the altar. You can certainly see its legs, but that's because the floor is a much brighter colour and is bound to make those features stand out. No easy rule-out here then.

Nothing seems out of place with the figure either - except for perhaps the feet are at a skewed angle and don't seem to fit correctly. Again, not enough for an immediate dismissal, but food for thought.

That is until you revisit the second point. To our eyes there doesn't seem much of an outline over the altar, but when the entire area surrounding the figure is darkened, followed by edge-tracing and even more darkening and burning of the image, the figure springs to life.

Outline

We can now see that our figure is quite clearly dressed in funeral attire, stood facing the altar. This still might not be definite proof, but show this silhouette to almost any historian and they'll almost immediately recognise it and point you to the following picture.

Three Queens

It's a famous picture showing the three Queens. It shows Princess Elizabeth, Queen Mary and Queen Elizabeth (left to right) mourning the death of King George VI who died in 1952 and this event is almost certainly the source of the "ghostly" figure.

The same process can be applied to almost any ghost picture and if you stay clear of any background information before you make your first judgement, the results are usually very conclusive.

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Updated: 02/11/2013, Paul
 
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frankbeswick on 08/24/2013

I have never seen a ghost. I suspect that many ghost pictures are faked. But to prove that all ghost pictures are faked you would have to exhaustively analyse each one. Epistemology [the philosophy of knowledge] tells us that universal statements can be falsified by one counter example, thus if one is not faked, there can be genuine ghost pictures.

WriterArtist on 08/24/2013

Interesting, I am surprised how many fake stories and pictures go round the internet. It must be really tough to capture a ghost on a camera, let alone getting a chance to witness it in actual.

Paul on 06/16/2013

It's fun to create them, Sandy!

Paul on 06/16/2013

Thanks Mike :)

sandyspider on 06/13/2013

I know with Photoshop, I can come up with some pretty good ghost. It is interesting about these ghost stories.

MikeRobbers on 06/03/2013

Great article, Paul. I enjoyed reading the 'tutorial' and the stories involved.

katiem2 on 03/22/2013

Very good point. It is incredible what can be done with modern photography and yet intrigue keeps the mind sharp. :)K

Paul on 02/19/2013

If I had to put my guess down, it'd be primal instincts. I've not researched at all into this, so this is purely my speculation, but surely it'd be advantageous to see things that aren't actually there than to miss seeing things that are there?

And thank you! I'm happy I'm having a positive effect on people here :D

katiem2 on 02/19/2013

Very cool it's so amazing how people see different things in the same physical object including images. I think we see what we want to see or is it we see what we need to?

BTW and non related, I enjoy your sense of humor in the forums you make me laugh all the time and I really appreciate good humor. Thanks :)K

Paul on 02/15/2013

Horrible man!


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