Sunday, June 23, 2013

Photo ops for the dead

A friend emailed me an article about a "ghost photograph" and asked what I made of it. Here is the photo:

And the article's description:
This intriguing photo, taken in 1919, was first published in 1975 by Sir Victor Goddard, a retired R.A.F. officer. The photo is a group portrait of Goddard's squadron, which had served in World War I at the HMS Daedalus training facility. An extra ghostly face appears in the photo. In back of the airman positioned on the top row, fourth from the left, can clearly be seen the face of another man. It is said to be the face of Freddy Jackson, an air mechanic who had been accidentally killed by an airplane propeller two days earlier. His funeral had taken place on the day this photograph was snapped. Members of the squadron easily recognized the face as Jackson's. It has been suggested that Jackson, unaware of his death, decided to show up for the group photo.
The photo might represent a genuine ghostly appearance. As evidence for discarnate survival, however, I believe it is of no value.

I enlarged the picture as much as I could on my screen and couldn't see any resemblance between the fuzzy image and the inset photo of the living Freddy Jackson. That, however, is beside the point concerning validity.

Like so many descriptions in popular media of paranormal events, this one leaves out important information that we need for even a tentative assessment of whether the camera might have captured a fleeting return of Jackson. We would have to have good reason to believe all the following:

1. That the number of (living) squadron members who posed for the picture was definitely known at the time -- not from RAF records or long-ago memories. And, of course, that there was one extra person in the shot.

2. That the members of the squadron, or a large majority of them, recognized their deceased mechanic spontaneously, with no leading questions of the "Do you notice anything strange about this picture?" type.

3. Unlikeliest of all: That the airmen who claimed to recognize Jackson did so independently of one another, and were not influenced by anyone else's perception.

Perhaps somewhere there is a more detailed description of the occasion, but what we are told here is purely anecdotal, based on Sir Victor Goddard's statement in 1975 of something that happened in 1919. It's extremely unlikely that all, or perhaps any, of the conditions above could be met.

Alleged ghost photographs are one of the least convincing arguments for life after death. They rank far below mediumistic communications and dreams in which people who have passed on deliver meaningful information. Past life regression memories and apparent cases of reincarnation have their problems too, but even they are more acceptable.

Digital photographs can be manipulated to show anything at all. But even film and plates in earlier eras could produce double exposures, on purpose or by accident. I'm not saying all the pictures are deliberate hoaxes, but they lack what lawyers call prima facie validity.

Purported spirits lurking in the images always seem wispy and vague. Consider the best case, the famous picture from Raynham Hall, England, often called the most impressive ever taken:

One reason the photo has received a degree of respect is that its provenance is clear. It was taken by one of a pair of professional photographers on assignment from Country Life magazine in 1936. While not impossible, it seems unlikely that two photographers hired by the ritzy magazine for Britain's carriage trade would risk their reputations and livelihoods for the sake of a trick.

Even the Raynham Hall ghost photo -- best of breed, maybe, but still ambiguous -- is famous mainly because it is so much more convincing than the vast majority of others, which offer endless variations on cloudy, translucent shapes.

Yet accounts from people who have seen ghosts describe a remarkable variety of appearances. By no means were the apparitions all diaphanous. Many are said to have been fairly solid, although sometimes only part of a figure was visible. Now and then, it is claimed, the visitor from beyond looked just as real as a living person, even though their clothing may have been from an earlier period.

Why do alleged ghost photos pick up only see-through blobs? There is the telepathy theory, advanced most famously by G.N.M. Tyrrell. He suggested that people don't really "see" ghosts -- they pick up a psychic impression, which the mind converts into something relatively conventional, and visible. I find his theory ingenious but too clever by half. Regardless, if true, how does the camera record mental impressions?

One more thing. Despite the widespread popular notion that ghosts are spirits from the Other Side, many mediums and occultists say that they are not the formerly living people. They are described as "astral shells," a sort of semi-material equivalent of the dead material body, left behind as the actual spirit or soul moves on to realms of a higher vibration. It is also theorized that ghosts are psychic impressions left in certain locations by past inhabitants, and usually connected with intense emotions. This could explain why so many ghosts are claimed to have been murdered or victimized (as the lady of Raynham Hall was).

The astral-shell and psychic-impression theories are supported by the fact that haunting ghosts seem alive only in that they can move. They rarely interact with or even notice observers. Their appearances and actions are repetitious, scarcely evoking a hint of consciousness.

Interestingly, the spirits that not infrequently interact with the living aren't visible at all. Those are poltergeists, who like to make noises and throw objects around. They don't speak but often respond to questions or requests. Some seem like naughty but basically innocent children; a few are clearly malevolent. For one of the best accounts of the latter, see Guy Lyon Playfair's This House Is Haunted.


Stogie said...

This is a fascinating topic. Who came up with the astral shells theory, and do you think it has any validity?

Rick Darby said...


I'm not sure where the idea of astral shells originated. It fits in with the notion, widespread among mediums and occultists, that we have not only a physical body but a series of "bodies" of progressively higher vibrational levels. Sort of like those Russian matryoshka dolls nested inside one another, the difference being that each of our bodies or sheaths is less material than the preceding one, until you eventually get to pure spirit.

Yogi Ramacharaka wrote a series of metaphysical books around the beginning of the 20th century that I have found pretty clear and useful. They are now out of copyright and appearing on the web. Here is his chapter about astral shells:

Marozi Agustyan said...

The case of 'Freddy Jackson' is worthy of more research, but the photograph was taken almost a hundred years ago so this would be a very difficult case to really go in depth with.

There was a documentary uploaded on YouTube which I'm guessing was from around the 1980's. And a very elderly lady who must have been in her 90's by now claimed she knew 'Freddy Jackson' appeared on the program.

She was a part of the female team which helped the squadron, so if the photograph was taken they had all received copies of the photo through mail individually at home some weeks or months later.

She claimed that they were 'all quite shocked to recognize the photo of the young man who had recently perished' - I don't know if the video is still there, but this adds a bit more empirical evidence to the circumstances surrounding the photograph.

They only qualm I have is perhaps with with the man who claimed he took the photograph, Sir Victor Goddard. This wasn't the only peculiar situation he came across in his life,

he also claimed to have inadvertently time travelled into the future and had also been in a situation where he someone had foresaw his supposed death.Things like this rarely happen to or are claimed by most people, but could it be just coincidental that more than once Victor came across situations which rarely happen to anyone in a lifetime?

Or was Sir Victor Goddard somewhat of a strange character who got a kick out of telling tall tales? The photograph is worth more research, but the journey may be a fruitless expedition.

Anonymous said...

"I enlarged the picture as much as I could on my screen and couldn't see any resemblance between the fuzzy image and the inset photo of the living Freddy Green."

Did you mean Freddy Jackson?
I ask because I was confused by your mention of the 'inset' photo of Freddy... the only inset photo I saw was the one with another soldier, whose name I don't know, and a half image of what is supposedly Freddy, behind his shoulder.
Where did you view an image of Freddy Jackson *before* his death? I haven't come across one, and would like to match it with the 'ghost' image in the photo.

Rick Darby said...


Duh ... You're right, I meant Freddy Jackson. I must have been so puzzled by trying to interpret the photo that I got the name wrong. Presumably the inset is Freddy in life, but I cannot make out a supposed ghost image resembling him in the group picture.

Thanks for inquiring. I will correct the name in the posting.

Anonymous said...

Rick, I could be wrong, but I thought the inset was just a close up of the actual photo? I thought the small picture inset is of the living soldier, and Freddy (or whomever) behind him... I very much enjoyed your piece on this (sorry, I realize I didn't say it before) and only on reading it, did it strike me that I don't know what Freddy looked like besides the 'ghost' image! That is a rather important bit of information for us in deciding what this was all about. It's a fascinating photo, I probably need to explore it some more.

Rick Darby said...


Do you see a resemblance between the face in the inset and a face in the group photo? "Fourth from the left" is ambiguous -- there seems to be a face mostly obscured by the inset, but you can't count him to get to the bloke behind whom the supposed apparition is posed.

The caption is confusing.

Anyway, modern instrumental transcommunication is beginning to produce better photographic and recorded evidence of survival. See my post dated July 18.