A History of Ghosts on Film

Let's take you inside a paranormal picture show.

This article was originally published in the Den of Geek Special Edition Magazine. Click here to view the full issue!

From the days of Thomas Alva Edison, filmmakers have been trying to capture ghosts on film. But did they? Why would a director waste hours of film stock hoping for a frame’s worth of a glimpse at the other side when it’s just easier to fake it? As audio and visual equipment became more sophisticated, movie directors, some of them mired in the expectations of the horror genre, had access to the best technology the richest industry had to offer. But few tried to break through the fourth wall into the sixth dimension.

While no major studio ever funded true supernatural experiments, French director Rebecca Zlotowski’s new film Planetarium imagines how the scenario might have played out. The film focuses on a producer’s obsession with documenting spectral truths on his new camera. It is as much a love letter to celluloid potential as it is a search for spiritual meaning on the eve of World War II.

In the movie, André Korben, a ranking member of the state film ministry, played by Emmanuel Salinger, becomes entranced by a pair of traveling psychic sisters portrayed by Natalie Portman and Lily-Rose Depp. Convinced he can capture paranormal activity with his new camera, Korben sets up a lab and hires scientists and cameramen. He drives a director crazy trying to capture the essence of a spirit passing between him and the young medium as they meditate together with medical monitors spirit-glued to their bodies and metal crowns with thorny wires on their heads.

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It seems natural Zlotowsky would be tempted to use her own equipment to capture the supernatural images imagined in the feature. That wasn’t the case.

“We used a very experimental camera, the Ari65,” Zlotowsky tells Den of Geek. “Only parts of The Revenant and Star Wars had been shot with it. The excitement of having this camera was close to the one Korben has with his new camera.”

The wondrous camera must have spotted otherworldly on-set activity, right?

“Nope,” Zlotowski says. “Disappointing, I admit.” She echoes one of the characters in Planetarium, who says all the photographic evidence of ghostly activity is fake—some of it good fakes, admittedly, but still fake. After doing her own research into the subject, the director’s eyes were not clouded by the ectoplasmic residue covering the camera lens.

“My rationality admits a certain part of irrational,” Zlotowski says. “To be 100 percent scientific about this, you have to pay attention to the unknown. I have been documenting a lot among scientists for the film. They devote themselves to claiming the paranormal doesn’t exist. I love this contradiction.”

Most modern filmmakers, including Zlotowski, aren’t particularly concerned with capturing elusive sparks of life after life. But this wasn’t always the case. “I am amazed by the seriousness of the ancient studies, especially Thomas Edison, who devoted the end of his life to trying to connect with ghosts via the telephone,” she says.

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While it would still be years before anyone thought about calling the Ghostbusters, scientists would develop tools for communicating with spirits that have become legend. Although they didn’t get a call through to the other side, special effects wizards had their number.

Talking With the Dead

Edison invented the electric light bulb, the alkaline battery, and the phonograph. He was also one of the first filmmakers, and his Black Mariah camera transformed motion pictures. According to Edison family friend John Eggleston, the inventor’s parents were Spiritualists. Edison believed in telepathy. He tested the famous clairvoyant Bert Reese, who reportedly finished sentences Edison began in a building next door.

When he was 73, Edison told B.C. Forbes, who would create Forbes Magazine, his patents were entering a new dimension. In American Magazine’s October 1920 story, “Edison Working to Communicate with the Next World,” Edison said he believed energy is indestructible, like matter. He said he developed the cylinder recorder, a radio he claimed was sensitive enough to communicate with the past. He reiterated this claim in an Oct. 30, 1920 interview with The Scientific American. The legendary machine is now found at the Edison National Historic Site.

Mentalist Joseph Dunninger believed Edison was telepathic. When Edison died at 3:24 a.m. on Sunday, Oct. 18, 1931, his clock supposedly stopped, as did those of Edison’s three top executives. The grandfather clock in Edison’s laboratory stopped three minutes later.

British scientist Sir William Crookes, who developed the vacuum tube Edison needed for the light bulb, was president of the Society for Psychical Research. His assistant, chemist David Wilson, developed a Metallic Homunculus that he believed could talk to the dead.

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Crookes claimed he touched the beating heart of a materialized spirit through the device. The poet W.B. Yeats, who had a lifetime interest in magic and the occult, tested the machine for the British Society for Psychical Research. His findings were inconclusive and possibly tainted by Wilson’s telepathic interference. The Metallic Homunculus was impounded as an illegal wireless during WWI and vanished from history.

Spirit Photography

William Mumler discovered “spirit photography” by accident in the early 1860s. He inserted a positive glass plate prepared with the image of a dead person in front of an unused sensitive glass plate when he took photographs to create a double exposure that looked like a ghostly image. His most famous photo allegedly shows the ghost of Abraham Lincoln hovering over his wife, Mary Todd. Even P.T. Barnum couldn’t be suckered and sued Mumler for fraud.

Early photographers trying to capture etheric energy during meditative séances used magnesium flash bulbs, not the most relaxing of light sources. Eastman Kodak developed cameras and film which made it easier to catch genuine phenomenon and expose more obvious hoaxes. Medium M.J. Williams took the first photograph of ectoplasm in natural daylight in July 1931 in Oakland, California.

In 1937, the Society for Psychical Research concluded spirit photography was too easy to fake by shaking a camera during a six-second exposure. Photographers can create a transparent figure on one frame of film by using a longer shutter speed on a 35mm camera while shooting a subject who changes positions. A figure that appears to be flowing can created by having a subject move fast during a shot, which produces a transparent blur.

Although Ghost Club member Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, who created Sherlock Holmes, defended it in the book The Case for Spirit Photography (1922), the practice was basically a con. Doyle, William Crookes, and William Stainton Moses claimed spirit photography caught ectoplasm, the liquid residue of ghostly visitors. Photographers claimed that anyone who knew their way around a darkroom could replicate the images table-rappers like David Duguid and Edward Wyllie presented as otherworldly evidence.

Nonetheless, today’s paranormal investigators wouldn’t think of heading into a haunted house without their EMF detectors, infrared motion detectors, or spirit boxes.

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Multi-Camera Multi-Dimensional Breakthroughs

Just before World War I, German physician Baron von Schrenck-Notzing simultaneously pointed nine cameras toward medium Eva Carrière to document visually perceptible phenomena. Before the sessions, Eva C., who was dressed in a special outfit so nothing could be concealed, submitted to a full body search. Schrenck-Notzing caught dramatic images of ectoplasmic materializations but said the medium was doing it through ideoplasty, pushing the images from her mind rather than by invoking spirits. Other critics were less forgiving, claiming the photographs caught cardboard cutouts.

The U.S. War Department invited some of the greatest directors of Hollywood’s Golden Age to document World War II. But they didn’t invite them to the table when the CIA held séances for Project MK Ultra experiments. There may be hundreds of hours of amazing footage from the clandestine research on mind control, telepathy, ESP, psychic warfare, and remote viewing, but it was either burned in the 1970s or it’s locked away in some kind of Raiders of the Lost Ark hangar beyond Freedom of Information laws.

German researcher Klaus Schreiber believed he picked up signals from the dead using a video camera that looped into a TV called the Vidicomin. Occasionally the device would catch white noise with faces peering out of them. They claimed to capture Austrian actress Romy Schneider on a television set years after her death. In 1986, physicist Ernst Senkowski claimed to capture a video feed of the spirit of EVP researcher Hanna Buschbeck, who died in 1978.

Paranormal TV

Paranormal television series have come a long way since One Step Beyond. Leonard Nimoy never found a ghost on In Search of…, and Sightings didn’t see ghosts. MTV’s Fear and Britain’s Most Haunted series were the first to train the cameras on the spooks. Today, shows like Ghost Hunters, Dead Files, and Ghost Asylum parse hours of stationary camera setups for seconds of supernatural substance.

British security cameras had better luck showing a ghostly spirit than the BBC had faking it. A horror 1992 mockumentary called “Ghostwatch” hoaxed North London in much the same way Orson Welles’ 1938 Mercury Theatre radio broadcast of H.G. Wells’ War of the Worlds pranked New Jersey. The show followed the Early family, who were haunted by a ghost they named “Pipes.” Even though the episode was written by Stephen Volk for the anthology Screen One and featured recognizable actors, audiences were terrorized by what they thought was real supernatural activity. The BBC was hit with hundreds of complaints and several lawsuits saying the show caused post-traumatic stress disorder in children, and even one reported suicide.

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You can find freaky found footage from security cameras, selfie-stick mishaps, and the occasional Facebook live feed all over YouTube. Dead relatives photobomb family portraits, old soldiers line up in formation for new deployment, and orbs block engravings on tombstones. In 2016, CCTV cameras caught a transparent figure browsing a Hopkinson store built in the 1880s in Nottingham, England.

Tales of haunted theaters and paranormally overactive movie and TV sets are legendary, going back to William Shakespeare’s Globe Theater. Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry’s cologne has been known to waft over the commissary on the old Paramount lot. All those cameras pointed at such lively historic subjects must have caught an occasional occult cameo, but they’ve been left on the cutting room floor. Hollywood shot millions of miles of celluloid but never claimed to catch any evidence of otherworldly activity. Even the dead kid in Three Men and a Baby turned out to be the same kind of cardboard cutout spirit photographers used to prove ghosts were ready for their closeups.