Space & Innovation

British Viral 'Ghost Photo' Explained

A ghost photo from the U.K. is going viral this week but in this case psychology—not the paranormal—provides the best explanation.

A "ghost photo" taken by a British woman named Natasha Oliver is circulating in the news media and social media. It appears to be a human head and torso in an unfinished building in the background of a friendly gathering. The form is too dark and fuzzy to be identified, but some have claimed it looks like a ghostly mother and baby.

Oliver's photo was taken five years ago but recently got widespread attention after she commented on a Facebook post about a ghost picture she thought was fake-and offered her own. The story was featured on "Good Morning America" today:

"Oliver said she and her friends "freaked out" after they saw the photo on her digital camera back in 2010, taken when they were hanging out on the lawn in front of the unfinished home still being built at the time. "When we saw the ghostly figure, the boys climbed up the scaffolding to see what was up there thinking maybe someone was watching us," Oliver said. "But there was nothing up there. There were no floorboards or anything there. The house wasn't finished being built yet at the time."

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While everyone loves a good ghost story, there are some reasons to be skeptical that a phantom photobombed their party picture. Though there was some speculation that the photo was faked-partly because a famous ghost photo from the same town claimed to be of a little girl killed in a fire was revealed to be a hoax-but a misunderstanding seems more likely in this case.

A Closer Look It's curious that there are only two, nearly identical photographs provided by Oliver, taken two minutes apart (at 21:20 and 21:22). If, as she claimed, the group immediately noticed that an odd figure seemed to be in the window behind them and a few friends were dispatched to investigate, it seems odd that there aren't there more photos of it from a closer point of view.

Instead it seems that no one in the group even tried to get a better photo of it. A surprised exclamation of "Look! Is that a ghost?" during a review of a digital photograph taken moments before might be expected to result in a dozen cell phone cameras being produced to get their own photographic "proof" of the paranormal, but that did not happen.

In fact the additional photographic evidence provided by Oliver casts doubt on her explanation; because the photos are time-stamped, and because she uploaded dozens of photographs from that June 18 event to Facebook, there is a photographic record of what the group did after the "ghost photos" were taken.

The last image that shows the "ghost" was taken at 21:22, and is followed by 26 other photos depicting what the group did between that time and 21:52 that evening. There is not a single photograph that shows Oliver or any of her friends searching for a ghost-or even reacting to the discovery that they may have been in the presence of an undead spirit. Instead the two dozen photos show the group laughing, acting goofy, and enjoying an alcohol-fueled footballer party.

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Role of Psychology and Memory This part of the mystery is solved by a closer look at the photos, which reveals that four months elapsed before anyone noticed the ghostly figure; it seems to have been first noted on Oct. 4, 2010 by one of Oliver's friends on Facebook. Therefore her quoted claim that "When we saw the ghostly figure, the boys climbed up the scaffolding to see what was up there thinking maybe someone was watching us" could not be true, since no one in her group saw the figure at the time, which explains why her photos show no investigation.

Since there was no investigation at the time-and therefore no one trying to figure out what the strange form might be-the claim that in looking for the ghost the creepy revelation that "there was nothing up there" can't be accurate.

There are two second-story windows visible in the ghostly photograph; in another photo later in the series one of Oliver's friends can be seen on scaffolding in front of one of the windows. Since the ghost wasn't discovered until months later he was not (and could not have been) searching for the ghostly intruder; instead he is posing and holding a beer about half an hour after the "ghost" photo was taken.

He may have looked in the window and saw nothing-but he is at the wrong window. The ghost was photographed in the other window. What may have happened is that he told Oliver (months later) that when he had been up there he hadn't seen anything odd and that there was nothing in that window, and he or she misunderstood which window he was referring to.

There's no evidence that anyone even looked in the window where the "ghost" was photographed to see what was there.

Perhaps Oliver was misquoted and meant to suggest that, four months after the photo was taken they returned to search for a cause of the figure. But by then the construction would have likely been completed, the scene changed dramatically, and the scaffolding removed. Either way the story as it's been presented cannot be accurate. A more likely explanation is that Oliver has simply misremembered the circumstances of that photo five years after it was taken.

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So what is the light grey, vaguely human-like figure? It could have been a trick of light, or a piece of plastic or tarp from the construction site behind them, wooden planks propped up in the window, or any number of other things.

Just because the general shape looks vaguely like a head and chest doesn't mean it is; the human brain is hardwired to look for human-like patterns. This is a psychological phenomenon called pareidolia, in which people see faces and figures in ambiguous form, from clouds to stains. It's common and harmless.

There are so many random patterns in the world around us that eventually, by pure coincidence, some of them will resemble patterns we recognize. Religious people sometimes find Christian crosses in their potatoes; UFO buffs sometimes find rocks on Mars that look like human figures, and so on. The fact that Oliver and her friends later interpreted the figure as a ghost isn't that odd. It's a normal reaction and interpretation.

It's impossible to know what was in that window five years after the photo was taken; the building has been finished and all the scaffolding and construction debris long since removed.

All we are left with is a ghost story and photo. Ghosts may or may not exist, but in this case psychology-not the paranormal-provides the best explanation.

See what appears to be a ghost above the party-goers?

In an example of early trick photography, a ghost appears to visit a young girl beside her bed (Photo circa 1860-1869, London, England).