Space & Innovation

Mysterious Figure at Stanley Hotel: Ghost or Glitch?

A strange image was photographed in a supposedly haunted hotel: ghost or glitch?

A visitor to a famous -- and famously haunted -- hotel in Colorado claims to have captured a ghostly image.

According to a CNN story, "Tourist Henry Yau recently took a picture at the Stanley Hotel in Estes Park, Colorado, which appears to show two ghostly apparitions standing on a staircase. In the photo, a woman can be seen at the top of the stairs in a period outfit with a child beside her."

The photo has gone viral, leaving many scratching their heads and others heading to the Stanley to see for themselves.

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Many commenters on social media think it's a ghost (or two), and several amateur ghost hunters have weighed in suggesting it's unexplainable. Others, however, have a pretty good idea of what it is. Researcher Kenny Biddle of the Geeks & Ghosts podcast and the "I am Kenny Biddle" blog, examined the photo and noted that Yau used the panoramic feature on his iPhone to capture a full view of the grand stairwell.

This offers a clue because the in panorama mode the camera doesn't just take one photo but instead scans across the scene rapidly.

Biddle notes that "Panoramic images are not taken in the same fraction of a second as a normal images are. They take several seconds, which would allow Yau to start taking his panoramic image at one end of the room, and another guest or two to hit the halfway point down the stairs, turn the corner, and begin the second set of stairs to the floor as Yau ends his panoramic image on the other side of the room."

Odd glitches using the panorama function on cameras are common, and many websites display hundreds of bizarre and double images. A Tumblr account titled "Panorama Fail" offers dozens of accidental digital grotesqueries.

The "ghost" is "most likely just a guest that was captured coming down the stairs while a panoramic image was taken over the course of several seconds," Biddle concludes.

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Though some have dismissed the image as an artifact of the panorama feature, Biddle notes that "when looking at a close up of the alleged ghost and second ghost (to the left of the more solid looking figure), we see that the features of both figures match up: the hair, the spaghetti-strap top, the height of the head, shoulders, and the top of the dress.

"This is a double image of the same person, not someone else. This effect was caused by the low light environment, slower scanning speed due to the camera trying to take in more light, and the movement of this person as they rounded the corner."

Yau claims that he doesn't remember seeing anyone at the top of the staircase when he took the photo, but it's quite possible that he simply didn't notice the woman as she appeared and turned at the top of the stairs, as he was trying to hold the camera steady and take the photo. (Yau also claimed that he waited until there was no one in the area when taking the photo, though two people can be clearly seen on the left side of the photo.)

How the unexpected hotel guest was dressed likely also played a role in how her image was interpreted; she seems to be wearing a classic black or dark dress (as befits a fancy, well-known hotel); had she been wearing a yellow blazer and carrying a large Target shopping bag speculations about her spectral origins would likely have been scuttled.

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Creepy Context Upon closer inspection, there is nothing remarkable in the image; it's a perfectly ordinary blurry, double image common in long exposure and panoramic iPhone photographs. Had it been taken in any number of other locations, it would not likely have attracted such attention. So why is image played up as a mystery? The answer lies in its context.

Context plays two roles in the creation of "spooky" photos. Most people (that is, non-professional photographers) routinely take photos that are flawed in some way, or that have odd or unusual images in them, including flash reflected "orbs," odd shadows, blurry body parts, double exposures, objects behind a person seemingly coming out of their heads, and so on. Usually they are ignored or deleted, unless the photographer (or someone else) decides that there's some reason why the photo might be of something supernatural.

The photo was taken at a doubly famous hotel-not only is it where the Stephen King-scripted, Stanley Kubrick-directed horror classic "The Shining" was filmed, but it's also claimed to be one of the most haunted hotels in the country. In fact the hotel specifically advertises itself as a paranormal destination and caters to ghost hunting tourists.

Because of this, guests there are more likely to see ghosts (in person and in photos) than in comparable non-haunted lodgings-and this is true whether ghosts exist or not.

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This is because of a psychological process called priming, in which our expectations can influence our interpretations. To some degree we see what we want or expect to see -- and that can include ghosts.

People who are aware of a building's haunted reputation are more likely to take many photos, and anything odd or even potentially mysterious in those photos is likely to be considered evidence of ghosts.

A person could take an equal number of similar odd photos at a location not assumed to be haunted-a local supermarket or lake shore, for example-and the odd photographic artifact would not be as closely examined nor interpreted as anything mysterious, just a flawed photo.

The second contextual factor is of course that the Stanley hotel and others like it have a vested economic interest in promoting such photos as ghostly -- or at the very least maintaining an agnostic stance about them. This isn't necessarily cynicism but pragmatism: There is no publicity to be gained by casting any doubt a claimed ghost photo taken in their hotel that's making news.

Biddle told Discovery News, "This is a classic example of inexperienced investigators and fluff piece media jumping the gun and promoting an easily explainable anomaly as something supernatural rather than doing legitimate investigative/detective work to figure out the mystery. It's the reason paranormal investigation remains in the land of pseudoscience."

Whether ghosts haunt the Stanley remains to be seen, but it's unlikely that Yau's staircase double exposure is one of them.

A man visiting the hotel that inspired the Stephen King novel “The Shining” captured this haunting image during a recent stay at the Stanley Hotel. (Photo:

Good ghost stories require two elements: the ghost and the story. While ghosts themselves may or may not be real -- that's a

whole other question

-- the story part is a phenomenon we can study and track. In the study of history and folklore, ghost stories have a haunted mansion all to themselves. Ghosts appear, as it were, in the written and oral traditions of virtually every culture on the planet. As they're handed down through generations, ghost stories get retold in different forms and media, depending on the era. America has its share of famous ghosts and hauntings, many of which go back hundreds of years. Our most famous stories tend to wind up on the TV or movie screen eventually. Such is the way of Hollywood. Everyone likes a good ghost story, right? We track five famous American ghosts and their journey from story to screen.

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One of America's earliest and most sensational hauntings, the Bell Witch story begins in rural Tennessee in the early 19th century. As the story goes, farmer John Bell and his family began experiencing unexplained phenomena in and around their farmhouse in 1817. Knocks and whispers soon grew more malevolent, with the spirit throwing objects around the house and attacking the family's children, particularly 12-year-old daughter Betsy. Soon, people were coming from hundreds of miles away to witness the manifestations first-hand, and the legend grew with each retelling. The spirit was identified as the ghost of a witch -- at least, that's the story that stuck. Tales of the Bell Witch haunting were eventually written up by newspapers and book authors, albeit more than 70 years after the fact. Folklorists and scholars have since

investigated the case

and found verifiable details extremely hard to come by. But the Bell Witch story has inspired several books and feature films including "An American Haunting" and -- most famously -- "The Blair Witch Project."

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In 1820, American author Washington Irving published his short story "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow" in a collection of essays and fiction. In the story, superstitious schoolteacher Ichabod Crane encounters the Headless Horseman, which legend says is the restless ghost of a Hessian soldier killed during the Revolutionary War. Irving's tale is actually rooted in a ghost story with an immigrant pedigree all its own. The headless horseman is a motif that can be found in many different European myths and legends, some dating all the way back to the Middle Ages. Irving's update was based on a colonial New England version of the legend, and would become one of the first works of American horror fiction. "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow" was first adapted to film in the 1922 silent film "The Headless Horseman." Dozens of TV and film adaptations have been produced in the years since, including director Tim Burton's "Sleepy Hollow" in 1999.

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America's great contribution to the classic ghost story, the urban legend known as "The Vanishing Hitchhiker" has fascinated folklorists for decades. Everyone knows the drill, right? A mysterious hitchhiker catches a ride into town, but mysteriously vanishes from the moving vehicle en route. When the driver asks around, it's revealed that the phantom hitchhiker is actually the ghost of... Well, there are several different endings, depending on regional variations. This particular ghost story is so widespread that folklorist Jan Harold Brunvard named his groundbreaking 1981 book on urban legends, "The Vanishing Hitchhiker: American Urban Legends and Their Meanings." Brunvard traced the American iteration of story all the way back into the mid-19th century. Similar stories of roadside ghosts can actually be found further back in history, in Europe and elsewhere, but the classic Route-66 style hitchhiker narrative is distinctly American. Over the years, the Vanishing Hitchhiker story has been recycled in literally hundreds of books, songs, stage productions, commercials, TV shows and movies.

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Like most historical resorts, the Stanley Hotel in Estes Park, Colo., has plenty of ghost stories. Opened to the public in 1909, the hotel was soon haunted by the ghosts of its original owners, Mr. and Mrs. Stanley, who could be seen making their spectral rounds and entertaining guests. Other ghost stories developed over the years and by the 1970s, the Stanley had a dozen different ghosts attached to various guest rooms and public areas. In 1974, horror writer Stephen King and his wife Tabitha spent an evening at the Stanley just as it was closing up for the winter season. After a night of weird dreams, the Stanley became King's inspiration for the sinister Overlook Hotel in his 1977 novel "The Shining." Director Stanley Kubrick's 1980 adaptation is widely considered to be one of the best horror movies ever made. Fact and fiction have been terminally confused ever since, and the Stanley Hotel now trades heavily on its reputation as America's most haunted hotel. The Stanley hosts an annual horror film festival and the owners

recently announced

that they're planning to open a horror museum and film archive on the premises.

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Probably the single most famous American haunting story in the last 50 years, the incidents that took place in late-1970s Amityville, NY, play out like a fast-forward ghost story for the mass media age. In 1975, George and Kathy Lutz, and their three children, claimed to have been terrorized by a series of shocking paranormal experiences. The house they had recently purchased was the site of a mass murder just 13 months earlier, when 23-year-old Ronald DeFeo murdered his parents and four younger siblings. The Lutz's astounding claims, which included demonic apparitions and swarms of flies, were quickly chronicled in author Jay Anson's book "The Amityville Horror," published in 1977 with the subtitle: "A True Story." The book was subsequently made into a 1979 movie, which spawned even more movies, which triggered even more books. Alas, it was

all a hoax

. In courtroom depositions years after the fact, the Lutz family and their collaborators -- including the lawyer for Ronald DeFeo -- admitted that the entire affair had been invented over a few bottles of wine. A lot of people made a lot of money, and the Amityville haunting has since passed into the annals of national ghost story folklore. What could be more American?

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