Loading... Please wait...

Ghosts at the Front: A Curiosity Caught on Film?

Posted by

Introductory Note: Readers are advised to maintain an open mind when reading this article and to note that we are not advancing any definitive claims in regard to parapsychological  phenomena. 

History records that interest in so-called "spirit photography" arose shortly after the development of the camera. The nineteenth-century was the heyday of spiritualism, seances and countless attempts to "contact" the dead, or otherwise "prove" - through the use of what was then the cutting edge technology of the time - the existence of one of the oldest and most pervasive presences in European folklore and memory: Ghosts.

We take no position on the existence of "ghosts," nor can we assert with any degree of certainty that post-mortem survivals of human consciousness do not occur. Nevertheless, despite the numerous hoaxes that have been perpetrated upon a public that has an insatiable appetite for such curiosities (including the legendary but faked photograph of the "Cottingley Fairies" that was "authenticated" in 1922 by no lesser an authority than Sir Arthur Conan Doyle), a tiny handful of bona-fide, otherwise inexplicable "ghostly" images have come down to us among the billions of photographs that have been taken since the dawn of photography.


The few "ghost" pictures that have withstood rigorous examination by photographic experts employing all the tools of modern science stand to this day as mysteries and curiosities that might - just might - be visual evidence of the existence of another world.

We ourselves, as military historians, always make wide use of vintage photos in our productions. Accordingly, we have examined thousands of images, rejecting most, but choosing the most interesting among them for acquisition and inclusion in our constantly-growing photographic archive. One particular, mildly interesting photograph we found a few years ago in an online auction had what appeared (at first glance) to be a noticeable technical flaw; we bought it anyway, since we liked the motif, were confident we could resolve the problem with digital editing and could not pass it up at its sale price of only a couple of Euros.

The photo duly arrived and was put aside for about two years, after which we finally discovered a use for it and began the routine task of its restoration. What we found when we scanned and enlarged it made it clear that this photograph was anything but "mildly" interesting or "routine."

Let us examine the image in question: The scans presented here are taken from the original, period photo in question - printed on wartime Agfa-Lupex paper and measuring 9.5 by 6.7 centimeters, including a scalloped white border - that was taken on one of the fronts of the Second World War by a German soldier and printed shortly thereafter. A cursory examination of the subject matter reveals several easily-observable attributes:

1) The Luftwaffe personnel in the frame (probably members of a Flak unit) appear to be sitting and standing in some sort of dugout or impromptu bunker of the type especially common on the Eastern Front.

2) The subjects appear to be anything but jovial, but instead wear expressions of fatigue, pensiveness and even somberness, such as might be expected following the death of a comrade in battle. Some of the men are singing, but we have no idea what they are singing.

3) The smoky, filament-like tendril in the center of the photo, while possibly being attributable to flaws in the lens or film, nevertheless shows depth and three-dimensional perspective. Coincidentally, its behavior adheres to classic descriptions of ectoplasm, a substance believed by spiritualists to be a physical relic of a disembodied spirit. Ectoplasm has never been scientifically proven to exist, nor has its alleged composition been identified, but manifestations of it have been claimed repeatedly in the literature of spiritualism. We remain agnostics on the matter, insofar as we have no idea if such a thing as ectoplasm actually exists. Yet the behavior of the tendril depicted in the photo is interesting: It seems to be reaching from (or to) the bunk shown in the upper right of the frame. Could this bed be a fallen soldier's former berth?

4) The man seated in the foreground is holding an animal mascot or pet - in this case a cat - that is staring intently (and directly) at the hovering white tendril, though it seems that none of the humans in attendance can see it. These disparate reactions are by no means inexplicable if we consider that many animals can see in a spectrum that differs considerably from that perceived by the human eye, and that cats, as crepuscular ambush predators, are gifted with particularly acute eyesight in environments dominated by darkness and shadows. The ancient reputation of cats as spiritual and mystical beings that persists to this day in European folklore only contributes to the mystery generated by the inquisitive behavior of this Flak soldier's alert feline companion. Incidentally, when we first acquired this photo, we were unaware that it even included a cat.


The questions that arise from all of the above observations are: Does this photograph record the “final farewell” of a recently fallen comrade to his fellow fighting men? Is it a legitimate photographic document of a  paranormal event? Or, was it taken with a camera that had a cracked lens, inside a cramped space with cigarette smoke in the air?

Not being experts in the field of photography, we cannot eliminate the many logical and prosaic explanations for the ghostly, filament-like, zig-zagging streak appearing in this image. We do note, however, that nothing resembling it appears in a catalogue of common film problems encountered by photographers using traditional, non-digital equipment. And we are still left with the question: What does the cat find more "interesting" than the photographer standing a few feet away from its face?

Nevertheless, being just as innocent of the mysteries of the "spirit world" (belief in which has figured in all cultures since the beginning of human history) as we are the deeper technical intricacies of photography, we cannot say conclusively that this photograph does NOT depict something from beyond our normal, everyday reality....

Happy Halloween!