Fortean Photography: The Ghost in the Frame

Interior of the Orpheum Theatre from the stage, view of the auditorium with balcony. Credit:  The Wisconsin Historical Society

Interior of the Orpheum Theatre from the stage, view of the auditorium with balcony. Credit: The Wisconsin Historical Society

The ghostly image as it appears in the photograph is small enough, that, were you standing in front of it, you'd be unlikely to see it unless you moved in very close.  Don't be surprised if you're unable to locate the anomaly outside of the magnified images; although even the magnified images don't do justice to viewing the original print and negative from the Wisconsin Historical Society archives.

In April of last year, we shared some ghost stories of Madison’s Orpheum Theatre that were collected by our favorite ghost host, Lisa Van Buskirk. During these conversations, she mentioned a photograph of the Orpheum’s auditorium in which a ghostly apparition of a man can be seen. This sparked my curiosity, of course, and I was anxious to get into the building and examine this photograph. Lisa is a firefighter by day, and had initially sent me an image of the photograph in its frame as displayed in the hallway. There were fingerprints on the glass, likely from curious onlookers (perhaps pointing at the alleged ghost), so I used that as an excuse to go see the image for myself.

Me, Lisa, and a bottle of Windex went over to the theatre on a Thursday afternoon to see the reputedly paranormal photograph. It was a bitter, cold day which made this normally spooky theatre seem inviting and warm. We were greeted by the manager, Mike, who led us towards the entrance of the auditorium. The photograph was hanging immediately to the left inside of the hallway.

The print hanging on the wall in the Orpheum Theatre photographed with Lisa's smartphone.

The print hanging on the wall in the Orpheum Theatre photographed with Lisa's smartphone.

Lisa sprayed down the glass with her handy bottle of Windex, and my eyes scanned the surface of the image where I saw several imperfections that resembled hazy, glowing orbs that almost seemed as if they were floating over the rows of chairs in the orchestra section as seen from the stage. I know these are a type of lens flare, appropriately called “ghosting.”  Ghosting occurs when light repeatedly reflects off the surface of the lens and is seen in the image. Reflections occurring in front of and behind the lens’ aperture give the ghost the same shape as the aperture. Near the lower right of the photograph, just above the photographer’s signature and a music stand, you can see the ghostly image of what appears to be the upper torso of a gentleman in a hat and perhaps a coat and tie. I am baffled by the detail present in this “apparition.” All I knew as I looked at it was that it’s something strange that I cannot explain.

This is the corner where you will find the ghost gentleman in question.

This is the corner where you will find the ghost gentleman in question.

A close-up of the alleged ghost

A close-up of the alleged ghost

I asked myself these initial questions regarding what the figure might be:

  • Is it possible this is a reflection of an actual person who was present at the time the photograph was taken?

  • Could this just be an example of pareidolia? We’ve been seeing the man in the moon, faces in the clouds, and the Virgin Mary on our toast for as long as humans have existed.

    I decided to dig through the online archives at the Wisconsin Historical Society’s website and find the records of the photograph. As I suspected, this image was taken on a large format camera; likely an 8x10” as that is the original size of the print. The image was taken by Angus B. McVicar in April 1927, roughly a year after the theatre had opened its doors for the first time as a vaudeville venue and movie palace.

The Orpheum in 1927. Credit:  The Wisconsin Historical Society

The Orpheum in 1927. Credit: The Wisconsin Historical Society

Angus B. McVicar, age 20. Credit:  The Wisconsin Historical Society

Angus B. McVicar, age 20. Credit: The Wisconsin Historical Society

McVicar was born in Sheboygan Falls in 1903, and moved to Madison with his family in 1917. He started his photo business in the basement of his family’s flower shop at 723 University Avenue and did contract work for the Capital Times for many years. He primarily used 4x5” and 8x10” large format cameras, and was the first photographer in Madison to use a flash for supplemental lighting. He worked in the University of Wisconsin Photography department from 1957 until his death in 1964. He is buried in Forest Hill Cemetery.

Large format 8x10” cameras are able to capture exceptional detail, as you can see in this photographs and many of the others McVicar created. With this image being taken in a dark theatre, McVicar may have used a flash to help illuminate the scene. Even with all the lights on, McVicar would have had to have used artificial lighting or a long exposure in order to capture this photograph in the manner that he did. Now, if the photographer had taken a long exposure, it is possible that if he were to stand in front of the camera with a shutter release cable, it would be possible for the camera to capture his figure as a double exposure. That would definitely be a rookie mistake, and there would be no good reason for McVicar to move away from the back of the camera in the first place. If he had done so, the scale and perspective from where his distance would have been in front of the camera is seemingly off. In addition, the light is noticeably hard to me, which makes me suspect that McVicar did indeed illuminate the auditorium with a flash. The frontmost chairs in the orchestra section reflect a very harsh shine and the theatre gets darker farther back towards the balcony as the flash could have only reached so far and isn’t able to light everything in such a deep space very evenly. Had this image been captured through a longer exposure, the lighting would be much more even, and the lights from the chandeliers and sconces in the auditorium would be blown out and brighter from being exposed longer. If you look at the chandeliers, they also cast very harsh shadows directly behind which is a dead giveaway that they were hit with a flash. Flash also freezes motion keeping everything in focus, and everything in this scene is extremely sharp and crisp. I can pretty much rule out that this “ghost gentleman” was caused by a long exposure, which is easily the most common explanation for appearances of ghosts in photographs.

I ruled out our gentleman ghost as a lens reflection before anything else--the lens ghosts are clearly spherical & circular shaped like an aperture. Apertures aren’t humanoid shaped, last I checked….

For the sake of being thorough, and being the nerd that I am, I knew I had to go down to the Wisconsin Historical Society and examine the emulsion of the original photographic print in case this might be an imperfection from film processing. Lisa and I arrived on the 4th floor where the Archives are kept, and were handed a white envelope and white cotton gloves. To our delight, we received not the print, but the actual, original photographic negative. We set the negative on a light table and admired the crisp detail that was captured by McVicar and his camera. We peered through the magnifier and obsessed over the fact that we could see every facet of every crystal in the chandeliers and that we could very clearly make out the statue in the hallway near the back where you entered the theatre. In the bottom right-hand corner, we could make out the shapes of our ghost in question. The figure above the music stand isn’t able to be seen as well in the negative, since the negative is an inverse of the image in the print, and the figure fades into the background because of the range of values present in the chairs--as a translucent object it presents a weaker outline due to already somewhat blending with its surroundings. Everything that is black is white and everything that is white is black so the details of the figure gets lost in the negative. The fact is that the figure exists in the negative and was not hoaxed and did not simply appear in prints. In fact, we noticed another imperfection in the image that we did not notice in the print. To the right of our ghost, we notice a hunched figure that looks as though it is wearing a jacket--you can clearly see details of wrinkles in fabric.

The negative on the light table at the Wisconsin Historical Society.

The negative on the light table at the Wisconsin Historical Society.

Viewing the negative of our "ghosts" through the magnifier.

Viewing the negative of our "ghosts" through the magnifier.

Of course, I had to consider light leaks as a possibility here. A light leak in a large format negative would be seen coming from the edges of the lens mount or the edge of the film as it rested in the camera. While the figures here are close to the edge, the ghostly haze doesn’t lead all the way to the edge. Light leaks are typically harsher and can ruin an entire part of the image as it has received more exposure to light than the rest of the film. Our ghosts do not affect the quality of the image, as you can still see much detail in that corner. Again, the details I’ve noted also cause me to believe that it is not a light leak.

As far as pareidolia goes, that is entirely possible--but I begin to doubt that with how clear the characteristics are.

Do we now have two ghostly gents that made their appearance in Angus’ film on that spring day in 1927? Well, I certainly can’t explain it. All I know is that there is something weird going on in this photograph, and it looks a lot like ghosts.

Unusually yours,


ghostsTobias Wayland