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Double-Exposure in the Back Seat

Apr. 23, 2015 by | Comments (26)

You can find it reproduced on hundreds of paranormal themed websites and in many ghost books. The photo is usually accompanied by a short bit of text that describes the scenario. Mrs. Mabel Chinnery snapped the photo in March of 1959 in England. She took the photo of her husband in the car, but when the photo was developed she could see that her mother (Mrs. Ellen Hammell) was in the photo sitting behind him—but the photo was taken during a visit to the late Mrs. Hammell’s grave! How could she now appear in the back seat?! [cue dramatic music]

FullShot-BackseatGhostCar

A screen shot from Arthur C. Clarke’s World of Strange Powers offers the clearest copy of the photo by Mrs. Mabel Chinnery allegedly showing a back-seat ghost.

The phrasing of the stories accompanying the photo tends to follow closely the short blurb that was included in Time-Life’s Hauntings, which was part of the widely popular “Mysteries of the Unknown” series of books on paranormal topics promoted in the late 1980’s and early 1990s. Their mystery-mongering commercials were etched into the memories of my generation. Many of them included memorable phrases like “How can you explain this?” and “Read the book!” along with reenactments and new age electronic music. The way the Hauntings volume of the series described this particular photograph was quite underwhelming for an image that is supposed to demonstrate such a remarkable concept as continued existence of our identities after death. A caption under the photo says:

An expert who examined the photo above said the image of Mabel Chinnery’s dead mother in the rear seat could not be a reflection or an overprint. “I stake my reputation on the fact that the picture is genuine,” he declared.

Who is this expert? What does the word genuine mean here? Alas, the identity of this person may be lost to us (if such a person existed) but we can tell where the quote originated and it wasn’t in the Time-Life book. The original news report concerning this photo (at least in the United States) came in the June 28, 1959 edition of Parade magazine (now a glossy newspaper insert). In that article we get a more detailed account of the photograph’s history, but there is still little to go on, and in the grainy accompanying printed photo it would have been difficult to see important details.

ParadeArticle

Original article from Parade magazine, 1959.

The text of the Parade article includes this phrase:

At least one photo expert says the picture is genuine, explaining: “The lady in back can’t be the result of a double exposure. If it were, the door’s upright wouldn’t block off part of her face. And she can’t be a reflection in the window, either.”

Here, the unnamed photo expert does not “stake his reputation” but he doesn’t need to if he’s not going to have his name included.

It is likely that Parade picked up the story from a British paper, but I haven’t tracked down the original version, though it is probable that the contents are identical if this is a wire story. There is also an accompanying photo of the late Mrs. Hammell. The story includes that the date the photo was snapped was March 22, 1959. We can confirm through online databases that a Mrs. Ellen Hammell was a real person and that her death records conform to the story laid out by the Chinnery’s.

I wanted to know what kind of car was in the photo so I could get a better idea of how the vehicle was arranged inside. I was very pleased indeed at what has to be my most successful “crowd-sourced” research collaboration to date. Friends, family and fans of MonsterTalk responded to my inquiries and quickly tracked down the make and model of the car. It is a Hillman Minx, probably a Mark III or Mark IV. Here is a fantastic modern photo of the same type of vehicle from almost the exact same angle as that taken in Mrs. Chinnery’s photo.

1953_Hillman_Minx_MarkV_1265cc

1953 Hillman Minx. (Image by Graham Robertson, via Wikimedia Commons. Used under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license).

Overlay_GhostCar

Overlay of original photo on similar model Minx automobile.

Certainly I’m not the first skeptic to investigate the photo. Some accounts mention that there were questions about whether or not the photo could have been a double-exposure. In film-based photography, it is possible to expose the same film to two different photographic scenes and create an image composed of material from both exposures. This doesn’t come up in digital photography, but it was the source of countless fake or accidental ghost photos in the past. In the book Ghost Photos, despite many uncritical entries on such photos, author Melvyn Willin writes:

In this case, the possibility of a double exposure must be considered. On the right is what at first seems to be the door pillar of the far side of the car, but isn’t it much too far forward, aren’t the windows too big, and does the curved right side look like a tree trunk? The supposed mother’s figure looks unnaturally close to the front seat and couldn’t be sitting on the back seat. Even Mr. Chinnery’s face seems too big.

Well, I don’t think I can agree with all of those concerns, but Mrs. Hammell does seem to be sitting a bit far forward—though not so far that this single feature would flag the image as a double-exposure, in my opinion.

A very thorough examination of the photo was performed in Arthur C. Clarke’s World of Strange Powers television series. In the 1985 episode titled “Ghosts, Apparitions and Haunted Houses,” several photographs are investigated including the famous “Cottingley Fairies” photos which fooled Sir. Arthur Conan Doyle. Dr. Steve Gull and Tim Newton use early computer photographic analysis and conclude that there are at least two really strong indicators that the photo is an accidental double-exposure. I’m including a couple of stills to help show these features. First, there is something that looks like a shoulder on the right-hand side of the rear passenger window. It might appear to be the shoulder of the alleged ghost, but that would give her a very odd body configuration.

ACC-computer-image-exam

Dr. Steve Gull and Tim Newton examined the photo using early digital photography software for Arthur C. Clarke’s documentary series.

Arrow points to feature which is not the woman's shoulder, but might be from an armchair.

Arrow points to feature which is not the woman’s shoulder, but might be from an armchair.

The second feature strongly suggesting double-exposure is that the white collar of the alleged back-seat ghost is visible through the metal window frame that splits the front and back doors. Her collar should be truncated where the collar meets the frame—but instead appears to extend through the solid black metal, which is what we would expect of two merged images.

Mrs. Hammell's white collar is visible through solid metal, a strong indicator of a composite image.

Mrs. Hammell’s white collar is visible through solid metal, a strong indicator of a composite image.  To the right you can see the same solid feature in a clearer photo of a Minx driver’s window.

I think the most likely scenario is that Mrs. Chinnery took a photo of her mother in an armchair shortly before the old woman died. Then, with the same roll of film in the camera, she accidentally took a second shot of her husband without forwarding the film to the next frame.

I do not know what kind of camera Mrs. Chinnery had, but I have seen some accounts that said she shot it with an Eastman-Kodak Brownie. There were many popular models on the market when the photo was taken, but the Brownie was a very popular camera. I reached out to an expert on antique Brownie cameras because I wanted to learn more about how easily one might accidentally take a double-exposure on one. Chuck Baker at www.brownie-camera.com was kind enough to answer my inquiries in robust detail.

My first question was about double-exposure prevention on these kinds of cameras. The Brownie was not the first to introduce double-exposure prevention, and even after they started offering it, it was not standard on all models. I asked Mr. Baker, “When did the Brownie introduce double-exposure prevention?”

“I’m assuming you mean which was the first Brownie camera that had double-exposure prevention. There weren’t that many Brownies that did.
There are two types of double-exposure prevention.

1: *Manual Protection: Those that had a little slide that would manually be slid over the actual exposure trigger or a toggle type switch that did the same thing. The user would have to remember to slide it over so that it would not double expose by the photographer or by mishandling.

2: *Automatic Protection: Those that prevent a shutter release until the film is wound to the next exposure. Much like any modern “manual” camera where the act of winding cocks the shutter for the next exposure. This is the least common way for a Brownie to have been protected from double-exposure.”

He went on to give details about the years and models of the various versions and the way they implemented the feature. If you’re interested in antique cameras and photography I’d recommend checking out his website.

I also asked, “Before it was added, how easy or hard was it to accidentally take a double exposure?”

“It’s sometimes funny how things happen. Last weekend I was using, among other cameras, a model that did not have double-exposure prevention and accidentally did a double exposure without knowing it until I processed the film that night. So the answer would be: very easy!

I’ve made it a practice to always wind to the next frame so the camera is always ready to use. What occasionally happens is the lever gets tripped when putting the camera in a bag or pocket…then when it’s taken out, the new shot is made over the mistaken lever trip. It doesn’t happen often, however, even after 50 years of using cameras, this still happens.”

Without knowing that Mrs. Chinnery was using a Brownie in particular, this additional information merely serves to remind one that it was quite possible to accidentally produce double-exposures with cameras of the time. Furthermore, out of all such mistakes it seems statistically inevitable that some of them would occasionally produce startling results where a person who could not possibly be present appears to have shown up in the composite results. I can only imagine how powerful and emotionally moving such an event would be if the circumstances, such as in this case, were such that the person had in fact died before the resulting composite photo was produced. Even if there is a perfectly reasonable non-paranormal explanation for such a photo, it must have been very impactful for Mrs. Chinnery and her husband.

Another camera mentioned as a candidate for Mrs. Chinnery’s camera was the Corfield Periflex. It is not necessary to know what kind of camera was used in order to recognize that cameras sometimes take this kind of photographic error. In this particular case the results were just especially suggestive and emotionally impactful to the photographer and her husband.

Just before publishing this,  I was referred to a companion volume to the Arthur C. Clarke series. In Chronicles of the Strange and Mysterious, this excerpt challenges the idea that this was an accidental double-exposure:

“…in fact, it was the last frame of a film on which Mabel had photographed the old lady’s grave.”

This is the only reference I’ve encountered where mention was made of what other items were on the roll of film.  It is unclear from the passage how the narrator knew this new detail. Did the Chinnerys say this? Did the authors infer it? (Edit 4-23-2015: Readers more alert than I was last night when I added this paragraph have pointed out that the original article included this detail!) If accurate, it calls into question the idea that this was an accidental double-exposure. If this tidbit about other photographs on the roll being taken of the grave prior to this last shot is correct, then an accidental double-exposure scenario becomes a convoluted scenario involving rolling the film forward to the last frame, taking a photo of the mother-in-law, rewinding the film, taking the whole role of shots and then forgetting that the whole “last frame” accident took place and then shooting the new photo of the car over the old photo of the mother.

If this detail about there being previous shots of the grave could be confirmed, I would think it less likely that the double-exposure was accidental, not more likely that the image showed a ghost.

I continue to be fascinated by famous alleged ghost photos. It’s been a topic that entranced and frightened me as a child. I was unable to stop reading about them, yet afraid to look at the photos for very long. As an adult I became more interested in the facts behind the photos, having discovered a pattern of what appears to be deliberate misinformation in the field of ghost research. There are many self-described researchers who are really just enthusiasts. They repeat legends, sometimes adding embellishments, yet seem to eschew any disconfirmatory research. I like, when I can, to help silence some of the noise in the echo-chamber of paranormal literature. This particular image has been in “top ghost photo” lists for years now, but I think we can now take down this exhibit in the gallery of ghosts with some confidence, and put it to rest.

References
  1. Arthur C. Clarke’s world of strange powers [Motion picture on DVD]. (1985). UK: ITV Global Entertainment.
  2. Chuck Baker, personal communication, February 26, 2015
  3. Fairley, J., & Welfare, S. (1987). Arthur C. Clarke’s chronicles of the strange and mysterious (pp. 143 – 144). London: Collins.
  4. The Haunted World. (1989). In J. Mcmanus (Ed.), Hauntings. Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books.
  5. Willin, M. (2009). Most Famous Mysteries. In Ghost Photos: The Paranormal Caught on Film (1st ed., pp. 272 – 273). New York, NY: Metro Books.
Acknowledgements:

Special thanks to Jerry Drake, Paul Lee, Andreas Holm Hammershøj, Chuck Baker, Bridget Bell, Hayley Stevens and all the folks who helped out in the Facebook MonsterTalk group. As always, thanks to my wonderful wife @MrsDrAtlantis for helping me indulge my research obsessions.

Blake Smith

Blake Smith is the producer and host of MonsterTalk, an official podcast of Skeptic magazine. He’s had a lifelong interest in science and the paranormal and enjoys researching the strange and unusual. By day he’s a computer consultant and by night he hunts monsters. He is married and has children. Puns are intentional; don’t bother alerting the management. Read Blake’s other posts on this blog.

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