Matiere Opaque : Ghost Stories Greeley's Rancho Arcana

The Whaley House Photo Album

Here's the photo.

And here's the story.

First, the basics: Summer 1985. I, my first wife, and a mutual friend head to San Diego. Pay a visit to the Whaley House. Go inside. Take photos using a cheap 35mm Vivitar camera loaded with Kodak CP 100 5094 film (also known as Kodacolor VR 100 Gen 1; the batch # is Z 1 3 8  1 5, I think). See nothing unusual. Head out for lunch.

After we returned home, I had the film developed, and discovered the odd image you see above. And it has been a puzzle to me ever since.

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The room the photo was taken in was known as the upstairs sitting room. I was standing inside a booth with plexiglass sides that allowed one to enter the room a couple of feet beyond the doorway to look at the entire room without being able to touch the displays inside. When I took the photo above, my wife was down the hall behind me at the other end of the floor and our friend was downstairs. There was no one else on the second floor, no one nearby.

Over the years I would bring this photo out to share whenever we were having a get together and the topic of ghosts came up. I'd pass it around, explain how I came by the photo, and folks would tell me what they saw. Not too many people would see the same thing, which I found interesting.

I ended up sticking it in an album and occasionally taking it out from time to time to see if I could uncover anything meaningful or new in the photo. Eventually, I forgot about it.

Many years later I came across it and sat down and looked at it some more. At this point I was in the middle of my college education and had come to develop an appreciation for rational thinking and a critical eye. If you had asked me back in 1985 what this was a photo of I would have told you, with a grin but without hesitation, that it was a photo of a ghost, probably Anna Whaley, and I would have recounted what I knew about the reputation of the Whaley House. But now, having learned much about the value of critical thinking and the various methods of inquiry, I realized that I had no idea what this was a photo of. Further, there wasn't going to be any way to tell one way or another, ever. It was an just interesting photo, nothing more.

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One of the other things I've picked up from my college education is an affinity for puzzles, particularly word problems. I really enjoy puzzles and I've found I've gotten very good at solving them quickly. My strategy is deduction, rather than guessing or intuition, and I rely on the rules I know and the rules I uncover as I go along. Part of this is also helped along by identifying what it is I don't know up front, so I won't be misled by my assumptions.

One night in 1998, I was sitting down going through the old photo album and came across the photo again. As I sat there, turning the photo one way and then another, I started thinking about the photo in a new way, as if it were a word puzzle. What if I stepped back from what I was seeing and tried to 'parse' the information in the photo from different perspectives, trying to uncover the 'rules' as I go along? You've heard the adage "Can't see the forest for the trees?" Something like that.

I'll give you the short version of what I uncovered that night:

First, there is no way to reasonably (within the bounds of physics) account for the image. Take my word for it; there was nothing in the room or nearby that was the shape or height of the image by the bed. Therefore, even though it was shot through plexiglass, which can be reflective, no combination of reflective angles could account for the image, as there was simply nothing to reflect back to camera from anywhere nearby. These is also a noticeable absence of objects that were present off camera that weren't reflected at all.

Second, the image doesn't really look like a bounce-flash reflection in the plexiglass. When a flash bounces off the plexiglass, it may have a random shape but it also has a discernable quality to it. A photo of a flash bounced back appears to be a "light-source" object rather than a light-reflecting object. (Go back to the study, the child's room, or the master bedroom photos for an example of bounce on plexiglass.)


To the left, a rendering of a flash bounced perpendicular to a flat, smooth, oval shaped object. The light returns to the camera uniformly, mirroring the light source. In practice, the shape of the reflected flash depends on the surface texture, angle, and the distance of the camera to the object.

Third, and finally, this photo has both an apparently random shape that looks somewhat flat, and a vaguely identifiable shape that appears three-dimensional.

Random Shape

Not So Random Shape

What's so special about that, you ask? Look closely at the second object.

The angle of the light striking the object does not match any light source in the room.

The light striking the object looks like this:

When, if anything, it should look like this:



I finally realized that this is the key to approaching the mystery in the photo.

The mystery is not the object by the bed.

The mystery is bound up in the light reflecting off the object by the bed.


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Light is a well-known property of our physical world. Though there is some question as to whether light is fundamentally a particle, or a wave (or both!), it's a common feature of our everyday lives and most of its qualities are well-understood by the scientific community. Light is tangible, measurable, and behaves predictably, conforming to other physical processes and principles. It can be manipulated at will. Light also comes in many forms, and can be categorized as belonging to either the visible or non-visible portions of a continuous spectrum. The visible portion, or that which we can see with our own eyes, is just a tiny fraction of the light actually present around us. Most of the light in the invisible portion could be better characterized as radiation, and is commonly measured in terms of wavelength or temperature, rather than 'color.'

The principles of photography are even better understood that those of light. In a nutshell, light is focused through a lens onto a photosensitive medium, usually film. Film responds chemically to light, fixing the image from the lens. The film is then processed to reveal the latent image and to set the film, then a light is projected through the film to transfer the image onto photo paper, or some other durable medium.

Say what you will about this photo; but there is one thing everyone can agree upon: We see what we see in the photo because the light in the room struck the film in the camera and thereby recorded an image on the film. There's really no question about that. What the image represents is another matter, but that question doesn't need to be answered first, if at all. Instead, one could focus their inquiry entirely on the tangible and self-evident qualities of the photograph itself and see where that leads.


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And now, it's 2004, almost 20 years later. Lots of things have changed since I took this photo. Today we have the Internet and the means for anyone to communicate rapidly, effectively and collaboratively, and we all have access to a huge library of information. Perhaps it's time to drag out the old photo and show it around, just like the old days.

So here it is. Strange, isn't it?

And now, if you know anything about the properties of light or the properties of color film, you are invited to take on a challenge...

Then: 1985

Today: 2004
Things have changed a bit at the Whaley House.
The plexiglass is gone, along with the furnishings,
and the room is now used for performances.

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