"Haunted" Photo

The Ones that Got Away

Like the hearty souls who hunt and fish, most photographers can probably tell a story or two about “the ones that got away.” Loss can happen for any number of reasons:

  • Not having a camera handy
  • Reacting to a fleeting moment too slowly
  • Poor exposures
  • Lost or stolen equipment
  • Fires, floods or storms
  • Computer or disc crashes
  • Inadequate backup
  • And perhaps a hundred more

I don’t intend for this article to be about “paranormal” photos. But I’ve had more than my fair share of such experiences, and my most memorable losses have come from that realm.

Our “Twonky”

1953’s “The Twonky,” Stephen Spielberg’s 1982 “Poltergeist,” and many other films have made haunted, animate, television sets a sci-fi meme. In the early 1950s, my family moved to a minimalist cement-block house with a flat roof and an attitude. (Even today, when we get together, my sisters and I still compare memories of what we experienced in that “House on Sharon Avenue.”)

The place soon began to “show its stuff” when dad brought our first black-and-white television into the house. He ran antenna wire out through a nearby window and up to a man-sized roof antenna that looked like a metal tree. But when he turned the TV on for the first time, none of us understood what we saw. Every channel showed horizontal gray bars with two round black smudges at the screen’s bottom corners.

Dad had a theory and seemed angry. “Stay here… Watch,” he barked. Running outside, he quickly jogged into the TV picture… and briefly danced around like a clown. We were seeing live footage of the outside of the wall behind the TV! The horizontal gray bars were the house’s siding, and the two round smudges were bushes that mom had just planted.

At the time, there was no camera outside, beaming our wall to a broadcast satellite. Heck, there weren’t even satellites yet! And I’m sure that what we were seeing made dad angry because his scientist mind couldn’t explain it.

On returning, he quickly switched the television off and on again, and our “Twonky” resumed its normal programming. But I still wish I’d a camera handy to capture dad making a fool of himself on live haunted TV.

A Haunted Minolta A1

I’d long believed that “ghost orb” photos were nothing more than flash-illuminated dust, bugs, raindrops or snowflakes. Until 2004 that is, when I visited my mother’s retirement community in northern Ohio. The place allowed people to rent furnished, recently vacated cabanas at extremely low rates while they visited their loved ones. It was a wonderful service… but one with potential downsides.

I arrived at my rental, in mom’s cull-de-sac, just as the sun was setting. And before walking over to mom’s place for dinner, I called my wife back in Massachusetts. It was nearly impossible to get bars. There were none outside, and the only place where I found any inside was on the floor between the unit’s front door and coat closet. If I walked even three feet from them, the bars vanished. So I moved a chair over to the doors, sat down, and made my call.

Lovely and comfortable, the place exceeded expectations. And I had just started to tell Kate about it, when a “click” came from the closet door in front of me. I looked up and the door’s lever handle turned downward, the door slowly swung all the way open, then slowly closed, and latched with another click. Surprised, I asked Kate if she “had seen that?” But back in Massachusetts, she replied “Um… No.”

After we hung up, I grabbed my Minolta A1 and shot interiors of the place to show Kate. If she liked the looks of it, maybe we’d rent furnished units on future visits.

I had used the camera to photograph hundreds of houses for the Coldwell-Banker real-estate agency back home. And not one of those thousands of shots ever contained “ghost orbs”–  even when taken in old, dusty basements and attics. Doubtlessly, this was because I never use flash (I think it “flattens” things). But when I started shooting inside that cabana– again without flash– white disks filled a few of the images. And in one photo, a bright streak of light appeared in a pitch-black bathroom.

Stranger still, after capturing a photo with an especially BIG “orb” floating right in front of me, the camera briefly (and abnormally) froze while saving the next shot. And when I previewed the image, it was fractured. (I tried to simulate its look in the opening image.)

Its top section (including “orbs”) had stored normally, but the bottom part had shifted to the right about 30 percent… and the pixels that fell off the photo’s right edge wrapped back into the frame from the left. And finally, the entire image had tilted!

Amazingly, though, I had no trouble sleeping there. Compared with some of my previous experiences, what had just occurred was tame. And over subsequent years, the A1 (and the memory card) captured thousands more images– without any anomalies.

It seemed odd that on my arrival, the only place I could phone home was right in front of that closet! By morning, I had full bars both indoors and out. And at breakfast, I showed the photos to mom. She found them “interesting,”  told me that the cabana’s owner had died only months before, and added that, before retiring, she’d been a commercial photographer. Maybe she was just having a bit of fun with my camera!

I lost those images (and tons of others) when rare “thundersnow” near our house fried my computer and backup disc. I especially regret the loss of that one fractured photo. During many paranormal experiences over the decades, it was the only time I had a camera with me and captured something strange.

But on subsequent visits to Ohio, Kate and I stayed in motels.

The “Mothership”

My losses, though, paled in comparison with what a brother-in-law experienced.  I’ll call him “Colonel Tom.”

Around 20 years ago, he visited New England for Christmas at a time when UFOs were seen around Boston. When we asked if he’d ever seen one of the things during his years as an Air Force pilot, the Colonel frowned and said, “Yes… but I’ll tell you this only once.”

During the Vietnam War, he commanded a SAC B-52 Stratofortress squadron over a regular Asian circuit. One moonless night, an extremely bright point of light appeared ahead of them. The light streaked up to them so fast that the compression waves from its arrival pushed Tom’s plane backward in the air and caused it to briefly lose lift.

The thing just beyond his cockpit was a gigantic disc “about four times the size of the B-52.” This would make it around a quarter-mile in diameter– or in Tom’s words, “mothership-sized.” It was also close enough for them to see mechanical details all across its vast metal surfaces. And brilliant white light emanated from its huge, translucent dome.

The craft began to fly slow, lazy circles around them– horizontally, vertically and laterally– before again “parking” in front of the B-52. It then streaked away so suddenly that the suction from its departure pulled their plane forward. But their visitor soon returned (this time, from behind their plane) and flew more circles around them… before finally shooting off for good. When it did, it again positioned itself in front of them, tilted slightly away, and in just seconds, shot up into space.

And the suction from its departure pulled their plane to a higher altitude.

During the encounter, Tom had the presence-of-mind to activate the plane’s cameras. And when he and his crew returned to base, “interested strangers” were waiting to debrief them. When their interrogators asked for the plane’s films, the Colonel expressed his expectation that they’d be returned. “Of course, sir,” he was assured. But… surprise… they weren’t.

Must have been spectacular images too! And though the films were government property, Colonel Tom was angry about their loss. Maybe they’re still squirreled away at Wright Patterson, Area 51 or even Dugway Proving Ground (AKA “Area 52”).


Shortly after his visit, Tom sent Kate and me tickets to a private military air show at nearby Hanscom Field. It was my first outing with a Soligor 500mm mirror lens on my Canon AE-1.

I spent much of the show learning to capture high-velocity aircraft with the long lens. The show’s unexpected climax came when a Stealth bomber blasted directly over us from behind a nearby hill. And I snagged one panning shot of its belly.

When Tom next visited, he looked at the prints and took that belly shot to show higher-ups “who might be able to explain something.” I never heard what he learned and haven’t asked.

So technically, I lost that photo too. (But I still have the negative!)

Your Turn!

So what photos or footage do you most regret losing (or not capturing)? Tell us in your comments. (And again… they don’t have to be “paranormal.”)

–Dave Powell is a Westford, Mass. writer and avid amateur photographer.

Contribute to 35mmc for an Ad-free Experience

There are two ways to experience 35mmc without the adverts:

Paid Subscription - £2.99 per month and you'll never see an advert again! (Free 3-day trial).
Subscribe here.

Content contributor - become a part of the world’s biggest film and alternative photography community blog. All our Contributors have an ad-free experience for life.
Sign up here.

About The Author

8 thoughts on “The Ones that Got Away”

  1. Ibraar Hussain

    What a great well written and interesting essay! Enjoyed reading that on my train journey to work.
    At first I imagined dad’s TV had one of Orwell’s telescreen cameras in it – but that doesn’t make sense. I don’t have a scientist mine but I sure can’t even begin to think what the answer to this mystery could be?

    I’m pretty open minded – my background is in physics and astronomy and I used to be quite dogmatic and dismissive – but after many personal experiences and a lot of reading and thinking I’ve pretty much come to the conclusion that ‘we’ as in the ‘experts’ intellectuals and figures of authority in the realms of science and theology don’t actually ‘know’ anything. Which makes the mystery of life and experience all that much more wonderful.

    If only we had a camera to hand or thought about using one when such things happened

    1. Many thanks Ibraar… I totally agree. It often takes a lot of first-hand experience to eventually demonstrate how very little one knows. All too often, absolute certainty is only a comforting delusion!

      And our scientific backgrounds seem quite similar. Mine was in mathematics, physics and astronomy. Even today’s physicists are voicing doubts about much of what they once knew. When I read Scientific American magazine as a kid, its articles were about “concrete” things like archeology, cell biology, DNA, optics, electronics, weather, stars, galaxies, and the Big Bang. Today, it explores many topics that most people have never heard of… like time crystals, block universes, and the individual’s role in creating the very reality we experience. Times have certainly changed over the past century!

  2. Dave, I’ve been at this photography thing for about fifty years and the experience that “haunts” me the most took place in the early 1980’s. I was in the Houston, Texas area passing through the town of Humble. I was on assignment and heading to the property I was hired to photograph. As I drove my rent car down the freeway numerous police cars with sirens blaring sped past me. I came to my exit and up to a stop light. While I sat at the light even more police cars from various towns raced through the intersection. I reached for my camera and loaded it with a roll of K-64 and thought if all the fuss was on my way then I would stop and check it out. I turned left as the light changed and drove about two blocks when I saw an apartment complex under construction and filled with all the police cars.

    I pulled in, parked and got out of the car with my camera in hand and at the ready. As I stood on the perimeter with the construction workers the scene unfolded in front of me. All the police cars were parked in a tight area and just past them I could see a section of the new fence around the apartments busted out and a small pickup smashed into a light pole. Just then from the right three police officers walked up escorting a man and they placed him over the hood of one of the squad cars. I took two shots as this all unfolded. One of the man being led up to the cars and the second as he was bent over the hood of the car. This second shot was the keeper as it showed the entire scene and just behind was his truck smashed into the pole. As I took the second shot a plainclothes officer standing in front of me turned around, pointed at me and said “You taking pictures?” I nodded and then he said for me to stop. I should have left at this point.

    After a few minutes the plainclothes officer accompanied by another man walked up to me. The new man spoke and said ” This is my town and no one takes pictures without my permission”. They asked for my drivers license and walked away for a minute. When they returned the man who “owned” the town told me to give him my film. If I wanted to protest it I could accompany him back to the station. At this point my heart was about to beat out of my chest and all I could think of was my client finding out I was being held in the Humble, Texas jail or something other. I emptied my camera, handed over the film and walked back to my car thankful it was over. I drove to my assignment and took my shots and finished the day with no other events. Man, to this day I think about this one that got away and wish I had that shot in my archive. On the other hand maybe the image in my head is better than the real one. I’ll never know.

    1. Wow Bill… That’s quite an experience! I wonder how you would have been treated if you’d had a press ID… or if it would have made any difference at all in that town? It’d be interesting to hear how other professional photographers have handled similar situations. Thanks so much for sharing!


    My story is about being timid, but also about a personal Ephinay.
    It was 1978 and I was in my first year of teaching. I had been an off & on college student, but I finally got my teaching degree & a full time job.
    With my newfound wealth, I booked a trip to Ireland during summer vacation. I traveled solo, with the regulatory backpack slung over my shoulder. I carried a brand new Nikon FM w/a 35mm f/2.0 Nikkor and 20 rolls of Kodachrome 64. Look out world, here I come.
    I landed in Shannon, spent the night at a B&B and boarded the train for Dublin. While waiting in the station, I spotted an elderly couple on a long bench. They too, were traveling based on the pile of luggage they had. The gentleman got up, went to the canteen and got two cups of tea and some pastry. He returned, and the two of them had tea on the bench. I wanted to snap a photo, but I lacked the courage to ask them if I could make the photo. It was poignant moment in time. I never got the photo. The Ephinay? After eight years of just taking pictures, this was the first situation that I saw that defined the type of photos I wanted to take. The quiet moments and simple scenes. Now, I remember all of this because I still have the journal of my trip I took in 1978. It still lives in my mind.

    1. A wonderful story, Daniel… Thank you! The closest I’ve come to one like that occurred in a Paris bus that Kate and I took to the Rodin House-Museum in the city’s 7th arrondissement. It was standing room only in the vehicle, and as we neared our stop, I felt I was being watched.

      Looking around, I spotted a young woman staring right into my eyes over the shoulders between us. And as soon as I saw her, I knew that I should look nowhere BUT her eyes. My peripheral vision told me that she had once survived a terrible fire. And after surgery, her still lovely face looked like translucent plastic. I didn’t want to embarrass her by veering from her eyes.

      As the bus rolled to a stop, she said “Bonjour monsieur” and I replied “Bonjour mademoiselle.” Of course, I would not have taken a photo. But as with your travel memory, it remains one that will never leave.

    1. Thanks… that’s an interesting article! The photographer profiled (Patricia Voulgaris) says several things that begin to get at the nature of things (both normal and “para”):

      –“I’m interested in what makes an image cursed or thinking about myself as being cursed.”
      [This relates to the growing idea that there is no external “entity of evil” that makes humans do bad things, but instead, that the fiction of one is a convenient peg on which to hang guilt for ideas, actions and even exterior events that actually stem from us.]

      –“How do you capture an event to debunk a theory?”
      [Even scientists have tripped over this one more than once in the past!]

      –“More importantly, how do we create a false narrative that is believable?”
      [It’s surprisingly easy. One way– growing more common these days– is to let down one’s guard and not curate one’s own thinking. False ideas and memories that are permitted to cycle through the mind can grow into permanent life narratives… both for us and others. One of my upcoming 35mmc articles– “Understanding Life Backwards in Two Old Photographs”– touches on that, and is going online later this month.]

      And the article’s author summarizes with something else rather profound:

      –“Voulgaris’s work is about the stories we tell ourselves and our tendency to focus on what we want to see rather than what’s in plain sight.”
      [Neuroscientists are finding that BELIEFS are an important filter between the huge data streams coming into the brain from our senses, and the tiny resulting trickle that the cortex builds into our perception of reality. This filter also applies to both what we want to believe/see and what we don’t. As a result, what’s “in plain sight” will differ for different people… but be equally valid “realities” for all. And if one “experiences” something that others don’t… and is told that it’s “all in their heads”… the proper answer would be: “Of course it is! EVERYTHING we experience is all in our heads!”]

      Thanks so much for the thought-provoking link!

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Scroll to Top