You may believe that being spoooooky is a modern trend, only fully realized in the era of the Home Depot 12-foot skeleton, but the truth is, people have been doing creepy shit since humanity invented fire and subsequently realized that, in addition to heat and light, it also made spooooky shadows. Some of the mysteries of the ancients will remain forever lost to history, but since the invention of photography, we’ve been able to capture a record of humans’ ability to make anything scary.
And it turns out early photography is particularly well-suited to creating hair-raising images, given the need for long exposures at the inception of the technology that offer many opportunities for “ghost” images — as well as the often formal air of its subjects, which feels eerie viewed from the era of the snapshot and the omnipresent lens.
Just in time for Halloween, we’ve rounded up some historical images that are grim at best, spooky as a matter of course, and occasionally downright cursed.
This 1937 snapshot by Viktor Bulla captures the Young Pioneers, the Soviet equivalent to America’s Scouts, but with a focus on defending the Motherland from incipient threats — including poison gas attacks, apparently. Their motto was “Always prepared!” and based on the evidence here, they were definitely prepared to emerge from the landscape, Children of the Corn-style, and make anyone poop their pants in terror.
Now if anyone made spooky season a 365-days-a-year affair, it was the Victorians. Not only did they make jewelry out of hair and reportedly photograph dead children, even their most casual snapshots tend to be pretty grim. There are historical theories as to why 19th-century subjects rarely smiled for photographs — from self-consciousness about generally poor dental work to long exposure times that made holding such expressions difficult — but that only increases the creepiness of this portrait of a “mourning” widow and her children. I know we all grieve differently, but this lady looks pretty pleased with herself. Makes you wonder if her husband died of natural causes.
Not to belabor the point, but seriously, Victorians are said to have posed for portraits with corpses to memorialize their dead relatives, especially children. One way to identify these portraits is the lack of blur, which is haunting in its own right. (Though some have also warned of the rise of unverified “post-mortem” photographs for sale online.)
But enough about Victorians, for they are not history’s only creeps. This historic image from the Paris Catacombs taken by Félix Nadar is all the more terrifying when considering that the photographer had to descend into pitch-black darkness, since artificial light was in its infancy. As former Hyperallergic staff writer Allison C. Meier, Nadar “succeeded in creating the first photographic documentation of this realm of the dead.” Shudder!
That’s a perfect segway into spirit photography, a practice that was all the rage in the United States during the post-Civil War period. As many Americans, including widowed First Lady Mary Todd Lincoln, grappled to deal with the catastrophic death toll inflicted on families from both the Union and the Confederacy, images that alleged to capture the living being visited by the spirits of their beloved deceased were hugely popular.
One of the most famous practitioners of spirit photography was William H. Mumler, whose practice and legacy were pretty rightly dogged by claims of fraud. But whether or not you believe that Mumler was legitimately capturing images of the departed, the results are literally and figuratively haunting.
All of that is a lot to take in, so let’s end with this comparatively lighthearted and delightful image of a standing skeleton joining a group of cadavers who are about to dissect a living medical student. Spoooooooky All-Hallows to you, friends!
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