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Pretty Puzzling Pareidolia: The False Head Photograph

I am not easily impressed with supposedly paranormal photos. Orbs have simply been explained, and mists, light anomalies, unexplained objects, etc. are often due to mundane factors: flailing camera straps, breath, cigarette smoke, digital camera artifacts. Besides all this, they're usually not all that interesting anyway.

Although they are a bit more intriguing, instances of pareidolia—objects that appear to take on meaningful significance via an illusion of sorts—are often fairly mundane as well. Faces among the rocks, bigfoot in the trees, angels in the clouds: they're usually kind of fun, but often fairly superficial and happenstance.

Every now and then, a photo comes along that seems to have layers of meaning. I recall a photo of Art Bell that was taken by his webcam, while he was chatting evil with "Harlot the Witch." I can't recall the story exactly, but at some point the "reverse speech" Coast to Coast guests had taken snippets of that infamous C2C conversation and played it backwards. Deeply creepy, it was like poetry; dark and desperate, from some gothic-bad afterlife. Unfortunately, I can't find that transcript anywhere online—it seems to have been removed from the reversespeech.com website.

The webcam photo that was taken during the conversation shows a cloud-like object over Art's head. Some listeners sent in enhancements of the cloud, and a couple of them were really freakish. One showed about three dozen gray aliens, and another showed a demonlike monster gripping Art's unsuspecting noggin. The image seemed to be somehow quite reflexive and holographic, with various and related meanings attached visually and experientially.

I was recently browsing the gallery at the About.com Paranormal site that my husband, Stephen Wagner, runs. I came across a large icon of what appeared at first to be consistent with a Victorian era spirit photograph. There seemed to be a couple of "sitters" with a large head floating between them. Clicking on the image, and thus enlarging it, it seemed an unlikely spirit photograph—it was taken outdoors, not in a studio. So, what in the world is the strange, blatant profile-portrait in the middle of this photograph?

As I initially stared at it, I realized the proportions are incorrect—the head is far too narrow-- ruling it out as a 'real' human head, or double exposure of some sort. Although it may be argued that the posterior portion of the head could be behind the figure of the woman, it doesn't make sense that the head's nose is in front of the figure of the seated man. A double exposure would be either seemingly behind both figures (with a transparency effect) or in front of them.

In addition, it just does not look exactly like a photographic "live" representation of a person—although it is close, it looks somehow stylized or constructed—like a cardboard effigy or drawing that has been photographed. Again, very similar to some methods used to create spirits in Victorian photography.

Reading the caption accompanying the photo, the sender states there is a child sitting on the man's knee. I looked again, and realized the head's curly "hair" was actually crops or similar rolling foliage in the background. So, the hair is explained—what about the now-floating forehead, brow, nose, lips, beard, and chin? And where is this child upon the knee?

I had to block the false hair with my hand to see it. And there it is—a toddler dressed in white, a large cap over his face, bended elbow—creating a perfection simulacrum of a man's profile. When I spoke to Steve about this photo he'd posted, his response was something like "Oh yeah, that is strange…" I had a feeling he hadn't seen the child on the knee, and when we looked at it together, I blocked the false hair out with my hand and described the child's hat covering his face, the bent elbow…and he literally jumped.

This is by far the strangest case of photographic simulacra I have ever seen—not just a case of seeing a face in something random; rather it's on par with purposefully created optical illusions. It's like the classic Old Hag/Beautiful Woman illusion, in which you can only clearly entertain one definitive image or another—the brain settles back and forth at first by chance, then by will.

The sender of the photo states it is a family photograph received from her grandmother, that the child had died soon after the picture was taken. She referred to the false head as "Jesus." There's an obvious similarity to standard Jesus portraiture, certainly.

However, note how the false head may actually resemble the seated man in the photograph. Although the quality is poor, it appears he has a beard, and interestingly, the right side of his face is entirely in shadow, mimicking a bit the idea of the left-sided portrait false head. The sender noted there is an "angel's face in the hair of Jesus" as well. I don't see that clearly, but careful examination reveals some other anomalies that seem to mirror the photographed family.

Directly above the seated man and toddler, and above the whitish area (a barn or structure in the background?) is what appears to be another entire photograph—that of a dark-haired woman holding a baby, with a man standing behind, his face over her shoulder. They appear to be standing in front of a barn. The image is very faint and translucent, but it is photorealistic enough to possibly be a double exposure. There is also a photorealistic image of a woman wearing a large hat directly above the "real" woman in the photo.

Is it possible the photographer took several photographs from different areas on the property (it does appear that there is really a barn present) the same day and somehow accidentally superimposed them on this photo? Could the images be some kind of Ted Serios*-style psychic projection from the photographer or one of the subjects? Was there such an intense emotional familial dynamic (remember, the story is the child was soon to die—perhaps he was sick? It would be interesting to know how he died) that somehow the film was affected? Or--what is most likely, and maybe no less compelling—are the false head and other anomalies just "meaningless"coincidences in which we find/attach/force/desire meaning?

There are some other anomalies within the photo that seem to be more on a more mundane level—for one, there is what appears to be a "shadow" image of the seated man. To the far right, there is a light face at the same level, in a very similar position, very similar proportions, including a similar hat and collar. I say this is mundane because it's not as striking as the false head, and not a photorealistic as the imposed images. Nevertheless, it does add to the unfolding strangeness of this very anomalous photograph.

Sources and further reading:

Photo: "Unexplained Face" Jessica Lundgren via paranormal.about.com

* Thoughtography www.niler.com/estitle.html & tedseriosthoughtography.com/index.htm

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