The Gresley Old Hall Ghost That Wasn’t There

The Daily Mail recently ran a headline saying ‘Ghost Hunter claims to have caught the spirit of ‘a beautiful French woman called Philippa’ on camera as he took pictures at a smoke-filled 16th-century hall’. The ghost hunter in question is called Stu Williamson and I’ve come to the conclusion that he is pretty desperate to catch a ghost on camera. You know, so desperate that he’s done something really quite daft in the pursuit of his goal…

See, Williamson visited Gresley Old Hall in Derbyshire with a ghost hunting team called Haunted Souls and he turned on a portable smoke machine to fill a room with smoke. Ho told the paper ‘I believe that ghosts are invisible but if you throw something at that ghost, like smoke, it sticks to the ghost. I then came up with the idea of how to light it up using a special LED light’.

Oh, Stu. Stop. This doesn’t even make sense. Are ghosts made out of sticky back plastic? Do they have small little velcro hooks all over them? This would certainly explain why people depict ghosts as wandering white sheets. But smoke? How does smoke stick to something? I know the smell of smoke can linger and can get trapped in fabrics, but physically…

…and if ghosts are invisible (let alone real), why do so many people report seeing and interacting with them? Are some ghosts visible and some not visible? If ghosts are invisible, Stu, how do you know? How do you know that the smoke is sticking to a ghost if the ghost is invisible? How do you know it isn’t a microscopic species of monkey which takes the smoke and makes air-bases sculptures of badly constructed human faces out of them?

I’m going to bring in some heavy facts now; the alleged woman photographed in the smoke who was described as ‘beautiful and gentle’ is just an illusion caused by the smoke. Humans are really good at seeing meaning in randomness which is why we see familiar objects in the shapes of clouds or everyday objects; this is known as Pareidolia.

Stu goes on to say ‘As a professional photographer I know if something’s been Photoshopped – some people have played with them and have tried to get publicity – but I don’t want publicity, I’m not bothered by it.’

Oh boy, where to begin? Not a ghost ≠ photoshop. A good researcher will work hard to reduce the number of errors they can make through subjective evaluation of what it is they are doing. Likewise, a good ghost researcher will work hard to reduce the number of ways in which a photograph they take can have anomalies or distortion in it. By putting the camera on a tripod, making sure the exposure settings are correct, account for the lighting and so on… but purposefully filling a room with a substance like smoke which moves around in any draught or with any movement and taking STILL PHOTOS of the smoke and then claiming that certain swirls are ghosts is beyond ridiculous – especially for someone who claims to be a professional photographer.

You may as well wave your camera strap around in front of your camera lens and claim it attracts spirit vortexes. And don’t forget that the burden of proof sits with Williamson in this case, but we’re just expected to take his word on this.


The smoke technique is very similar to one called ‘The Stone Tape Projector’ used by alleged psychic Derek Acorah at his live show ‘Psychic and Science’. I’ve written about this before, but essentially a smoke machine would be set off on stage, bright stage lights would be pointed at the smoke, and audience members were encouraged to take photos of the smoke. It sometimes looked as though there were faces in the smoke but they were just illusions caused by the Pareidolia effect.

I recreated this in a dark hallway by shining a bright light upwards as my mum and brother exhaled cigarette smoke out at the same time (as we don’t have a smoke machine). When we filmed the smoke you couldn’t pick much out that looked like forms or faces, but when we took still photographs of the very same smoke you can start to see forms because now you can focus on the random shapes for much longer as the photos show only a snapshot of what was actually happening.

When you watch the video you’ll notice there are no discernable shapes or faces…

…but when you look at the still photos taken by a camera you can start to pick out forms because this is what humans do – look for meaning in randomness.

Ultimately, there are two lessons that we can take from this:

  1. always work to reduce the possibility of creating false positives
  2. if you’re looking at Derek Acorah for ghost hunting inspiration you’ve probably hit rock bottom. Have a word with yourself, Williamson.

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About Hayley Stevens 448 Articles
Hayley is a ghost geek and started to blog in 2007. She uses scientific scepticism to investigate weird stuff and writes about it here while also speaking publicly about how to hunt ghosts as a skeptic.

1 Comment on The Gresley Old Hall Ghost That Wasn’t There

  1. I recall reading about this one when it first started to do the rounds. I immediately left the building and turned off the lights…..

    Words just escape me, on one level, I see what the Red Tops publish in regards to paranormal coverage and I guess that some think crikey, why not do something questionable and get my five minutes of fame?

    On another level, it greatly saddens me that a vocal majority regards this type of activity as serious and at the cutting edge of paranormal research.

    I suppose that what genuine research is being done in the world is just not considered sexy enough for public interest.

    Right, have to dash and take some photographs of dirty helicopter windscreens’ as I heard that you can capture the faces of dead helicopter pilots in the images, if you’re very lucky.

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