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The Ghost of La Purisima

by Brian Dunning, Nov 26 2009
The Ghost of La Purisima

The Ghost of La Purisima

I’ve been corresponding with a gentleman, Kevin, who visits allegedly haunted sites in southern California. As evidence of his paranormal experiences, he sent me this photograph, taken inside the La Purisima mission in Lompoc, CA.

Mision La Purisima Concepcion de Maria Santisima is one of the famous network of Spanish Franciscan missions stretching the length of California, established in the 18th century. Today it’s something of a living history museum. Unlike many of the California missions, La Purisima is no longer used for actual regular worship services.

Like so many “ghost” photographs, Kevin’s is of astonishingly poor quality. It’s not even close to being in focus, for one thing, and clearly should have been taken with a flash. I always marvel at such pictures, because in reality, it’s not even possible to buy a camera that automatically takes such bad quality. The world’s worst camera phone would have done a better job. You have to deliberately jack the settings, or blur it out in Photoshop.

But, be that as it may, it’s still easy to identify what’s in the picture. He also included several completely black jpegs, which he said the camera also took in the mission. In response to Kevin asking me what I thought, I told him “Well, you’ve shown me a picture of two people and a black jpeg. I don’t think anyone would earn your respect if they considered either of those to be evidence of the supernatural.”

He replied:

Two people you say. I showed the picture to a National Geographic photographer and he said it was the background. He did something on photo shop and said whatever it is, it is not human.  I am the subject of the pic he said and the “person” is the background. Grey hair, skin, black clothes. It confuses me because he is a skeptic also.

This response is what I wanted to talk about today. Do you really have to be a National Geographic photographer to be qualified to tell whether a person in a picture is a person or a ghost? Does National Geographic offer some specific training in that area? And, especially, when the original photo is so far beyond the threshold of acceptable quality, is there even any point in trying to assert such a claim?

To my way of thinking, being a human being who lives and breathes is the only qualification one needs to know whether one is looking at a picture of a person or not. Having experience as a photographer (which I have as much as many people) does not confer one’s brain with any special human-identifying superpowers. If there were a skill that were helpful in such a case as this, I’d say Photoshop experience, not photography; but again, the picture’s so bad that any meaningful analysis is worthless.

Kevin was merely using the “argument from authority” to claim “my friend is right because he’s a National Geographic photographer” and because “he is a skeptic also.”  Even if we assume that to be true, it doesn’t make the friend right at all. Indeed, it suggests the friend is oddly predisposed to see ghosts in commonplace photos. This weakens his testimony, it does not strengthen it.

Bottom line, it’s a picture of two people, remarkable only for its poor quality. But it’s also so blurry that you could tell me the living history priest guy is a coat rack and I wouldn’t be surprised. Evidence of the supernatural? We need to do better than this.

42 Responses to “The Ghost of La Purisima”

  1. Rafael Madeira says:

    Appears to be a grey-headed man with an olive cap and a backpack. Pretty standard for a tourist destination, I’d say. That is one prepared ghost.

  2. Dax says:

    I have old school pictures with me and a whole class of ghosts on them. My friend the AP photographer tells me they’re all background!

    Seriously? It’s clear it’s just someone standing there. I guess you could only argue it’s a ghost if you have a very solipsistic world view and believe the photographer friend, and everyone else, doesn’t exist in physical reality either.

  3. MadScientist says:

    I disagree about not being able to buy cameras that can take awful photos. The best cameras still allow you to control things and if the operator screws up, the photos can be pretty bad.

    I don’t see the ghost though – does it disappear when the image is put on a blog? Are there other tourists this guy thinks are ghosts? If so, maybe I should plan most of my tours when I’m dead – even if I can’t tell anyone about them.

  4. Looks like background to me. What’s the big deal? With a photo this blurry, it is hardly surprising that different people will interpret it differently. We can all agree that there is nothing supernatural going on here. What difference does it make whether there is a second person or its the background?

    I am always skeptical of photoshop “experts”, except to say that there is evidence that a photo has been photoshopped, or to duplicate a particular effect. I wouldn’t say it gives you any special ability to say that am image “isn’t human”.

  5. Shannon says:

    I see two people too. What is he saying is the ghost? I see a blurry person facing the camera and then just to the left and behind that person is a blurry person facing away from the camera. Is that supposed to be a ghost?

    Doesn’t he have some long, involved story about how he and the photographer were the only ones in the locked building?

  6. Preston says:

    I agree with Shannon.

    Does your friend think the guy behind him is a ghost? If so, why does he think that?

    Or does he think something in the blurred background is a ghost? If so, please point it out.

    Give us a little more info about why your friend thinks there’s a ghost in the photo.

  7. plob218 says:

    Count me with the “I don’t see it” folks. It looks EXACTLY like a regular person walking behind him. No floating, no rattling chains around his neck, no spooky grayish mist surrounding him. Just a dude walking.

  8. AUJT says:

    I looked for a minute or so after clicking on the photo to enlarge it and finally noticed a manly face of sorts in the top right of the photo to the right of the large painting and below what seems to be a smaller painting. Pareidolia I’m sure and it seems to be in better focus than the rest of the picture which one might expect. And I’m pretty sure that it’s not human so I’m in agreement with the photo “expert”. LOL!

  9. Badger3k says:

    I’m with the majority – all I can see are two people, one facing the camera, one facing back (looking at the painting?). Can’t see anything else. Maybe the ghost realized that it couldn’t actually be photographed and so edited itself out of all the copies, or else our “skeptical aura” prevents us from seeing the obvious ghost staring everybody else in the face. Yeah, that’s the ticket…

  10. Eta Carinae says:

    I was looking at the walls in search of the ghost. Never crossed my mind that the gray haired man could ever pass as a ghost…

    • stargazer9915 says:

      I don’t even see a grey haired man. Looks more like a shadow (the kind from sunshine) to me…or ami just “seeing things”?

  11. Shannon says:

    Ok, seriously, help us out here, lol! What exactly is supposed to be the ghost? I’m really curious now. I see what AUJT is talking about but it’s really subtle and doesn’t scream “ghost” to me. All I can think is that the guy is claiming the person behind him is the ghost, which only makes sense if he has a background story as to why it’s impossible that someone was walking behind him when the picture was taken.

    I think we need one of those circles around the “ghost” so we can see what we’re supposed to be looking at ;-)

    I know this wasn’t the point of the post at all, but I’ve noticed that a lot of times the “ghost” photos are so crappy and vague, I don’t even know what it is the person is claiming to be supernatural. I’m glad to see I’m not alone in that, lol!

  12. Shannon says:

    Sorry, I re-read the post and it does seem that he’s saying the guy walking behind him is a ghost? Ok, so *does* he have a back story as to why he thinks it can’t just be a person who happened to walk past him?

  13. MadScientist says:

    [OT] Here’s a device which I cannot easily classify as high-tech woo-woo:

    There are claims of plasmas and destroying bacteria, fungi, and viruses. Of course there are no real details in the article I found here:

    If anything the article uses a lot of techniques popular in the woo peddlers; for example, using common words or phrases to mean something else. As an example, “medicine” in the phrase “plasma medicine” (what *does* the plasma cure). Another one is the phrase “preventive medicine”; perhaps the most familiar form of genuine preventive medicine is vaccination, but the article uses “preventive medicine” in lieu of “sanitary practices”.

    There is also the obsession with calling everything a “plasma” and insinuations that this is all new stuff. For example, the claim that plasmas can encourage coagulation of blood. Over 50 years ago this instrument known as an “electrocautery device” was introduced to hospital surgeries. It uses a moderately high voltage at high frequencies and can cut through skin while cauterizing it. You could also speed up coagulation of blood by waving the probe near a wound. These effects may be familiar to people who have toyed with low power Tesla coils.

    There are also the claims that plasmas may have a bactericidal effect due to production of “reactive oxygen species” and a few reactive nitrogen species. We can now turn out attention to the popular science exhibit piece known as “Jacob’s Ladder”. Any electrical arc through air will convert some amount of nitrogen and oxygen into nitric oxide which is readily converted to nitric acid due to moisture in the air. Nitric acid would indeed have bacteriologic effects; it is also extremely corrosive and will readily nitrate your skin and turn it yellow. Now on to reactive oxygen species. An electric arc in air will also produce some amount of ozone; ozone does indeed have bactericidal effects. Ozone can also be destroyed by ultraviolet light produced in the same arc and create an oxygen or a (hydroxyl if water is involved) free radical – extremely reactive species which are very important in atmospheric chemistry due to their various reactions with other chemicals. Yes, free radicals are also bactericidal. So, is there truth to the claims of the news article (and the various articles in “New Journal of Physics”)? To me it looks like there’s just enough truth to hook people. There is already instrumentation which does the jobs which this “new plasma medicine” claims to do, which has to make one wonder what it is they’re selling. I am not aware of “plasma sterilizers” although I am aware of ozone sterilizers and UV (using mercury lamps or, more recently UV LEDs). The news article claims of destroying viruses is also highly dubious. Like many good woo-woo stories, there are numerous claims to “evidence” and “other studies”.

    Well, that certainly looks like something to watch. I cannot discard *everything* outright because there may be more uses for electric arcs in medical settings in the future. However, the articles I see are at best hyping up electric arcs in air and not really providing evidence of claims. This could very well be the next big thing in the medical woo-woo business.

  14. MadScientist says:

    [OT] Oops … I was looking at the wrong article. Article on plasma bug killers:

    The news article previously linked is definitely overhyped and I’m not all too convinced by the scientific articles either (work seems to preliminary + I can think of numerous issues to address). “Further work” as the saying goes. Woo peddlers can certainly mine that stuff for things to sell though.

  15. Whoa! I was there last year whilst working in the US. Truly a beautiful location. As for it being haunted…meh. It got dark, cold and I got bored. That’s how these paranormal investigations usually pan out.

  16. Cambias says:

    So now all you need are some bad travel snapshots and a pair of brass balls and you’re a ghost photographer? Cool! I’ve got a picture I took at Disneyworld — it’s got THOUSANDS of ghosts in it! At least, I don’t know they AREN’T ghosts and the picture quality is poor so they MUST be! They can’t be living people because WHY WOULD LIVING PEOPLE GO TO DISNEY WORLD? It’s obviously ghosts. I AM THE GREATEST SPOOK PHOTOGRAPHER EVER!!

  17. Agree with 5th poster. Just two people. The other looks older though. Hard to tell.

  18. Canada Jeff says:

    This is just weak. I’m no photography expert by any means, but I don’t even understand the “background” statement;

    “…he said it was the background. He did something on photo shop and said whatever it is, it is not human. I am the subject of the pic he said and the “person” is the background.”

    What does that even mean? Of course the other guy is in the background of the shot. Blurry tourist putz #1 is in the foreground facing the camera, blurry tourist putz #2 is in the background obliviously walking through the frame of someone else’s picture, a few feet behind putz #1. Why is this evidence of anything?

    Those ghostly blurry benches are also in the background. Spooky. I wonder if they are residual energy spirit benches, or if they are astral benches in residence at this church? Whatever they are, they’re not human.


  19. Vie says:

    Look, it’s clearly a man. I visited the picture URL and opened it my photo editor and the man is wearing a baseball cap and carrying a backpack. You’d have to be a jacka** to think that’s a ghost- or to a have a serious conversation about the possibility that it’s a ghost. Period.
    I think most ghost hunters get a thrill out of making people entertain their ludicrous ideas with serious discussion, because it seems to make them feel credible- if only for a moment.
    I doubt the man who sent you that photo truly believes that the man behind him is paranormal. But his silly photo prompted a blog post.
    So Dunning let me give you a recommendation that is a great way to shut up ghost hunters brandishing ridiculous photos. Grab your camera, go outside, snap some pictures of some “ghosts” of your own, send them to him, and keep a straight face. You have to play it off like your completely serious, like “Hey man, look at MY ghost photos!”
    After all, one stupid photo deserves another.

  20. I think Bigfoot is blurry, that’s the problem. It’s not the photographer’s fault. Bigfoot is blurry, and that’s extra scary to me. There’s a large, out-of-focus monster roaming the countryside. Look out, he’s fuzzy, let’s get out of here – Mitch Hedberg

  21. Kitapsiz says:

    “I always marvel at such pictures, because in reality, it’s not even possible to buy a camera that automatically takes such bad quality.”

    LOL, well played Mr. Dunning. I had to read through your entire piece to figure out what was purportedly the ghostly apparition …

    I’m equally as baffled … ghosts don’t focus well? Or perhaps, their “other worldly” energies drive a camera out of focus? Is there a standard, a criterion, for “bad ghost photography” …

    Maybe you should contact the experts from that ghost hunters show … they seem to believe that static energy is a sign of other worldly presence. Top notch research there.

  22. SicPreFix says:

    Ha, ha. What a goofy story. Ghosts indeed! I agree with the bulk of the comments here for sure.

    I want to add one of mine own though. When someone says “He did something on photo shop [sic]“, doesn’t that automatically render any comment regarding said pic’s source content completely moot and invalid?

    I mean, say someone provides you with a sound recording of ghostly spirits chit-chatting away, and that someone says to you, “I ran it through ProTools for a while….” Well, that kind of says it all, doesn’t it?

    • It’s just like the whole EVP thing…”I recorded something interesting. Imported it into my audio app. Reversed it. Amplified it. Reversed it again. Played with the pitchshifter. Reversed it again. Added noise. Slowed down the tempo. Reversed it again for good luck and hey presto…I uncovered a ghostly voice!”

  23. kabol says:

    “Look, it’s clearly a man. I visited the picture URL and opened it my photo editor and the man is wearing a baseball cap and carrying a backpack. You’d have to be a jacka** to think that’s a ghost- or to a have a serious conversation about the possibility that it’s a ghost. Period.”

    there are so many jacka**es out there. hold me, i’m scared.

    i’m serious.

  24. Greg says:

    Obviously they don’t teach much in the way of Photoshop basics at National Geographic. Two minutes in CS4 produced this :

  25. Christie says:

    Minor correction: La Purisima is in Lompoc, California, not Ventura. (I live in Lompoc, about a block away from the property.) I’m not aware of any legends about the Mission being haunted, so I’m curious why he thought it was an allegedly haunted site. I’ll stop by this weekend and talk to the docents and find out.

    I would never have thought that was anything but a blurry picture of two people. *eyeroll*

    Great place, btw, if you’re ever in the area.

  26. Jeffery2010 says:

    Nice work Greg. In your image it is easier to see the hat, and also the guys left ear. I kept looking at the photo and reading the post trying to see the “ghost”. Was it behind the two guys in the middle of the photo?

  27. Bryan says:

    This is not an unusual case.
    We get this kind of thing all of the time and the responses to our questions are usually just as confusing.

    The question that you have “Do you really have to be a National Geographic photographer to be qualified to tell whether a person in a picture is a person or a ghost? has an odd answer from my perspective. Due to the people that are ghost hunting ant the lack of any basic skills that they have, yes a person from National Geographic is a good idea. It amazes me how little these people know about the basic use of any of the tools that they use.
    You would assume that people have a general idea about how cameras work and the basic rules to follow when taking any kind of photograph.
    These people are of the mindset that the camera (Digital mostly) has some kind of magic ability to “see different light spectrums and therefore see entities” (a direct quote from a ghost hunting group).
    With this perspective they go into a reportedly haunted location and start taking photographs in conditions that the camera was not designed to be used in, and when they get results that they do not get in a setting to get a good photograph they jump to the conclusion that they have captured a “Ghost”.
    This is not just photography that has this issue. Look at any of the equipment that these groups use and then ask any technical questions about how it works or what the tool was originally designed for.

    The next time that you are talking to a “Ghost hunter” ask them what the E.M.F. meter that they are using can measure and what the numbers mean. The usual answer is that they have been told that “Anything above 6 is a ghost”.

    We even have groups near us that claim to have software to detect if the image is of a ghost.

    As long as there is paranormal there will be bad photography to go with it.

  28. Tom says:

    I don’t get it. It’s impossible for me to even understand what anyone is trying to accomplish by bothering to show anyone or even discussing this photograph. This entire “issue” is completely confusing to me.

  29. Lori A. says:

    It looks like Father Payeras. From what I have heard he was a wonderful man loved by the natives. Great capture! Skeptics who are the least amount open minded can see a small possibility. Sad to see skeptics with closed minds. :(

  30. blossom says:

    LaPurisima is not the original mission. The original was destroyed by earthquake and a fire I think. It was rebuilt in the thirties as part of FDR’s work program and was never part of the original mission system hence it was never a church. As Christie said, no one ever died there and it’s not known for being haunted. Great place to visit though if you can avoid the nuts taking horrible pictures. :)

  31. Kristy says:

    Brian, I tried to email you but the contact email was returning my message; so, I’ll leave one here. I was searching for ghosts of La Purisima and found this site, and what caught my attention was the picture. A man emailed me the same picture earlier this week, after I contacted his “group” and asked questions about the paranormal (as I am sort of ghost hunting as an amateur – and as a HOBBY at the mission). Anyway, he completely discredited all photos of orbs that I had sent to him, claiming they were simply dust; but then he turns around and emails THIS crappy photo to me (all mine were CLEAR and FOCUSED) – and he even told me that National Geographic claimed there wasn’t anyone else in the picture – while he argued there was. It made me wonder why I had even contacted him in the first place, except that I’ve been contacting MANY people to share my pictures from the mission and also from my home. I have a few things that can’t be explained, and even one photo that appears to have a white mist of a man’s face (in my house). I’d like to share that picture with you, but how do I submit it?

  32. Ashley says:

    Does anybody have anymore information on Haunted La Purisima and does any body have a pic of a ghost