If you’ve seen the cover of my upcoming novel, In the Shadow of Blackbirds, you’ve probably noticed a ghostly figure lingering behind my protagonist.
The novel does indeed include a ghost: Stephen Embers, my main character’s first love, who was killed in World War I. However, the ghost on the cover is something else entirely…an homage to a strange photography trend that began in the mid-1800s and continued into the twentieth century.
Starting in the 1860s when photography was new and the Civil War was tearing the United States apart, heartbroken people went to the studios of photographers such as Boston’s William H. Mumler, sat for portraits in their best clothing, and fully expected to see the spirits of their departed loved ones standing behind them in the resulting pictures.
You can see an online gallery of such images at PhotographyMuseum.com, including the historical spirit photographs that served as inspiration for the cloaked figure on the In the Shadow of Blackbirds cover. When you look at the photos with a modern eye, it’s clear the spirits are the results of double exposures or other photography trickery. Yet people honestly believed the photographs were genuine. They paid hard-earned money for these portraits.
I think the most frightening aspect of the historical spirit photography craze was the predatory nature of the business. Many of the archival photos are from the U.S. Civil War and the World War I time periods, so clearly these photographers, like the hundreds to thousands of Spiritualist mediums who emerged, took advantage of the widespread grief of the eras. Such unscrupulousness is far more terrifying than ghosts.
You’ll learn much more about the WWI-era séance and spirit photography crazes—and see actual early-twentieth-century spirit photos—when In the Shadow of Blackbirds debuts April 1, 2013. If you’re dying to read about the subject before then, check out Adele Griffin and Lisa Brown’s take on Civil War spirit photos in their illustrated YA novel, Picture the Dead.
Cat Winters is the author of In the Shadow of Blackbirds, a WWI-era ghost tale coming April 1, 2013, from Amulet Books/ABRAMS. Visit her online at www.catwinters.com, Twitter, and Facebook.