How to fake a ghost
Whenever I sit through one of those online “real ghost” videos, i’m always annoyed by one line in particular - “clever editing trick”, something which I feel is rarely true. No matter how simple the possible solution, the situation is always made to appear as far more complicated than it actually is. In actuality, many ghost videos from such countdowns are rather easy to fake, and today, I’m going to tell you a few tricks about how it’s down, and the approach to take if you decided to fake one. But a quick word of caution, I want to make it explicitly clear that I don’t endorse deceptive paranormal footage, and anything which is willfully attempting to seem real to audiences. I hope that this guide can serve to show the way in which footage can be deceptive, and ways you could use it in films such as found footage.
Part 1: Psychology
The first thing to take into account when you’re planning your fake ghost footage, is to think about psychology. And you really don’t have to be an expert, because there are a few simple concepts which are by far and away the most important when you’re putting together your ghost.
Of the two pieces of psychology i’m going to discuss here today, Pareidolia is the most important. So, what is it?
Pareidolia is simply the brain trying to see familiarity in the unfamiliar. Think of it like the good old rorschach or inkblot test, where you’re asked to say the first thing that springs into your mind when you see the shape. The brain naturally does this, which can lead to you recognising a familiar pattern somewhere it doesn’t in fact exist.
The same reason why people see a ghost face in a distorted photo is exactly the same reason that others will see the face of Jesus in their morning Caramel Macchiato; the features of a face are easy for us to pick out, even when there isn’t a face whatsoever.
And this is to huge benefit of the intrepid ghost-hoaxer. If there’s something which looks a bit like a face, there are a significant number of people who will employ the old horse justification; if it looks like a horse, sounds like a horse, then it probably is one. But it’s definitely a ghost horse. If you have the video distorted enough to not show what something is, the brain is always looking to fill in the gaps. Use something a little bit like a face, and you’re away.
Expectation is the other psychological trick that I wanted to talk about. Horror films, horror stories, folklore, and natural reactions have taught us what a scary situation looks like. Where we can expect to see ghosts and ghouls, and how they should appear.
It’s amazing how many real ghosts have developed perfect cinematic timing. Are they waiting for the exact moment to push home the jump scare? Perhaps they’ve been learning from Hitchcock in the afterlife. Personally, I always see this as a red-flag in any bit of footage i’ve seen. Whilst not enough to discredit it on it’s own, it can be the straw that broke the fake ghosts back. The perfect ghost then is one which subverts some expectations, but not others.
My first point is exactly the same as I made in my guide to Found Footage horror; realism. The ghost should be natural within the frame, and not appear at exactly the right time. It’s why the “I noticed this upon review” ghost footages are simultaneously more believable and more common. In the way these pieces are filmed, they allow for the camera merely to pan over something suspect, rather than having to focus on it as would be natural if you were in the same place as the scary ghost. Or, perhaps even more naturally, you’d drop the camera and run! By making the piece of footage look as natural as possible, you can build up some much needed credibility for your ghostly creation.
Other than that, it’s important to be sure that your ghost appears somewhere it should appear. No one expects to see a ghost in the middle of the day, walking down the cereal aisle at Walmart, browsing for their favourite sugary morning pick-me-up. Ghosts live in dark places, and they appear in the darkest places of those dark places. Let the work of many a filmmaker, author, and story teller before you produce the groundwork and lay down the rules of what we expect from a ghost.
Part 2: Camera Tricks, Editing and Practical Effects
The camera objectively films what is sees, so give it something difficult to determine.
No one goes out with an Arri Alexa to film ghost footage. It’s part of the visual iconography that an audience will expect to see grainy, noisey, amateur looking camera work, so keep that in mind when you decide what to film on. My main consideration would be something consumer level, or just above consumer level, depending on the narrative you intend to weave (which we’ll talk about later). By using a camera which is both believable and low enough quality, you’ve created the perfect setting for you ghost to be distorted.
Framing is another important aspect which you should consider. Too predictable and perfect, and you give up the ghost from the get-go. No one believes that you pan beautifully onto a ghost, lining it up neatly with the rule of thirds, posing it like an Instagram model. Better to have the ghost near the edge of the frame, not the main point of the piece, and perhaps even a little out of focus. All this plays nicely into the “found it in review” ghost which I mentioned before, since you can say that the footage doesn’t perfectly show the ghost because it wasn’t seen whilst on location.
All this leads into keeping you ghost as hidden as possible, so as to hide any post-production or practical effects you may be using in order to create your ghost.
One of the simplest tricks in the book, and once i’ve seen time and time again is simply to over-lay two pieces of footage to make it look like a ghost is in the frame.
Firstly, take your camera, for the ease of the edit, I’m going to suggest putting it on a solid tripod, though this isn’t always necessary. Film two scenes, one with your ghost in shot, one without. Be sure you move nothing in between the two shots aside from the actor playing the ghost. Any knocked cameras, moved items, and you’re going to have to start over. Drag your two pieces of footage back to the editing suite, and simply layer the one with the ghost over the one without, then lower the opacity on the ghost footage. This creates the effect of the ghost being translucent, whilst everything else in the frame simply layers over every other part, keeping them looking solid. There you have it, a really quick translucent ghost. You can get a lot more complicated with this technique to include masks, tracking mattes, amongst other techniques to allow you to have your ghost to seemingly walkthrough objects, or to be convincingly in the frame, even though your camera is moving.
CGI is something which often sticks out like a sore thumb in pieces of “real” ghost footage. The simple truth of the matter is that people either don’t have the skill to make something look, move or interact convincingly, or they get too obsessed with showing off their creation, and ignore the rules which I laid out in the first section of this guide.
I’m always much more of a fan of practical effects when it comes to ghost footage. It means that there is always something legitimately in the frame, even if you’re being deceptive about exactly what it is. CGI, even in huge blockbusters, can stand out from the world if it’s a main focal point in the frame, a practical effect can look unnatural too, but it’s physical presence is undeniable, which overcomes one of the significant hurdles you may have when CGI-ing your ghost.
Jaws is the best film to watch when you’re hoping to use physical props for your ghost. Speilberg knew that Bruce wouldn’t stand up to much scrutiny if he was always in frame, so he decided to limit how much of him we see throughout the film. Approach your ghost in the same way - put as little of it as possible in the frame by finding the balance between making it look like a ghost, and making it not be too obvious that it’s a fake.
Part 3: Narrative
When you release your ghost footage, what reason are you going to put behind it? Perhaps the first question we should ask is “to spin or not to spin?”
For me, I think spinning the yarn is your best bet. It’s another case of red-flags for me. If a ghost film hasn’t got anything to back it up, then you may think that it makes it more mysterious, which should surely give it an edge. I don’t find that to be the case.
Let’s switch perspective a little bit. When I was a broadcast journalism student, we were always told to aim to get a face in front of the lens, because it naturally makes someone directly accountable for what they’re saying, giving it much more credibility because of them assuming responsibility. Of course, we can then interpret exactly what they’re saying for ourselves to come to our own conclusions, but the assumed accountability is worth it’s weight in screen-time.
To return to ghosts, applying any measure which can create any accountability for the story is likely to help to make it more convincing as a result.
Part 4: Happy Accidents
The final category is situations which occur which you could blissfully ignore the details of, in order to make it look supernatural.
When I worked with a paranormal team, we were filming in an old building in Lancashire. It was by no means in a secluded space, with public access areas to either side. When the night had ended, we set about reviewing the footage. To our surprise, we saw a white figure, leaving a seemingly spectral trace zig zagging up and down in the background outside of the window. I was slightly taken aback, even as a non believer. It could have been a person, but why were they moving so strangely - how could they zigzag like that? A bad paranormal team would have left it there, published it and slapped “Real Ghost Footage” all over it on Youtube, posted it to the Tabloids and got a TV show as payback. But, to the credit of the team, we trawled the day footage and Google maps to find an explanation before it even got anywhere near the final piece. And we found it. There were square bollards along a walkway outside the window. A late night revellor had been walking along, stepping on and off them in turn, creating the strange path that you can see in the footage. As a result, the footage wasn’t included in the edit whatsoever.
But it so easily could have been. This is what I like to describe as a Happy Accident. Something which, even if there was the option to debunk, a person may wilfully choose not to simply because it looks spooky.
I’m going to make this brief. Just because you can make a fake ghost footage, doesn’t mean you should as anything more than an academic exercise. It may be easy to do, but I do not believe that deceiving people is to the benefit of either believers or non believers. It muddies the waters of an area where the waters are already impenetrable by the light of day. Surely, both believers and non believers should unite in the common goal of coming to a conclusion, or as near to one as scientifically possible. In throwing false evidence into the ring, it simply creates more obstacles to that end. So, please, make ghost footage for fun, but don’t lie about the fact that you made it.