Why Are Old Photos So Creepy?

I once passed by an exhibition of American civil war photographs in a store window. Some of them were group shots, some were portraits, and others were photos of a particular event. I lingered over every one even though I had no connection to the subjects, the store, or the civil war.

Today, I don’t remember what the shop sold, or why the pictures were there. However, the feeling I had from looking at the display has stayed with me. The photos gave me the chills. It didn’t matter whether the subjects were sad or happy, stoic or animated. The ones in which the people look straight out at you are the worst, in my opinion. 

Photo: Pixabay.com

What is it about old black-and-white photos that is so unsettling? Is it the fact that the people in them are long dead? The fact that their lives—which were captured for one brief moment in time—are gone forever? Are the images disturbing because they are memento mori—reminders that life is short?

I know I’m not the only one fascinated by old photos. You can find old photos on the internet on just about any subject, be it the Wild West, gangsters, you name it. The book series “Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children” by author Ransom Riggs was written around collectors’ archives of found photos.

In terms of outright creepiness, people in Victorian England even paid photographers to take pictures of their newly deceased loved ones, frequently posed among the living. See, for example, this article from the BBC: https://www.bbc.com/news/uk-england-36389581.

Yikes. That sends a shiver down my spine. Anyway, let me know if you feel the same way or have any thoughts on the matter. I’d appreciate your insight. 


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