EARLY in 1996 Mrs Carol McDonald and her family of Halswell, near Christchurch, were party to an apparent supernatural event, an event that became quite topical at Mrs McDonald’s workplace, the Canterbury Agriculture and Science Centre at Lincoln. This centre is home to a number of Crown Research Institutes, including the home offices of Landcare Research Ltd. and Crop and Food Research Ltd., branches of AgResearch and HortResearch, and a number of smaller organisations.

One afternoon in January 1996 Mrs McDonald took half a dozen colour photographs of her ten month old grandson in the living room of her home. The photographs show a happy, smiling child — but in the background of every photo, lying in a clothes basket, there is what seems to be a disembodied, rather maniacal man’s face!

The most expansive photo shows a head from the crown to the mouth, while the remainder show the face down to and including the nose. The face is clearly visible partly side-on to the camera, and in every photo the eyes are turned directly towards the camera. Two of the photos were taken from slightly different directions. Further, the head appears to be much larger than the head of a man visible just beyond and to the right in one of the photos. The face is clearly 3-dimensional and appears to have three reddish, welt-like bands across the lower half of the forehead.

Mrs McDonald and her family were astounded and rather disturbed. How did the head get in her grandchild’s photos and what was it doing there? Mrs McDonald had never seen a person of that appearance in her home (or anywhere else). And why the staring eyes, the welts on the forehead and the rather evil grin?

A possible explanation was that the image of the head had been inserted into the photographs during the developmental process by someone with a rather macabre sense of humour. However, consultation with Robert Lamberts, an experienced photographer at the Lincoln research centre, confirmed the image of the head was actually a legitimate part of each photo. Moreover, the image was on each negative.

Consultation with a large number of people at Lincoln didn’t help much either. Despite the expectation that at a science research establishment logical explanations would be sought, many people appeared to be more than ready to believe that the image was of some kind of supernatural origin. The suspicion began to grow that perhaps a disembodied head with possible malicious purpose was lurking in the Halswell area.

The mystery deepened when the personnel at the laboratory where the photos had been developed initially could also not offer an explanation. However, and most fortunately, a completely logical explanation finally came to light. One person in another photographic laboratory realised the head in the basket resembled a photo in Skywatch, a monthly magazine of television programmes. The December 1995 issue featured a full, last-page photo of the head of Jack Nicholson, who was starring in several films to be screened that month. A comparison of the magazine photo with the face in the baby photos showed that the head in the basket was clearly that of Jack Nicholson!

Obviously, the December issue had been in the basket when the baby photos were taken, but Mrs McDonald’s family had no memory of seeing Jack Nicholson’s photo on the back of the December issue.

The angle of the magazine to the camera somehow uncannily gave the head in the photos a true three-dimensional quality. No part of the magazine page that one might expect to be recognized as such can be seen, such as the edge of a page or a headline. Of course a photo in a magazine would always present the same eye angle to another camera. The welts’ across the forehead were three bands of white text, on a red background, extolling the virtues of Jack Nicholson. Rather surprisingly the welts’ did not resolve into text when magnified. Readers can develop their own explanation for the maniacal aspect of the face!

So the head in the basket case is fully explained. However there are two disturbing aspects to this incident.

One is the apparent readiness of many people, and especially those at the Lincoln Research Centre, to consider a possible supernatural origin for the head when no logical explanation was available. I must admit that on hearing the story and then first seeing the photos, I too felt a sense of unease. Perhaps this was exacerbated by the fact that I, too, live in Halswell. Who wants to consider that a grinning, supernatural head may be lurking in their neighbourhood?

The second is what if the Skywatch photo had never been recognised as the origin of the head in the basket? Would this story have gone down in history as an example of the existence of the supernatural?

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