1987: Three Men and a Ghost

In 1987, the biggest movie in America was "Three Men and a Baby," a comedy starring Tom Selleck, Steve Guttenberg, and Ted Danson as bachelors who find themselves caring for a baby one of them has fathered... the film grossed $167 million in the US, beating out everything else for the year, and won the 1988 People's Choice Award for 'Favorite Comedy Motion Picture.' So, not surprisingly, when the movie became available for purchase on videotape for home viewing, there was a big audience waiting for it.

        Which is about when people first started to talk about the ghost.

        About an hour into the movie, Jack -- the character played by Ted Danson -- is walking and talking with his screen mother (played by Celeste Holm) in the apartment the men live in (movie-wise)... as the two walk past a window that's in the background, there is what appears to be a shotgun pointed at the floor.

The gun.
The gun shape in the window, past Danson's arm. [Larger version here]

The actors walk until the window is out of the shot, talking and picking up the baby; they then walk back past the same window... and this time there appears to be a boy in a white shirt in the window in the background.

The boy.
The boy in the window. [Larger version here]

It's a single long scene with no cuts; so what is seen in the window changed during the short time the window was out of the shot.

        Why didn't anyone notice when the movie was on the big screen? One possible reason would be that, on the first viewing, most people were just paying attention to the story and not the background details. A second reason could be the ability to pause and re-watch the scene that was available with the videotape at home.

        Once the two oddities had been noticed, it wasn't long before a story started to circulate that seemed to explain some of the circumstances; this was best summed up by Jan Brunvand in an 1990 article:

The oddity is explained, according to the story people tell, by the notion that a New York apartment was leased by the filmmakers from a couple who moved out after their son committed suicide there. When the couple saw the film, they supposedly recognized their son wearing the same clothes he had died in.

... Some say the son was murdered, or that the couple has appeared on a national television program discussing the case, or that the boy is visible on video cassettes but not at theaters.

Brunvand, in case you don't know, is best known for his collections and studies of "urban legends," stories that are not true but are told as if they are for a variety of reasons... so, clearly, he felt the 'Three Men and a Ghost' situation was such a story. Several versions of the tale were collected by Brunvand and other folklorists starting roughly in 1990, when public interest and discussion of the story exploded. Some versions stated the boy had been shot, explaining the apparent gun; and some versions mused that the 'ghost boy' may have been a marketing ploy, since the sequel to the movie, 'Three Men and a Little Lady,' came out in December of 1990.

        Here's the full clip of the scene.

        While a ghost was an exciting possibility, a more prosaic one that was also suggested at the time was that it was just the son of a crew member who was accidentally caught in the shot, or a young relative of Leonard Nimoy, the director of the film, who had been promised a chance to appear in the movie.

        The whole situation was quickly sorted out by a few phone calls, though I don't know who first professed it. But in 1994 Brunvand, discussing the whole affair in his book The Baby Train and Other Lusty Urban Legends, stated that some journalists had called Touchstone Pictures to ask about the story, and were informed that the their was no haunted New York apartment... all of the indoor scenes for Three Men and a Baby had been shot on a soundstage in Toronto; so a haunting was unlikely.

        The explanation that Touchstone Pictures offered for the strange figure was that it was a short cardboard standee of Ted Danson wearing a tuxedo and top hat. Danson's character 'Jack' was a vain actor, who decorated the apartment with images of himself; the standee was part of this decor, explained at a much later date as relating to a missing scene where Jack stars in a dog food commercial... though the scene went missing, the standee remained.

        The standee actually appears one more time in the film, in one of the later scenes where 'Jack' is looking out the window...

The standee.
The standee is the one on the left. Just so you know. [Larger version here]

... it's the same window the 'gun' and 'boy' were seen in.

        So, here's a third reason people would have seen the ghost boy in the videotape and not the theater... the videotape had lower visual resolution than the movie shown in theaters, so the standee in the background became less detailed visually and easier to interpret as something else. The 'gun' is the black left side of the standee, flattened by the curtain on one side, and missing details in the white portion of the right side, so it blends into the curtain there... leaving a dark shape that was interpreted as a gun. On the way back in the same scene, the window is hit from a different angle, so the central body of the standee is visible; and with the lack of detail, it was interpreted as a dark-haired boy with a white shirt.

Return of the Ghost

        Sometimes around 2009, the story appears to have returned again. The picture of the 'ghost boy' began to spring up in websites displaying multiple 'ghost photos,' often in websites based in Asia and South America. The story was very simplified in most cases... just "this ghost boy appears in Three Men and a Baby," with the photo with the figure in the window. By 2013, the photo with its single line story started to be included in various websites that collected ghost photos, included as just another example among dozens and dozens of often display spooky images.

       But why did the picture and story come back? I have a theory about what happened: mind you though, it's just a guess on my part.

       In 2007, Snopes.com, a site well known for exposing false stories, posted an article about the Three Men and a Baby story. I'm guessing this may have been a reminder to people about the story, which by 2009 was being mentioned again in various online communications in simple terms -- i.e. "remember that ghost boy in Three Men and a Baby?" -- which was then picked up by Asian and South American sites as a straight-up ghost story with a photo due to a lack of backstory and a difference in language. Eventually, new English speaking websites started to feature it as a 'ghost photo' again because the authors hadn't seen the movie, didn't know the older legend, and wanted a cool 'ghost photo' to add to their collections.

        Of course, that's just a guess.