The story goes that sometime in the 1950s the Cooper family of Texas bought an old house and moved into it. On their first night there, the father took a photo of Mom and Grandma posing with the two kids at the dining room table. Everyone was happy and smiling. They were living the American dream.
But when the photo was subsequently developed, they saw, to their horror, that what looked like a body falling or hanging from the ceiling had materialized behind them. It hadn't been there when the father took the photo. So where had it come from? Was it an apparition of a deceased former tenant of the house? No one knew.
Is any part of this story true? No. It's pure fiction, but it's recently become attached to this creepy photo, which has circulated widely online. The story appears to have been invented sometime in 2013. At least, I can't find references to it earlier than that.
But what about the image itself? It's definitely older than the story. So what's the real story behind it?
That's a bit of a mystery. Its original source is unknown. The family looks like they're from the 1950s, but that's just a guess. And various details of the photo suggest that it's been digitally altered, which would indicate a more modern origin.
For instance, there's dark "vignetting" in the corners of the photo. Wikipedia notes
that vignetting can be a result of "camera settings or lens limitations," but in this case the vignetting looks too symmetrical, so it's probably an effect created by Photoshop (or some other image-manipulation software).
Also, the shadow of the falling body falls the wrong way in relationship to the main light source in the photo. This suggests either that the body has been digitally inserted into the photo, or that it got there as a result of a double exposure. (Of course, if the falling body is a ghost I suppose the shadow argument wouldn't apply — because do the shadows of ghosts follow the laws of physics?)
But what can Google tell us about the origin of the photo?
After some searching,
the earliest appearance of the photo online that I could find dates back to Nov 14, 2009, when Sam Cowan posted it to ligotti.net (a fan site for the horror writer Thomas Ligotti). Sam titled it "Family Gathering" and categorized it as "Art".
If it's art, that implies someone created it. I'm not sure if Sam himself created it (or even if his was the first posting of it online). I've tried to contact Sam via Facebook to see if he has any more info about it. Hopefully he will.
[Note: This turned out to be a total false lead. The guy had nothing to do with creating the photo.]
As for the image's subsequent career online, a few months after Sam posted it to ligotti.net, Xavier Ortega posted it to the site Ghost Theory, including it in a gallery of "Retro Creeps: scary portraits from the past."
Xavier denied any knowledge of its origin, but his post seems to have been what introduced it to a wider audience, launching it into viral circulation. As I noted earlier, the story about it showing the Cooper family from Texas appears to have been invented in 2013.
So, in summary, my best guess is that the photo was created around 2009 as a piece of horror art. But it soon was mistaken for an actual vintage photo, and eventually a fake story involving the "Cooper family of Texas" was invented to provide some creepy contextual details.