Remembering Pepper’s Ghost: Victorian Magic’s Greatest Illusion
When modern spiritualism first arrived on British shores in 1852 with the American medium Maria B. Hayden, it created a sensation. It was not long before other American spiritualists followed suit and travelled over. The performances of the first generation of nineteenth-century psychics in Britain wowed audiences.
SOURCE: Séance conducted by John Beattie, Bristol, England, 1872
For many attending these affairs, it was the first time that they experienced any kind of extraordinary phenomena of this nature.
Of course, there were already plenty of sceptics during the 1850s in Britain, and the chemist Michael Faraday is an illustrative example of one. His early experiments with table-turning, where he argued that the phenomena produced by psychics was actually created through unconscious muscular motion, is representative of the types of sceptical responses some Victorians were levelling toward the new movement.
SOURCE: Faraday's apparatus for experimental demonstration of "ideomotor effect" on table-turning
Alongside the emergence of spiritual performances in Victorian Britain was another sensational cultural phenomenon, professional magic.
These early conjurors also played an important role in exposing fake mediumship during the nineteenth century. Most often, these efforts by magicians to show how spirit and psychic phenomena were fabricated were done by simulating the occurrences through natural or mechanical means. Illusion and misdirection were key to creating these extraordinary manifestations.
The creation of highly realistic (but fake) ghostly apparitions through illusion raised all sorts of important questions about the reliability of testimonies professing to have observed genuine spirits. Was it the case that these witnesses had been tricked through similar effects, or was their experience merely an example of misperception?
One of the most famous illusions of the nineteenth century, which was designed to simulate a ghostly apparition, was “Pepper’s Ghost”.
SOURCE: Stage setup for Pepper's Ghost. A brightly lit figure out of the audience's sight below the stage is reflected in a pane of glass placed between the performer and the audience.
Named after the English inventor John Henry Pepper, who designed the optical illusion, this performance was immensely popular during the nineteenth century and it toured theatres and fairgrounds all over Europe and North America.
SOURCE: Portrait of John Henry Pepper, inventor of "Pepper's Ghost"
Spectators attending the performance were made to believe that an actual spectre moved across the stage. Other performers could even move through the spectre without resistance, which further helped to support the illusion that the ghostly entity was paranormal in nature.
But how did it work? The core of the illusion required the use of two rooms or spaces. One that the audience could see, and a second that was hidden from view. A plate of glass was positioned somewhere in first room at an angle to reflect the view of the hidden room toward the audience.
Diagram demonstrating how the Pepper's Ghost illusion works
Care had to be taken to ensure that the glass was invisible to the audience. Normally the lower edge of the glass was hidden by a patterning on the floor. Lights also had to be arranged in such a way so that they did not reflect off the surface of the glass. Otherwise, the illusion would be immediately broken.
The plate would catch a reflection of a brightly lit actor who was hidden in the secret room. It would then project an image of the actor onto the stage.
Because the audience could not detect the glass screen, they would mistakenly perceive the reflection as a ghostly figure. The lighting on the actor in the hidden room could be gradually brightened or dimmed to make the image of the spectre fade in and out of visibility.
It was a masterful performance that created an amazing fake ghostly apparition. In fact, the Pepper’s Ghost illusion is so convincing, that you can still see it used today.
If you have ever gone on the “Haunted Mansion” ride at Disney World, you may recall the famous scene with the ghosts dancing around a ballroom. That illusion is done using the Pepper’s Ghost technique!
Image of the dancing ghosts from the Haunted Mansion ride at Disney.
John Henry Pepper, The True History of the Ghost, London: Cassell & Co., 1890.
Jason Surrell, The Haunted Mansion: From the Magic Kingdom to the Movies, New York: Disney Editions, 2013.
Albert A. Hopkins, Magic, Stage Illusions, Special Effects and Trick Photography, New York: Dover Publications, 1897.
Simone Natale, Supernatural Entertainments: Victorian Spiritualism and the Rise of Modern Media Culture, University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2016.
Richard Noakes, Physics and Psychics: The Occult and the Sciences in Modern Britain, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2019.