On December 24, 1862, a new theatrical adaptation of Charles Dickens's fifth and last Christmas novella—his first being A Christmas Carol—premiered at the Royal Polytechnic Institution in London. In The Haunted Man and the Ghost's Bargain, an aging, gloomy, Scrooge-like chemistry teacher called Redlaw asks to have his memory erased. A ghostly doppelgänger grants him his wish but also curses anybody with whom he interacts to suffer the same fate.
Theatergoers attending this particular performance were in for a shock: instead of confronting the usual flesh-and-bone actor with a sheet over his head, Redlaw faced an incorporeal entity that materialized onstage, apparently out of thin air. Spectators were astonished. The play, which had not been performed in London for more than a decade, became an instant sensation. Enthralled audiences filled the Royal Polytechnic's 500-seat theater for 15 months straight, shelling out £12,000—or the equivalent of more than $2 million today.
The otherworldly apparition was a stage illusion that came to be known as Pepper's Ghost, the brainchild of Liverpool civil engineer Henry Dircks and Professor John Henry Pepper, a prominent London chemist and science popularizer. Dircks and Pepper's joint patent gave all the financial rights to the professor, and the two inventors fell out shortly after its issue over matters of credit and precedence.
But versions of their Ghost continue to delight audiences to this day. Look for Pepper's Ghost in Alfred Hitchcock's The 39 Steps or the James Bond flick Diamonds Are Forever. The same illusion was put to work in Disneyland's Haunted Mansion, where riders see specters materialize before them. These projections appear strikingly three-dimensional, in part because they retain many of the cues that inform our visual perception of depth in everyday life, such as size, shading and texture. And unlike a standard projection experience, such as what we see at a movie theater, there is no visible screen to tip us off that we are viewing a two-dimensional image on a flat surface. Instead the Pepper's Ghost illusion employs transparent surfaces so the image appears to be cast in thin air.
A growing understanding of the visual sciences in Victorian times not only enhanced entertainment in the theater but also launched the development of early cinema. Contemporary filmmaking techniques, as well as their earliest predecessors, rely on a perceptual process discovered by Peter Mark Roget, best known for his famous Thesaurus of English Words and Phrases. In an 1824 presentation to the Royal Society of London, Roget revealed the “persistence of vision”: the retina's ability to retain an image for 1/20 to 1/5 of a second after its disappearance. This phenomenon allows us to bridge the temporal gap between two consecutive static images of a moving object—think of two movie frames—and see continuous motion instead.
This article showcases the use of novel scientific and technical understanding to create unprecedented spectacles and theatrical illusions in Victorian society.
Editor's Note (11/03/15): This subhead on this image was edited after posting to correct a typo that appeared in the published print version. It is a 21st, not 20th-century spin.
This article was originally published with the title "Victorian Theatrics" in SA Mind 26, 6, 18-20 (November 2015)
Explanation of an Optical Deception in the Appearance of the Spokes of a Wheel Seen through Vertical Apertures. P. M. Roget in Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London, Vol. 115, pages 131–140; January 1, 1825.
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