The Enduring Illusion of Pepper’s Ghost

Posted by Staff on Monday, August 22nd, 2011

Disneyland Haunted Mansion Promotional Photo 1969

The Pepper’s Ghost illusion may be nearly 150 years old, but it continues to delight audiences to this day. Although it is a relatively low-tech technique, the ethereal image produced is perfect for portraying all sorts of otherworldly spirits and creatures. It’s simple enough to set up at home, and in fact, many haunted house enthusiasts incorporate it into their Halloween shows. Here’s a little bit about how the illusion works and where you can see it.

The apparition one sees in a Pepper’s Ghost illusion is the reflection of an object or figure hidden from view. A sheet of glass is installed between the viewer and the room or stage in which the ghost will appear. This sheet of glass is angled so that whatever it will reflect can be hidden from the audience in a secret room. The hidden room is an entirely black mirror-image of the stage where the actual “ghosts” are placed. When it is time to make the ghosts appear in front of the audience, the hidden figures are lit and their reflection appears in the glass. The figures in the mirror-image room will be arranged so that their reflection corresponds with where they should appear on stage. For example, if you wanted to make a ghost appear at a table, the room visible to the audience would already have a table and a chair in it. However, in the mirror-image room, a figure would be sitting on a black chair, or similar prop, positioned so that the reflection lines up with the table and chair in the main room. When a light is turned on the figure, it will appear as though a ghost is sitting at the table visible to the audience.

Pepper's Ghost illusion

Illustration of Pepper’s Ghost used for theater performance

Although this spectral illusion is known as Pepper’s Ghost, the technique was first developed by the British inventor, Henry Dircks (1806-1873). After working with magic lanterns in theater productions, a popular illusionary technique called phantasmagoria, he developed a new technique to make it seem as though a ghost was really on the stage, rather than in the background, as was the case with the magic lantern shows. Yet, he couldn’t quite figure out how to incorporate the trick into a theatre performance without requiring costly alterations to the theatre. It was a chemist from London’s Polytechnic Institute, John Henry Pepper (1821-1900), who came up with a simpler way of incorporating the illusion into a stage performance. In 1863, Pepper premiered this new technique in a production of Charles Dickens’ The Haunted Man, and from then on it was known as Pepper’s Ghost. Naturally, Dircks was none too happy about this title given to the illusion he had developed. Pepper, aware of Dircks’ frustration, did what he could to share the credit, but the public had already latched on to the title, Pepper’s Ghost.

Haunted Mansion Promotional Photo 1969

A promotional photo for the Haunted Mansion released in 1969

Since that production of The Haunted Man, the Pepper’s Ghost illusion has been used extensively on the stage, as well as in theme parks, museums, and film. Perhaps the most famous, and definitely the largest, example of this illusion can be seen in Disneyland’s Haunted Mansion, which opened in 1969 (also pictured at top). The Ballroom scene uses the Pepper’s Ghost illusion to populate an entire hall with reveling ghouls. One of the most amazing things about this section of the ride is the size of the glass used to make it work: 30-feet tall and 90-feet long. Imagineer Rolly Crump, commenting on the success of the illusion before professionals familiar with the technique, wrote, “We fooled them too. They’d just never seen a piece of glass that big.”

Behind the scenes at Haunted Mansion

The hidden animatronics reflected in the ballroom scene. Source: doombuggies.com

As riders creep along the viewing mezzanine in their “doom buggies,” all the real action is happening above and below them: there are no dancing ghosts in the Grand Hall itself. Out of view of the riders, animatronic ghosts perform their moves in an all-black mirror-image of the ballroom. The organ player, for example, is banging away on a black prop similar enough to the organ in the ballroom that his movements correspond with it in the final reflection. To maximize the eerie glow in the reflections, the animatronic figures are all clothed in very light colors, and the figures themselves are white or pastel. The careful staging of the figures and precise lighting combine to bring an otherwise empty ball room to life, so to speak. This simple illusion continues to delight riders, even amongst other high-tech attractions at the park, such as the recently revamped Star Tours. It’s proof that the imagination doesn’t only respond to the latest technology, but to true originality and creativity.

Sources:

Doombuggies: Secrets of the Haunted Mansion

Haunted House Magazine: Pepper’s Ghost

PreCinemaHistory

2 responses to “The Enduring Illusion of Pepper’s Ghost”

  1. Interesting! I wondered, do illusionists and mentalists also use the pepper’s ghost illusion, or is it to ‘big’ to use in a show?

  2. ken says:

    too big to tote around, am looking for some way to produce a ghost cheaply

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