Pepper’s Ghost: Let’s Get Spooky

Happy (almost) fall from the whole team at the Museum of Illusions NYC! We love fall, so we decided to kick off spooky season a little bit early this year. Obviously, we’re going to do it in the only way we know how… with an optical illusion! If you read this recent blog post about Mirrors and Illusions, then you might remember us briefly talking about Pepper’s Ghost illusion.

Basically, Pepper’s Ghost is an illusion that had everyone in the mid-19th century FREAKING OUT. Today, we know all about how the illusion works, but it still pops up rather frequently for entertainment purposes. In fact, if you’ve been to the happiest place on earth then you’ve probably seen it in real life. Read on to learn more about this spooky illusion…

The History of Pepper’s Ghost

Pepper’s Ghost is named after scientist John Henry Pepper, who brought it to the mainstream in 1862.. But Pepper didn’t actually discover the illusion. In fact, it dates as far back as 1584 when Giambattista della Porta first described it in his work Magia Naturalis

Actually, the Victorian iteration of the illusion was developed in 1862 by Henry Dircks, who tried to sell it to theaters. His technique, however, required that the theaters be completely rebuilt. This was (as you can guess), a bit too pricey. The theaters did not adapt his ghostly trick.

Pepper found a way to perform the illusion WITHOUT rebuilding an entire theater. He first presented it to an audience during a performance of Charles Dickens’s The Haunted Man. Needless to say, it was a hit. 

Pepper tried not to take credit for the illusion, as he was admittedly inspired by Dircks. But the name “Pepper’s Ghost” has a nice ring to it, so it stuck.

How it Works

Pepper’s Ghost is actually a rather simple illusion. It works by pointing a bright light at a person (usually dressed as a ghost) through a piece of glass. It’s easier to look at an explanation of the illusion than read it. Take a look at the image below to get an idea of how the original Pepper’s Ghost illusion worked. 

The Pepper's Ghost Illusion explained for the Museum of Illusions NYC blog.
The Pepper’s Ghost Illusion broken down.

Today, the illusion is more often used with projectors than live actors. Although some stage plays still do the original Pepper’s Ghost illusion, or play with a fun mix of both.

Pepper’s Ghost Today

Because it was a Victorian-era illusion, there is no longer a patent on it. Meaning anyone can use it. People get really creative with it in theater and performance. But the most well-known modern iteration of the illusion is in Disney’s Haunted Mansion ride. If you’ve ever been on the ride, then you remember the HUGE ballroom scene. All of those “ghosts” are actually Pepper’s Ghost. If you haven’t been (or just need a spooky refresher), check it out in the video below. 

There is nothing better to do once the weather starts cooling down in NYC than plan a trip to your favorite museum. This year, add the Museum of Illusions NYC to the list! Click here to book your tickets. See you soon! 

Just make sure that you wear a mask and bring proof of vaccination!