Pepper’s Ghost: The story behind a holographic opera

The Victorians loved ghosts. Their grandparents had relished the terror of 1790s ‘gothic entertainments’ where, by means of magic lanterns, images of ghosts and skeletons had flitted above them and left the more delicate ladies fainting. Then came writers like Charles Dickens and Edward Bulwer Lytton, who, with their various haunted tales, further stoked the public’s fascination with the supernatural. By the 1860s, communing with the dead was becoming a regular pastime in many a respectable English household, and a number of intelligent, educated doubters became, for a brief spell anyway, believers.

Toujours et Près de Moi

Toujours et Près de Moi

So there could not have been a better time for the first appearance on a theatre stage of a human-size, glowing ghost who could suddenly appear out of nowhere, glide around, and then, just as suddenly, disappear into nowhere.  Two men were responsible for this feat: the civil engineer Henry Dircks and the showman-scientist John Henry Pepper. Dircks originated the idea, basing it on the simple fact that glass is both reflective and transparent. He wanted to put a large plate of clear glass at the front of a main stage and to put an actor playing a ghost on a blackened hidden stage level with the main stage. The glass would reflect the image of the ghost. But Dircks’s design was impractical as only audiences in the balcony seats could see the image. Every theatre impresario Dircks approached turned him away until 1862, when he showed his model to Pepper of London’s Royal Polytechnic Institute, which then needed one novelty after another to attract ticket-paying audiences.

Pepper redesigned Dircks’s model by means of a little geometry and added the use of a bright oxyhydrogen spotlight. He saw that if the glass was slanted toward the audience at a 45 degree angle, and if the actor playing the ghost was put into a kind of expanded orchestra pit and was made to lean back on a slanted board and bear the heat of the spotlight, the actor’s ghostly image reflected on the glass would be visible from every seat in the theatre. Meanwhile, the actor on the main stage had to rely on marks on the floor and beats in the accompanying music to know where and when to interact with the ghost that appeared to the audience to be right next to him.

On 24 December 1862, Pepper first exhibited a ghost in a special staging of a scene from Bulwer Lytton’s novel, A Strange Story. Pepper was so taken back by the response of his distinguished audience that he decided on impulse not to tell them how he did it. He wound up making £12,000 in fifteen months from exhibiting what the public came to know rather unfairly as Pepper’s Ghost’, much to Dircks’s chagrin. Needless to say, there were some in Pepper’s audiences who swore they had seen a real ghost on stage. He did not bother to refute them.

Cynthia Lawford

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