Monday, October 28, 2013

Ghost Sighting

Source: National Fairground Archive of The University of Sheffield

A ghost sighting of a rare 1889 two-color handbill advertising Professor Pepper's popular Phantasmagoria at the Royal Polytechnic, featuring some frightfully spirited letterforms. Pictorial spooks and skeletons in costume, menacingly spell out ghost in all caps to announce a new revival of Pepper's popular performance. 
     Pepper's ghost, as the illusion came to be called, was popularized by John Henry Pepper (1821-1900), a London scientist and showman. His ghost conjuring illusion was part science; part theater, and used rear projection in a darkened room, hidden from the audience view, to call forth ghostly apparitions on a glass plate. When the lantern's light was cast on an actor in the hidden room, it reflected their image as a translucent figure on the plate of glass. Below are two woodcut images from the collection of Richard Balzer, which help to illustrate the illusion.  

This broadside, from Richard Balzer, advertises Professor Pepper's earlier 1870 sideshow.
Victorian audiences never tired of their fascination with the afterworld. Fairground showmen from traveling sideshows continued to flourish in England throughout the late 19th century. These showmen were quick to pick up on Pepper's popular ghost illusion and attracted audiences by creating colorful hand lettered banners and ornately carved and painted entrances to their sideshows. The first image below is of the Biddall's Ghost illusion exhibit from 1880. The other is of the interior of the Clark's Ghost Show exhibit from 1890.

Source of photos: National Fairground Archives of The University of Sheffield.

Even today, this same principle of Pepper's ghost trickery has continued to entertain audiences in cabarets, sideshows, museums, concert halls, sports stadiums, haunted houses and theme parks. At the 2006 Grammy Awards, Madonna was projected onto stage in a "live" performance. Last year at the Coachella Music Festival, a projection of deceased rapper Tupac Shakur was displayed in a performance with Dr. Dre and Snoop Dogg. Even Hallmark had to get in on the act last year when they released some Pepper's Ghost collectibles for Halloween. By pressing the cap on a small bottle, a transparent "My Pet Ghost" appears with a recorded saying. Now that is scary!

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