An illustration showing how Pepper's "Ghost Show" actually worked

An illustration showing how Pepper's "Ghost Show" actually worked

As as been pointed out many times already in the pages of the Haunted Museum, Spiritualism was unfortunately riddled with cases of outright fraud. Many deceptive mediums would do whatever they could to bilk unsuspecting clients and sitters out of money to "contact their deceased loved ones". Many of these deceptions came about during séances, which was, according to the mediums, the most effective way to contact the dead. In nearly every case, these séances were carried out in near or total darkness, effectively concealing the practice of fraud. And while not every medium was dishonest, there were enough of them to color the entire movement -- and to give Spiritualism a bad name.

One of the most thrilling aspects of any séance was the materialization of the spirits. Some mediums built an entire career on such materializations, which were said to be formed from ectoplasm, a mysterious substance that could emerge from the medium in all shapes and forms. Some mediums, like Florence Cook, became so closely tied to the spirits they materialized that they became very widely known for them. Because the appearance of the spirits was so important to a good séance, fraudulent mediums would do just about anything to cause it to happen -- from smoke to mirrors to even more dishonest shenanigans.

As has already been mentioned previously in the section of the site about the early investigators of Spiritualism, the two greatest passions of Victorian era England were science and Spiritualism. While a number of eminent scientists of the day became involved in the movement, perhaps no greater example of a merging of the two was in the person of John Henry Pepper.

Pepper was an analytical chemist, who in 1852 became director of London's Royal Polytechnic Institution, an establishment that worked to disseminate scientific knowledge to the public. Pepper believed that this could be be done by making science entertaining and he especially liked explaining complex concepts and devices by using optical illusions and programs that produced grand dioramas and dissolving views. It was in this way that he came to devise the "Ghost Show", which enchanted audiences in Britain, Canada, America and Australia. 

The Ghost Show allowed an audience the illusion of interacting with the phantoms on stage and its primary effect relied on the same principle that lets a person see successive reflections of themselves in a automobile window, while riding in a lighted vehicle at night. The "ghost" was an actor positioned in front of the stage and below it, concealed from the audience's view. Hidden beneath the stage, a projectionist illuminated the actor, whose image reflected in a mirror and from there onto a large glass pane that was stationed in front of the onlookers and was more or less invisible to them.  A variety of startling apparitional special effects were possible, making the "spirit" seem to menace either the actors onstage or the audience itself. 

By the 1860's, Pepper became renowned as a showman of science but  never pretended that his ghosts were anything but illusions --- as some have pointed out, a refreshing change for a time when mediums abounded who insisted that their trickery was real!


As the heyday of the Spiritualist movement began to wind down, the fraudulent mediums became more and more sloppy with their tricks and manipulations. Gone were the days of elaborate stages shows like those that had been created by Pepper and in their places were cheap displays and shoddy hoaxes. A case that illustrates this point was reported in newspapers in 1906. As it turned out, two ardent and legitimate Spiritualists were responsible for exposing the fraud.
There men went to an apartment where a séance was to be conducted and became suspicious of the chair and the cabinet used by the medium. They managed to examine the chair and found a secret compartment in the rear and also a keyhole, which was carefully concealed beneath the upholstered material that covered the rest of the chair. The investigators then had a key made, which would open the lock, and found another secret compartment that was 15 inches deep. 

At the next séance, the men noticed that the back of the chair seemed to be stuffed much better than the rest of it and suspected that "ghostly" materials had been placed there before the sitters arrived. During the sitting that followed, the men were not surprised to see that all manner of "ghosts" materialized and when it was over, they exposed the medium as a fraud. They opened the secret compartment on the chair with their own key and began removing the items contained inside. They found a collapsible dummy head made of pink material; a flesh colored mask; six pieces of china silk that comprised about 13 yards of material; two pieces of black cloth; three beards and two wigs of various color and length; a telescoping rod from which drapery could be hung to represent a second ghost; a small flashlight with four yards of wire and a switch, which would be useful to make "spirit lights" and various other contraptions.

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After Spiritualism breathed its last shuddering gasp in the late 1920's (although there are colonies and believers across the country today - See this history),  sheer entertainment came along to take its place. The pioneers of the "ghost show", also called the "spook show", began developing the format of the midnight ghost and magic shows in the 1930's. The spook shows of those days mainly appealed to young people in their late teens and twenties. This audience, in the days of the Great Depression, were looking for a way to escape from the toil of poverty and the despair of everyday life. 

Even though the shows were never advertised as such, the spook shows were essentially magic performances. They were really the anti-Spiritualism shows that were performed by Houdini and other magicians in the 1920's to show that the workings of the mediums could be duplicated on the magic stage. In the cases of the spook shows however, the magicians never explained how the tricks were accomplished and instead, let the audiences wonder for themselves. The advertising always emphasized the presence of ghosts and as most shows were held in the grand old vaudeville houses of the early century, now converted for movies and sound, the atmosphere certainly invited these conclusions. 

Each show usually began with a brief lecture on ghosts, followed by a 45 minute demonstration of telepathy, clairvoyance, cold readings and conjuring tricks that emphasized the mysterious, using floating objects, séance cabinets, spirit paintings and more. The highlight of the show however was the grand finale, often called the "dark séance". All of the lights in the theater would be extinguished and soon ghosts and other fearsome creatures would suddenly appear on stage and would fly about over the heads of the audience. Sometimes, the specters would even make contact with the audience members. After several minutes of wild screams and laughter, the lights would come back on as the spirits would have vanished. Moments later, the magician would bid the audience good night and the flickering images of a "B" horror film would illuminate the theater's screen.

This final part of the evening is probably the most important reason for the success of the spook shows. By performing after hours, the spook show operators had no problem convincing theater managers to open their houses for them. In fact, exhibitors were more than eager to book midnight ghost shows, as it filled their theaters at a time when they would have been otherwise empty. These novel attractions were able to do a week's worth of business in a single night and a well-planned show could earn the operator several thousand dollars a week -- an unbelievable sum in those times. 

Spook shows, which were really little more than an elaborate staging of a Spiritualist séance, became popular all over the country and proved to be a vehicle for getting people into theaters at a time when the economy was killing off every other form of live entertainment. But the spook shows were destined to last for only so long. Like the heyday of Spiritualism, their days were numbered from the very beginning. By the 1940's, audiences had become jaded with spooks and ghosts and wanted more from the shows. From this point, until the early 1950's, many of the shows began to offer horror elements into their programs, like skeletons, monsters, and popular horror film characters. Essentially, they became an onstage version of the local Halloween "haunted house". These types of shows, still mixed with shows offering ghosts and magic, lasted until the advent of television and then they too finally died out -- and another fascinating era of "ghost history" came to an end.