A Very Victorian Illusion: Ghoulies, Ghosties and Halloween Nasties

20 October 2015

History

For many, Halloween conjures memories of Vincent Price Hammer Horrors, greasy face paint and gaggles of small children with chocolate-plastered faces. As the occasion has arisen, I thought we would do something fun and attempt to summon a spirit. Now, I don’t mean the Ouija Board type of seance and shenanigans the Victorians were so fond of attending. I mean a real summoning … the creation of a real spiritual image.

Even on Halloween, this type of statement is usually met with several guffaws, a few raised eyebrows and a well-placed ‘You don’t really believe in that kind of stuff do you?’ But hopefully by the end of this blog you will believe! (Or at least see what the author of the 1864 book Spectropia: or, Surprising Spectral Illusions. Showing Ghosts Everywhere, and of Any Colour wanted you to see).

First, find a blank wall or ceiling. Got one? Now, stare at the asterix beneath the chin of this skeleton for about twenty seconds and then look at the blank space you identified earlier.

Spectropia: or, Surprising Spectral Illusions. Showing Ghosts Everywhere, and of Any Colour. © The Bill Douglas Cinema Museum
Image © The Bill Douglas Cinema Museum. Further reproduction prohibited without permission

Did you see it?

Of course, J. H. Brown did not really believe in ghosts. His book is an exercise in debunking popular Victorian belief in the supernatural through the application of science. There is a logical and fascinating explanation for what you have just seen and it has to do with the structure of your eye, and how it reads colours and perceives objects. A ghost, we are told, “appears to be of a pale phosphorescent white, or bluish white colour; usually indistinct, and so transparent that objects are easily seen through it. When moving, it glides in a peculiar manner, the legs not being necessary to its locomotion.” This bears an uncanny resemblance to the image you have hopefully just seen.

In his explanation, Brown elaborates that the retinal vessels within the eye itself can be seen in certain circumstances. This is especially possible when walking around in the dark with a lighted candle. As such, individuals often fancy they have seen an apparition when, in reality, what they have just seen is a part of the eye itself, or the fleeting glimpse of an illuminated object burnt into the retina.

Did you notice the colour changes in your spectral image? Different objects reflect different wavelengths of light. For example, a red tractor is only red because it reflects the wavelengths we see as red and absorbs all others. When we look at a red object for an extended period of time, Brown explains, the retina becomes less sensitive to red and more sensitive to the other primary colours; blue and yellow. Therefore, when we then look at something white immediately afterwards, the blue and yellow mix to form a green image. The image you see will always be the complimentary colour to the original.

Here are a few more ghoulies and ghosties for you to try from this endearing escapade into Victorian illusions. Perfect for a dark and stormy Halloween night:

Spectropia: or, Surprising Spectral Illusions. Showing Ghosts Everywhere, and of Any Colour. © The Bill Douglas Cinema Museum
Image © The Bill Douglas Cinema Museum. Further reproduction prohibited without permission

Spectropia: or, Surprising Spectral Illusions. Showing Ghosts Everywhere, and of Any Colour. © The Bill Douglas Cinema Museum
Image © The Bill Douglas Cinema Museum. Further reproduction prohibited without permission


Spectropia: or, Surprising Spectral Illusions. Showing Ghosts Everywhere, and of Any Colour
, is taken from Victorian Popular Culture, which is available now. Full access restricted to authenticated academic institutions who have purchased a license. 

For more information, including trial access and price enquiries, please email This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

 

About the Author

Sarah Buckman

Sarah Buckman

Since joining Adam Matthew in September 2013, I have worked on many projects, including The First World War, Leisure, Travel & Mass Culture: The History of Tourism and Migration to New Worlds. My special interests are in restoration and eighteenth-century history, particularly military history.

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