You may not know who John Henry Pepper or Giambattista della Porta are, but if you’re a fan of the Disney Parks (and especially of the Haunted Mansion) then you certainly know their work – Pepper’s ghost.
No, we’re not talking about an animatronic that can be found amongst the 999 happy haunts at the Disney Parks’ ghoulish mystery manors, but rather the name for a particular type of theatrical illusion that has been harnessed by Walt Disney Imagineering to spectacular effect.
Suffice it to say, without Pepper’s ghost, the Haunted Mansion – amongst other Disney attractions – would not be what it is today, so it is an intriguing technique that deserves a closer look.
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What Is Pepper’s Ghost?
In his textbook on theme park design, Theme Park Design & The Art of Themed Entertainment, David Younger provides a full explanation of what Pepper’s Ghost is and how it can be used:
Perhaps the most versatile and well-used illusionary theme park technique is Pepper’s Ghost – an effect allowing objects to appear, disappear, change from one object into another, or go transparent. The effect is achieved by placing plate glass, Plexiglas, or plastic film at an angle (whether vertically or horizontally) between the viewer and the show space. The object intended to morph within the show space is then placed at an equal distance from its intended location at an inverted angle from the plate of glass – so as to be out of sight at the side of the set-up with a vertically angled mirror, or above or below the set-up within a horizontally angled mirror. Lighting of the set and the object can then be changed to alter their visibility to the guest: lighting the set but not the object means only the set is visible, while lighting the object but not the set makes the object’s reflection visible to the guest. Lighting both creates the appearance of the object being transparent, while using two objects with certain differences creates the appearance of the objects morphing. The success of the effect depends on the designer’s ability to hide the pane of glass so that it is not visible (such as with a geometric floor pattern disguising the seam) and hide the false set from view (being at the side, above, or below the set-up). It is also important that the color of the object in its reflection is a combination of both the object’s color and the light’s color, leading to unique effects.
What this means in practice is that careful application of Pepper’s ghost can make see-through objects appear and disappear at random, especially on ride-through attractions that carefully control Guests’ lines of site!
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What’s The History Of Pepper’s Ghost?
In 1589, Italian scientist Giambattista della Porta published the book Magia Naturalis (Natural Magic), which includes the first known description of a Pepper’s ghost effect. This description, listed in the 1658 English translation under the heading “How we may see in a Chamber things that are not,” is as follows:
Let there be a chamber wherein no other light comes, unless by the door or window where the spectator looks in. Let the whole window or part of it be of glass, as we use to do to keep out the cold. But let one part be polished, that there may be a Looking-glass on bothe sides, whence the spectator must look in. For the rest do nothing. Let pictures be set over against this window, marble statues and suchlike. For what is without will seem to be within, and what is behind the spectator’s back, he will think to be in the middle of the house, as far from the glass inward, as they stand from it outwardly, and clearly and certainly, that he will think he sees nothing but truth. But lest the skill should be known, let the part be made so where the ornament is, that the spectator may not see it, as above his head, that a pavement may come between above his head. And if an ingenious man do this, it is impossible that he should suppose that he is deceived.
It wasn’t until the mid-1800s that this technique really took off, thanks to the growth of vaudeville, British seaside shows, and other light entertainment circuits across the United States and Europe that utilized magicians and other novelty acts as part of stage shows. Though the actual originator of this illusion remains in dispute, it was John Henry Pepper who succeeded in branding it with his own name for a staged illusion at the London Polytechnic in 1862.
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It was an entirely different set of magicians – the illusionists at Walt Disney Imagineering – who would take the Pepper’s ghost illusion to its greatest heights in the second half of the 20th century.
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Some Examples of Pepper’s Ghost
Perhaps the most popular and well-known example of Pepper’s ghost today can be found at the Haunted Mansion. Though used in several places throughout the attraction, it is most noticeable in the ballroom scene, which much to the surprise of many younger Guests does not employ any holograms or projections! As Younger explains:
In the Haunted Mansion, guests pass the ballroom, in which dozens of ethereal ghosts are seen disappearing and reappearing as they waltz, duel, dine, and play the organ – complete with phantom skulls rising from the pipes. The Haunted Mansion ballroom is the world’s largest implementation of the Pepper’s Ghost effect, filling the entire 90 foot length and 30 foot height with vertical glass planes with no visible seams (these being hidden into decorative arches). The ballroom’s effects are achieved by locating the animatronic ghosts on platforms directly above and below the ride path, with each animatronic lit by a white light and colored in pale pastels to give feint degree of color in their reflection . . . The reflection did cause the Imagineers one issue however: forgetting that the reflection would invert their positions, the waltzing partners ended up with the women leading the men.
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Given how incredibly successful and impressive this use of Pepper’s ghost is, it’s little surprise that the Imagineers utilized it in several other cases (as have designers of theme parks and amusement parks all over the world). In Disneyland’s Pinocchio’s Daring Journey, for example, the illusion is used to make the Blue Fairy disappear, while on The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh it creates the translucent “dream Pooh” that floats out of his sleeping body just before the Heffalumps and Woozles scene!
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So, the next time you’re on a Disney Parks ride and think “How they’d do that?” when an object seems to appear or disappear just in front of you, remember Pepper’s ghost and appreciate how a centuries-old illusion can still be used to make a little magic today.