DIY Vintage Ghost Illusions for Halloween

how to make a ghost

Spiders, rats, snakes, corpses, vampires, and the walking dead:  we have found much to fear beyond the Reaper this past month and now Halloween is at our throats.  I could have followed last year’s post on the macabre mirth of the vintage Halloween with a further tally of pumpkin-fueled fire deaths and pranksters shot by angry farmers. But perhaps it is time to lighten the mood with a spot of DIY.  Let us return to a simpler, more golden age when people made their own home-made fun and their own ghost illusions.

Pepper’s Ghost was a well-known theatrical illusion and Spiritualists were most ingenious in their ability to turn anything into a ghost. Phosphorescent cheesecloth or a handkerchief could be flickered into a dead relative in the dark. A medium on her knees could simulate a ghostly toddler or, as one medium memorably did, she could bare her breasts to impersonate a spirit-infant. But you don’t need an elaborate mirror set-up or half-naked mediums to create a ghost of your own. Here are two simple 19th-century ghost illusions you can try at home.

Although this experiment is by no means complex, my readers will more easily understand it if they will carry it out for themselves, instead of simply reading of it. I am teaching you nothing new when I say that if you place yourself between a light or window and the wall, your shadow will appear on the wall; but this shadow only gives your silhouette, for it would be a strange shadow that had eyes and a mouth, not to mention a nose. Just now we shall, however, find a way not only of inserting eyes into the shadow’s head, and lending it both nose and mouth, but also of representing those eyes rolling in their sockets and the shadow’s mouth, garnished with enormous grinders, opening and shutting as though it wished to demolish the spectators. 

To accomplish this, it is only necessary to place yourself in an angle of the room near a wall that has a half-length mirror hanging on it. The person who holds the light has but to make sure, by varying its distance or its height, that the reflection of the candle in the glass falls on the same place on the wall that serves as screen for the shadow of your head; according to the form of the mirror, this reflection will show as a luminous oval or parallelogram beside the outlines of your shadow.

But if you take the precaution to cover the mirror with a sheet of thick paper, in which, according to the illustration, you have cut the likeness of two eyes, a nose, and mouth, more or less odd in shape, as you may fancy, the luminous rays that traverse these slits will be alone reflected, and will appear upon the wall, as represented in the drawing, in the middle of the shadow of your head.

In order to make the apparition more effective, superimpose on the glass a couple of sheets of paper equally designed, and furnished with features, one of which is fixed and the other movable. Sway the latter to and fro with your hand, and you will have the likeness of a pair of goggling eyes and a snapping mouth, enough to startle the spectators. The Churchman, Volume 67, 1893 

In Italy he [Sir Walter Scott] told Sir William Gell “how to make a ghost,” and I hope no young person will try the experiment. You paint your ghost white, on tin, exhibit in the dusk, and make it vanish “by turning the edge, almost without thickness to the spectator.” The Forum, Volume 10, 1890

Any other ingenious suggestions for scaring the children? Throw a sheet over it and send to Chriswoodyard8 AT

If you would like to read how Halloween was celebrated by Queen Victoria at Balmoral in 1876, Mrs Daffodil has the story, complete with flaming warlocks.

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