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The Spirit Behind the Ghost

Updated: May 17

In 1862, John Henry “Professor” Pepper summoned a ghost in front of a live audience. Though the illusion he used dated back at least as far as 16th century Italy, this particular visitation was just in time for a renewed fascination in the afterlife with the peak of Spiritualism, a belief that the dead are not gone but exist alongside the living, reachable and sometimes even visible to those who know how to pull aside the veil. Professor Pepper made a fortune showing “Pepper’s Ghost” to audience members looking for just such a spectacle throughout the late 19th century.

As the trick lost its novelty, though, Pepper decided to reclaim relevance by using his understanding of the illusion to debunk Spiritualism, gathering audiences with the promise of explaining how the effect was done — only to find that those who believed in ghosts weren’t terribly convinced, or even concerned, by this “proof.”

The fact that Spiritualists still practice today is, perhaps, an example of the triumph of belief over provable fact: even though the mechanics of Pepper’s Ghost and other illusions are revealed, the story is too compelling to be solved for good. Debunkers can — and have — spent entire lives and fortunes compiling evidence that runs contrary to a belief in spirits among us. They offer a million dollars for just one certifiable photo of a real ghost. The contests run decades without a claimant, and this has no impact at all on the conviction of believers. 

While skeptics and cynics pull out their hair, anyone who has read Shakespeare knows that a ghost is never just a glob of floating ectoplasm or a trick of the light, and attempts at gathering physical evidence to better understand the ineffable are solidly beside the point. To quote Douglas Adams: “If you try and take a cat apart to see how it works, the first thing you have on your hands is a nonworking cat.”

Myth, like any organic thing, has to be approached with some understanding of its behavior before dissecting it does any good. Joseph Campbell writes about the perils of missing metaphor in a 1986 article for the Houston Chronicle: “If myth is translated into literal fact, then myth is a lie.” This is an expansion of an concept he speaks on in his earlier works, including the collection Myths of Light: Eastern Metaphors of the Eternal:

I think what happens in our mythology here in the West is that the mythological archetypal symbols have come to be interpreted as facts. Jesus was born of a virgin. Jesus was resurrected from the dead. Jesus went to heaven by ascension. Unfortunately, in our age of scientific skepticism we know these things did not actually happen, and so the mythic forms are called falsehoods. The word myth now means falsehood, and so we have lost the symbols and that mysterious world of which they speak.

In the deification of the material — or is it a materialization of the deity? — we lose a universe of meaning. The symbols aren’t gone, exactly, but Campbell points out that they’re generally relegated to the psychiatric: “It was Sigmund Freud, Carl Jung, and Jacob Adler who realized that the figures of dreams are really figures of personal mythologization. You create your own imagery related to the archetypes.”

The tarot deck has long been a staple of the Spiritualist’s toolbox for seeking wisdom from the spirits (or the unconscious, depending on the practitioner) through associations with the archetypal. Perhaps the most self-referential card in the deck is the Hermit, a figure who represents this spirit of wandering the in-between in search of spiritual clarity. As illustrated in Pixie Smith’s iconic deck, the Hermit doesn’t spend his days shut away in a damp hovel on the wrong side of the hedge. He may be separate from society, but he’s not sequestered; a Hermit’s life is one of seeking, and seeking is a living thing that takes place on foot.

The Hermit seeks the occult — the true sense of the word, meaning the obscured or hidden — that impacts you so entirely you lose yourself as an individual and see your place in the cosmos. Campbell refers to this as the “sublime.” The sublime encountered between you and your chosen destination may tell you more than arriving at your destination ever could. The Hermit’s background may look to be an empty blue — uncharacteristically empty, compared to Smith’s other illustrations — as he wanders through it alone at twilight, but the space isn’t empty at all, and in fact represents a deeply important aspect of the spiritual journey. 

Rebecca Solnit writes about this phenomenon of the substantive in-between in “The Blue of Distance,” an essay from her 2005 book A Field Guide to Getting Lost: 

The color of that distance is the color of an emotion, the color of solitude and desire, the color of there seen from here, the color of where you are not. And the color of where you can never go. For the blue is not in the place those miles away at the horizon, but in the atmospheric distance between you and the mountains. 

The “blue of distance” is, technically and literally, a mirage. The mountains you’re walking toward aren’t blue; if you try to close in on that enchanting blue place, the illusion will fade and you’ll see all the colors you’re used to from back home. By then you may realize too late that the blue was the point. Art critic and writer John Berger expresses the risk of taking that blueness literally in an essay from one of his final books, Hold Everything Dear: Dispatches on Survival and Resistance:

Every day people follow signs pointing to someplace which is not their home but a chosen destination… some are making their journeys for pleasure, others on business, many out of loss or despair. On arrival they come to realize they are not in the place indicated by the signs they followed. They now find themselves at the correct latitude, longitude, local time, currency, yet it does not have the specific gravity of the destination they chose.[…] They are beside the place they chose to come to. The distance which separates them from it is incalculable. Maybe it’s only the width of a thoroughfare, maybe it’s a world away. The place has lost what made it a destination. It has lost its territory of experience.

The blue between here and there isn’t supposed to be concrete. It isn’t the destination, but neither is it empty. The cat doesn’t purr because it’s a vital function, but because it’s communicating comfort or stress. The ghost appearing onstage may be an illusion created by physical trickery, but the nature of its creation is irrelevant to the meaning of a ghost; the vital thing about Banquo appearing to Macbeth isn’t that he’s a literal haunt, but the fact that his apparition symbolizes Macbeth’s terror and guilt over Banquo’s murder. 

Campbell’s response to this misunderstanding of symbology is to encourage a more Zen understanding of metaphor — that is, by reminding us that the visible plane isn’t the moon itself, but the finger pointing toward it: “The mythology of a people presents a grandiose poetic image, and like all poetic images, it refers past itself to principles that are mysterious and ineffable” (emphasis mine).

“The question,” Campbell writes, “is whether or not there can ever be a recovery of the mythological, mystical realization of the miracle of life of which human beings are a manifestation.”


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