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Spectropia: When Seeing Isn't Believing

Have you ever thought you’ve seen a ghost?

Could the haunting figure you saw have been an actual apparition or just a trick of light and shadow?

With the rise of Spiritualism movement in the mid-nineteenth century, which employed techniques like hypnotism, séances, and other occult means of contacting the dead, one author did his part to attempt to dispel the notion that people were actually seeing ghosts.

His theory was ‘you can’t believe your own eyes,’ and he wrote a book to prove it.

“It is a curious fact that, in this age of scientific research, the absurd follies of spiritualism should find an increase of supporters; but mental epidemics seem at certain seasons to affect our minds, and one of the oldest of these moral afflictions – witchcraft – is once more prevalent in this nineteenth century, under the contemptible forms of spirit-rapping and table-turning,” wrote J.H. Brown.

Spectropia, or, Surprising Spectral Illusions Showing Ghosts Everywhere and of Any Colour’ is a thin 27-page book of optical illusions, scientific explanation, and ghost debunking that was written by Brown and published in New York City and London in 1864. Most notably, the book features 16 large and colorful lithographed plates of cloaked spectres, gesturing skeletons, grinning ghouls, broomstick-riding witches, and other ghosts and goblins.

By detailing how light and color can fool the human eye into seeing things that aren’t there, Brown’s goal is clearly stated – you aren’t seeing ghosts, your eyes are just playing tricks on you.

“One thing we hope in some measure to further in the following pages, is the extinction of the superstitious belief that apparitions are actual spirits, by showing some of the many ways in which our senses may be deceived, and that, in fact, no so-called ghost has ever appeared…,” he wrote.

But more than just describing these properties, Brown set out to allow the reader to experience the optical illusions for themselves. Each of the 16 images in his book was designed and colored so that it would create a specific visual anomaly and effect, as he explained:

“To see the spectres, it is only necessary to look steadily at the dot, or asterisk, which is to be found on each of the plates, for about a quarter of a minute, or while counting about twenty, the plate being well illuminated by either artificial or day light. Then turning the eyes to the ceiling, the wall, the sky, or better still to a white sheet hung on the wall of a darkened room (not totally dark), and looking rather steadily at any one point, the spectre will soon begin to make its appearance…”

Some of Brown’s original images appear in this story, so follow the instructions, take a look, and, the next time you see an otherworldly apparition, you can decide for yourself whether it was an optical illusion…or something else.


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