Ghostly sights and visions

The College Museum Curator recalls his recent lecture to The Ghost Club, the UK’s oldest paranormal society (established 1862) of which it is believed that Charles Dickens was a founder member.

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Author: Neil Handley, Museum Curator 
Date: 31 October 2018

Did you know that it was a doorknocker in Craven Street that inspired Charles Dickens to write the description of Marley’s Ghost in A Christmas Carol (1843)? Perhaps it may even have been on the front door of what is now the College of Optometrists, a house built just over a hundred years earlier? Of course, Dickens wrote a fictional account but his description of a ghostly vision includes several familiar features, including the concept of a chained being (reports of which go back to classical times) and a see-through phenomenon. The witness sees something, and yet also sees beyond it. That which should not be seen at all, since Marley is dead and buried – as dead as a doornail – becomes visible even if only briefly. Blink and it’s gone. It’s unclear as to whether anyone else in the street at the same time may have witnessed the same phenomenon. In the 1938 film version Scrooge does not keep his paranormal sighting to himself but feels compelled to report it, perhaps in a vain hope that someone else will verify it, and prove that he was not, as it were, ‘seeing things’. The night watchman shows initial concern, but when Scrooge says Marley was right there before him as a spirit, the watchman laughs and, bearing in mind the date (Christmas Eve) dismisses him with the words: ‘Of course, sir! A fine night for spirits - of one form or another, sir!’

This dismissive scepticism, that may or may not be fully justified, is one of the biggest barriers to serious investigation of what many people claim to have seen, however a recognition that the eye can play tricks on us is common fodder for vision scientists who have discussed optical illusions and hallucinations. This recognition clearly pre-dated the Victorian heyday of paranormal fiction. One of the first proper ghost stories, The Tapestried Chamber by Sir Walter Scott (1829) includes a reference to it being ‘fashionable’, even at that time, to explain supernatural experiences as ‘deceptions of the optic nerves’. At the other end of the Victorian era, in an early issue of the Dioptric Review (January 1901) Mr Sutcliffe of the British Optical Association wrote in a passage on ‘Ghosts’ that:

“I have no desire to throw a damper on the inquiries of the Society of Psychical Research but none the less do I think that the occasional wonderful apparitions of which one hears are due to the brain being a little in advance of the eye and acting very often as a suggester instead of a recipient….As for spooks and bogies, they will never be seen by any optical system if the mind be healthy“

Did you know that it was a doorknocker in Craven Street that inspired Charles Dickens to write the description of Marley’s Ghost in A Christmas Carol (1843)?

The greatest surprise for me was that a distinguished ophthalmic optician should have been reading that Society’s output at all. Other works in the professional library that he established suggest other relevant interests, for example a book on Optical Wonders, translated from the French of F. Marion (1868) that outlines the work of the illusionist Monsieur Robin, who first achieved the ‘ghost illusion’ in 1847:

“We can testify that his exhibition in the Boulevard du Temple drew all Paris to see it. Evening after evening he not only called spirits from the vasty [sic] deep but made them come. He pierced them with swords; he fired pistols through them and he made them appear and disappear at his slightest wish”

An illustration alongside this passage shows an actor in a white sheet underneath the stage. His image is reflected above and is harmlessly shot at. So here we have evidence of how a greater interest in ghosts – coincident to the growth of the Gothic horror story – coincided with developments in optical projection technology.

I was also fascinated by another book still on our shelves in Craven Street: Spectropia: showing ghosts everywhere – and of any colour! (1864). The text inside reveals that the ghosts had been ‘designed’ by Mr Brown of Brighton to illustrate two ‘well-known facts’ namely the persistence of impressions and the production of complementary colours on the retina. For each image the reader had to stare at it for twenty seconds then, if he looked away, he would see the ghost before him or on a wall, or wherever he should look. If he had held the book nearer to him, the image of the ghost might appear life-size or ‘colossal’. And whatever colours are on the plate, the persistent image would comprise the very reverse. For example a green figure would result in seeing a red spectre.

So here we have some imaginary ghosts, conjured up by an early scholar of vision science, to explain away more fanciful sightings. He writes of ‘mental epidemics’ affecting his own time (the 1860s) and dismisses table-turning and spirit-rapping as nothing short of witchcraft. It turns out that another copy of this very book provided the initial inspiration to the distinguished paranormal investigator Dennis Bardens (1911-2004), who recalled being scared by its pictures when reading it as a child. He is best known as the journalist who began the investigative television programme Panorama, but also authored the book Ghosts and Hauntings (1965).

Bringing the story bang up to date I was able to draw attention to the exciting research into strange visual phenomena as experienced by patients with dementia or with Charles Bonnet Syndrome (CBS), the latter a more convenient field of study because those experiencing it are still capable of articulating for the researcher just what they think they have seen. The original Charles Bonnet was a Swiss philosopher who described the condition as long ago as 1760 when he noticed that his grandfather, who was almost blind, saw patterns, figures, birds and buildings which were not there. Only very recently has much progress been made on researching its causes. On account of the fact that it tends to result from visual loss in older patients our rapidly ageing population makes it more of a pressing matter. You could say we’re seeing more ghosts because we’re not turning into them ourselves as quickly as we used to!

Neil Handley MA AMA FRSA
Museum Curator, The College of Optometrists

Neil Handley is recognised as one the UK’s principal historians of spectacles, vision aids and opticians. He has been curator of the British Optical Association Museum at The College of Optometrists in London since 1998 and is a Liveryman of the Worshipful Company of Spectacle Makers.

The Curator is available for lectures and informal talks off-site as well as guided tours of the museum gallery and College Meeting Rooms. Considered to be an authority on ophthalmic history he can also advise on items on optical and optometric heritage including their identification and dating. He has been awarded the medal of the Ocular Heritage Society of America on several occasions.

Neil was awarded the Associateship of the Museums Association in 2002 and was one of the first 17 museum professionals in the country to gain the AMA+ qualification in May 2007. He now serves as a Museums Association Mentor for younger curators.

Neil was elected Chairman of the prestigious London Museums of Health and Medicine (2011-14), widely considered within the profession to be one of the most dynamic and go-ahead museum specialist networks. During this time he oversaw that organisation's first strategic review for fifteen years. He is also a past Vice Chairman of the Scientific Instrument Society and became a Fellow of the Royal Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce (FRSA) in 2012.

Front cover of the book Cult Eyewear 2011

Neil  has published articles on spectacle frame design, the history of opticians, artificial eyes and facial prosthetics. He has contributed to a number of books on the history of the subject, including a chapter on artificial eyes for the book Devices and Designs (2006) and the major German publication Treasury of Optics (2012). He spent much of 2009 and 2010 writing a book on Cult Eyewear, the first serious analytical study of the historical development of branded fashion spectacle frames, published by Merrell on 27 September 2011. He also co-authored, with David Cartwright, the second volume of the College History, The College of Optometrists: A History 1998-2015, published in October 2015. He has also written articles for journals as diverse as Optometry in Practice, Contact Lens and Anterior Eye, Ophthalmic and Physiological Optics, From the Master and Wardens (newsletter of the Worshipful Company of Spectacle Makers), Ophthalmic Antiques, Gewina (Dutch Journal for the History of Science), Antiquarian Horology and Pharmaceutical Historian.

Contact the Curator by email

Or follow him on Twitter @neilhandleyuk


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