Tuesday, March 19, 2019

The Spectacle of Illusion by Matthew Tompkins

The Spectacle of Illusion: Deception, Magic and the Paranormal by Matthew Tompkins is a new book to be published in conjunction with the exhibition Smoke and Mirrors: The Psychology of Magic, which runs April 11 through September 15 at the Wellcome Collection in London.

In The Spectacle of Illusion, professional magician-turned experimental psychologist Dr. Matthew L. Tompkins investigates the arts of deception as practised and popularised by mesmerists, magicians and psychics since the early 18th century. Organised thematically within a broadly chronological trajectory, this compelling book explores how illusions perpetuated by magicians and fraudulent mystics can not only deceive our senses but also teach us about the inner workings of our minds. Indeed, modern scientists are increasingly turning to magic tricks to develop new techniques to examine human perception, memory and belief.

Beginning by discussing mesmerism and spiritualism, the book moves on to consider how professional magicians such as John Nevil Maskelyne and Harry Houdini engaged with these movements – particularly how they set out to challenge and debunk paranormal claims. It also relates the interactions between magicians, mystics and scientists over the past 200 years, and reveals how the researchers who attempted to investigate magical and paranormal phenomena were themselves deceived, and what this can teach us about deception. 
Highly illustrated throughout with entertaining and bizarre drawings, double-exposure spirit photographs and photographs of spoon-bending from hitherto inaccessible and un-mined archives, including the Wellcome Collection, the Harry Price Library, the Society for Physical Research, and last but not least, the Magic Circle’s closely guarded collection, the book also features newly commissioned photography of planchettes, rapping boards, tilting tables, ectoplasm, automata and illusion boxes. Concluding with a modern-day analysis of the science of magic and illusion, analysing surprisingly weird phenomena such as ideomotor action, sleep paralysis, choice blindness and the psychology of misdirection, this unnerving volume highlights how unreliable our minds can be, and how complicit they can be in the perpetuation of illusions.

The Spectacle of Illusion: Deception, Magic and the Paranormal is being published in a U.S. edition (picture above) from D.A.P., and a UK edition from Thames and Hudson. Amazon shows conflicting release dates, so I will leave it to you to purchase or pre-order or both!

For more information on the exhibition, visit the Wellcome Collection website.


  1. It looks like a very well done and interesting book. But again the writer claims when Houdini's mother died he began in earnest to attempt to contact her. It is such a great "story" it is hard to resist.

    Dorothy Dietrich and Dick Brookz
    The Houdini Museum Scranton PA
    The Only Building in the World Dedicated to Houdini