One December evening 160 years ago, during a stage performance of one of Dickens’s plays, the London audience was startled to see a ghost walk across the stage.
The play was The Haunted Man, and this was the first ever use of Pepper’s Ghost, a method of projecting the illusion of a ghost into a theatre. It caused a sensation, and this winter, the Charles Dickens Museum is looking at the author’s fascination with ghosts and the supernatural. Although he’s famous for the Christmas ghosts, the museum is looking wider at his other stories of the supernatural, and also away from his fiction, at the man’s own deeply held scepticism about the existence of ghosts.
Despite his own thoughts about the existence of ghosts, he still managed to write over 20 ghost stories in a 30-year period. The exhibition introduces what Dickens’ friend and first biographer, John Forster called his “hankering after” ghosts.
The Haunted House, the story that so startled London’s theatregoers is a collection of other writers’ works along with his own, telling the tale of seven friends who recount ghost stories to each other on twelfth night. Although published successfully in 1859, the performance at the London Polytechnic in 1862 with the apparition of a ghost on stage gave it renewed vigour.
Dickens was fascinated with the idea of ghosts, and there’s a lot of correspondence with author and ghost-supporter, William Howitt who often sent him on wild goose chases around supposedly haunted houses and pubs. Just a year later, Dickens’s friendship with Howitt broke down after Dickens kept insisting that ghosts didn’t exist – except perhaps on the theatre stage. A number of those letters survive and are on display here.
Dicken’s scepticism is hinted at in his most famous ghost story, A Christmas Carol, when Scrooge declared Marley’s ghost to be nothing more than an “undigested bit of beef, a blot of mustard, a crumb of cheese, a fragment of underdone potato,”
No Dickens organisation can ignore A Christmas Carol at this time of year, but possibly the strangest version of A Christmas Carol that has ever been printed has been found, as a Brazilian comic book with the ghost of Christmas Yet to Come represented as a headless flaring mule – a familiar story from Brazilian culture.
Probably the most fun bit though is a small odd looking box in the corner of one of the exhibition rooms – a Victorian stereoscope, where you can see 3D images. An early View-Master, and the museum has been loaned a few slides from Brian May’s private collection, and they’re all showing ghosts and Dickens in spooky 3D effects.
The exhibition, To Be Read At Dusk: Dickens, Ghosts and the Supernatural, is at the Charles Dickens Museum until March 2023.
The entry price is for the whole museum as well as the exhibition.
Adult: £13.13 | Concessions: £11.03 | Child (6-16): £7.88 | Children(<6): Free
Tickets are recommended to be booked in advance from here, especially over the Christmas period when the museum is decorated for Yule and can be rather busy.
If the exhibition gives you a taste for performing some stage magic, there’s the International Magic store just down the road.