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The Spectacle of Illusion

Magic, the paranormal and the complicity of the mind

Professional magician-turned-psychologist Matthew Tompkins traces the evolution of the arts of magic and illusion from the 18th century onwards in this book, published to coincide with our Smoke and Mirrors exhibition.

A spectacular treasury of treats. Page after page of utter joy: I can’t tear my eyes away.

Derren Brown

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.

The book is highly illustrated throughout, with entertaining and bizarre drawings, double-exposure spirit photographs and photographs of spoon-bending from hitherto inaccessible and unmined archives. These include Wellcome Collection, the Harry Price Library, the Society for Psychical Research, and last but not least, the Magic Circle’s closely guarded collection. ‘The Spectacle of Illusion’ 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, including surprisingly weird phenomena such as ideomotor actions, sleep paralysis, choice blindness and the psychology of misdirection, this unnerving volume highlights how unreliable our minds can be, and how complicit in the perpetuation of illusions.

Read an extract from the book

Date published
224 pages

About the author

Matthew L Tompkins

Dr Matthew L Tompkins is an American magician-turned-psychologist. His research, which has been featured across various international media outlets, including the Washington Post and BBC Future, focuses on the cognitive psychology of illusions. Matt was working as professional magician before he began his academic career, and his experiences performing continue to influence his work. He recently became the first member of the Magic Circle to be admitted on the basis of a peer-reviewed scientific publication.