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In The Spectacle of Illusion, professional magician-turned experimental psychologist Dr. Matthew L. Tompkins investigates the arts of deception as practiced and popularized by mesmerists, magicians and psychics since the early 18th century. Organized 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, Harry Houdini, and James Randi 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, analyzing 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..


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Some Advance Praise for The Spectacle of Illusion

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

-Derren Brown, Mentalist, Illusionist, Author

“What a treasure trove. You can get lost forever in the trance of the fascinating photos and illustrations, but make no mistake. The real gems are in the scholarly text. In providing an elegant and informative history of all things magical, it also conjures the deepest mysteries and puzzles about the human mind. Brilliant."

-Prof. Kia Nobre, Head of the Department of Experimental Psychology at Oxford University

"Wonderful book that demystifies the mystics, and illuminates to weird history of psychics and their investigators…Highly recommend this beautifully written and illustrated book to anyone interested in science, magic or simply enjoys good stories about weird pieces of forgotten history."

-Dr. Gustav Kuhn, Reader in Psychology at Goldsmiths, University of London. Head of the MAGIC Research Lab and Author of Experiencing the Impossible: The Science of Magic

“‘Spectacle of Illusion’ is a remarkable book. Even if you didn't read a single word of this book, the remarkable images, seem to lift a lid on the Magic world. This book both reveals the inner workings of the extraordinary and yet seems to keep all its secrets too. It’s wonderful.”

-Andy Nyman, Actor, Director, Magician

“Make sure that, as well as admiring the beautiful illustrations in this wonderful book, you also read Matthew Tompkins’ enlightening commentary. This book provides a fascinating insight into ‘weird science’.”

-Prof. Christopher French, Head of the Anomalistic Psychology Research Unit at Goldsmiths, University of London and Co-Author of Anomalistic Psychology: Exploring Paranormal Belief and Experience