Spectacle of Illusion: Magic, the paranormal & the complicity of the mind


In ‘The Spectacle of Illusion,’ professional magician-turned-psychologist Matthew Tompkins traces the evolution of the arts of magic and illusion from the 18th century onwards. Organized thematically within a broadly chronological trajectory, the book presents the art of witches, magicians, illusionists, hypnotists, mediums and faith healers, and exposes the mechanisms and the fakery behind the claims. After discussing the art of the trick, the power of suggestion and what magic can tell us about memory, belief, bias and perception, the book examines the practices of spiritualism and mesmerism and the misuse of hypnotism and magic tricks to sway belief and fool people. It highlights how gurus, faith healers and mediums have been challenged over the last 200 years by scientists and magicians, and examines some of the scientific investigations into the paranormal.

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‘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.

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.

Additional information

Weight 0.852 kg
Dimensions 24 × 17.8 × 2.7 cm










793.8 (edition:23)


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