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Related: animation - early cinema - Fantasmagoriana - fear - ghost - horror - magic lantern

Robertson's Fantasmagorie in Paris c. 1798
image sourced here. [Dec 2005]


Phantasmagoria was a precinema projection ghost show invented in France in the late 1700s, which gained popularity though most of Europe (especially England) throughout the 19th century.

A modified type of magic lantern was used to project images on to walls, smoke, or to semi-transparent screen, frequently using rear projection. The projector was mobile, allowing the projected image to move on the screen, and multiple projecting devices allowed for quick switching of different images. Frightening images such as skeletons, demons, and ghosts were projected.

In the mid 18th century, in Leipzig, Germany, a coffee shop owner named Johann Schropfer began offering séances in a converted billiards room which became so popular that by the 1760s he had transformed himself into a full-time showman, using elaborate effects including projections of ghosts to create a convincing spirit experience. In 1774, he committed suicide, apparently a victim of delusions of his own apparitions.

Also in the 1770’s Francois Seraphin presented his magic lantern Shadow Plays, or “Ombres Chinoises” at Versailles, to great acclaim. Also at Versailles, Edme-Gilles Guyot experimented with the projection of ghosts onto smoke.

Paul Philidor created what may have been the first true phantasmagoria show in 1789, a combination of séance parlor tricks and projection effects, his show saw success in Berlin, Vienna, and revolution-era Paris in 1793.

The most famous of the ghost showmen was the Belgian inventor and physicist from Liege, Etienne-Gaspard Robert, more commonly known by his stage name Etienne Robertson.

In 1797 Robertson took his show to Paris. The macabre atmosphere in the post-revolutionary city was perfect for Robertson’s elaborate creations. In an abandoned Capuchin crypt in Paris, he staged hauntings, using several lanterns, special sound effects and the natural creep factor of the tomb, he effectively scared the hell out of his visitors.

"I am only satisfied if my spectators, shivering and shuddering, raise their hands or cover their eyes out of fear of ghosts and devils dashing towards them; if even the most indiscreet among them run into the arms of a skeleton." - Robertson

It was not long before Robertson was touring Russia and Spain, and the idea of the theatrical ghost show spread across Europe and to the USA.

Robertson is buried with appropriately gothic statuary in the Père Lachaise Cemetery in Paris.

In 1801 a phantasmagoria production by Paul de Philipsthal (possibly a stage name for Paul Philidor) opened in London’s Lyceum Theatre in the Strand, where it became a smash hit.

Many of the phantasmagoria showmen were a combination of scientists and magicians, many of them stressing that the effects that they produced, no matter how eerily convincing, were in fact the result of ingenious equipment and no small measure of skill, rather than any supernatural explanation. This even extended as far as the exhibitions at the Royal Polytechnic Institution demonstrating the “Pepper’s Ghost” effect in the 1860’s.

“. . .although the phantasmagoria was an essentially live form of entertainment these shows also used projectors in ways which anticipated 20th century film-camera movements - the 'zoom', 'dissolve', the 'tracking-shot' and superimposition.” - Mervyn Heard --http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Phantasmagoria_%28show%29 [Dec 2005]


Early magic lanterns were commonly used in homes, but by the end of the 18th Century a special form of lantern show had developed. It was known as the 'phantasmagoria' (meaning collection of phantoms) and was made up of images of ghosts, skeletons and goblins. [...]

The images were combined with sound effects of thunderclaps and explosions, and dry ice was used to create a smoky atmosphere. The ghost show that was produced thrilled or terrified audiences, forming a kind of precursor to today's horror films. It was these shows that gave the magic lantern its name - before then it had been known as the 'optical lantern'.

The phantasmagoria only remained popular until the beginning of the nineteenth century. The most common way to see a lantern show in the early nineteenth century was one put on by a travelling lanternist. --http://www.ex.ac.uk/bill.douglas/Schools/lanterns/lantern2.htm [Mar 2005]

Etienne Robertson

"I am only satisfied if my spectators, shivering and shuddering, raise their hands or cover their eyes out of fear of ghosts and devils dashing towards them; if even the most indiscreet among them run into the arms of a skeleton."

So spoke 'Robertson', (Etienne-Gaspard Robert) a Belgian who travelled round in Europe during the first decade of the 18th century, with his special shows in which he used many techniques solely with the aim of 'scaring people to death'. --http://www.acmi.net.au/AIC/PHANTASMAGORIE.html [Dec 2005]

See also: horror - 1790s

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