Imagine it is 1817. You are in a theatre usually reserved for opera performances and ballets. It is pitch black with eerie music rising from the orchestra pit. You are clutching onto the armrests, or your companion, while witnessing a marvel never seen before. Ghostly visions mysteriously projected from hidden spaces under the stage float and move across the floor and over your head. Scenes from gothic novels are brought to vivid life before your eyes. Monsters never imagined are growling at you, beating their wings, and dripping blood.
This is Phantasmagoria!
If you read My Dearest Mr. Darcy you will recall that Darcy and Elizabeth traveled to the seaside for a romantic holiday. While there a number of delightful entertainments of the era were enjoyed – horse racing, sea bathing, silhouettes, and a hot air balloon launch among others. My dogged search for the unusual payed off in all sorts of cool moments. The best, as far as I was concerned, was learning about magic lantern shows, which then led to Phantasmagoria. We are nearing the scary season of Halloween, so I thought it might be fun to revisit that bit of history.
Magic lantern shows are the grandfather of motion pictures. Using techniques of optics and illusion dating back to Aristotle and Da Vinci, ingenious inventors in the sixteenth to seventeenth centuries further perfected the art of casting lights and shadows to form images. Candles, oil lamps, and limelight were used to illuminate. And, yes, that is where the term “limelight” for being the center of attention comes from. The magic lantern itself was an actual machine or device that used the light to cast images painted on glass slides onto the wall. Over the decades there were dozens of different apparatus invented, some large and others quite small. The slides were pulled through the magic lantern rapidly as stories unfolded upon the wall to riveted crowds paying a modest fee. A simple Google search on “magic lantern” will yield pages of websites giving detailed history on this incredible device that, if never invented, would mean we would still only have books to read! Some may argue that that would be a good thing, but we shall save that for another discussion, okay?
In 1798 France, in the ashes of the horrors seen during the Revolution, a professor of physics named Etienne Gaspard Robert created an improved version with moving slides that projected the images onto clouds of smoke. Using unique moveable sliders that changed the size of the image seamlessly and allowed it to move as if real, ventriloquism, and music he cleverly capitalized on the superstitions of people in those days, and the remaining bloodlust, to create a show that would rival Clive Barker for frights!
Phantasmagoria – as he titled his shows – took magic lantern performances to a whole new level and catapulted the craze. By 1803 spinoff Phantasmagoria shows were all over Europe. Even, in my imagination, popping up in Great Yarmouth so Darcy and Lizzy could view the spectacle. And there is nothing quite like a scary show to make lovers cling to each other, is there?