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!
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!
In 1798 France, in the ashes of the horrors seen during the Revolution, a professor of physics named Etienne Gaspard “Robertson” 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.
The advertisement for his first performance in 1798 read:
Fantasmagorie … by citizen E-G. Robertson: apparitions of Spectres, Phantoms and Ghosts, such as must appear or could appear in any time, in any place and among any people. Experiments with the new fluid known by the name of Galvanism, whose application gives temporary movement to bodies whose life has departed. An artist noted for his talents will play the Harmonica.
Paris loved it, as did the world he traveled with his horror show, although the authorities at first shut him down as his audience thought the ghosts were real. They may have also been concerned about his smoke made from aqua fortis (nitric acid) with sulphuric acid. Yet his spectacles continued and evolved for years, heavily influencing the horror theater and later cinema that would come after.
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, as written in My Dearest Mr. Darcy. After all, there is nothing quite like a scary show to make lovers cling to each other, is there?
“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.” Etienne Gaspard Robert
Robert died in 1837, but a wanderer through Père Lachaise is likely to take a second look at his towering skull-studded tomb with its curious bas-reliefs of ghouls and aviation, perhaps feeling some shadow of his lingering love of creeping his audience out.