Phantasmagoria

Thanks to Deskarati’s travelling reporter – Phil Krause.

Phantasmagoria was a form of theatre which used a modified magic lantern to project frightening images such as skeletons, demons, and ghosts onto walls, smoke, or semi-transparent screens, frequently using rear projection. The projector was mobile, allowing the projected image to move and change size on the screen, and multiple projecting devices allowed for quick switching of different images. Invented in France in the late 18th century, it gained popularity through most of Europe (especially England) throughout the 19th century.

The magic lantern has been credited to both Athanasius Kircher and Christiaan Huygens in the early to mid-17th century, respectively. Kircher’s device consisted of a lantern with a candle and concave mirror inside. A tube was fitted into the side of the lantern and held convex lenses at either end. Near the center of the tube, a glass slide of the image to be projected was held. Huygens’ magic lantern has been described as the predecessor of today’s slide projector and the forerunner of the motion picture projector. Images were hand painted onto the glass slide until the mid-19th century when photographic slides were employed. Though Huygens’ magic lantern was often used for amusement by projecting quaint and pastoral imagery, phantoms, devils, and other macabre objects were also sometimes projected, thus giving rise to phantasmagoria.

In the mid-18th century, in Leipzig, Germany, a coffee shop owner named Johann Georg Schröpfer 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.

Versailles was home to several significant developments in this field. In the 1770s François Seraphin used magic lanterns to perform his “Ombres Chinoises” (Chinese shadows), a form of shadow play, and Edme-Gilles Guyot experimented with the projection of ghosts onto smoke.

Magic lantern, 1818, Musée des Arts et Métiers

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. These last decades of the 18th century saw the rise of the age of Romanticism. This movement had elements of the bizarre and irrational, and included the rise of the Gothic novel which often centered on mystery and the psychology of its characters. The popular interest in such topics explained the rise and, more specifically, the success of phantasmagoria for the productions to come.

Étienne-Gaspard “Robertson” Robert, a Belgian inventor and physicist from Liège was known for his phantasmagoria productions and is the most imitated. In 1797, Robertson presented his first “fantasmagorie” at the Pavillon de l’Echiquier in Paris. The macabre atmosphere in the post-revolutionary city was perfect for Robertson’s Gothic extravaganza complete with elaborate creations and Radcliffean décor.

After discovering that he could put the magic lantern on wheels to create either a moving image or one that increased and decreased in size, Robertson moved his show. In an abandoned crypt of a Capuchin convent near the Place Vendôme, he staged hauntings, using several lanterns, special sound effects and the eerie atmosphere of the tomb. This show lasted for six years, mainly because of the appeal of the supernatural to Parisians who were dealing with the upheavals as a result of the French Revolution. Robertson mainly used images surrounded by black in order to create the illusion of free-floating ghosts. However, he also would use multiple projectors, set up in different locations throughout the venue, in order to place the ghosts in environments. For instance, one of his first phantasmagoria shows displayed a lightning-filled sky with both ghosts and skeletons receding and approaching the audience. In order to add to the horror, Robertson and his assistants would sometimes create voices for the phantoms. Often, the audience forgot that these were tricks and were completely terrified:

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.

In fact, many people were so convinced of the reality of his shows that police temporarily halted the proceedings, believing that Robertson had the power to bring Louis XVI back to life. Once the show was back, Robertson was exposed to the law again, this time in the form of a lawsuit against his former assistants who had started their own phantasmagoria shows using his techniques. It was this lawsuit in 1799 in which Robertson was required to reveal his secrets to the public and magic lantern shows popped up across Europe and in the United States shortly after, though many were not as elaborate as Robertson’s.

In 1801 a phantasmagoria production by Paul Philidor opened in London’s Lyceum Theatre in the Strand, where it became a smash hit. While he had previously been a showman, by this time Philidor had decided to no longer attempt to fool the audience members into believing that the apparitions were real. In an opening speech, Philidor would make it clear that these phantasmagoric images are purely for entertainment. This was in keeping with the growth of the fascination with science at the time. In fact, 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 1860s.

Phantasmagoria came to the United States in May 1803 at Mount Vernon Garden, New York. Much like the French Revolution sparked interest in phantasmagoria in France, the expanding frontier in the United States made for an atmosphere of uncertainty and fear that was ideal for phantasmagoria shows. Many others created phantasmagoria shows in the United States over the next couple of years, including Martin Aubée, one of Robertson’s former assistants. By the 1840s, phantasmagoria became outmoded, though the use of projections was still employed, just in different realms:

…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.

Via Pantasmagoria

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