Phantasmagoria, the 18th Century Suicide-Scary Theaters That Gave Us Movies

Phantasmagoria, the 18th Century
Suicide-Scary Theaters That Gave Us Movies

by Derek Mead

It sounds like the name of a terrible fantasy metal band, but it’s so much cooler: Phantasmagoria was a type of spooky theatre that used a mobile magic lantern that projected images of skeletons and demons to scare audiences. Two and a half centuries ago, it was intense enough that it drove at least one man to suicide.

Phantasmagoria were first created by the French in the late 18th century before spreading throughout Europe in the early 19th century. The performances were powered by magic lanterns, one of the earliest forms of a slide projector. As Precinema History says:

The Phantasmagoria could be considered the forefather of today’s horror movie. Its basic purpose was to produce through simple techniques, an illusion. Subjects were primarily of the black magic or necromancy categories; ghosts, spirits, dead relatives or personalities and politicians. The purpose was to scare the audience to death.

The magic lantern itself was a 17th century device, with German Jesuit scholar Athanasius Kircher and Dutch scientist Christiaan Huygens both getting credit for developing the first magic lanterns. Each essentially used a series of lenses and mirrors to project the image from a painted glass slide with candlelight.

Magic lanterns were initially used for cute and pastoral imagery. You know, farms and such. But because that’s uncomfortably boring, people started putting darker, creepier subject matter on the slides. Imagine: You’re in 18th century Europe in a candlelit shack watching skeletons magically dancing on the wall. How creepy it must have been.

The Phantasmagoria were no joke. People cried in the aisles.

It was around the time that the magic lantern was beginning to be used for performances that it recorded its first death. Johann Georg Schropfer, a German coffee shop owner in Leipzig who just happened to be a necromancer, began holding magic lantern-powered seances. He projected ghastly imagery onto smoke while practicing and teaching witchcraft. I guess it’s not surprising that all those nights of trying to wake the dead while smoky ghosts floated about the room eventually drove Schropfer to off himself.

Of course, people eventually realized that the magic lanterns were only projecting images of demons, not the real thing. As well as reducing the number of magic lantern suicides, this put more emphasis on the performance.

Étienne-Gaspard “Robertson” Robert, a Belgian inventor, was one of the first performers to use magic lanterns as a tool (rather than the star of the show) and has gone down as putting on the best phantasmagoria in history. It helped that his Parisian shows came as Paris itself was gripped with a supernatural fetish as a byproduct of the French Revolution.

To put on his show, Robertson basically took over an abandoned crypt of a Capuchin convent. To create his hauntings, he used several mobile lanterns and wild sound effects. With his assistants, Robertson would sometimes add voices for the phantoms. Combined with the fact that his shows were staged in a freaking crypt, they were absolutely terrifying to audiences.

“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,” Robertson is quoted as saying. At one point, thinking he had the power to reanimate Louis XVI, police even shut the thing down. But Roberston’s show went on, lasting for six years of roaring success.

Eventually, widespread photography, film and the whole electricity thing made the magic lanterns obsolete. Along with it, the original phantasmagoria died out in favor of ever-more elaborate projector-based productions like the Haunted Mansion at Disneyland. But the technology is still credited with anticipating some of the fundamental elements of filmmaking, like the ‘zoom’, ‘dissolve’, the ‘tracking-shot’ and superimposition. As you sit down to your so-called scary movie this Halloween, remember one thing: while heads were rolling in revolutionary France, people were packing themselves into lost crypts to get the living daylights scared out of them by men with the power to raise the dead.


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