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For other uses, see Phantasmagoria (disambiguation).
18th-century phantasmagoria

Phantasmagoria (About this sound American pronunciation , also fantasmagorie, fantasmagoria) 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 by a Belgian physicist 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[1] and Christiaan Huygens[2] both in the mid-17th century. 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.[3]

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

Paul Philidor created what may have been the first true phantasmagoria show in 1789.[4] 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.[2]

Robert's phantasmagoria at the Cour des Capucines in 1797

Étienne-Gaspard "Robertson" Robert, a Belgian inventor and physicist from Liège was known for his phantasmagoria productions and is the most imitated. He is credited for coining the word fantascope, and would refer to all of his magic lanterns by this term.[5] Most of his projections were done from behind the screen, as opposed to other projectionists at the time who usually worked from the front of the screen. This was due to the large size of Robertson's fantascope. The fantascope was not a magic lantern that could be held by hand, but instead required someone to stand next to it and physically move the entire fantascope closer or further to the screen.[5] Oftentimes, he would eliminate all sources of light during his shows in order to cast the audience in total darkness for several minutes at a time.[5] Robertson would also lock the doors to the theater so that no audience member could exit the show once it had started.[5] He was also known for including multiple sound effects into his show, such as thunder clapping, bells ringing, and ghost calls. A projection technique that was pioneered by Robertson was his use of smoke. Robertson would pass his glass slides through a layer of smoke while they were in his fantascope, in order to create an image that looked out of focus.[5] Along with the smoke, he would also move most of his glass slides through his fantascope very quickly in order to create the illusion that the images were actually moving on screen.[5]

Robertson's first "fantasmagorie" he presented in 1797 at the Pavillon de l'Echiquier in Paris.[1] 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. He sited his entertainment in the abandoned cloisters kitchen of a Capuchin convent (which he decorated to resemble a subterranean chapel) 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.[2] 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.

— Étienne-Gaspard Robert

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.[2] 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.[2] 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.[2] Many others created phantasmagoria shows in the United States over the next couple of years, including Martin Aubée, one of Robertson's former assistants.

John Evelyn Barlas was an English poet who had written for several phantasmagoria shows during the late 1880s. He used the pseudonym Evelyn Douglas for most of the works written for phantasmagoria.[6] He has written several different works, most of them focusing on the idea of dreams and nightmares. Some of his works include Dreamland, A Dream of China, and Dream Music.[6] His work is known for including extravagant descriptions of settings with multiple colors. Most of Barlas' work also mentions flames and fire. The flames are meant to represent the burning of emotions laced throughout Barlas' poems, and fit well within the realm of phantasmagoria.

By the 1840s phantasmagoria became already 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.

...Herbert Hoover (31st President of the Unitted States of America, 1929-1933) said of Engineering:

"It is a great profession. There is the fascination of watching a figment of the imagination emerge through the aid of science to a plan on paper. Then it moves to realization in stone or metal or energy. Then it brings jobs and homes to people. Then it elevates the standards of living and adds to the comforts of life. That is the engineer’s high privilege. The great liability of the engineer compared to men of other professions is that his works are out in the open where all can see them. His acts, step by step, are in hard substance. He cannot bury his mistakes in the grave like the doctors. He cannot argue them into thin air or blame the judge like the lawyers. He cannot, like the architects, cover his failures with trees and vines. He cannot, like the politicians, screen his shortcomings by blaming his opponents and hope that the people will forget. The engineer simple cannot deny he did it. If his works do not work, he is damned. That is the phantasm-magoria that haunts his nights and dogs his days, He comes from the job at the end of the day resolved to calculate it again. He wakes in the night in a cold sweat and puts something on paper that looks silly in the morning. All day he shivers at the thought of the bugs which will inevitably appear to jolt his smooth consummation. On the other hand, unlike the doctor, his is not a life among the weak. Unlike the soldier, destruction is not his purpose. Unlike the lawyers, quarrels are not his daily bread. To the engineer falls the job of clothing the bare bones of science with life, comfort, and hope. No doubt as the years go by people forget which engineer did it, even if they ever knew. Or some politician puts his name on it. Or they credit it to some promoter who used other peoples money with which to finance it. But the engineer himself looks back at the unending stream of goodness that flows from his successes with satisfaction that few professions may know. And the verdict of his fellow professional is all the accolade he wants."

Phantasmagoria in other media[edit]

Before the rise of phantasmagoria, interest in the fantastic was apparent in ghost stories. This can be seen in the many examples of ghost stories printed in the 18th century, including "Admiral Vernon's ghost; being a full true and particular Account as how a Warlike apparition appeared last Week to the Author, Clad all in Scarlet, And discoursed to him concerning the Present State of Affairs." In this tale, the author's reaction to the ghost he sees is much like that of the audience members at the phantasmagoria shows. He says that he is "thunderstruck", and that "astonishment seized me. My bones shivered within me. My flesh trembled over me. My lips quaked. My mouth opened. My hands expanded. My knees knocked together. My blood grew chilly, and I froze with terror[7]

Early stop trick films, developed by Georges Méliès most clearly parallel the early forms of phantasmagoria. Trick films include transformations, superimpositions, disappearances, rear projections, and the frequent appearance of ghosts and apparent decapitations.[8] Modern day horror films often take up many of the techniques and motifs of stop trick films, and phantasmagoria is said to have survived in this new form.

Phantasmagoria is also the title of a poem in seven cantos by Lewis Carroll that was published by Macmillan & Sons in London in 1869, about which Carroll had much to say. He preferred that the title of the volume be found at the back, saying in a correspondence with Macmillan, "it is picturesque and fantastic—but that is about the only thing I like…" He also wished that the volume would cost less, thinking that the 6 shillings was about 1 shilling too much to charge.[9]

Phantasmagoria in modern times[edit]

A few modern theatrical troupes in the United States and United Kingdom stage phantasmagoria projection shows, especially at Halloween.

Walter Benjamin was fascinated by the phantasmagoria and used it as a term to describe the experience of the Arcades in Paris. In his essays, he associated phantasmagoria with commodity culture and its experience of material and intellectual products. In this way, Benjamin expanded upon Marx's statement on the phantasmagorical powers of the commodity.[10]

Phantasmagoria's influence on Disney can be found in the countless effects throughout the themed lands and attractions at the theme parks but are likely most memorable in the practical and projection effects of the Haunted Mansion (at Disneyland, Walt Disney World and Tokyo Disneyland), and Phantom Manor (at Disneyland Paris), as well live shows such as Fantasmic (at Disneyland and Disney's Hollywood Studios), which feature film/video projections on water screens.

From February 15 to May 1, 2006, the Tate Britain staged "The Phantasmagoria" as a component of its show "Gothic Nightmares: Fuseli, Blake and the Romantic Imagination." It recreated the content of the 18th and 19th century presentations, and successfully evoked their tastes for horror and fantasy.

French painters of the time, including Ingres and Girodet, derived ideas for paintings from the phantasmagoria, and its influence spread as far as J.M.W. Turner.[11]

A series of photographs taken from 1977 to 1987 by photographer and model Cindy Sherman are described as portraying the phantasmagoria of the female body. Her photographs include herself as the model, and the progression of the series as a whole presents the phantasmagoric space projected both onto and into the female body.[12]

In 2006, David J. Jones discovered the precise site of Robertson's show at the Capuchin convent. See David J. Jones, 'Gothic Machine: Textualities, Pre-Cinematic Media and Film in Popular Visual Culture', 1670-1910 (Cardiff: University of Wales).

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b Castle, Terry. "Phantasmagoria and the Metaphorics of Modern Reverie." The Female Thermometer. New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 1995. 140–167. Print.
  2. ^ a b c d e f Barber, Theodore X (1989). Phantasmagorical Wonders: The Magic Lantern Ghost Show in Nineteenth-Century America Film History 3,2. pp. 73–86. 
  3. ^ The Lantern of Fear - Page 1 Accessed 27 August 2013.
  4. ^ The Lantern of Fear - Page 2 Accessed 27 August 2013.
  5. ^ a b c d e f Barber, Theodore (1989). Phantasmagorical Wonders: The Magic Lantern Ghost Show in Nineteenth-Century America. Online: Indiana University Press. pp. 73–75. 
  6. ^ a b Douglas, Evelyn (1887). Phantasmagoria. Chelmsford: J.H. Clarke. p. 65. 
  7. ^ "Admiral Vernon's ghost; being a full true and particular Account as how a Warlike apparition appeared last Week to the Author, Clad all in Scarlet, And discoursed to him concerning the Present State of Affairs" Printed for E. Smith, Holborn (1758): 1–8. Print."
  8. ^ "Overview of Edison Motion Pictures by Genre." The Library of Congress. The Library of Congress, 13 Jan 1999. Web.
  9. ^ Cohen, Morton N. "Lewis Carroll and the House of Macmillan." Cambridge University Press 7 (1979):31–70. Print.
  10. ^ Cohen, Margaret. "Walter Benjamin's Phantasmagoria." New German Critique 48 (1989): 87–107. Print.
  11. ^ Michael Charlesworth, Landscape and Vision in 19th century Britain and France (Ashgate, 2008), Chapter Two, "Ghosts and Visions".
  12. ^ Mulvey, Laura. "A Phantasmagoria of the Female Body: The Work of Cindy Sherman." New Left Review I.188 (July–August 1991): 137–150. Web.

Further reading[edit]

  • Castle, Terry (1995). The Female Thermometer: 18th-Century Culture and the Invention of the Uncanny. Oxford University Press. ISBN 0-19-508097-1. 
  • Grau, Oliver (2007). "Remember the Phantasmagoria! Illusion Politics of the Eighteenth Century and its Multimedial Afterlife", Oliver Grau (Ed.): Media Art Histories, MIT Press/Leonardo Books, 2007.
  • Guyot, Edme-Gilles (1755). Nouvelles Recréations Physiques et Mathématiques translated by Dr. W. Hooper in London (1st ed. 1755)
  • "Robertson" (Robert, Étienne-Gaspard) (1830–34). Mémoires récréatifs, scientifiques et anecdotiques d'un physicien-aéronaute.
  • David J. Jones(2011). 'Gothic Machine: Textualities, Pre-Cinematic Media and Film in Popular Visual Culture, 1670-1910', Cardiff: University of Wales Press ISBN 978-0708324073
  • David J Jones (2014)'Sexuality and the Gothic Magic Lantern, Desire, Eroticism and Literary Visibilities from Byron to Bram Stoker', Palgrave Macmillan, ISBN 9781137298911.
  • Douglas, Evelyn. Phantasmagoria. 1st ed. Vol. 1. Chelmsford: J. H. Clarke, 1887. Print.
  • Barber, Theodore. Phantasmagorical Wonders: The Magic Lantern Ghost Show in Nineteenth-Century America. 2nd ed. Vol. 3. N.p.: Indiana UP, 1989. Print.

External links[edit]