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Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel
Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel

Phantasmagoria was a precinema projection ghost show invented in France in the late 18th century, which gained popularity through most of Europe (especially England) throughout the 19th century.

A modified type of magic lantern was used to project images onto walls, smoke, or semi-transparent screens, frequently using rear projection. The projector was mobile, allowing the projected image to move on the screen, and multiple projecting devices allowed for quick switching of different images. Frightening images such as skeletons, demons, and ghosts were projected.



From Greek φαντασμα phantasma (ghost) + αγορευειν agoreuein (to speak publicly)


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

Also in the 1770s François Seraphin presented his magic lantern Shadow Plays, or "Ombres Chinoises" at Versailles, to great acclaim. Also at Versailles, Edme-Gilles Guyot experimented with the projection of ghosts onto smoke.

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.

The most famous of the ghost showmen was the Belgian inventor and physicist from Liège, Etienne-Gaspard Robert, more commonly known by his stage name Etienne Robertson.

In 1797 Robertson took his show to Paris. The macabre atmosphere in the post-revolutionary city was perfect for Robertson's elaborate creations. In an abandoned Capuchin crypt in Paris, he staged hauntings, using several lanterns, special sound effects and the natural creep factor of the tomb, he effectively scared the hell out of his visitors.

"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." - Robertson

It was not long before Robertson was touring Russia and Spain, and the idea of the theatrical ghost show spread across Europe and to the U.S.

Robertson is buried with appropriately gothic statuary in the Père Lachaise Cemetery in Paris.

In 1801 a phantasmagoria production by Paul de Philipsthal (possibly a stage name for Paul Philidor) opened in London's Lyceum Theatre in the Strand, where it became a smash hit.

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.

"...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." - Mervyn Heard

Phantasmagoria in modern times

Walter Benjamin was fascinated by the phantasmagoria and used it as a term to describe the experience of the Arcades in Paris.

From February 15 - 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.

Alternate Spellings

Fantasmagorie, fantasmagoria

See also

Unless indicated otherwise, the text in this article is either based on Wikipedia article "Phantasmagoria" or another language Wikipedia page thereof used under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License; or on original research by Jahsonic and friends. See Art and Popular Culture's copyright notice.

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