At the end of the 18th century, an unusual theatrical entertainment premiered in Paris that astonished, shocked and, according to contemporary reports, scared audiences witless. Who was it who said that technology we don’t understand is perceived as magic? The Phantasmagoria show was a prime example of this truth.
Anything described today as ‘phantasmagorical’ is fantastic (in the true sense), mystical and ethereal. But two hundred and twenty years ago it was a specific thing, an entertainment that was able to conjure life-like spirits out of thin air. It was, of course, a trick, an optical illusion, but the technology wasn’t understood, so it was magical and frightening. It was also profitable, as there’s money to be made from creating safe fear, hence theme-park, white-knuckle rides.
Authoritative books have been written on this fascinating subject so, in this post, I’ll just give you a flavour of the experience and explain how it worked ….. or will that break the spell?
Imagine it’s a cold and rainy evening in Paris and you meet your fellow sensation seekers outside a derelict convent. Your guide takes you through dark, damp, twisting corridors (disorientation was deliberate and still is in modern ‘dark’ rides) and eventually you can just make out your seat in a darkened auditorium. Then, amidst chains rattling, smoke and thunder and lightning, a horned devil appears in the air coming towards you, moving its eyes and mouth as it screams. Just as it gets too close for comfort, it turns tail and fades into the distance, to be followed by even worse horrors. I won’t elaborate further, you get the idea.
What was really happening? When the audience took their seats, they weren’t aware that there was a translucent screen behind a curtain in front of them. Once the audience was seated, the curtains parted and behind the screen (that they couldn’t see) was a magic lantern slide projector, with a self-focusing mechanism, on a track. The ghosts were, in fact, finely painted glass slides with mechanical moving parts for eyes and mouth and, as the projector moved backwards, silently on the track, the image on the screen got bigger. Not understanding what was happening, the audience perceived this as the apparition coming towards them. To make the ghost seem to retire, the picture on the slide changed and the magic lantern was pushed forward on the track, making the image smaller. Simple, when you know how it’s done!
The pictures shown are an illustration of an hysterical audience and an original phantasmagoria slide, circa 1800, from my collection.