Tomorrow is Halloween, as I suspect everyone in the United States is aware. I know the “holiday” isn’t as popular in other parts of the world, at least not in the same way, but here it is a huge event. Personally, I’ve never been a big fan of Halloween. I’m much fonder of Christmas and Easter. Nevertheless, it does have a sort of charm and the varied traditions are fascinating. I’ve written several blogs over the years about the history of Halloween and the popular customs. Rather than take that route with today’s obligatory Halloween-centric spooky blog post, I am turning to a subject I have also blogged about before, although not here on Austen Authors. It has been on my mind, actually, because I will be giving a speech on the subject next year for the Greater Louisville JASNA group. As many of you probably know, the theme for JASNA in 2019 is Northanger Abbey, so naturally all things Gothic are hot topics! I was asked to present a lecture on the history of magic lantern shows, with an emphasis on Phantasmagoria. Since I am brushing off my old essays and digging through my languishing research, the timing is perfect to share a brief history today. And, as an added bonus, an excerpt from My Dearest Mr. Darcy that may send chills up your spine.
*Dim the lights and cue a Vincent Price ghoulish laugh…..
This is Phantasmagoria!
Imagine it is 1817 and you are in a theatre usually reserved for opera performances and ballets. It is pitch black and eerie, discordant music is rising from the orchestra pit. You are clutching onto the armrests – or better yet, clutching onto your handsome companion – as you witness a marvel never seen before. Ghostly visions mysteriously projected from hidden spaces under the stage float across the floor and over your head. Scenes from gothic novels are brought to vivid life before your eyes. Monsters never imagined are growling at you, beating their wings, and dripping blood.
Many years ago, when I wrote the novel that became My Dearest Mr. Darcy, I decided to take Darcy and Elizabeth to the seacoast for a romantic holiday. I researched the entertainments of the day, always seeking for something unusual and fun for them (and my readers) to enjoy, and came up with all sorts of ideas. Some never made it into the novel, at least not at that point. Several others did, among them horse racing, sea bathing and bathing machines, silhouettes, and even a hot air balloon launch! Amid my digging, I stumbled across magic lantern shows. This tidbit of fascinating history led to the horror shows known as Phantasmagoria, but before one can truly comprehend just how terrifying such a show could be, an understanding of the magic lantern is necessary.
Magic Lantern History
The concept of projecting an image from something small into a larger image has been known for thousands of years, although in a rudimentary form. For instance, the origins of Shadow Shows with one’s hands creating shapes probably date back to our cave dwelling ancestors as a form of entertainment using fire as the light source. The earliest projection lanterns date to the 1400s, these basic devices exactly as the name implies. The drawing to the right is of a projection lantern and from a book titled Liber Instrumentorum by Giovanni de Fontana, published c.1420. Clever inventors and scientists immediately noted the potential of using shaped lenses fashioned from varied types of glass. With the right shaped lens, a drawn image could assumed larger proportions when projected by a light onto a flat surface.
The magic lantern was a logical evolution from the light projected image device technology. If a single image could be projected, there must be some way to project a series of them. And wouldn’t it be thrilling to project those images rapidly so they looked like they were moving? Of course it would!
The precise details are hazy, but sources agree that the first magic lantern device was invented somewhere in the 1600’s, probably by Dutch scientist Christiaan Huygens, who had a lantern in usable form in 1659. Surviving letters reveal that Huygens’ father kept pestering to send a lantern so he could “frighten his friends with it.” A foreshadowing of how his son’s device would most famously be used?
Using techniques of optics and illusion dating back to Aristotle and Da Vinci, the magic lantern was the earliest form of slide projector. The machine used light, originally from a simple candle, to cast painted images onto the wall, same as the projection lanterns. Where it differed is that multiple pictures were painted or drawn onto a series of thin, transparent sections in a single slide. The slides were pulled through the magic lantern rapidly, giving the appearance of a moving story unfolding upon the wall. Additionally, the advances in the technology of glass lens making and positioning inside a tube for greater magnification were employed. In fact, one of the men valued as improving the magic lantern device is British scientist Robert Hooke (1635-1703) who is most famous for microscope design.
Over the decades there were dozens of different apparatus invented, some large and others quite small, but always with the goal to improve the clarity and smoothness of the projected images. Candles were replaced by oil lamps to improve the power of illumination and thus the strength of the projection. In the 1820s, the invention of limelight — a type of flammable gas used primarily as stage lighting in theaters — was utilized to vastly improve the quality of magic lantern illumination. And, yes, this is the origination of the phrase “in the limelight” for being the center of attention!
Rather than add a ton of examples of magic lanterns here, the image below gives an idea of the designs AND can be clicked to access a ton more at Magiclantern.org
Magic lantern shows are indisputably the grandfather of motion pictures. It is also undisputed that the horror movie genre owes its genesis to the specific shows most prominently known as Phantasmagoria.
The moving magic lantern shows dubbed Phantasmagoria (from the Greek phántasma, “ghost” and agorá, “assembly, gathering”) were not the first incidence of frightening images painted on glass. That concept dates to the beginning of projection lanterns. Whether to scare for entertainment or as a morality lesson, demons, monsters, ghouls, ghosts, and other hideous beasts were common choices. To the left is a series of sketches by Christiaan Huygens from 1659 for a projection of Death taking off his head. Below is one of several slides based on Huygens’ sketch, dating from c.1830-1850 and showing a jovial rather than threatening or doom laden Death.
Still images, or even those that appear to move on a flat surfaces, are severely limited, however. With magic lantern shows fast becoming a popular draw, and therefore a serious money-maker, ingenious techniques were as vital as advanced technology. Luckily, there were intelligent, industrious, clever men working from both angles.
One of those men with skills at both was a French professor of physics named Etienne Gaspard Robert. Known by Etienne Robertson, his stage name, he was not the originator of Phantasmagoria shows, nor was he the first to use magic lantern technology coupled with literal “smoke and mirrors” for a unique experience. Where Robertson excelled was in his ingenuity and as importantly, if not more important, as a showman and businessman.
It was in 1798 France, in the ashes of the horrors seen during the Revolution, when Robertson created an improved version of the magic lantern mounted on wheels, which he called a Phantascope or Fantascope. By moving the projector backwards and forwards he could rapidly alter the size of the images on the screen, much like a modern zoom lens. The device was very cleverly designed to keep the picture in focus and at a constant brightness as the machine moved back and forth. He also created unique slides that were bigger and moved easier, allowing for longer, seamless motions that were incredibly real.
His talents led to endless methods of using smoke, curtains, hidden lenses and screens, mirrors, varied light sources and sizes, and so on to cast the horrifying images into the air and every available surface of the theater.
A born showman, as noted previously, Robertson is credited as the first to add sounds to his shows. Ventriloquism and music primarily, notably the focus on the glass armonica which produces sounds both melodious and excruciating, were added to enhance the spooky ambience. Not stopping there, many of his shows were staged in cemeteries or if in a theater (more common as his fame grew) he decorated the audience areas with skulls, bones, and assorted magical imagery. Think a modern haunted house!
Phantasmagoria shows may have existed before Robertson, but he coined the term and made it famous. In the same vein, while other magic lantern shows existed with traveling troupes across Europe and England profiting by the invention, it was Robertson’s Phantasmagoria that elevated magic lantern performances to the highest level and catapulted the craze. Who can say for sure, but perhaps if not for Robertson capitalizing on terror, magic lanterns may have faded away as a fad and we would not have motion pictures today! Instead, by 1803, Phantasmagoria shows were by far the most popular type of magic lantern shows and spinoffs were all over Europe and in the United States. This being a fact of history, how could I resist having a Phantasmagoria performance on stage in Great Yarmouth for Darcy and Lizzy to enjoy the spectacle. As a bonus, there is nothing quite like a scary show for lovers to have a legitimate reason to cling to each other, is there?
The following excerpt is from My Dearest Mr. Darcy, the third volume in The Darcy Saga sequel series to Pride and Prejudice. Close your eyes for a moment and imagine your favorite spooky Halloween scene. Enjoy!
Suddenly several of the dim lights were extinguished, throwing the already dusky room into deeper shadows. Numerous gasps were released, folks shuffling to their seats in earnest. A deep, sepulchral voice erupted into the hushed hall, startling everyone as the disembodied voice intoned without inflection: “Ladies and gentlemen of the living, find thy seats hastily. The spirits are restless, desiring to arise in a dance macabre. None has the power to detain them. Do not be found wandering the empty aisles! This would be… unwise. Can thoust control the whimsy of the dead?”
The voice continued in the same vein as the final stragglers took their seats. The remaining lights were doused one by one until total darkness was achieved. As the final lights went out, slowly one by one, music gradually swelled. Music eerily brought forth by a glass armonica and accompanied by whining winds and clapping thunder. The gloomy voice grew fainter as it beseeched the dead to rise and begged for pity on the living until drowned completely by the wailing sounds emanating from the depths of the orchestra pit. Abruptly a deafening boom rent the air, succeeded by utter silence.
The boom was rapidly followed by the appearance of a hazy red fog at center stage, the curtains apparently having been withdrawn. Out of the smoke a phantom appeared, growing larger and larger as it seemed to float over the gasping audience. The evilly grinning phantom was bathed in the red smoke, giving it the impression of blood, with a dagger in one hand and a severed head in the other. All instantly knew this to be the French Revolutionist Marat. Screeches pierced the void; fans could be heard fluttering wildly. Crazy laughter emanated from Marat’s grin as he disappeared into thin air.
A collective breath was taken, but released in a rush as another apparition emerged. A woman in trailing garments, face beautiful initially but incrementally morphing into an old crone bent and wrinkled, her elaborate dress falling into rags as her old face decayed before their eyes until only a skeleton in strips of moldy cloth remained. She moved over their heads as she decomposed, skeletal form joining the now visible skeletons positioned all about the stage, or rather what had been the stage, but was now a cemetery replete with crypts and headstones. One by one the dead rose, walking on spindly legs, speaking from lipless mouths, empty sockets roving over the crowd.
On and on it went; one scene after another in rapid succession allowing no time to collect oneself. The haunting music rose and fell, ghostly voices droned, thunder and lightning crashed, specters and demons of all sizes materialized. Many of the scenes were familiar from literature or history: The Nightmare by Fuseli, The Head of Medusa, Macbeth and the Ghost of Banquo, other French Revolutionaries manning the guillotine, The Opening of Pandora’s Box, The Mysteries of Udolpho, and more. Interspersed were the random bats, goblins, and ghosts, manifesting from all points on the main floor. The figures magically expanded to gargantuan sizes, hovering over the audience so closely that one felt they could touch them, and then shrunk before sinking into the ground as if returning to the underworld.
It was terrifying and fascinating. Fleetingly one would wonder how the effect was created, but generally the images and emotions engendered were so spectacular and realistic that coherent thought was eradicated. Lizzy, once past the introductory fright and comforted by Darcy’s sturdy arm and warmth, calmed to a vague trembling and moderately heightened pulse rate. Screams were frequent, crying could be detected, and undoubtedly swooning occurred. The heat in the room increased from the combined press of bodies and raised body temperatures.
The crescendo was an appearance of all four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. The Biblical Riders trampled across the stage and into the crowd, swords and scythe brandishing, the clap of horses hooves echoing, while the original inhumanly bleak voice quoted from Revelations. With final bursting neighs and a resounding crash of cymbals, the Horseman rode through the back wall and precipitous silence fell, the room plunged into cavernous darkness for a full ten minutes.
The lights were lit all at once, revealing a tiny figure before the drawn curtains on center stage. The familiar voice again penetrated the quiet, although now it spoke with a bit more warmth and normalcy, “Ladies and gentlemen, I present to you the Illusionist Extraordinaire, Master of the Magic Lantern and Limelight, Creator of the Macabre, Professor Leonardo Finocchi Sciarratta!” The tiny man bowed with a flourish, his grandly feathered tricorne doffed and swept theatrically as he blew kisses to the audience. The crowd erupted in applause and cheers, standing for a glorious ovation. Darcy and Lizzy stood as well, clapping enthusiastically. Her heart still raced and she was yet torn between loving the spectacle or hating it, but there was no doubt it was a stupendously artistic performance. Certainly one she would never forget, her fervent hope being that the ghosts did not resurface in her dreams!
I hope you enjoyed the teasing excerpt. All of my novels are available, of course, on Amazon and other online sellers. Click the image below for more information about my novels and to purchase.
Now, for comments today, I want to hear what YOU think of scary Halloween movies and which are YOUR favorites. Any other comments are welcome, naturally.