The Regency Era Horror Movie

Although still half a century from the inception of the moving picture, the Regency did have its own visual amusement: the Phantasmagoria. People gathered in parlors and drawing rooms with only a few candles barely preventing the space from being entirely pitch. Mysterious noises without source began: rattling, scratching, whispering. The level of excitement and fear grew with each sound. Suddenly, a ghost swooped across the room while a skeleton gamboled in a corner. The crowd gasped and some screamed or swooned.

Les Fantasmagories d'Etienne-Gaspard Roberston

The Phantasmagoria owed its attraction and success to two things: the magic lantern and Étienne-Gaspard Robert. The magic lantern had been around since the late 15th-early 16th century. It consisted of a box holding a concave mirror situated in front of a candle; the gathered light then passed through a decorated glass slide.

phantasmagoria lantern peep

This lighted image was then reckoned through a lens, and a larger version of the likeness could be projected anywhere in the room. The darker, more menacing the image, the bigger the scare.

Étienne-Gaspard Robert was a Belgian physicist and stage magician (in addition to being one of the foremost balloonists of his day). He elevated the magic lantern to sublimity by turning a relatively simple parlor trick into an encompassing performance.

 A Phantasmagoria Scene Conjuring Up An Armed Skeleton, James Gillray, 1803

A Phantasmagoria Scene Conjuring Up An Armed Skeleton, James Gillray, 1803


He wrote scripts with multiple scenes and employed actors to dd to the realism. He used smoke, multiple light sources, and even rear-projection magic lanterns to create a lifelike production that immersed attendees in the horror, and he loved to stage his events in abandoned buildings. By 1801, the Phantasmagoria was well-known in England, as theatres began projecting Banquo’s and Hamelt’s ghosts about the stage.

The concepts of the Phantasmagoria are alive and well – so to speak – at Disneyland’s Haunted Mansion attraction. A group of strangers are locked in a room whose walls promptly begin “stretching,” with the seemingly benign photos on the wall revealing tragiocomic and sinister aspects as they “grow.”

haunted mansion stretching room

Strolling deeper into the mansion reveals more creepy pictures…haunted mansion lantern effect medusa

and a talking head inside a crystal ball.

haunted mansion talking head crystal ball

Undead dancers waltz away their eternities…

haunted mansion dancers

while an eerie coachman can’t decide the best place for his head.

haunted mansion hatbox ghost

The usually somber graveyard has turned into a “lively” playground.

ghosts in the graveyard

Just remember not to pick up any hitchhikers on your way home.

haunted mansion hitchikers


Information on the Phantasmagoria and Étienne-Gaspard Robert compiled from J.A. Beard’s Unnecessary Musings, Metal on Metal, and Skulls in the Stars. I was in no way compensated for profiling a Disneyland attraction in this post; I am simply inordinately fond of the amusement park. My family has always explained my obsession love for Disneyland as the result for being born so near the park. Literally, my mom could look out her hospital window and see Space Mountain, Sleeping Beauty’s Castle, and the Matterhorn. And I’ve been there over 50 times. Some things are just fated.