2021 edit: I’ve a family member who went into hospital rather suddenly this weekend, so no new post from me. Instead, a classic from the archives, with updated graphics.
I’m not the least bit superstitious or afraid of black cats, but I do love a good scare. Halloween is one of my favorite times of the year simply for the candy pumpkins, costume parties, and horror movies. Blood and guts aren’t spine-chilling to me: give me a good overnight camp in the woods, broken-down car, or haunted house, if you please. It’s one week til All Hallow’s Eve, so that means it’s time for nerve-wracking, suspenseful, alone in the dark movies!
All in a twitter; in a fright.
A few years back I wrote a post about The Regency Era Horror Movie. I want to expound on it a bit this week. And anytime I get to use Disney gifs to illustrate the historical, well, game on.
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 flickering 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.
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.
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.
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 large and small began projecting Banquo’s and Hamlet’s ghosts about the stage.
It was a fantastic time to be alive to be scared: in an era of post-enlightenment realism, where phantoms and bogey-man were relegated to children’s tales, adults were lining up to pay good guineas to see unexplainable spectres, implausible ghosts. They clamored to experience irrational fear. Audiences did not care that the terrors were explained with scientific methods at the end of the evening; they took swings at imaginary wraiths and delighted in the spectals created by smoke and mirrors.
Curious about the realistic nature of the Phantasmagoria? It’s 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 tragicomic and sinister aspects as they “grow.”
Strolling deeper into the mansion reveals more creepy “living” pictures…
and a talking head inside a crystal ball.
Undead dancers waltz away their eternities…
while an eerie coachman can’t decide the best place for his head.
And the usually somber graveyard has turned into a “lively” playground.
Just remember not to pick up any hitchhikers on your way home.
- Slang term taken from the 1811 Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue.
- Learn more about the Phantasmagoria, and especially the wickedly inventive Étienne-Gaspard Robert at J.A. Beard’s Unnecessary Musings, Metal on Metal, and Skulls in the Stars.
- The Picture of London, 1802, reveals all the comings and goes that great year, not just the Phantasmagoria at the Lyceum.
- It’s fascinating to read about the paradox of enlightened reason butting against the new love for the Phantasmagoria (a floating, severed head of Benjamin Franklin, anyone?) in The National Uncanny: Indian Ghosts and American Subjects by Renée L. Bergland.
- Just like all those pro athletes after their amazing sports wins, you must head to the one, the only, the original… Disneyland! It’s a bucket list item for sure.