Phantasmagoria: creating the ‘ghosts’ of the Enlightenment

The most popular form of visual entertainment before cinema, phantasmagoria specialised in thrilling audiences with macabre illusions created through trickery and science. Writing for HistoryExtra, Fabio Camilletti explores the phenomenon that transfixed audiences in the 18th and 19th centuries and influenced much of the Gothic fiction of the time…

A phantasmagoria by Belgian entertainer Etienne-Gaspard Robert, whose stage name was Etienne Robertson, 1797. (Photo by Kean Collection/Archive Photos/Getty Images)

Virtual reality gaming and 3D cinema are fast becoming typical entertainments of our age, as we tend towards multi-sensorial experiences breaking the barrier between audiences and the show. We might therefore be surprised to know that phantasmagoria – the most popular form of visual entertainment before cinema – tended to the same purpose, and that spectators responded, both physically and emotionally, in a much stronger way than the crafty audiences of nowadays. Phantasmagorias (a modern coinage made out of two Greek words, roughly meaning ‘summoning of ghosts’ or ‘image-playing’) were shows which aimed to completely absorb their audiences’ attention, both mentally and bodily. Showmen all over Europe worked incessantly to implement effects and marketing strategies, in order to always offer something new to the public – or, at least, resell old tricks in new disguises.


Tricks, technologies and ‘Pepper’s Ghost’

In the mid-1770s in Germany, Johann Georg Schröpfer – a former soldier who variously claimed to be the master of a Freemason lodge, a Catholic priest, and the illegitimate son of a prince – held ghost-summoning séances in the coffee-house he had bought in Leipzig with his wife’s money, and had thus gained the nickname of Gespenstermacher (meaning ‘ghost-maker’). Heavily robed, in a room filled with all sort of exoteric paraphernalia, Schröpfer conjured the ghosts of historical figures as well as of ordinary people. His apparitions floated in the air, and sometimes screamed with a horrible sound.

An exhibition of 'Pepper's Ghost' in a theatre, circa 1865. (Photo by Archive Photos/Getty Images)
An exhibition of ‘Pepper’s Ghost’ in a theatre, circa 1865. (Photo by Archive Photos/Getty Images)

While Schröpfer claimed his experiments to be true, all the effects he produced can be found, described in detail, in treatises on illusionism of that time. The technology that made them possible was that of the ‘magic lantern’, a rudimental projector which had been known to scientists since the 16th century. Schröpfer may also have employed mirrors, in order to create the effect later known as ‘Pepper’s Ghost’, which allows a shadowy figure to ‘materialise’ in a room (fans of the BBC’s Sherlock series may remember it from episode ‘The Abominable Bride’). It must also be added that the show was really challenging for audiences: people were forced to stay in the room for a whole day, and possibly narcotized through meals and drinks. Séances took place in the middle of the night, when fatigue and drugs might contribute to the effect.

The first phantasmagorias

The first shows advertised as ‘phantasmagoria’ were performed a few years later in France, during the French Revolution: the first adverts date to 1792 and the performer was a certain ‘Philidor’, but the first performer to fully exploit the potential of these shows was Étienne-Gaspard Robert, a Belgian entertainer who used the stage name of ‘Robertson’. Having witnessed the flourishing of British Gothic novels, an English name was certainly more fashionable: a taster – and surely not the least one – of Robertson’s talent as a show-businessman.

These were the years of the revolution and of state atheism. The Catholic religion had been banned in France, replaced by the worship of ‘the goddess Reason’. Jacobin activists wrote on cemetery walls that there was no afterlife and death was nothing but an endless sleep, and Robertson, unlike Schröpfer, was careful in explaining that his experiments were just tricks, that no ghost was actually summoned, and that his shows even had a revolutionary purpose: tricks such as those he performed, adverts suggested, might have been used in past centuries by priests in order to cheat the people, simulating the apparitions of angels, saints, or gods.

An 18th-century phantasmagoria terrifying an audience in Paris, depicted in ‘The Picture Palace: And other buildings for the Movies’ by Dennis Sharp (Photo By The Denver Post via Getty Images)
An 18th-century phantasmagoria terrifying an audience in Paris, depicted in ‘The Picture Palace: And other buildings for the Movies’ by Dennis Sharp (Photo By The Denver Post via Getty Images)

In the actual moment of show, however, all pedagogic intention was forgotten. Robertson had hired the ruined vaults of a medieval convent in the heart of Paris. Audiences were welcomed in an environment filled with skulls, bones, and magical symbols; they were served some drugged punch and left in the dark, before the magic lantern started projecting slides. Behind the curtains, someone played a glass harmonica – whose sound can be sweet, but at times excruciating – and there is no doubt that this last feature was the most frequently employed during Robertson’s shows. Robertson had also introduced several technological improvements to projection techniques: he could make images move, or projected them on smoke, so that they looked aerial and more ghostly. Images included mythological monsters, but also scenes from Gothic novels – the most typical was the ‘Bleeding Nun’, from MG Lewis’s The Monk – or references to contemporary politics: Jean-Paul Marat [a French politician killed in his bathtub in 1793], or the guillotined head of French Revolutionary leader Georges Jacques Danton. At some point, the show was forcibly closed by the police, when rumour was spread that Robertson could bring the king Louis Capet [Louis XVI] back to life.

By then, phantasmagoria shows were popular all over Paris, soon to reach the whole of Europe. Many tried to imitate Robertson’s tricks, and a case that he incautiously made for plagiarism proved itself to have an adverse effect; Robertson was forced to publicly reveal his tricks, which could, at that point, be replicated by anyone. In 1801, phantasmagoria landed in England; the Lyceum Theatre in the Strand began to hold a daily show, but soon almost every city had its own.

A European phenomenon

In an age of wars, phantasmagoria was a European phenomenon, crossing national boundaries and telling much of each nation’s cultural specificities. In 18th-century Germany, where philosophers were mostly concerned by the problem of subjective perception, illusion, and deceit (and ghostly apparitions were discussed, among others, by Immanuel Kant), Schröpfer’s ghosts interrogated the trustfulness of what can be seen. Not incidentally, his experiments inspired leading German writer Friedrich Schiller’s novel The Ghost-Seer, exploring the problem of manipulation and – as we would nowadays term it – ‘post-truth’. In England, where the market of Gothic fiction was already flourishing and mature, the macabre of phantasmagorias was first of all a matter of entertainment, and a collection of stories inspired by phantasmagoria shows (and tellingly titled Fantasmagoriana) would give the inspiration to Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. In revolutionary France, phantasmagoria was sold as an ‘enlightened’ form of amusement, introducing audiences to the last discoveries of science and allegedly unveiling the ‘tricks’ of the clergy: but it was performed as a thrilling experience, playing with the spectators’ emotional side, and after a brief relieving speech by Robertson, shows ended with the image of a skeleton standing on a pedestal.

The macabre of phantasmagorias would give inspiration to the writers of Gothic fiction, including the author of 'Frankenstein', Mary Shelley. (Photo by Fine Art Images/Heritage Images/Getty Images)
The macabre of phantasmagorias would give inspiration to the writers of Gothic fiction, including the author of ‘Frankenstein’, Mary Shelley. (Photo by Fine Art Images/Heritage Images/Getty Images)

The line between science and trickery

Phantasmagoria shows open a door on the hidden side of the Enlightenment, when science was an entertaining hobby almost at everybody’s hand, and Gothic fashion reached its peak. It was a time when philosophers questioned the immortality of souls and showmen performed ‘returns from the grave’ for the pleasure of city crowds. All these phenomena are not reciprocally contradictory. Popular science – then as much as nowadays – was nonchalantly mixed with the supernatural, and street performers often gave demonstrations of both. For audiences, it was difficult to distinguish between actual scientific experiments, for example in electricity or magnetism, and practices that the scientific community had completely discredited, such as mesmerism (the belief that diseases could be healed by a ‘magnetic’ fluid passing from the healer to the sick, from whence the verb ‘to mesmerise’). In the same way, phantasmagoria shows played with ambiguity: apparitions were entirely explainable, certainly they were not to be believed, but all the same, they were uncanny. Phantasmagorias, thus, were a powerful way of saying what could not be said. Under the disguise of entertainment, magic lantern slides voiced repressed contents – political, intellectual, and sometimes sexual – generating a field of resistance in the changing world of European revolutions. Guillotined kings and mythological creatures, ghosts and wonders, abolished gods and exploded beliefs, all could be brought back to life, albeit momentarily, by the light of the magic lantern.

Revolutions are scarcely confined to the political or industrial spheres. Some of the most radical changes often leave the slightest changes in history, because they are too imperceptible to be recorded, and are almost forgotten in the space of one or two generations. It is easy to dismiss, then, how the relationship with darkness and light changed throughout the 18th century, from an age when going around at night was a privilege of witches, ghosts, and lunatics, to an era when lamps, chandeliers, and street-lights completely reversed the alternation between night and day, giving birth to ‘nightlife’ as we understand it today. Whereas, in the past, night terrors had been something concrete – and starvation and bad dietary regimes, including a vast use of opiates, had largely contributed to the alteration of perceptions, especially in the countryside – the 18th-century world progressively located them in the space of imagination. Most of all, it made them a matter of entertainment. Eighteenth-century audiences deliberately sought to be frightened, and Schröpfer’s coffee-house or Robertson’s Gothic vaults provided them with an acceptable replacement of what the world around them was progressively losing: the mystery of the night, and the way imagination can ‘fancy’, in Voltaire’s words it “sees what never really existed”.


Fabio Camilletti is an associate professor at the University of Warwick. His specialism is European literature of the Romantic age. He has published several studies on authors such as Giacomo Leopardi and Dante Gabriel Rossetti, and in 2015 he finalised the first complete edition of Fantasmagoriana, the book inspiring Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, to appear in bookshops since 1812. He is currently working on a study on the Italian Gothic and on a project on anthologies of supernatural stories in the age of the Enlightenment