Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Phantasmagoria: Getting Your Fright On in Late Georgian England

by J.A. Beard

The lady and her guests have gathered in a sitting room. Only the light of a few candles fights off the choking darkness.

Suddenly a rattling chain and the scratching of unearthly talons echoes through the room. A skeleton appears, then a ghost! The terrified audience holds their hands in front of them in a feeble attempt to shut out the creatures.

The English of the late Georgian era appreciated a good fright just as much as we do. The rise of Gothic literature and related novels of fright provided a giddy thrill for many readers, but reading about a phantom lacks the impact of actually seeing one. Though the people in this era lacked television and movies, they did have their own way of experiencing the visceral thrill of laying their eyes on the macabre and supernatural: the phantasmagoria.

Before we discuss the actual show, we need to discuss the primary tool used for it: the magic lantern. Though historians aren't completely sure, the magic lantern seems to have been invented in either the 15th or 16th century in northern Europe.

The magic lantern is a fairly a simple device. It is basically just has a concave mirror that is placed in front of a light source. The set-up allows the gathering up of light. In the magic lantern, the concentrated light is then passed through a glass slide with an image on it toward a lens. The lens then projects a larger version of the slide image onto another surface. So, what they really had was a simple slide projector. 

In the earliest magic lanterns, candles or a conventional (non-magic as it were) lantern provided the necessary light. As the centuries passed, improved illumination technologies were integrated into the magic lantern to provide for brighter images. Though various types of images were projected when the devices were first introduced, dark images of supernatural creatures were popular from the earliest years. Skilled performers made us of multiple magic lanterns, sound effects, smoke, and other such elements to create a thrilling experience.

The magic lantern had a history on the Continent before its arrival in England. The quick summary version is that during a period of heightened interest in spiritualism and all things dark and supernatural, particularly toward the end of the 18th century, a well-positioned magic lantern could do a lot to convince people that something supernatural was indeed present, especially in a time where people would rarely encounter such technology. By 1801, the phantasmagoria was firmly established in England. At this point, many showmen began to be a bit more honest about the non-supernatural nature of their shows. It's important to note that not everyone believed they were witnessing supernatural goings-on even before the lantern men fully committed to honesty, but there was enough belief in it to occasionally attract the attention of authorities. Coming clean, among other things, also allowed for better integration of other theatrical elements such as live music and guided narration. The displays by this point made use of multiple wheeled projectors. The mobility allowed for the ghosts, devils, and other assorted creatures to move, grow, or shrink during the performance as needed. 

The shows grew in popularity just before and during the Regency period (1811-1820). The Prince Regent, never one to pass up a good time in whatever form, was known to entertain guests and himself with phantasmagoria displays on occasion (along with regular non-horror themed shows as well). 

The magic lantern and phantasmagoria would remain popular through the end of the Georgian era and into the Victorian era.


  1. Thanks for sharing. I love reading about the Victorian fascination with spiritualism.

  2. The overlap between entertainment and spiritualism is definitely an interesting area.

  3. This would be so awesome to see in historical context. It must have been great entertainment for the people especially with their belief/partial belief that it was magic.

    Thanks for sharing the post!


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