Phantasmagoria was a form of theatre which used a modified magic lantern to project frightening images such as skeletons, demons, and ghosts onto walls, smoke, or semi-transparent screens, frequently using rear projection. The projector was mobile, allowing the projected image to move and change size on the screen, and multiple projecting devices allowed for quick switching of different images. Invented in France in the late 18th century, it gained popularity through most of Europe (especially England) throughout the 19th century.
Étienne-Gaspard Robert (1763–1837), was a prominent Belgian stage magician and influential developer of phantasmagoria. Alongside his pioneering work on projection techniques for his shows Robert was also a physics lecturer and a keen balloonist at a time of great development in aviation.
Robert developed a phantasmagoria show based around his projection system and the use of other effects and techniques. Robert scripted scenes that involved actors and ventriloquism alongside his projections, creating a convincing impression of the appearance of ghosts. Robert used several projection devices in a variety of ways, including rear projection and projection onto large pieces of wax-coated gauze (giving the image a more translucent appearance). He also used smoke and mirrors to further disguise the mechanisms behind his show.
In 1797, Robert presented his first "fantasmagorie" at the Pavillon de l'Echiquier in Paris. The macabre atmosphere in the post-revolutionary city was perfect for Robertson's Gothic extravaganza complete with elaborate creations and Radcliffean décor.
After discovering that he could put the magic lantern on wheels to create either a moving image or one that increased and decreased in size, Robertson moved his show. In an abandoned crypt of a Capuchin convent near the Place Vendôme, he staged hauntings, using several lanterns, special sound effects and the eerie atmosphere of the tomb. This show lasted for six years, mainly because of the appeal of the supernatural to Parisians.
Robert mainly used images surrounded by black in order to create the illusion of free-floating ghosts. However, he also would use multiple projectors, set up in different locations throughout the venue, in order to place the ghosts in environments. For instance, one of his first phantasmagoria shows displayed a lightning-filled sky with both ghosts and skeletons receding and approaching the audience. In order to add to the horror, Robert and his assistants would sometimes create voices for the phantoms. Often, the audience forgot that these were tricks and were completely terrified:
“I am only satisfied if my spectators, shivering and shuddering, raise their hands or cover their eyes out of fear of ghosts and devils dashing towards them.” Robert wrote.
In fact, many people were so convinced of the reality of his shows that police temporarily halted the proceedings, believing that Robert had the power to bring Louis XVI back to life. Once the show was back, Robert was exposed to the law again, this time in the form of a lawsuit against his former assistants who had started their own phantasmagoria shows using his techniques. It was this lawsuit in 1799 in which Robert was required to reveal his secrets to the public and magic lantern shows popped up across Europe and in the United States shortly after, though many were not as elaborate as Robert's. (wikipedia1 and wikipedia2) His tomb in Père Lachaise Cemetery, Paris is a piece of sculpture art and was inspired by his spactacles: