What is Phantasmagoria?

Sound intriguing, eh? What could phantasmagoria possibly be and is it something you might be interested in exploring further? In this article, you will learn the details behind the name.

Phantasmagoria is an Americanized pronunciation of the projection ghost show that ruled France before the cinema ever lifted off of the ground. During the late 18th century, Europe was abuzz with this phenomenon, especially catching on in England throughout the 19th century. With the help of a kind of special ‘magic’ lantern, images danced on walls, in smoke, or on semi-transparent screens. Rear projection was the driving force behind the production.

Since the projector could be moved from one place to another, projected images could move on a screen, and when used in conjunction with other projectors , images easily switched from one thing to another. If you’re wondering what sorts of images were projected, imagine skeletons, ghosts, and demons.

Where Did the Concept Come From?

It was the middle of the 18th century and a coffee shop owner in Leipzig, Germany named Johann Schropfer decided to provide the public with séances, using a converted billiards room as his headquarters. The idea really took off, and by the time that the 1760s rolled around, he had transformed himself into a full-blown showman , abandoning his coffee shop dreams and taking on his séances as a full-time deal. Schropfer was probably pretty popular because he indulged in elaborate effects that involved ghostly projections. This allowed him to deliver a pretty convincing show of ghosts.

In 1774, it is said that Schropfer committed suicide , allegedly after he succumbed to delusional fits. Many thought that his downfall had something to do with his projected apparitions.

The notion of using projected ghosts took on new shape, and Versailles was in the thick of the latest developments in 1700s. During the 1770s, a man by the name of Francois Seraphin captured attention with his use of magic lanterns that allowed him to perform his “Ombres Chinoises” (better known as Chinese shadows). This was a form of “shadow play” , an ancient form of storytelling and entertainment that utilized opaque figures positioned in front of an illuminated backdrop. In the end, the illusion of moving images was created. During this same time, Edme-Gilles Guyot pushed the envelope on the projection of ghosts, when he dabbled with smoke effects.

However, what is considered the first on-the-spot phantasmagoria show was probably the brainchild of Paul Philidor, who successfully blended séance parlor tricks and projection effects in 1789. By 1793, he was enjoying great success across Europe, in Vienna, Berlin, and Paris.

As the years moved on, other individuals embraced phantasmogoria , many of whom were magicians and scientists with a love for shocking audiences. In the next article in this series on phantasmogoria, you are introduced to one of the greatest in the field, as well as the way phantasmogoria has taken shape in modern times.