Monday, August 22, 2011

The Phantasmagoria

Prior to cinematic film, horror was relegated to writing--or so you would think. In reality, the predecessor to the 'scary movie' was the phantasmagoria, a type of magic lantern show that specialized in dark, gothic, and demonic themes. Some were used by early magicians and con-men during seances.

While the magic lantern, a device that projects silhouettes or etched images via a convex lens, had been around since the mid-17th century, the pitiful sputterings from candles and oil lamp flames kept them from truly taking off as an entertainment artform. With 19th century advances such as argand, limelight, and eventually incandescence, these device, which often employed elaborate mechanisms for shuffling slides to simulate movement, became ever more popular.

Especially the phantasmagoria.

In the 1660s, Thomas Walgensten employed his "lantern of fear" to conjur ghosts and later magicians and hoaxers would do similiarly to either amuse or dupe. It is from this inauspicious begining that the phantasmagoria as horror entertainment flourished during the Romantic Gothic period of the late 18th and early 19th centuries. Horror novels were popular and many took to illustrating the mind's eye via magic lantern horror shows.

Throughout the 19th century, its popularity waned considerably. With the advent of several cinematic precursors, the lanterns were extinguished permanantly.
But their mystique lives on in literature and cinema. And their irrefutable contribution to modern horror cannot be dismissed.


Autumnforest said...

Okay, it's official. You put me in the Halloween mood! Here's my question to you. You know in Sleepy Hollow when the mother puts the kid to sleep and has a candle holder that when heat makes it rise, it turns and projects the image on the wall? What the freak is it called? I want to learn to make those!

Cullan Hudson said...

That is a magic lantern, in its simplest form. If you don't have the chops at metal work to do the complex silhouettes, you can take a four-sided hurricane lantern and mask the glass panes off with black paper (perhaps heat proofed) or something similiar that you can more easily cut out the silhouettes with. The down side with these is that unless there is a convex lens or a parabolic mirror, they project rather diffusely more than a few inches away from a surface.

Little Gothic Horrors said...

This made me think of the episode of Buffy where the Scoobies learned the creation story of the first slayer via dark shadow puppets cast onto the wall. Fascinating.

Autumnforest said...

I just love that you know it all, cutie!