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What is Phantasmagoria?

By G. Melanson
Updated Mar 06, 2024
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Also known as Fantasmagorie or Fantasmagoria, Phantasmagoria is a projected phantom show that originated in France during the late 18th century and experienced a peak in popularity during the 19th century throughout Europe. Phantasmagoria show effects consist of a series of ghostly images such as skeletons, demons, or other ghoulish apparitions projected onto screens, walls, mist, or smoke. Phantasmagoria was not only innovative for its time period, but also precipitated camera movements later employed in 20th century film, such as zooming and dissolving.

Aside from other forms of experimentation with shadow play and projection, such as Magic Lantern shows, the first true Phantasmagoria show is generally considered to have been created by Paul Philipsthal. Also known by his stage name, Paul Philidor, he created the first Phantasmagoria show in 1789 as part of a larger production consisting of seances and other parlor tricks. The most famous Phantasmagoria showman, however, was Belgian physicist and inventor, Etienne-Gaspard Robert, also known as Etienne Robertson. In 1797 he took his Phantasmagoria show to Paris where he became renowned for staging elaborate productions in actual crypts complete with projected phantoms and haunting sound effects. Soon after, Robertson took his show on the road to Russia and Spain where it was also well received.

The popularity of Phantasmagoria entertainment in the 19th century was largely propelled by the interest in Gothic novels at the time, in which floating specters and other macabre images were romanticized. In 1826, Phantasmagoria finally made its way to theater in a production of The Flying Dutchman when it was used to produce the illusion of a floating phantom ship. The popularity of Phantasmagoria began to wane by the mid-1800s with the advancement of other more sophisticated forms of projection, animation, and eventually, feature films.

A collection of poems written by Alice in Wonderland author, Lewis Carroll, called Phantasmagoria was published in 1869. The main poem, which bears the collection’s title, is written as a narrative conversation between a phantom and a man who discuss the differences between ghosts and humans.

The influences of Phantasmagoria can still be seen in modern-day cinema and theme park attractions, most notably, those created by Walt Disney. The Disneyland Haunted Mansion, for example, employs “smoke and mirrors” in creating its ghostly special effects.

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