Thursday, October 13, 2011

Mr. Beard's Regency Tour Day 4: Phantasmagoria, The Regency Horror Show

Welcome to my fourth post on Regency England. If you haven't a clue what I'm talking about, please check out this post.

In honor of Halloween, the next couple of weeks I'll be covering what I call "spooky-boo"-related material.


The exciting audience gathers in the sitting room. Only some candles and lantern hold off the smothering autumn darkness. A rattling chain and the scratching of claws echoes through the room. Suddenly, a skeleton appears, followed by a ghost. The terrified audience holds their hands in front of them in a feeble attempt to shut out the creatures.

The people of Regency England liked the occasional scare just as much as we moderns. The rise of the Gothic and related horror novels provided a giddy thrill for many readers, but actually seeing a ghost was so much more terrifying then reading about it. Despite the absence of television and movies, they still had their own visual horror show: the phantasmagoria.

First, we need to take step back and discuss the magic lantern, the key tool for creating the phantasmagoria. Though historians aren't completely sure, the magic lantern seems to have been invented in either the 15th or 16th century in either the Netherlands or Germany (or perhaps both independently).

The magic lantern, by our standards, is a fairly  a simple device. It is basically just has a concave mirror that is placed in front of a light source. If you recall your high school physics, you'll realize that such a set-up will allow 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--basically a slide projector.

In the original version of the magic lantern, candles or a lantern provided the necessary light. As the centuries passed, improved lantern technologies were integrated into the magic lantern to provide for brighter images. Though various types of images were projected in the early version, dark images of supernatural creatures were used from the earliest years. Skilled performers made us of multiple magic lanterns, staged sound effects, smoke, and other such elements to create a maximum immersion experience.

As this is a Regency series, I don't want to spend too much time going through the history in various countries. The quick summary version is that during the 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 in their lives. 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 (not that everyone believed them before). Among other things, this would allow 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. While this might seem utterly quaint to us today, it's important to remember that the average person alive in this time would have very little experience with any sort of projected image.

The Prince Regent, never one to pass up a good time, was known to entertain guests and himself with phantasmagoria displays on occasion (along with regular non-horror themed shows as well).  Not exactly 3D movies with huge theater surround sound, but for the people  of the time, the overall effect was probably just as impressive.

The magic lantern and phantasmagoria would remain popular for decades, well past the end of the Regency era.

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