Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Ghost Projection

A year ago I made a post about Pepper’s Ghost.  It began with, “Who has not been scared and at the same time excited by a ghost story or the inexplicable appearance of an apparition. Fascination with ghosts and the afterworld have gripped audiences for centuries. Our appetite for such titillation seems insatiable. Ghost shows are nothing new. Writers, magicians, and lanternists have long used the popular fascination with ghosts and apparitions for their advantage. From its earliest inception the magic lantern has employed ghost figures to frighten and to entertain audiences. Some of the very earliest magic lantern images in the last part of the 17th century were of ghosts and demons.  Calling forth such figures reached a new height in the late 1700s and early 1800s largely due to two showmen and their shows. The Fantasmagorie shows, popularized by Belgian showman Éttiene-Gaspard Robertson  and the Phantasmagoria shows of magician Paul de Philipsthal, called forth apparitions onto the screen. Their shows ingeniously employed rear projection. The lanternist was hidden from the audience behind the screen. In a darkened room the images would appear on the screen as if from nowhere. By moving the lantern, the figure could be made smaller or larger such that the ghosts would appear and then menacingly approach the audience.”   

A recent purchase of the book Aufschlüsse zur Magie aus geprüften Erfahrungen über verborgene philosophische Wissenschaften und verdeckte Geheimnisse der Natur (1790) by the German writer Karl von Eckartshausen has brought me back to the idea of the appearance of phantoms and ghosts. Eckartshausen wrote about a wide range of topics including alchemy, mysticism, and magic. In this book he describes how to create a ghost illusion and the first print illustrates the ghost figure hovering over a pedestal. The second illustrates how Eckartshausen employed a hidden magic lantern to project an image off a mirror to create the effect.
I can’t resist including two more engravings from Eckharsthausen’s book although they are not of a ghost projection, but rather of what must have been a remarkable trick. Eckhartshausen would, he states, take someone for an evening stroll and at some point would turn toward a wall and mysteriously and probably frighteningly, a figure would appear on the wall.  The print illustrates the trick at the moment of the projection. The other engraving shows the lantern that was employed and was hidden under his coat. You can see the ingenious plunger used to extinguish the light and the carrying stick used to light the lantern. If it actually worked it must have been wonderful.

 Now back to the tale of ghost projection. Éttiene-Gaspard Robertson certainly was aware of the work of Eckartshausen and created his own ghost effects. The image below is the frontispiece from Robertson’s Mémoires Récréatifs, Scientifiques Et Anecdotiques (1831) and shows the impact of the appearance of apparitions on an audience.  The second illustration from a book published in 1811 shows a ghost projection with the lanternist hidden behind the screen.

For at least a half-century following the Robertson’s first shows the Phantasmagoria was a big part of lantern entertainment. The two broadsides, one for a German shows, another for a Russian show illustrate the spread of these entertainments.

Those wanting to learn more about ghost shows and Phantasmagoria entertainment should read Mervyn Heard’s book Phantasmagoria, The Secret Life of the Magic Lantern.

I have put a number of prints and broadsides relating to the Phantasmagoria on my web site.