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Just In Time for Halloween- An Early Form of Horror Films


Like today, the later part of the 18th century had an obsession with the bizarre, unexplainable and supernatural. In the age of Romanticism and the Gothic themed novel, many were drawn to shows created by illusionis

ts and magicians to bare witness to the strange and bizarre. Such shows were often called “Phantasmagoria” shows, the Victorian era equivalent to present day horror films.

Without the modern day special effects and Hollywood magic, one had to use the technology that did exist. Athanasiun Kircher, a Jesuit priest, is credited with the invention of the “Magic Lantern”. The Magic Lantern consists of a concave mirror in front of a light source that gathers the light and projects it through a slide with an image, often hand painted, on it. The light hits the lens through the image, and enlarges the image on a screen. The biggest challenge with early form of the Magic Lantern was the lack of light technology yet in the 18th century. Candlelight provided some light, but it wasn’t until the invention of the Argand Lamp in the 1790s that a clearer image could be produced.

Multiple images could be used together to create a “moving image”. Later models of the Magic Lantern worked on a hand-operated pulley wheel that was used to turn a moveable disc that the images were connected to. Magic Lanterns also led directly to Eadeweard Muybridge’s invention of the zoopraxiscope, an invention that led to the creation of modern moving pictures.

These lanterns used light and shadows to trick and deceive the audience during Phantasmagoria shows. During these shows illusionists would use the magic lantern to trick people into thinking they had summoned up spirits, ghosts as well as revolutionary figures. A Belgium man, Etienne-Gaspard Robert was one of the most famous illusionists to use the Magic Lantern during his shows to create supernatural images of devils, phantoms and ghosts often projected on a gauze screen to make the figures appear as if they were floating. Even Kirchner’s original device was called the “lantern of freight” because of the images it conjured.