The Lantern of Fear

The Lantern of Fear

The Lantern of FearThe Lantern of Fear

The true origins of screen horror

Contrary to popular belief the true auteurs of screen horror were not 20th century film makers.

From at least the middle of the 17th century, priests and practitioners in the black arts were conjuring up ghosts and phantoms for fun and profit, with the aid of primitive projectors. In the 18th century other forms of natural magic were incorporated and the seance, with lantern-sorcery still at its heart, began to develop into a kind of art-form.

The foremost necromancer of the age was Johann Schropfer, a coffee-shop proprietor, based in Liepzig. Faced by poor business, he converted his billiard room into a seance chamber and, in the late 1760s, bombarded his unwitting audience with a myriad of ghostly sights and multi-sensory experiences, using projections on smoke, eerie music and sound effects, electric shocks, evil-smelling incense, drugs combined with sophisticated techniques of disorientation, auto-suggestion and sensory depravation. In time Schropfer attracted a cult following and took his show on the road to other parts of Europe. His accomplishments continued until 1774, when he made a tragic error - he became haunted by his own imaginary demons, finally went mad and committed suicide.

By the 1780s books had begun to appear - the works of German and French men of science, such as Funk, Halle and Guyot - giving rational explanations for all of Schropfer's techniques. Although intended for serious scientific study, these primers soon became textbooks for stage magicians. Gradually a spectacular theatrical version of the Schropferesque seance began to evolve - a sort of 18th century, expositional entertainment. This was the Phantasmagoria show.

The true origins of screen horror

Paul Philidor presented the prototype phantasmagoria show in 1789, in Berlin. His show included all the paraphernalia of the original seance plus a few additional and spectacular concepts, such as the quaint notion of having the entire seance room burst into flames. Unfortunately, an unsympathetic audience wrecked the show. However, two years later he emerged in Vienna, with an improved show, and enjoyed a run of over a year. In 1793, he took the show to Paris, when the French Revolution was in full flood. Here he attracted large audiences with his popular re-incarnations of martyred heroes. Only when he somewhat unwisely set about satirising Robespierre did the show close.

In 1797, when things had quietened down somewhat, the Phantasmagoria was born again in Paris, under the direction of the Belgian showman Robertson - the Spielberg of the phantom-show. His most atmospheric venue was the crumbling Convent des Capucines , which the audience were obliged to approach via a Gothic cemetery. Robertson introduced new effects - masks, ventriloquism, the projection of three dimensional figures and live actors and scripted scenes. He eventually took the show to Russia and Spain,and soon the concept spread to the U.S.A. and other parts of the World.

Phantasmagoria. This and every evening, at the Lyceum, Strand.

In 1801 Paul Philidor re-emerged in London under another name - Paul de Philipsthal, and presented his version of the Phantasmagoria at the Lyceum Theatre in the Strand, where it enjoyed a West End success on a par with that of the cinema, a century later. Indeed, although the phantasmagoria was an essentially live form of entertainment these shows also used projectors in ways which anticipated 20th century film-camera movements - the 'zoom', 'dissolve', the 'tracking-shot' and superimposition.

The true origins of screen horror

'Professor' Mervyn Heard

Mervyn Heard is an international magic lantern showman and writer . He has presented shows and performance projects at film festivals in Europe, the USA and in Japan. He has also devised magic lantern and ghost-show sequences for feature films and for television programmes.

The Science and Sorcery Project

Mervyn is currently working on new, multi-sensory, phantasmagoria - inspired seance entertainments, which will be available to both traditional and non-traditional performance venues.

He can be contacted at: