The Lantern of Fear - Page 1

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.

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