The Shock and Horror Picture Show: Étienne-Gaspard Robertson and the 19th-century phantasmagoria

The first time I had a sense of what a 19th-century phantasmagoria would really have been like was the Gothic Nightmares show at Tate Britain in 2006, which included not only Fuseli’s iconic Nightmare, but a special darkened room with a slide show projected on the walls, and suitably ghastly sound effects. That experience stayed with me, and when I came to write The London Vampire, it was the inspiration for the second of the two narratives in the book, in which the narrator is a young girl called Lucy, the daughter and assistant to the proprietor of a famous phantasmagoria show.

My ‘Professor de Caus’ is an invention, of course, but the man I have as his mentor, Étienne-Gaspard Robertson, was only too real, even if his stock-in-trade was the practice of illusion. Like some of his fellow practitioners, he had studied science, especially optics, and employed that knowledge to create the show he began to stage in Paris in the late 1790s. It was not the first or the last phantasmagoria, but it was one of the most astounding, and most successful. Coming so soon on the heels of a real political Terror, Robertson purveyed the pleasures of artificial terror, using the most advanced scientific techniques to bring to life a whole series of mythical monsters and pagan phantoms, as well as the ghosts of historical figures, like a headless Danton.

Robertson took the basic technology of the magic lantern and developed it into a sophisticated (and eventually patented) ‘fantoscope’. This early version of the slide projector could move backwards and forwards to make an image swell or shrink, and could project more than one at a time. It used painted slides, some of them extraordinarily detailed, to project lifelike images of ghouls, ghosts, devils, witches and such macabre phenomena as bleeding nuns, dancing demons, and flying skeletons. By surrounding each image with blackened glass, Robertson was able to make his images appear to float in the air, and he employed smoke and mirrors – literally – to create eerie effects the like of which had never been seen before. Add to that uncanny sound effects of music and ventriloquism, and Robertson had women fainting with fear, and even the stout-hearted quailing with terror.

In January 1799 Robertson set up a more permanent establishment in the abandoned Convent des Capucines in Paris, where the ruined architecture lent a suitable Gothic frisson to proceedings. The show later toured other European cities, including Vienna, which is where my own phantasmagorist practices.

As with so much else in The London Vampire, Lucy’s story is about the collision of science and superstition at a time when the contemporary world was already coming into being, and yet there was still so much that had not yet been explained. As I discussed in my blog on 19th-century science, the Victorians thought themselves invincible – that it was only a matter of time before all the secrets of the universe would be laid open before them, and all its invisible forces illuminated. And because this belief was so strong, there was a willingness to believe, which in turn created the opportunity to deceive. Some genuinely believed they had made ground-breaking ‘scientific’ discoveries; others only claimed to do so for their own ends, be that money or fame: like Robertson, my character Professor de Caus is a manufacturer of the monstrous, and his stage illusions all the more terrifying for the fact that he proclaims them to be the products of the intellect, not the imagination:

A strange and eerie music began now, one moment seeming close, the next high above my head, yearning like the very anguish of the soul. I seemed to feel the soft flutter of something against my cheek, and there was a rush of air so cold as to chill the very blood. As mist began to seep through the icy vault, a woman’s spectral voice began to intone in some ancient tongue, and I saw hovering above me in a sudden blaze of light the ghostly figure of a nun, clad from head to foot in robes of glowing white. She came floating slowly forwards, her hooded head bowed, until she was scarce a yard away, whereupon she lifted her face and I saw the blood streaming in torrents from her empty black-socketed eyes. I cried out, and heard others about me do the same, holding up their hands as if to fend the wraith away, and then the nun was gone as swiftly as she had come, her place taken by a hornèd laughing devil, its teeth glinting and a horde of demons feeding on the flesh of the living damned, who rolled their eyes and tore their hair, and pointed their cadaverous fingers at the hapless audience huddled in terror below. Vision succeeded vision, each more terrifying than the last, and then there was an image I had seen before – that painting so notorious and reviled, of the woman flung on her virgin bed in the throes of cauchemar. Only this was no painted canvas – she writhed and moaned before our horrified gaze, as the monsters of her dreams loomed in the darkness above her, and the kneeling demon pressed his scaly hands to her breast, grinning in a hideous mockery of delight. I saw women faint at this, and men reduced to sobbing wretches, begging for relief.

 And then there was the clap of a thunderbolt and a man appeared in a column of glowing smoke, clad in a billowing cloak, with a mask of gold concealing his face.  “Citizens of Vienna,” he cried, “For centuries, man has yearned to fathom the mystery of death, and plumb the secrets of that undiscovered country from whose bourne no traveller returns. Many have been the imposters who have claimed to communicate with the dead, but I stand before you now to make good that claim. Not by the wiles of necromancy will I achieve it, nor by the legerdemain of the magician, but by the genius of the scientist. I have created a machine which, for the first time in the history of mankind, may harness the hidden energy of the universe and breach the impermeable barrier of death.”

The room was plunged once more in darkness, and then, in a sudden ray of moonlight, we could see a young girl, clad – as I deduced – all in black, such that only her face was visible to us, afloat in a sea of utter dark. Before her there was mounted a brass apparatus of enormous complexity above which a glass ball appeared to be suspended in the air. The room fell silent, then, as she lifted hands as white as her face and placed them, one by one, on either side of the ball, whereupon the globe began to spin and a ghastly greenish light to glow at its heart.

“Behold!” cried the man in a booming cadence, “As my daughter raises the secret flame, and summons the souls of the long departed!”

 And as the globe span, the rising flame formed the contours of ghostly yearning faces, sighing and whispering from beyond the grave, and those about me cried out, one by one, starting from their seats in recognition, as they called the names of those they had once loved, and held out their hands in an ecstasy of grief.

The video below is from the Cinema Museum, Girona, and recreates what an early phantasmagoria might have looked and sounded like – surprisingly disturbing, even in an age of 3D and CGI. Enjoy!

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