Tales from the Crypt: Robertson’s Phantasmagoria and the 18th Century Origins of Horror Cinema

Given how often horror is dismissed as a low-culture guilty pleasure, it might surprise you to hear that modern cinema was more or less invented because of it. That’s right—when the first Magic Lantern was invented around 1650, it wasn’t to immortalize the pensive expression of some seventeenth-century Daniel Day Lewis.

People wanted to see skulls.

The invention of the Magic Lantern, an early projector, is commonly attributed to Christiaan Huygens. His contemporary, Jesuit priest Athanasius Kircher catalogued its construction and uses in a suitably scientific manner, then secretly used it to project the image of death into people’s windows to boost church attendance. Horrified by the sudden, inexplicable image of a skeleton with a scythe directly inspired by Hans Holbein’s Danse Macabre—still the equivalent of a bestselling coffee-table book at this point—Kircher’s victims presumably didn’t hear him giggling to himself in the bushes. (Kircher’s 1671 illustration below)

1671_kircheri_-_ars_magna_lucis_et_umbrae_-_769

Johann Georg Schröpfer exploited the commercial potential of the Magic Lantern when he used one during “seances” in his café. Hosting the desperate and the curious, he projected the images of phantoms at key moments, the effect of which was no doubt aided by the fact that he also drugged the punch before they began.

Horror-themed Magic Lantern shows continued to grow in popularity throughout the eighteenth century, but it wasn’t until 1798 that the process was reimagined and perfected by an eccentric and charismatic showman known as Robertson.

Let’s start at the beginning.

A Man at the Crossroads…

Étienne-Gaspard (also styled as Stephan Casper) Robert was born in Liège in 1763. From an early age, he was interested in art, and was particularly drawn to macabre imagery. He was an eccentric child, and later opened his memoirs by recounting an early attempt to summon the devil:

robertsonWho has not believed in the devil and werewolves in his early years! I confess frankly, I believed in the devil, in evocations, in enchantments, in infernal pacts, and even in the brooms of witches; I thought an old woman, my neighbor, was, as everyone assured, in regular commerce with Lucifer. I envied his power and his relationships; I locked myself in a room to cut off the head of a rooster and force the prince of demons to show himself to me; I waited for seven to eight hours, I insulted, jeered that he did not dare to appear: “If you exist,” I cried, slapping my table, “get out of where you are, and let’s see your horns, or I deny, I say that you’ve never been.” It was not fear, as we have seen, that made me believe in his power, but the desire to share it.

His devout merchant parents put pressure on him to become a priest. He studied for the priesthood briefly, but Robert’s heart was elsewhere. Still wanting the devil’s own powers of conjuring, he studied art, philosophy, physics, and the supernatural while at university in Leuven.

A gifted physicist with a particular interest in optics, Robert began to experiment with projections in the 1780s. Over time, he discovered that he could produce a number of elaborate effects through various improvements of his own invention, not least of which was adding wheels to the machine and a system for moving slides that changed the size of the image projected to create the illusion of movement.

…with a Death Ray

mirror_robertson2In 1791, he moved to Paris to pursue a career in art and made it just in time for the Revolution. Making ends meet as a tutor for aristocratic families, Robert—now calling himself Robertson, thinking it sounded more scientific—quickly found himself in a precarious situation. He bounced back and forth between Paris and Belgium for a couple of years, until he returned to Paris and tried to make himself useful to the French government when France declared war with Britain in 1796. Using his background in optics, he gave them the plans for a giant mirror-powered death ray inspired by the myth of the mirrors of Archimedes and designed to use the power of the sun to set fire to the British fleet. (right)

They ignored him.

Undeterred, Robertson spent the next two years working on improvements to the existing Magic Lantern design. He painted his own slides and found that giving his hand-painted ghouls black backgrounds made them appear to float in midair when projected in the dark. He experimented with different light sources and methods of movement, projecting the images onto different surfaces. This became the groundwork for the show that would eventually make his name.

image

Robertson’s Phantasmagoria

Armed with modified Magic Lanterns, dozens of hand-painted slides, an Argand lamp, and a deadpan sense of humor, Robertson debuted his Phantasmagoria at the Pavillon de l’Echiquier in January of 1798. (Above; note Robertson behind the projector to the left)

One attendee described the performance:

“The members of the public having been ushered into the most lugubrious of rooms, at the moment the spectacle is to be begin, the lights are suddenly extinguished and one is plunged for an hour and a half into frightful and profound darkness; it’s the nature of the thing; one should not be able to make anything out in the imaginary region of the dead. In an instant, two turnings of a key lock the door: nothing could be more natural than one should be deprived of one’s liberty while seated in the tomb, or in the hereafter of Acheron, among shadows.”

Robertson explained that the spectres were only illusion and presented the show as a physics experiment, but he had come prepared. He offered to raise the dead, and when audience members shouted out requests, he had a slide to suit each one. For every request, he would throw what appeared to be a handful of butterflies or a chalice of blood onto the fire, then an image of the deceased (or someone who could be seen as such) would swoop in from the shadows the astonish the crowd. People attempted to embrace the images, while others drew swords.

When the audience left, they were terrified, convinced they had seen real ghosts despite Robertson’s explanations. Though he’d asserted that he was only a physicist, people thought he was a necromancer. This created such a stir that the show was investigated and shut down by the authorities because they were genuinely concerned that Robertson could bring Louis XVI back to life.

Once again in an awkward position, Robertson was forced to temporarily flee for Bordeaux.

Fantasmagorie_de_Robertson.tif

Resurrection

Once the initial panic died down, Robertson was able to return to Paris and begin his show in earnest later that year. As impressive as his first shows were, he was able to fully showcase his skill and imagination in a new location. He rented out the Couvent des Capucines, a derelict ruin in a convenient location. Only about two hundred years old, it had been abandoned and used as a cesspit during the Revolution. By 1798, it was a crumbling, picturesque shell more than suited to his purposes.

Best of all, to get to the part where the show was held, you had to walk through the cemetery.

From arrival to departure, the whole experience was unnerving. The old convent was falling apart, and it was already known for the sex workers who operated in the crypts. Arriving at night, audience members would have to pick their way around damaged gravestones in the dark.

Inside, the rooms were draped in dark fabric and painted with esoteric symbols, displaying scientific oddities and optical illusions. The last stop before the show was the Galerie de la Femme Invisible, which showcased an empty glass coffin suspended in the air. It was supposed to contain the Invisible Woman, who answered questions and chatted to new arrivals. The voice actually came through a concealed tube designed by Fitz-James, Robertson’s ventriloquist friend, and was operated by a female assistant.

After the final gallery, the audience descended into the crypts.  

Robertson was a charismatic host, but he made the atmosphere work for him as well. Filled with incense and the eerie, otherworldly sound of a glass harmonica and funeral bells, the crypts must have been terrifying. Surrounded by walls covered in velvet and bones, they sat on old graves until Robertson himself entered and pointedly locked the doors before addressing the crowd by the light of a single sepulchral lantern:

“The experiment which you are about to see must interest philosophy. The two great epochs of man are his entry into life and his departure from it. All that happens can be considered as being placed between two black and impenetrable veils which conceal these two epochs, and which no one has yet raised. But the most mournful silence reigns on the other side of this funerary crepe, and it is to fill this silence, which says so many things to the imagination, that magicians, sibyls, and the priests of Memphis employ the illusions of an unknown art, of which I am going to try to demonstrate some methods under your eyes. I have offered you spectres, and now I am going to make known shadows appear.”

At this point he blew out the last candle, because of course, then finished:  

“Citizens and gentlemen—I have promised that I will raise the dead, and I will raise them.”

Suddenly, the crypts were overwhelmed by the sound of rain, thunder, and funeral bells. Lightning appeared to strike, illuminating Death himself emerging from the shadows and floating through the audience with a scythe in his hand.  

If nothing else, Robertson knew how to make an entrance.

The show was about an hour and a half, and it was made up of several scenes introduced by Robertson on the themes of love, death, and resurrection, incorporating ancient gods and figures from history and mythology. Between the ghosts and dancing demons, the story of Eros and Psyche was told; Isis and other mystery goddesses were honored; and Hades and Persephone presided over everything. The Graces were summoned only to degrade into skeletons before the startled audience, and a woman representing love and death was a common feature, appearing throughout to tease the audience until she was killed by the Fates, only to be resurrected with rose petals near the end.

This was no ordinary slideshow—Robertson’s innovation and mastery of the Magic Lantern produced effects difficult to imagine even now. The scenes he created were elaborate, detailed, and animated; between the speed of the changing slides, variable depth, and visual effects, Robertson had all but created early 3D cinema. Multiple devices hidden by screens projected monsters and ghouls onto walls, smoke, and special lengths of canvas and gauze treated with wax for translucence. Ventriloquists and sound effects brought them to life in ways people had never before experienced. The ghosts appeared so real, audience members tried to fight them.

This was exactly what Robertson was going for. He later wrote in his memoirs:

I am only satisfied if my spectators, shivering and shuddering, raise their hands or cover their eyes out of fear of ghosts and devils dashing towards them; if even the most indiscreet among them run into the arms of a skeleton.

It was known to happen. The shows could be so frightening that one contributor to the Ami des Lois advised pregnant women to avoid them for fear of miscarriage. Given their reputation, there was some concern the shows would result in riots or hysteria, but Robertson had everything under control: shows ran the same length every night, and everything was always shut down by ten.

Not one to miss an opportunity for a strong conclusion, Robertson ended his shows the same way. Addressing the audience a final time, he said:

“I have gone through all the phenomena of the phantasmagoria. I have unveiled the secrets of the priests of Memphis, shown you what is occult in physics, but it remains for me to offer you one more thing, which is only too real. Those of you who have perhaps smiled at my experiments, those who have experienced a few moments of fear, here is the only truly terrible spectacle, the one wholly to be feared. Strong men, frail men, monarchs and subjects, believers and atheists, beautiful and ugly—here is the lot which awaits you; this is what you will be one day. Remember the Phantasmagoria.”

The light suddenly returned to reveal a skeleton on a pedestal in the middle of the room.

Subtle, he was not. 

The audiences loved it.

Based in the convent until 1804 (the convent itself was demolished in 1806), the Phantasmagoria made Robertson a wealthy man. So many competitors attempted to copy his show that he was forced to patent his version of the Magic Lantern, the Fantascope. Through the subsequent legal action, Robertson was obliged to reveal his technical secrets, which, even when they were known, could never quite be replicated by anyone else.

Despite copycat shows popping up all over Europe and America, Robertson himself enjoyed a forty-year career, touring the world, writing his memoirs, and pursuing his interest in the science of ballooning, making fifty-nine ascents in several different countries during his lifetime. In 1799, his mistress, Eulalie Caron, gave birth to their first child, a son named Guillaume-Eugène. Robertson married her in 1804, and their second son, Démétrius, was born in 1807. Eulalie and their two sons accompanied Robertson on his world tours, spending time in Prague, Vienna, and Russia. In Paris, they lived at No. 12 Boulevard Montmartre, now Café Zéphyr, until Eulalie’s death in 1813 at the age of only thirty-four. Eugène later became a noted balloonist in his own right.

Legacy

Until his death in 1837, Robertson asserted that he was first and foremost a physicist, but in his memoirs, he reflected on how his early desire to attain the devil’s powers had guided his life:

I finally adopted a very wise policy: since the devil refused to communicate to me the science of creating prodigies, I would apply myself to creating devils, and I would have only to wave my wand to force all the infernal cortège to be seen in the light. My habitation became a true Pandemonium.

Robertson had become a legend in his own lifetime. In an article written in 1855, Charles Dickens summarized his importance to popular science:  

He was a charmer who charmed wisely…a born conjurer, inasmuch as he was gifted with a predominant taste for experiments in natural science. He was useful man enough in an age of superstition to get up fashionable entertainments at which spectres were to appear and horrify the public, without trading on the public ignorance by any false pretense.

Robertson was one of many great scientists who sought to beat back the ignorance and superstition of his day by using his science to entertain as well as educate. He is, in a very real sense, the forefather of all those today who seek to bring science to a larger popular audience. For that, at the very least, he deserves to be remembered and acknowledged by scientists today, as well as all those who believe in bringing scientific knowledge to the public.

Robertson’s legacy long outlived the Enlightenment. Today Robertson is widely regarded as an important forerunner of modern cinema, and his grave is one of the most visited monuments in Père Lachaise. Rather than featuring the man himself, the scene depicts his audience cowering before the phantoms he brought to life.

robertsongrave

Just as he would have wanted.

Jessica Cale  

Sources:

Académie royale des sciences, des lettres et des beaux-arts de Belgique. Biographie nationale, 21. 1907.

Barber, X. Theodore. “Phantasmagorical Wonders: The Magic Lantern Ghost Show in Nineteenth-Century America.” Film History, vol. 3, no. 2, 1989, pp. 73–86. 

Dickens, Charles. “Robertson, Artist in Ghosts.” Household Words, No. 253. January 27th, 1855.

Mannoni, Laurent, and Ben Brewster. “The Phantasmagoria.” Film History, vol. 8, no. 4, 1996, pp. 390–415. 

Robertson, Etienne-Gaspard. Memoires

Skulls in the Stars. “How Étienne-Gaspard Robert Terrified Paris for Science.” February 11th, 2013. 

On The Famous Voyage: Finding London’s Lost River

the fleet by samuel scott

The Fleet River. Samuel Scott, 1750.

London’s major river is, of course, the Thames but, as the capital’s antiquarians will tell you, there are more than a dozen ancient tributaries hidden beneath the surface of the modern metropolis. The largest of these smaller rivers is the River Fleet, which flows from the largest stretch of common green in London, at Hampstead Heath, to Blackfriars Bridge, where it enters the Thames. This is a journey, not just from North London to the River, but also through the history of the City from Ancient to Modern times, marking some colourful characters and encompassing some bewildering changes along the way.

Cities are typically built along rivers to provide drinking water, transport, defense, and sewage removal. The Fleet has served all of these functions over London’s long history. As place-names along its banks (Brideswell, Clerkenwell) suggest, many wells were built along the Fleet in Roman and Saxon times, although, as we shall see, the purity of its waters were not set to be a defining feature as London grew.

The Fleet (‘tidal inlet’ in Anglo-Saxon) initially provided a waterway which served London from the North and, in a later incarnation as the New Canal, was part of the network which brought coal from the North of England to fuel the rapidly industrializing London of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Even after the canals were superseded by road and rail and entirely covered over in the later eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, the valley carved by the Fleet continued to form the basis for some of London’s modern arteries, such as Farringdon Road and the Metropolitan Railway line (although it resisted having an underground railway line–that which would become the Jubilee Line–lain beneath it by repeatedly flooding tunnels).

Defensively, the Fleet has a rather inglorious history. It is unclear how the Fleet was utilized by the Romans and it seems rarely to have been called upon subsequently. A second century boat carrying ragstone (possibly intended for building the city wall) was discovered in 1962, sunk at the mouth of the river.

Much later, the Fleet’s banks were built up into earthworks during the Civil War, when London was very much a Parliamentarian (‘Roundhead’) stronghold. The Royalist armies, however, never threatened the capital, with Charles II’s return to the City being by invitation rather than by conquest. During one of the great crises of the restored king’s reign in 1666, desperate Londoners were hopeful that the Fleet would provide an effective break against the Great Fire as it reached its third day. Here the Fleet proved as ineffective as the civic defenses and the Fire jumped the Fleet ditch, ultimately allowing it to claim St Paul’s Cathedral.

Of course, the most serious modern military threat to London came from the air in the form of the Luftwaffe. The old river beneath Fleet Street could offer no protection when Serjeant’s Inn, one of the oldest legal precincts in England, was destroyed during the Blitz.

It is with the removal of sewage and other waste, or at least with its failure to do so effectively, with which the Fleet is most famously associated. As London grew, the Fleet increasingly became a repository for whatever the city’s inhabitants wanted to get rid of. The medieval meat markets which grew up to feed the expanding population soon became problematic and in 1290 the Carmelite monks complained that the offal deposited in the river by butchers at a nearby market (the delightfully-named Shambles, at Newgate) was constantly blocking what was, at this point, a stream.

Copperplate_map_Fleet

The southern end of the Fleet, 1550s.

Although all manner of industries poured waste into the Fleet, it was the offal and dead animals in various forms which seemed to catch the imagination of early modern satirists of the capital. Ben Jonson’s (c. 1612) mock-epic poem which lends its title to this article was a litany of classical references intertwined with toilet humour and social satire and described the diverse pollutants of the river with considerable gusto:

Your Fleet Lane Furies; and hot cooks do dwell,
That, with still-scalding steams, make the place hell.
The sinks ran grease, and hair of measled hogs,
The heads, houghs, entrails, and the hides of dogs:
For, to say truth, what scullion is so nasty,
To put the skins, and offal in a pasty?
Cats there lay divers had been flayed and roasted,
And, after mouldy grown, again were toasted,
Then, selling not, a dish was ta’en to mince them,
But still, it seemed, the rankness did convince them.
For, here they were thrown in with the melted pewter,
Yet drowned they not. They had five lives in future.

Jonson’s influence and the continued assault of the Fleet upon the senses continued into the eighteenth century: Jonathan Swift’s “Drown’d Puppies” and “Dead Cats” of 1710’s A Description of a City Shower, floating amongst the offal and turnip-tops, were echoed by Alexander Pope’s “large tribute of dead dogs to the Thames” in 1728’s Dunciad.

The enthusiasm of these men for describing the sewage, of which the Fleet’s waters seemed largely comprised, was hardly less. Jonson’s ‘voyage’ was taken down a river where “Arses were heard to croak, instead of frogs”. His Fleet contained the contents of every ‘night-tub’ from an overcrowded metropolis, where “each privy’s seat/ Is filled with buttock” and the very “walls do sweat Urine”. This state of affairs is compounded by the diet of a city where “every clerk eats artichokes, and peason, Laxative lettuce, and such windy meat”. In 1700, Thomas Brown has his narrator, an ‘Indian’ revealing the strange “Manners, Customs, and Religions” practiced by the various “Nations” of London to his readers, shove an impudent rag-seller into the kennel [1] in the centre of the street with the words:

Tho’ I want nothing out of your Shops, methinks you all want good Manners and Civility, that are ready to tear a New Sute (suit) from my Back, under pretence of selling me an Olde one; Avant Vermin, your Cloaths smell as rankly of Newgate and Tyburn, as the bedding to be sold at the Ditch-side near Fleet-Bridge, smells of Bawdy-House and Brandy.

Brown’s tone is lighthearted and playful, but some of the associations he makes are telling. The visceral nature of these accounts certainly reflected a literal reality but they also had a metaphorical dimension in which it was the excesses and vices of London itself which were clogging up its abused waterways. The writers were playing, not just on the Fleet’s role in waste disposal, but also on the reputation of those who occupied its banks. In Jonathan Swift’s A Description of a City Shower, in particular, a storm washing through London links the different areas and strata of the city together through its flow.

The Fleet flowed past Bridewell and the Fleet prisons and through areas such as Clerkenwell, notorious for sheltering heretics, thieves, and prostitutes from the arms of the law. Here the bodies floating downstream alongside the unfortunate cats and dogs might be human. The industries around the river were messy and disease was known to cling to its slums. The Dunciad plays on the Fleet’s use as an open sewer by having the hack-writers, who are one of the principal subjects of Pope’s ire, swim in it. The implication was as clear as Pope’s Fleet was ‘muddy’. Much later, Charles Dickens’ child-warping pick-pocket, Fagin, would have his den alongside the Fleet.

From the early attempts by the Carmelites to keep the river unblocked to the late seventeenth and early eighteenth century attempt to make it serve as a canal, the smell and the constant need for dredging could not be overcome. So impossible was it to contain the flood of effluent that, even after the river was paved over during the later part of the eighteenth and early part of the nineteenth centuries, the build-up of trapped gas exploded near Blackfriars in 1846, taking out three posthouses and a steamboat in the process. It must have seemed as though the truth would not be hidden beneath the streets. Eventually, however, the Great Stink of 1858 preceded a concerted effort to enclose the city’s sewers and a London more familiar to us today emerged.

Dr. J.V.P. Jenkins is a historian and freelance editor from London. He earned his BA, Master’s, and Doctorate at Swansea University. He is the new co-editor of Dirty, Sexy History and sometimes tweets @JVPolsomJenkins.

Sources

Brown, Thomas. Amusements serious and comical, calculated for the meridian of London (1700)
Dickens, Charles. Oliver Twist (1839)
Jonson, Ben. On The Famous Voyage (c.1612)
Pope, Alexander. Dunciad (1728)
Swift, Jonathan. A Description of a City Shower (1710)
Ackroyd, Peter. London: The Biography (Anchor; New York, 2003)
Brown, Laura. Fables of Modernity: Literature and Culture in the English Eighteenth Century (Cornell U.P., 2003)
Gray, Robert. A History of London (Taplinger; New York, 1979)

[1] An open gutter, running down the middle of the street. The 1671 Sewage and Paving Act had prescribed moving the kennel from the center of the street to an open side drain set off by a raised pavement. The main thoroughfares were also to be cambered (built up in middle for drainage and paved) but these measures were not instantly applied to all streets.