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Phantasmagoria display

The Visionary Phantasmagoria That Stunned the 18th Century


At the turn of the 18th century, Etienne Gaspard Robert, known by his stage name “Robertson”, surprised the Parisian society with his visionary Phantasmagorias.

Film has always been the ideal means to reflect our deepest fears. A cinematographic projection, its light beam transformed into images on a white screen, is perhaps the most perfect metaphor for the interior of our consciousness.

Shut away in a dark room, we voluntarily give into the experience of a supplementary reality. Our restless eye intermittently receives the reflected light as if it were the same that gives shape to objects on the outside. Horror on a screen can seem as real as experienced fear in real life or in the asphyxiating texture of nightmares.

Before the audience ran away aghast before the Lumière Brothers’ train, even before these two pioneering brothers were born, Etienne Gaspard Robert, an acclaimed painter, illustrator, physician, mechanic and optician, shocked France with his post-revolutionary Phantasmagorias, projected images that terrified an audience thirsty for macabre experiences.

“Robertson”, as he was known on-stage, used his scientific knowledge to design his particular house of horrors. Improving the characteristics of the Magic Lantern, the scientist invented a mobile projector with a self-adjustable objective that allowed him to project images and to endow them with movement. Located behind a see-through screen, the projector was able to create images before the audience and to give the feeling of proximity or distance by moving the projector closer or further away from the screen. The “phantascope” inspired fear in visitors by projecting luminous images of skeletons and mummies or historical French characters. Hence, decapitated Louis XVI regained, before the bewildered viewers, his head lost to the guillotine.

Another of phantasmagoria’s main courses was making specters appear over the smoke of a supposed séance ritual. The undulating projection of the image over the ascending smoke was breathtaking, and the viewers believed they were in the presence of a ghost. Bell chiming, loud noises and other sonorous seasonings helped increase the audience’s feeling of horror. Phantasmagorias were authentic shows and the forefathers of horror films.

After hosting sessions in a small space that did not allow for more than seventy audience members, “Robertson” decided to move his spectacle to an ancient Capuchin convent in Paris. Through passages and tombs, blood-curling images took the audience by surprise. Some refused to enter, others ran away terrified. He had found the ideal landscape for his projections.

Robertson’s Phantasmagorias are an essential link in the chain of discoveries that made way for film. It was he who knew how to squeeze the maximum illusionistic power from the projected image, and one of the first to understand film as a collective spectacle. Gathered in a dark room, we continue to be those macabre viewers of phantasmagorias, hoping for the images to surprise us, if not to horrify us ––to make us feel something different to that which we feel in our everyday life.

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