by Tom Ruffles
[ strangeness | bookreviews ]
The Phantasmagoria was a variety of theatre, based on the magic lantern, which flourished in the late 18th and early 19th centuries and involved the projection of ghoulish subject matter in an environment that immersed the audience in the experience. The stance of the opportunistic Phantasmagoria operators was ambiguous, portraying the performance as either an excursion into the supernatural or a rationalistic exposé, or preferably both at the same time. Its history is a fascinating one, and 'Professor' Mervyn Heard, himself a noted magic lanternist, as well as a scholar of it, is well placed to write its history.
This is clearly a labour of love, and Heard has delved widely and deeply to bring to life the story of the magic lantern's paranormal manifestations. It has a scholarly dimension, based as it is on his PhD research, using many hitherto untapped primary sources, but is conveyed in a lively and informal style that makes a complex narrative accessible to the general reader, aided by a useful dramatis personae to help keep the large cast in order. He has been well served by publishers The Projection Box and the good quality production of this handsome large-format paperback is profusely illustrated with a mix of well known and hitherto obscure pictures, and a colour section contains a generous selection of lantern slides.
Heard covers the same ground as earlier commentators, but he adds new insights, notably the convincing argument that Philidor was a pseudonym of Paul de Philipsthal. The focus of the book is on de Philipsthal and this acts as a counterbalance to the usual emphasis on Etienne-Gaspard Robertson, who has tended to dominate previous histories. There is much new information here on de Philipsthal's various activities, and we get a well-rounded portrait. The inclusion of the codicils to his will and the text of his patent for an 'Apparatus for Reflecting Objects' are useful additions.
The title highlights the Phantasmagoria, but actually Heard has cast his net wider and has produced an engaging and informative history of ghost projection in general. As well as the Phantasmagoria itself, Heard looks at various precursors: the Witch of Endor summoning the shade of Samuel; alleged mirror projection in the classical period; the camera obscura and the early development in the 17th century of the magic lantern; and the career of Johann Schröpfer, who posed as a genuine necromancer with a mise-en-scène similar to that of the Phantasmagoria operators.
At the other end of the story, he shows the blood and thunder of the Phantasmagoria being domesticated into dissolving views of landscapes and in the service of the temperance movement. Still, Pepper's Ghost, introduced in the 1860s, continued the theme of ghost projection, and Heard describes this and its own derivatives. Unfortunately, the loose terms of reference have given him the problem of bringing the narrative to a conclusion, and the discussion post-Pepper's Ghost and temperance slide becomes sketchy. The complex history of ghost projection in the 20th century, which has largely been the province of the cinema, is dispatched in half a dozen pages.
While there is much to admire, there are minor errors and omissions, though they do not detract from the book's value as a history specifically of the Phantasmagoria. Heard is clearly an expert on the history of the magic lantern, but he is on less firm ground when discussing related fields. An example of this unfamiliarity with areas outside the magic lantern is the assertion that George Albert Smith, later a pioneer filmmaker, "came clean” about hoaxing the early Society for Psychical Research about the experiments they conducted in which he had participated as a hypnotist. On the contrary, his collaborator for a brief time, Douglas Blackburn, the 'friend' Heard mentions, twice made this allegation many years after the event, in 1908 and 1911, and on both occasions Smith, who remained a member of the SPR until his death in 1959, vigorously denied the charge.
Discussing Smith's work, Heard attributes The Corsican Brothers, the vision scene of which Smith filmed, to John Richardson. It was actually written by Dumas Père in 1845 and adapted for the stage by Dion Boucicault in 1852; and as Richardson died in 1836, he could not have been involved in its production. It is also worth noting that Barnes's Pioneers of the British Film: The Rise of the Photoplay (1983), which Heard cites in connection with another of Smith's films - Photographing a Ghost - was reissued by The University of Exeter Press in 1996 as Volume Three, covering 1898, of a five-volume set tracing the history of British cinema between 1894 and 1900. He mentions the fairground ghost shows in passing, but not Randall Williams, an obvious transitional figure who in the latter part of the 19th century ran a successful fairground show based on Pepper's Ghost before switching to film shows in 1896. There are very brief sections on the Phantasmagoria in Spain, Italy, the US, Mexico and Japan in an appendix, though none is mentioned in the index.
Similarly there is a brief digression on Spiritualism which is interesting but does not make any significant links between it and ghost projection, such as the claim variously propounded by Barnouw, Barber and Musser - writers more knowledgeable about visual media than Spiritualism - that mediums used projected images during séances, though Heard does refer in a footnote to the vision of the Blessed Virgin Mary at Knock in 1879, alleged at the time, with little evidence, to be a magic lantern projection. A couple of minor points are the reference to the Hydesville phenomena which, whether veridical or caused by the Fox sisters cracking their joints, began in 1848, not 1847; and D D Home levitating out through one third floor window at Ashley House and back through another is not quite as dramatic as the term "flying", which Heard uses, makes it sound, though either, if true, would be astonishing. (It is a pity that this is the one event that invariably gets trotted out in discussions of Home, even though there is stronger evidence for other aspects of his mediumship.) Those readers interested in Spiritualism might usefully be referred to Janet Oppenheim's The Other World: Spiritualism and Psychical Research in England, 1850-1914.
The caption to the famous illustration from Athanasius Kircher's Ars Magna Lucis et Umbrae is rather coy about the set-up of the apparatus, merely stating that "The position of the image in relation to the lens remains the subject of controversy”, but does not specify why the arrangement as shown would be incapable of projecting an image, and that Christiaan Huygens may have a stronger claim to be the inventor of the magic lantern than Kircher. A reference to Fuseli's The Nightmare suggests it was initially produced as an engraving, whereas it was originally an oil painting, although as the Tate Britain exhibition Fuseli, Blake and the Romantic Imagination at the beginning of 2006 (in which Heard was involved) showed, its wide reproduction as an engraving was responsible for the spread of its fame.
Finally, it would have been interesting to have had some discussion on the cross-fertilisation between the Phantasmagoria and gothic literature, bearing in mind Terry Castle's observation that the Phantasmagoria was a "kind of master trope in nineteenth-century romantic writing", but perhaps that is a subject for another volume. Within the terms he has set himself, Heard has provided a valuable and highly readable contribution on aspects of the relationship between projection technology and the supernatural, particularly his painstaking analysis of de Philipsthal's career, though there is much still to be researched of this period. As an ironic footnote, it is interesting that both Robertson and Georges Méliès are buried in Père Lachaise cemetery in Paris, but while Méliès is buried in a modest grave on a side path, Robertson has an enormous, magnificently pretentious, tomb on a central thoroughfare. Both were great showmen, but while Robertson's last resting place outshines Méliès's, it is Méliès who ultimately has had the greater influence.
Barber, X. Theodore. 'Phantasmagorical Wonders: the Magic Lantern Ghost Show in Nineteenth-Century America' (Film History, 1989, Vol 3, No 2, pp73-86).
Barnouw, Erik. The Magician and the Cinema (Oxford University Press 1981).
Castle, Terry. The Female Thermometer: Eighteenth-Century Culture and the Invention of the Uncanny (New York: Oxford University Press 1995).
Musser, Charles. History of the American Cinema Vol. 1 - The Emergence of Cinema: The American Screen to 1907 (New York: Scribner's, 1990).