An 1860s engraving depicting a phantasmagoria show, titled "Ghosts on the Stage".

Ghosts on the Stage

When ghosts first appeared on theater stages in the 1790s, many wondered if it was all ‘smoke and mirrors’. Phantasmagoria showman manipulated magic lantern projection in such a way to “cheat the eye of man and make him believe he sees spirits of the dead”.

Physicist Étienne-Gaspard Robertson was among the first to host theatrical ghost shows and staged performances from an abandoned crypt in Paris.  Using a mobile magic lantern called the fantascope, horrific images were reflected through a concave mirror and onto clouds of smoke to produce life-like materializations.  At the beginning of each show Robertson promised to conjure “every species of phantom as they appeared throughout history”. By the end of the illusion, spectators were left “raising their hands out of fear of ghosts dashing towards them”.

Phantasmagoria shows were so authentic that newspapers questioned whether magic lantern operators were great magicians or had “burned drugs in the smoke-filled séance room to further befuddle those present”.  Performers like Robertson often had to defend themselves against allegations of satanic worship by demonstrating their techniques to audiences and exposing trade secrets to the press.