Abbotts Halloween Special



by Tony Shiels

About two hundred years ago (editors note, this was written in 1966 so add about 50 years to it)...long before El-Wynn, Dr. Neff, Bob Nelson, Dr. Draculas, Ormond McGill, Phillip Morris, and all the other latter day scaremongers put spectres on the stage...a man was born, in Belgium, who could fairly be called one of the first successful spookers. His name was Etienne Gaspard Robert and, under the name of Robertson, he was soon to scare many 18th century Parisians with his famous Phantasmagoria.

In 1795, after ten years experimenting, Robertson acquired the abandoned chapel of a Capuchin monastery, in Paris near the Place Vendome, and installed his thaumaturgical apparatus. This consisted of a movable magic lantern with several lenses and concave reflectors, directed at three layers of gauze curtain, onto which the inspired Robertson could project unearthly images of all manner of ghosts and hobgoblins. The gauze screens hung between the audience and the projector, and an impression of movement was caused by the images growing or shrinking as the magic lantern was moved back and forth.

The Phantasmagorical display was accompanied by a good deal of weird showmanship and necromantic scene setting. The old chapel was draped with black velvet curtains, on the walls were carved skulls and grotesque gargoyles. Strange shadows flickered across these walls, caused by the blue-green flames of the fires onto which Robertson would pour a diabolic mixture of vitriol, alcohol...and blood! The spooks were summoned to the accompaniment of macabre music and the sombre ring of a bell. As the phantoms materialized, smoke billowed from the fires, lightning flashed and thunder roared. No half measures with Monsieur Robertson, he gave em the lot!

The audience, of course, was stood on its ears; women fainted and men fell off their chairs as a spectral procession of demons, ghouls, imps and spirits seemed to float towards them. An occasional brave soul would try to make a grab at the apparitions, but the phantom would fade into nothingness. The illusion must have been very effective, for the (pre-cinema) spectators really believed that the spooks flew among them...actually IN the audience. But, like all good magic, it was the Belgian's superb showmanship which made it work so well.

After a very successful six years in Paris (and incidentally, after having his theatre closed down by the post revolutionary authorities for conjuring up the ghost of Louis XVI), Robertson toured the continent and England with his spook show taking every city by storm. Very soon, the Phantasmagoria became so popular that magic lanterns were used for spookery far more than for educational purposes! although, in the past, several magicians had conjured up spirits...projecting images by means of mirrors or lenses onto clouds of thick smoke and suchlike...Robertson's inventiveness and application made things so much simpler and more effective. Wonder workers everywhere took up the lucrative business of spook showmanship.

In London, in 1803, a gentleman by the name of De Philipstal presented his exhibition of "Spectrology" at the Lyceum Theatre; in which he introduced "Phantoms or Apparitions of the DEAD or ABSENT in a way more completely illusive than has ever been offered to the Eye in a public Theatre, as the objects freely originate in the Air, and unfold themselves under various forms and sizes, such as Imagination alone has hitherto painted them..." De Philipsthal went in for dramatic dressing too and his spectres performed amid "... a tremendous Thunder Storm, accompanied with vivid Lightning, Hail, Wind, etc"!

By the mid nineteenth century, some of the worlds top magicians presented the Living Phantasmagoria" and other optical experiments. Robin, the great French conjuror, also included pseudo-spiritualistic effects in his show, thus setting the pattern for later spookers. Ludwig Dobler, the Viennese wizard, bought up the equipment of an early cinema pioneer...Baron Franz Von Uchtius...and retired to a castle on the considerable proceeds he gained with his display of optical magic.

These Phantasmagoria inspired M. R. James, that scholarly writer of discomforting tales, to include a description of a most frightening magic lantern show in his story, "Casting the Runes." It concerns the strange Mr. karswell and an exhibition of lantern slides he presented to an audience of terrified school children. the slides "...were most clever; they were absolutely realistic and where he had got them or how he worked them one could not imagine." karswell certainly heaped on the horror; at last he produced a series which represented a little boy,"...followed, and at last pursued and overtaken, and either torn in pieces or somehow made away with, by a horrible hopping creature in white." And, finally, "...another slide, which showed a great mass of snakes, centipedes, and disgusting creatures with wings, and somehow or other he made it seem as if they were climbing out of the picture and getting in amongst the audience; and this was accompanied by a sort of dry rustling noise which sent the children nearly mad, and of course they stampeded." I don't blame them! Robertson was a very tame showman compared with the evil Mr. Karswell; but...I would venture to suggest that our present day spookers are tamer still! Maybe it takes a much bigger thing than a bogie man or a luminous skeleton to scare us in this day and age; and whether that is good or bad I really cannot say.

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