Spooky Word of the Week: Phantasmagoria

If you are a film buff, I think you will take a special interest in this week’s spooky word. Phantasmagoria is a word with a fascinating history. In current usage, phantasmagoria means a sequence of imaginary and often scary images, like those seen in a dream. The word combines phantasm (a figment of the imagination; a ghost) and agoria (an assembly). But do you know what phantasmagoria used to mean?

“Phantasmagoria” shows were a popular and eerie form of entertainment in 19th century Europe; the word came into usage around 1802. These shows may be considered to be the precursor to the modern-day horror movie. The event involved the use of a “magic lantern” to project nightmarish images of devils, demons, ghosts and skeletons on screens or walls in a darkened room. The presenters added sound effects or motion effects to enhance the realism. Some event promoters even encouraged the audience to fast or take drugs to further their suspension of disbelief.

I have been the spectator of a form of phantasmagoria myself. Years ago, I attended a Halloween party at the State Theater in Falls Church. While a band played on stage, cameras projected images of ghosts, vampires and bats whirling around the walls of the darkened theater, as well as clips from old horror movies on projected screens on the stage. The images created an unforgettably spooky ambience for the Halloween party.

I would like to share two videos with you today. The first reproduces a phantasmagoria production as might be seen by a 19th century audience. The second video is a mini-documentary in which historians and preservationists describe the technical innovations of these early horror theatres. I hope you enjoy them!

About Mary Fletcher Jones

Mary Fletcher Jones is a mom, teacher, and blogger. Her blogs include Autumn in Virginia, Cool Yule Blog and You Can't Make This Stuff Up, among others. She is also the creator of "Living Well With Autism," an online resource for caregivers of children, teens, and adults with autism and related special needs.
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