AskDefine | Define phantasmagoria

Dictionary Definition

phantasmagoria n : a constantly changing medley or real or imagined images (as in a dream)

User Contributed Dictionary


Alternative spellings


From Greek φαντασμα phantasma (ghost) + αγορευειν agoreuein (to speak publicly)


  • /ˌfæntæzməˈgɒriə/ (RP)
  • /ˌfæntæzməˈgɔːriə/ (US)
  • Rhymes: -ɔːriə


  1. A series of events involving rapid changes in light intensity and colour.
  2. A dreamlike state where real and imagined elements are blurred together.


a series of events
a dreamlike state

Extensive Definition

Phantasmagoria (American pronunciation, also fantasmagorie, fantasmagoria) was a precinema projection ghost show invented in France in the late 18th century, which gained popularity through most of Europe (especially England) throughout the 19th century.
A modified type of magic lantern was used to project images onto walls, smoke, or semi-transparent screens, frequently using rear projection. The projector was mobile, allowing the projected image to move on the screen, and multiple projecting devices allowed for quick switching of different images. Frightening images such as skeletons, demons, and ghosts were projected.


In the mid-18th century, in Leipzig, Germany, a coffee shop owner named Johann Schröpfer began offering séances in a converted billiards room which became so popular that by the 1760s he had transformed himself into a full-time showman, using elaborate effects including projections of ghosts to create a convincing spirit experience. In 1774, he committed suicide, apparently a victim of delusions of his own apparitions.
Versailles was home to several significant developments in this field. In the 1770s François Seraphin used magic lanterns to perform his "Ombres Chinoises" (Chinese shadows), a form of shadow play, and Edme-Gilles Guyot experimented with the projection of ghosts onto smoke.
Paul Philidor created what may have been the first true phantasmagoria show in 1789, a combination of séance parlor tricks and projection effects, his show saw success in Berlin, Vienna, and revolution-era Paris in 1793.
The most famous of the ghost showmen was the Belgian inventor and physicist from Liège, Etienne-Gaspard Robert, more commonly known by his stage name Etienne Robertson. In 1797 Robertson took his show to Paris. The macabre atmosphere in the post-revolutionary city was perfect for Robertson's elaborate creations. In an abandoned Capuchin crypt in Paris, he staged hauntings, using several lanterns, special sound effects and the eerie atmosphere of the tomb, he terrified many audiences.
It was not long before Robertson was touring Russia and Spain, and the idea of the theatrical ghost show spread across Europe and to the U.S. He is buried with appropriately gothic statuary in the Père Lachaise Cemetery in Paris.
In 1801 a phantasmagoria production by Paul Philidor (a stage name for Paul Philipsthal taken from the famous chess player Phildor) opened in London's Lyceum Theatre in the Strand, where it became a smash hit.
Many of the phantasmagoria showmen were a combination of scientists and magicians, many of them stressing that the effects that they produced, no matter how eerily convincing, were in fact the result of ingenious equipment and no small measure of skill, rather than any supernatural explanation. This even extended as far as the exhibitions at the Royal Polytechnic Institution demonstrating the "Pepper's ghost" effect in the 1860s.
Phantasmagoria is also the title of a poem in seven cantos by Lewis Carroll that was published by Macmillan & Sons in London in 1869.

Phantasmagoria in modern times

Walt Disney was influenced by the early ghost show men, and this can be seen in the practical and projection effects in the Haunted Mansion at Disneyland, as well as the "Fantasmic" show at the park, which features projection onto smoke and water spray.
A few modern theatrical troupes in the U.S. and U.K. stage phantasmagoria projection shows, especially at Halloween.
From February 15 - May 1, 2006, the Tate Britain staged "The Phantasmagoria" as a component of its show "Gothic Nightmares: Fuseli, Blake and the Romantic Imagination." It recreated the content of the 18th and 19th century presentations, and successfully evoked their tastes for horror and fantasy.
In Appomattox VA the Hell-Cat Grindhouse has a Halloween Celabration, the opening SCAREmonies of which include a large scale Phantasmagoria.


  • Memoires Recreatifs, Scientifiques and Anedotiques of 1830-34 Etienne Robertson
  • Nouvelles Recréations Physiques et Mathématiques, Edme-Gilles Guyot, translated by Dr. W. Hooper in London (1st ed. 1755)
phantasmagoria in French: Fantasmagorie (spectacle)
phantasmagoria in Dutch: Fantasmagorie
phantasmagoria in Polish: Fantasmagoria

Synonyms, Antonyms and Related Words

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