by Gary Meyer
Magic and “live” ghosts, goblins and other creatures of the night go back a long way. What we refer to as “augmented reality” today is hundreds of years old. In 1584 Reginald Scot wrote in his study to debunk beliefs in witchcraft, magic and other superstitions, The Discoverie of Witchcraft, that people dressed in sheets had fooled believers certain they had seen ghosts.
Inspired by 18th century magic lantern shows and shadow plays, Étienne-Gaspard Robert, a physics professor with a special interest in optics built a magic lantern on wheels called the Fantoscope which could project multiple layers of images, change their size and move around to make the spectres appear to be coming towards the audiences. Adopting the stage name of Robertson he presented his Phantasmagoria, a spectacle of horror and mysticism where floating illusions of the resurrected dead entertained and terrified crowds.
The audience entered a spooky candlelit room in the run down Couvent des Capucines near the Place Vendôme. Robertson made an introduction about the afterlife with eerily monotonous accompaniment from a glass harmonica and ventriloquism for the ghouls, resulting in a most unsettling evening. According According to the Glass Armonica blog the first ads for his debut in 1798 stated: “Fantasmagorie … by citizen E-G. Robertson: apparitions of Spectres, Phantoms and Ghosts, such as must appear or could appear in any time, in any place and among any people. Experiments with the new fluid known by the name of Galvanism, whose application gives temporary movement to bodies whose life has departed. An artist noted for his talents will play the Harmonica.”
The horror show was a tremendous success and played all over the world after the Parisian authorities first shut him down because his audiences were certain the ghosts were real. His spectacles evolved over the years and heavily influenced Grand Guignol and the cinema, yet to come. Robertson once said ”I am only satisfied if my spectators, shivering and shuddering, raise their hands or cover their eyes out of fear of ghosts and devils dashing towards them; if even the most indiscreet among them run into the arms of a skeleton.”
A series of creations in the 1800s improved on the illusion of live ghosts floating around theaters. Probably the most well known is John Henry Pepper’s Pepper’s Ghost which did not require a special theater as had many of its predecessors and was a great success in England as both a standalone show and incorporated into regular plays such as Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol.. The technique has been adapted for use at amusement parks, museums and concerts including the appearance of ghosts at Disneyland’s “Haunted Mansion” and recently for the appearance of the late Tupac Shakur performing at the 2012 Coachella Music Festival and Michael Jackson at the 2014 Billboards Music Awards. New York artist Tony Oursler’s father was a popular magician and spiritualist debunker. Oursler’s recent exhibit at New York’s MOMA of magic memorabilia included a new movie, Imponderable that incorporated the Pepper’s Ghost concept to mixed results in this writer’s opinion but was a fascinating experiment nonetheless. Across the Atlantic spiritualism and seances started to boom with the success of The Fox sisters whose ability to contact the dead started as a prank and grew into a business.
William and Ira Davenport of Buffalo, New York caused a sensation with their Spirit Cabinet that brought spiritualism into legitimate theaters. They were bound tightly with ropes and locked into the cabinet. The theater was darkened and soon mysterious manifestations took place with noises, musical instruments and ghostly figures appearing and causing a stir. These were mean ghosts and audiences were often frightened.
The great magician and escape artist Harry Houdini campaigned against spiritualists and mediums, exposing their tricks. His expose of the spirit world, A Magician Among the Spirits** is often attributed to the downfall of these acts, though believers continued their own campaigns even today. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bnRE1aW4gyw But the larger public was skeptical of real ghosts but were interested in theatrical thrills that might scare them for a short time but follow with amusement and laughter s they were not haunted in their sleep. From the 1920s through the early 1970s, there were many spook show performers around the country. The theater booked low-rent old horror films but the featured attraction was a magic and hypnosis stage show with lots of audience participation. The ads The ads may have offered “some lucky audience member will win a dead body” which turned out to be a frozen chicken from the local butcher. They made promises of monsters carrying victims back into the movie, the materialization of dead celebrities like James Dean, Marilyn Monroe or creatures of the night sitting in your lap in the dark. And any other outrageous claims they could get away with.
The Author Visits a Spook Show
One of the most popular and professional shows that probably toured longer than anyone was created by magician Arthur Bull using the stage name Francisco, named after The City across the bay from his home in Oakland. He was always in demand from the 1930s into the early 1960s. Bull asked theaters for higher quality movies to be booked instead of the usual $10 flat rental Bela Lugosi cheapies like THE HUMAN MONSTER. And the night I attended at the Uptown Theater in Napa in 1960 he got it.
As the classic Tod Browning film DRACULA ended the lights went out. Eerie music filled the theater and a large skeleton appeared in a puff of smoke. The lights came up and the skeleton magically became Francisco who did an hour show that included his Spirit Paintings, a comedy Guillotine, a Substitution Trunk, and shooting a real gun at an assistant sandwiched between two plates of glass— the bullet appeared to go through her and then she stepped out unharmed despite bullet holes in the sheets of glass in front and back of where she stood.
There was comedy mentalism from questions patrons had written on pieces of paper before the show and dropped into a bowl. The answers mixed the amazing with corny humor. Opening a sealed envelope Francisco read the audience question “Where did I leave my ring?” “Around the bathtub” answered the medium.
An astonishing floating table, a complex Spirit Cabinet routine and a running gag with a floating skull followed. The curtains closed and Francisco brought about a dozen people on stage to sit in chairs where he put them under a hypnotic spell resulting in these audience members doing wacky things, not remembering any of it when they were released from his spell. And then it was time for the grand finale. Often Francisco had included various frightening creatures as part of his act such as Strogoff the living corpse, Rollo the two-headed zombie or the phantom wolfman Zubroff. But late in his career –which is when I saw him– Zemora was the featured creature and reportedly the most effective. The curtains opened to reveal a coffin. Francisco tipped over the empty casket while explaining that the unhappy restless ghost Zemora must be somewhere in the theater. He warned the audience, “Don’t turn around if you feel cold, clammy hands clutching you or something crawling up your leg.” He had his lovely assistant step into the coffin, then he thrust a dozen swords through it from every direction, each one accompanied by a more blood-curdling scream. The swords were quickly withdrawn and the cabinet started to violently shake. We could hear a loud and angry growling sound and suddenly the lid burst open. A boney hand emerged and through a blinding flash Zemora appeared for a moment.
All the lights went out and it was total darkness (exit lights were not yet required). Zemora tossed his glowing head out towards the audience where it floated above us disappearing as lightning appeared on the screen, its strobe effect allowing the audience to see monsters roaming the auditorium while bats, skeletons and ghosts flew above our heads. (I later learned the ghosts were cheesecloth painted with luminous paint and suspended from fishing poles.) A voice yelled to watch out for the spiders and insects as the audience was pelted with raw beans and rice. We saw glowing swamp insects above us and then spider webs brushed across our faces. “Beware the deadly slimy worms crawling everywhere,” was heard loud and clear as cold, moist creatures (wet mop strands) rained on us. People were screaming their heads off. Couples were hugging each other and wishing it would be over … or not. After what might have been ten minutes it went dark for a moment and then the lights came up. The show was over and it was nearly 2:00am
There was another show the next night, and I returned, bringing my own props. I had purchased rubber creature hands, feet and masks from Famous Monsters of Filmland. When the lights went out, I reached into my paper bag, put them on and joined the other monsters terrorizing the audience. What fun!
I was inspired to start creating elaborate Halloween hauntings where I lived. It was in the rural countryside, six miles from town. Few trick-or-treaters came the first year and some who did might have been too frightened to come up the long driveway with the sounds of “Storm, Dog Howling, Cats, Footsteps, Door Opening, Door Closing, Moaning, Walking in Chains, Goblins Laughing, Wind, Clock Striking 12, Dogs, Cats, Laughing Witches, and Screaming” coming through the trees (from my first little record of sound effects) and dry ice created mist. The spook show never returned to town but the word got out about our little presentation and as attendance grew so did our ambitions with Castle Films 8mm horror clips projected through windows, zombies jumping out of coffins and ghosts in the bushes. As the spook show popularity started to fade new gimmicks like Twist contests and live bands were added to the program but soon they were over.
As the spook show popularity started to fade new gimmicks like Twist contests and live bands were added to the program but soon they couldn’t save them.
There has been a tremendous resurgence of interactive horror experiences all over North America. Just about every community has them. Theme parks tend to host elaborate and expensive scary adventures. Two very different shows recently played in San Francisco. Joshua Grannell (aka “Peaches Christ”) is behind “Terror Vault,” one of three frightening and immersive “Into the Dark” attractions at the reportedly haunted San Francisco Mint.
“Be advised, what happens at the Terror Vault doesn’t stay at the Terror Vault. It follows you home to your nightmares, mostly because it gets you directly involved in the action.” ~~The Mercury News
Tickets and more information. A very different kind of Halloween show is Frank Olivier’s “Twisted Cabaret Halloween Show.” The stage is set for the big comedy varieté show, the theater is packed, the band is ready, but the tour bus with all the performers has broken down. Now Frank Olivier must pull off the show of his life and perform all 16 twisted variety acts himself, aided only by Flynch, his loyal hunchback assistant. The Twisted Cabaret Orchestra accompanies as Olivier delights with juggling, mind reading, knife-throwing, magic, fire-eating and more, like you’ve never seen before.
Buy tickets here. Joe Bob Briggs brought his “Haunted Drive-In” to Los Angeles in fall, 2020 and it might reappear in 2021.
WANT TO KNOW MORE ABOUT THE HISTORY OF SPOOK SHOWS?
Terry Borton and his American Magic-Lantern Theater recreate Halloween Magic Lantern shows.
Jim Steinmeyer wrote the definitive book about Pepper’s Ghost, The Science Behind the Ghost!, which was a remarkable Victorian invention allowing three-dimensional ghosts to walk onstage with actors and continues to be used today at theme parks and in stage shows.
More videos on the history, current uses and making you own.
Read Houdini’s “A Magician Among Spirits” online.
The best overview is Ghostmasters by Mark Walker out of print but found in libraries and used book stores.
Other recommended books: Out of the Spook Closet (1947) by Spook Show veteran Herman L. Weber is a 31 page pamphlet offering instructions for making several of the audience interaction effects.
This can be had for a bargain $5 along with various Francisco advertising materials from Byron Walker Magic Books. Ask about the books below as he might have them.
Pete Biro’s delightful book Memoirs Of A Spook Show Ghost is filled with stories of touring with Francisco. The Amazing Life of Ormond McGill by the late Palo Alto native Ormond McGill. Pleasant Nightmares: the story of Dr. Neff by Bill Rauscher.
Bela Lugosi appeared in some Spook Shows with Bill Neff. This 1953 “You Asked for It Show” TV show has him doing a hypnosis/illusion act possibly similar to the stage shows.
Further reading would be Eugene Burger’s collectible book about séances and related effects, Spirit Theater and his classic collection of Bizarre Magick, Strange Ceremonies. (an intriguing article to read about Bizarre Magick here.) Charles W. Cameron published numerous books of the kinds of effects that might be used on stage. For contents check this reference page. There is an eBook about putting on your own shows, Staging a Professional Spook Show by Robert Nelson. A 1939 review of Francisco’s magic act from Tops magazine. Good brief histories of Spook Shows is here and here and here. A selection of Spook Show posters can be found here and here.
About Joe Karston, Spook Show producer. “The Ghost Show’ was published for The Beverly Cinema
“Magic, Monsters, and Movies: America‘s Midnight Ghost Shows,.” an extensive article by Beth A. Kattelman in Theatre Journal 62:1 (2010).
There is nobody better than Mick Garris to host a podcast with famous guests talking about their love of horror. Check out “Post Mortem.”
Now this is my kind of show with something for everyone:
Alive!! on Stage!!– a long in production documentary. Facebook and Twitter are best for current news.
There are Facebook Spook Show fan pages:
Midnight Spook Show & Ghost Show Posters and Memorabilia
Spook Show Appreciation Society
Doctor Scream’s Spook Show Revival– A current touring show.
The ultimate Spook Show DVD with a terrific booklet by Jim Ridenour, Monsters Crash the Pajama Party. It is a bargain at under ten bucks and ask them to include the special booklet. Read the Psychotronic Society review.
Some of my favorite vintage “spooky sounds records.”
This article is an adapted and expanded from part of a previous article about new format and interactive movies, The Bride of Deep Into Immersion Cinema Returns—The Final Act.
Gary Meyer started his first theater in the family barn when he was twelve-years-old. He directed a monster movie there and wanted to show it on the set. It became The Above-the-Ground Theatre screening dozens of silent films with music arranged from his parents’ record collection. Over 250 films were screened including more homemade 8mm “epics,” foreign and independent works, and all-night movie marathons.
For a midnight classic horror films series each film was preceded by a live presentation including séances, spooky magic and Lights Out! radio shows like “Chicken Heart,” “The Dream” with Boris Karloff and one of the scariest,”The Dark,” all in total darkness. The barn had a house bat that only came out during the horror films, flying through the projector beam, its silhouette appearing across the screen at appropriate moments.
Meyer and his friends created elaborate DYI Halloween haunted environments long before there were Halloween stores. As an adult he continued the fun until his own children were no longer interested in staying home and hiding in garbage cans dressed as weird creatures to scare roving trick-or-treaters. It got lonely doing it by himself and the family dog looked worried.
In addition to co-founding the art house cinema chain Landmark Theaters and serving as co-Director of the Telluride Film Festival, he brought together teams to develop various theater projects and film festivals, While working with many independent filmmakers, cinemas and film festivals, he saved the 1926 Balboa Theatre in San Francisco where William Castle gimmick shows were recreated and a 22-film Boris Karloff Tribute hosted by the actor’s daughter Sara who was raised in San Francisco.She presented home movies and a collection of rarely seen shorts and TV shows.
Meyer started EatDrinkFilms to give a voice to writers wanting to explore food, beverage and the movies from unique perspectives. Meyer, as Editor/Publisher, also contributes articles.
In October, 1971 Meyer visited Romania following the footsteps of Jonathan Harker in Bram Stoker’s “Dracula.” Nobody he asked knew of the famous vampire or his inspiration, Vlad Tepes. A year later “In Search of Dracula” was published in the U.S. and a vampire tourism industry was born n Transylvania and the Carpathian Mountains. Here Gary is near Bistrita at the foot of Birgaului Pass (Bistritz and Borgo Pass in “Dracula”). He is holding his 1930 edition of the classic. These locations are not actually in Transylvania but leading to Moldavia, also in Romania.
2 thoughts on “GHOSTS ON THE LOOSE- A brief history of Spooky Stage Shows and a Personal Encounter”
This article is Wonderful Gary! Absolutely inspiring!! Bravissimo!!
Great article on a great topic! There is also a very detailed and well researched trading card set devoted to Spook Shows, called… wait for it…. Spook Show! The fronts feature the classic posters and the backs are stuffed with all sorts of information on the subject. I produced the series as a guilty pleasure, not expecting other card collectors to “get it”– but it actually became one of our most popular sets. (In fact, it’s almost sold out, as only 500 boxes were made.) http://www.monsterwax.com/spookshow.html