While in Paris over the summer, we happened upon the following tomb in the well-known Pere Lachaise Cemetery. With its winged skulls, owls, and creepy bas-relief scene, it is one of the most unusual monuments I’ve ever seen.

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Upon later research, I discovered that this is the grave of the 18th-century Belgian showman Etienne-Gaspard Robert, who went by the stage name “Robertson.” He was a physics professor by day who used his academic knowledge to create shocking horror shows filled with terrifying illusions, long before scary movies and haunted houses ever existed.

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Robertson’s secret weapon was an early version of the slide projector. In fact, he invented a projection system called the Fantoscope: a magnified lantern that could display images of varying sizes from an unseen location.

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And he frightened the hell out of those early audiences. He used smoke to create an eerie atmosphere, screens made of gauze to make images translucent, audio effects simulating wind and thunder, and actors alongside his projections. People left his performances in terror, believing they had seen a ghost. The show was so popular that it toured the world.

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“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.” –Robertson
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“Robertson immediately threw upon the brazier containing lighted coals, two glasses of blood, a bottle of vitriol, a few drops of aqua fortis and two numbers of the journal des Homme Litres and there instantly appeared in the midst of the smoke caused by the burning of these substances, a hideous livid phantom armed with a dagger.” –Audience member

The grave we saw that day was that of one of the most important predecessors to modern-day haunted houses, screen horror, and even cinema as we know it. I’ve often wondered where and when the “haunted attraction” originated, and Robertson may have truly been its source. Reposer en paix, monsieur.

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More information on the amazing Robertson here, here, and here.


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