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  • Writer's pictureGrace Davidson-Lynch

Magic in a Lantern- Something Wicked 2020

Updated: Nov 2, 2020

Happy Halloween everybody.

This year has obviously been a strange and terrifying one. Death, illness, corruption, and fear have been fixtures of this year. Everybody, in one way or another, has been affected. Let’s stop thinking about it.

What good has this year brought that other Halloween’s have not?

A strange question, perhaps- but an intense dose of global terror can do wonders to your outlook on fear. I’d like to hope that all of us can emerge from 2020 a little wiser to how terror can impact our lives. The horror I felt at the beginning of this pandemic was felt first when I saw empty supermarket shelves. People were already dead, cases were still on the rise, I didn’t feel confident enough in social distancing to demand that strangers stand back. I had no mask. But seeing the toilet paper aisles emptied instilled real fear in me- fear of disease, of dying, of hordes of dead and the uncontrollable downfall of humanity.

But now, we all live with it, don’t we?

The fear is a companion down this road. Some days it will warn us against foolish behaviour, but more often than not it is a voice in your head to be ignored. Fear may have spurred us into action, at least in this country, but fear did not keep us safe for the last few months.

Fear is optional. Resilience is not.

Halloween is indulgence, anti-fantasy escapism at it’s finest. I have no parties to attend this year, and no trick-or-treaters to entertain. This is my second Halloween after my honours thesis, in which I explored horror theatre stage effects. Last year, I built a Pepper’s Ghost- this year, I built something a little more cinematic.

Magic lanterns are sometimes deemed the origin of animation. The original designed was created in the 1600s by Dutch inventor Christiaan Huygens, and was named for the ‘magical’ images that the lantern projected onto walls. Using a light source and a mirror or lens, a magic lantern would project the images painted on glass slides onto a wall or the stage of a theatre. While these slides could serve many purposes, some lanternist (the showmen who operated the magic lantern) would create stories using projections as illustrations. These lantern shows would combine music and drama to create wonderful evenings of entertainment for the whole family. More complicated slides might have moving components that would create images that seems to come alive- you might see a fish that really swam, or a jack-in-the-box that really popped up.

As the technology evolved, smaller lanterns became popular gifts for children. They were compact and easy to operate, and new slides could be purchased to create more stories. One author who is known to have been influenced by the magic lantern was Charles Dickens. The popularity of A Christmas Carol can be put down in part to its translation onto glass slides that children could easily acquire. Like families today, who can gather around the television and watch old Christmas films, Victorian families could gather around the magic lantern and regale themselves with familiar seasonal stories.

Magic lanterns are often listed alongside Pepper’s ghosts as earlier stage effects with the power to frighten audiences of the past. Sure, modern film and stage technology could give you a good scare today, but there is something intoxicating about these old-fashioned special effects. The magic, pun very much intended, of this kind of technology can still be felt all these centuries later.

But, like a good researcher, I wanted to test this theory of mine for myself.

I built my own magic lantern.

My Pepper’s ghost from last year was a rather complex operation- I built a diorama, I used maths and glass to create the effect, and it took several weeks of work. The magic lantern, strangely enough, required far less work on my part. This was so simple to make that I urge you to give it a go, if you feel so inclined- you can follow this link to the Museum of American Magic Lantern Shows website, where I found simple step-by-step instruction.

I started by building the body of the lantern. I had read that some lanterns could be made by using an old biscuit tin, but realise my inability to work with metal and a distinct lack of biscuit tins at my local supermarket would require alterations to my plans. I instead opted to use a round cardboard container, with smaller round containers used for the lens. I briefly toyed with the idea of using a magnifying glass to enhance the image, but after one fateful afternoon of smashing glass with a hammer to try and bend the magnifying glass to my will, this was also abandoned. This year, my DIY has been kept simple- a phone as the light source, a cardboard container as the housing unit, and a dark room to keep the images looking clear.

Next, I moved on to the slides.

In keeping with the Dickensian tradition of using the magic lantern to retell classic stories for a special occasion, I wanted the art to be inspired by modern classic horror films. Afterall, these might be the stories that kids retell on the 31st of October, 2020. In the early days of the lantern, glass slides with painted images was the only option. Thankfully, we have access to plastics that can be used to project light through with ease. Magic lanterns essentially use the same technology as an overhead projector, and so acetate with Sharpie-drawn images was what we opted for.

The art for this year’s DIY special effects was lovingly created by Sash Lynch, my extremely talented brother. After much discussion, Sash opted to recreate scenes from a true classic- Friday the 13th. I’m hoping he takes up his role in this tradition by creating many more slides for this lantern. His work is wonderful, and perfectly captures the style of the traditional glass slides.

As the sun dipped below the horizon, and All Hallows Eve set in, we tested it.

At first it seemed that our images were going to be a little blurry. I was fine with this small setback- after all, this is a technology that is over 400 years old. Then my boyfriend suggested we use his phone (with a much brighter torch), and the images became much clearer.

The images were wonderful, thanks largely to my brother’s efforts, and I can’t help but think of the wonder this kind of lantern could inspire in regular people from the past. When I am able to, we hope to have a proper lantern show; telling stories of Camp Crystal Lake as we watch incredible recreations dance before our eyes.

Though this terrible year is ending, I think we know that this madness won’t end on the 31st of December. Bad times will continue, but we must not let fear win. Embrace some darkness, enjoy it, take control over it, and accept its role in your life- but don’t let it consume you, or dictate your actions.

Have a happy Halloween, and a terrifying evening of socially distant partying or spooky fun indoors with loved ones. And thank you for coming on this spooky journey with me.

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