The Psychedelic Phantasmagoria Shows of the 18th century!

CANNABIS CULTURE – Although little known, in the 18th century certain magicians would utilize drugs in combination with smoke and mirror illusions to convince audiences they had witnessed talking and moving ghosts and apparitions!  While researching Liber 420: Cannabis Magickal Herbs and the Occult,  one of the things I was most fascinated to learn about was the drug infused phantasmagoria shows of the 18th century, hosted by the controversial masonic figure Johan Schröpfer and others.

1420 illustration Giovanni Fontanna “magic lantern”

Interest in necromancy, and magic in general, went slightly more mainstream in the 18th century. Magicians were often entrepreneurs, and it did not take long for some to realize, magic is the stuff of entertainment! Figures like Johann Georg Schröpfer (1730-1774), Karl von Eckartshausen (1752-1803), and others  began to utilize drugs, in combination with mirrors, smoke, sound effects, and other techniques, in 18th century staged seances, that left the audiences convinced they had seen the dead rise, and witnessed other occult miracles. Shaman’s and magicians have always used such trickery to set the stage for magical ceremonies, for just as ‘by thy own faith thou art healed”, so too with magic, by thy own imagination do you gain entry into the hidden realm. In indigenous shamanic ceremonies, whistles that make the sounds of local birds, beats on drums that sound like charging hooves, fans to make the sounds of flapping wings, are used by attendants, sometimes unseen, as special effects to induce a space where reality begins to break down and the world of magic can begin to take grip.

Although Schröpfer may have popularized these methods, it is in no way clear he invented them. Many of these techniques may have already been in use, in more private ceremonies for some time. As the 1420 illustration of a demon being projected from a Magic lantern by Giovanni Fontanna above demonstrates. . One  wonders if other medieval and renaissance magicians were using such techniques? Dr. John Dee, for instance, “first gained reputation for sorcery at Cambridge, where his ultra-realistic stage effects for a performance… scandalized audiences…” (Dickson, 2016). As Aubrey’s Brief Lives also noted, “the clever stage effects he introduced into a performance of Aristophanes’ Peace procured him his lifelong reputation of being a magician” (Aubrey, 1697). One could speculate that this may have played a role in some of the witnessed accounts of some of Dee’s magic, just as drugs may have.

 A 1646 edition of Ars Magna Lucis et Umbrae by Athanasius Kircher, gave details on the construction of his stenographic mirror projection system, but warned that impious individuals might use these as a means of frightening and manipulating more gullible people. Kircher suggested hiding the projector for better effect, and is alleged to have projected the image of death onto the windows of those who had become apostates, in order to reinvigorate their faith and scare them back to church.

Books like Physiologia Kircheriana Experimentalis (1680), by Johannes Stephan Kestler, offered detailed instructions with illustrations, on projectors like ‘magic lanterns’ and the camera obscura demonstrated how they could be used to make spectre like images on walls and on smoke. This same “magic lantern’ can be seen as the birth stages of what would later become cinema.


Techniques in involving magic lanterns and the camera obscura depicted in Physiologia Kircheriana Experimentalis (1680)

Ars Magna Lucis et Umbrae (1671).

Such techniques were taken to new heights in the 18th century. The magical use of mirrors, fumigations and candles likely led to an awareness of how reflection and projection played with these elements. Trying to repeat effects that were effectual, led to their study, as well as interest in the optical sciences. Friar Bacon was experimenting with mirrors and other methods of optical illusion in the 13th century. The 1420 llustration Giovanni Fontanna depicted a demon projecting Laterna magica, “magic lantern”, and for some reason images of death, demons and spectres seem to have gone hand in hand with these primitive projectors. As Tom Ruffles, explains in Ghost Images: Cinema of the Afterlife:

The Magic lantern, more flexible than the mirror and camera obscura, had been developed by the mid-seventeenth century. Unfortunately its origins are obscure… and… with classical accounts, it is not always clear how a described effect was achieved. For example, Benvenutor Cellini’s autobiography in 1558, gives an account of a necromantic ceremony performed  at the Coliseum in Rome; T. C. Hepworth describes the event. There was a fire, perfumes and “drugs of fetid odour.” Spectators were confined within a circle, each with a job to do. The figures appeared only after an hour and a half, which would leave lowered the

The Laterna magica in Oekonomisch-technologische Encyklopädie (1773)

audiences attention threshold. (Ruffles, 2004)   

Another effect of this passage of time, not noted by Ruffles, is that it would have given enough time for the drugs to really ‘kick in’! The popularizer of combining such optical illusions with magical invocation, necromancy and the use of drugs, at least in a more public sense, is considered to be the Freemason and magician Georg Schröpfer (1730-1774) (Also spelled ‘Schrepfer’ in some accounts). Johann Georg Schröpfer (1730-1774) was at one time a celebrated Mason, history however has recorded him as a charlatan, who came to a bad end, as his trail of tricks ran out, leading to an early suicide. “Johann Georg Schröpfer’s seance shows of the 1760s… incorporated special effects, magic tricks, music, projections onto smoke and the use of hallucinogenic drugs to create seances for the purpose of theatrical spectacle” (Jenzen, 2016). Such techniques were also apparently used by Schröpfer in Masonic styled initiations.

 Schröpfer began his career as a Leipzig coffee shop owner. However, as Robert Masello has noted in Raising Hell: A Concise History of the Black Arts and Those Who Dared to Practice Them, “Schröpfer’s café offered something not seen on the menu in most such establishments—initiation into the mysteries of magic and the occult. Schröpfer, who joined Cagliostro as one of the most renowned sorcerers of his day, served up magic punch made from his own secret recipe, along with lessons in summoning the dead, for anyone brave enough to take them” (Masello, 2014). Una Birch’s 1911 Book, Secret Societies and the French Revolution, claimed that Schroepfer began his career through mirror skrying. “Crowds in the market-place of Leipzig awaited the ghost of wonder-working Schroepfer, who had shown Louis XV. in  magic mirror his successor decapitated” and that in the same period that “Cagliostro was dazzling the people by magical experiments, [and]Cassanova was mystifying audiences, Schroepfer [was]professing, by means of his famous mirror, to evoke spirits” (Birch, 1911).

Schröpfer’s talents in this regard earned him the handle, Gespenstermacher, meaning ‘ghost-maker’ and the “Illuminatus of Leipzig”. Professor Fabio Camilletti, noted in his article, Phantasmagoria: creating the ‘ghosts’ of the Enlightenment: “While Schröpfer claimed his experiments to be true, all the effects he produced can be found, described in detail, in treatises on illusionism of that time. The technology that made them possible was that of the ‘magic lantern’, a rudimental projector which had been known to scientists… Schröpfer may also have employed mirrors, in order to create the effect later known as ‘Pepper’s Ghost’, which allows a shadowy figure to ‘materialise’ in a room (fans of the BBC’s Sherlock series may remember it from episode ‘The Abominable Bride’). It must also be added that the show was really challenging for audiences: people were forced to stay in the room for a whole day, and possibly narcotized through meals and drinks. Séances took place in the middle of the night, when fatigue and drugs might contribute to the effect” (Camilletti, 2017).

(Left) Various 18th century versions of the Magic Lantern. Much more than a simple projector, multi layered slides, and multiple lamps were used in combination.












Many of the painted slide images had moving parts, so eyes could roll in their sockets, and mouths could open and close, along with other various effects.  (Image from Phantasmagoria : The Dark Side of the Light, 2015) 

“Pepper’s Ghost”


Illustration for the construction of a hidden magic lantern that could be projected onto smoke from Nouvelles récréations physiques et mathématiques (1770).

As Renk Geffarth describes in The Masonic Necromancer: Shifting Identities In The Lives Of Johann Georg Schrepfer:

Johann Georg Schrepfer had a remarkable ability to stage necromantic performances that captivated his spectators throughout all-night sessions, repeated over the course of weeks and months. He raised the spirits of deceased celebrities of old and recent times and impressed his public by talking to the spirits and giving them orders. The apparitions were said to be clearly visible, clothed according to the habits of their lifetime, hanging in the air, and screaming awfully. His spectators described the faces of the spirits they witnessed as human, but the material looked more like smoke or vapor than flesh and skin. By means of enthusiastic speeches, prayers, aromatic smoke, and punch drinking, Schrepfer caught the attention of his audience or, as his critics wrote, dazed them. During his sessions, beginning at midnight, the spectators had to remain seated, having been told that they would face immense danger if they disobeyed this rule. To complete the rituals of his ceremonies, Schrepfer performed blessings and used crucifixes and holy water. (Geffarth, 2007)

 The staged drug infused magic shows of Schröpfer have been suggested as the origins of the classic Halloween Haunted House, as noted in Halloween Nation: Behind the Scenes of America’s Fright Night:

There are reports of seances that employed magical tricks as early as the 1700’s such as those of Leipzig coffee shop proprietor Johann Schröpfer, who used projections on smoke, sound effects, electric shocks, sensory deprivation, disorientation techniques, and drugs to conjure supposed spirits. Schröpfer developed a cult following in Europe until his suicide in 1774. (Bannatyne, 2011)

Similar views are expressed in Theatre and Ghosts: Materiality, Performance and Modernity, “The first internationally known of such shows was created by Johann Schröpfer of Leipzig who, in the 1760s, converted his billiard parlour into a séance chamber with eerie music, sound effects, incense, hallucinatory drugs and ghostly sights projected onto billowing clouds of smoke.  …His effects lived on… in what came to be called the Phantasmagoria show, a major attraction in Paris during the revolutionary years” (Lockhurst & Morin, 2014).

A 1803 account from The Anti-Jacobin Review and Magazine, makes it clear, that taking the mysterious punch was meant to enhance the show!

He found a great number of guests there before him, who were incessantly plied with punch. M. refused to drink any thing, but Schröpfer pressed him very much to drink at least a glass, which   M. as firmly refused. At length they were all conducted into a large hall, hung with black cloth, the window-shutters of which were closed. Schröpfer placed the spectators together, and drew a circle around them, beyond which he strictly enjoined them not to stir. At the distance of a sew paces a small altar was erected, on which burned spirits; this cast; the only light that illumined the room. Schröpfer, uncovering his breast, threw himself on his knees before the altar. He held in his hand a large glistening sword, and prayed with a loud voice, and with such earnestness and warmth, that M. who had come with the intention of unmasking the impostor and the imposture, felt in his heart a pious awe, and sentiments of devotion. Fire flashed from the eyes of the supplicant, and his breast was powerfully agitated. He was to call the shadow of a well-known character lately deceased. After having finished the prayer, he called the ghost with the following words: “Oh! thou departed spirit, who livest in an immaterial world, and invisible to the eyes of mortals, hear the voice of the friends thou hast left behind, and who desire to see thee; leave, for a short time, thy new abode, and present thyself to their eyes!” Hereupon the spectators felt in every nerve a sensation, similar to an electric shock—heard a noise like the rolling of thunder, and saw above the altar a light vapour, which grew thicker by degrees, till it allumed the figure of a man. However, M. observed, that it was not a striking likeness of the deceased. The figure hovered over the altar, and Schröpfer, pale as death, flourished the sword above his head. M. resolved to step out of the circle and to go to, Schröpfer; but the latter perceiving his intention, rushed towards him, holding the sword to his breast, and crying with a terrible voice, “You are a, dead man, if you stir another step!” M. was so terrified at the dreadful lone in which Schrofper uttered these words, and at the glistening sword, that his knees shook under him. The shadow at length disappeared, and Schröpfer was so fatigued that he lay extended on the floor. (Karamfin, 1803)

This account indicates a number of things, namely: much of the showmanship of the invocation would, as noted earlier, have given enough time to for the punch to take effect, and its clear drinking punch was an important part of the process, in the way Schröpfer encouraged guests to imbibe. This was standard for Schröpfer’s workings.  “All the spectators first received a large dose of punch. This not only increased his profits, but also his guests willingness to see miracles. After the punch had fogged their brains enough, Schröpfer… began the performance” (Zglinicki, 1956)*. Also, Schröpfer cleverly stopped the debunker “M” from exposing, with a threat of mortal danger, and this event also indicates, the show itself was so effective that it even dazzled non-drugged attendees who had come out of skepticism, so either something super natural occurred, or their were special effects involved.

* excerpted from a translation in (Kittler, 2010).

Unfortunately, no records of what substances were used in Schröpfer’s various incense, salad and punch preparations. However, as Friederich Kittler notes in Optical Media Schröpfer owned a coffee-house, and this is where his original seances were staged, and coffee-houses, “did not arise until after 1683 (after the relief of the Turkish coffee supplies, which to… unexpected delight were incidentally mixed with hashish)”. Kittler felt the Schröpfer “story makes clear how various drugs from coffee to punch to the lanterna magica (not to mention hashish), all acted in combination to bathe such nights in a spiritualistic twilight” (Kittler, 2010). Schröpfer was known to have frequently received by post large parcels, addressed to Baron Schröpfer, so he was clearly an importer.

An interesting reference that may indicate cannabis in Schröpfer’s ceremonies appears in an 1825 edition of The Astrologer of the Nineteenth Century; Or, The Master Key of Futurity, and Guide to Ancient Mysteries, Being a Complete System of Occult Philosophy, which was by the Members of the Mercurii, (an occult society whose interest in Grimoires and drugs was discussed in Chapter 15) contained an account about the ‘Awful Apparition of the Chevalier de Saxe, Invoked by Schrepfer’, and noted how Schröpfer encouraged them “to fortify their nerves by partaking of a bowl of punch” and how a skeptical attendee who had given the account, stated “no inducement can make me put anything within my lips”, showing the fear of being drugged.  Another account, under the title of ‘The Necromancer’, indicates others were using such techniques of intoxication in magic at the time as well. “…A plentiful libation was then made to the god of brandy, whose nostrils must have been highly regaled with the grateful fumes of incense and burnt offerings, every hero replenishing his pipe with a potent supply of India’s salutary weed” (Mercurii, 1825). As Tobacco was a ‘New World’ Plant, and India is part of the ‘Old World’, it is questionable if  tobacco is being referred to here and whether cannabis is what is meant. This same edition had excerpts from the 16th century grimoire The Book of Magic, renamed The Book of Oberon, which Liber 420 discusses at length for its various references to drugs, and which the Mercurii owned.


That more potent drugs may have been burnt at ceremonies, is indicated in the works of Karl von Eckartshausen (1752-1803). Eckartshausen, is himself a fascinating character, a one time member of the original Illuminati, his work was influential on the later magic of The Golden Dawn, and Aleister Crowley. “Eckartshausen was one of the few alchemists who continued practicing the art into the nineteenth century. His major work is the Chemische Versuch, published in 1802” (Martin, 2011).

Eckartshausen claimed secret knowledge of Schröpfer’s workings, and exposed them with detailed illustrated instructions for their recreation, along with giving the ingredients of the fumigants that aided such workings. As Eckartshausen explained, “the appearance of an optical image of the magic lantern is in the smoke…. The magic-lantern projects the image on the mirror; The slanting mirror throws it back, and so it appears in the smoke… it is necessary that the whole room be filled with a mist” (Eckarthausen, 1788-1792).

Illustrations from Eckartshausen Aufschlusse zur Magie (1788-1792)

A PHANTASMAGORIA; Conjuring up an Armed Skeleton, H.Humphrey, (1803)

Although using other substances besides cannabis, many of which are also recorded on the pages of the Picatrix, Sepher Raziel: Liber Salmonis, The Book of Oberan, and other Grimoires, an account of  invocation by fumigation performed by Eckartshausen offers some interesting insights into this area of magic. This account appeared in a 1841 edition of The Familiar Astrologer, by ‘Raphael’ a member of The Society of the Mercurii, a magical group that as we saw see in Chapter 15 had in their possession renaissance grimoires with drug references, and utilized these in practice, and is attributed to a member known under the name ‘Philadelphus’. (This same group, had written about Schröpfer’s ritual and indicated the use of drugs, in an earlier 1825 edition, as noted, and this is indicative of this occult groups long standing interest in the drugs of magic. Their account of Echartshausen’s magic is as follows:


    From the MSS. of Philadelphus.

The following is related by Eckartshausen, in his German work, entitled “Magic

Eckartshausen was acquainted with a Scotsman, who was not given to the practice of incantations, but merely acquired the knowledge of an extraordinary process, which had been communicated to him by a Jew. He made the experiment in company with Eckartshausen;—it is  extraordinary, and deserves to be related.   

The person who wishes to see a particular spirit, (either of a living or dead person), must, for some days previous, undergo a state of physical and spiritual preparation. Very remarkable conditions and correspondencies seem required between the person who wishes to see the spirit, and the spirit itself, (conditions we can only explain by admission that a dawning of the spiritual world begins on our side of the grave). When these preparations are completed, a fumigation from certain ingredients (the knowledge of which Mr. E. very properly, from a fear of their abuse, declines to communicate) is made in a room. The vapour forms itself into a figure, which is the perfect resemblance of the person the operator wishes to see / Magic lights, optical deceptions, &c., are here out of the question. THE VAPOUR PRODUCES A HUMAN FIGURE, resembling him we desire to see The following are Eckartshausen’s own words:

— “Some time after the departure of the foreigner (the Scotsman), I repeated the experiment with one of my friends—he saw and felt as I did myself. The observations we made were these:—as soon as the ingredients were thrown into the chafingdish, a whitish figure forms itself, and seems of natural size to hover just above the chafingdish. It possesses a most perfect resemblance with the person to be seen, only that the figure is ashy pale. Upon approaching the figure, a considerable resistance is felt, something like walking against a strong wind. If it is spoken to, no distinct recollection remains of what has been said; and when the phantom disappears, it seems like awakening from a dream. The head is stupified, and there is a great tightness felt in the lower parts of the body. It is singular, that the same appearance presents itself upon being in the dark, or looking afterwards upon dark bodies.

“The unpleasantness of this sensation was such that, however solicited, I was unwilling to repeat the experiment. A young gentleman came to me, and positively insisted upon seeing the apparition. As he was a man of a delicate constitution and lively imagination, I hesitated, and consulted an experienced physician, to whom I discovered the entire secret. He was of opinion that the narcotics used must powerfully excite the imagination, and might, under certain circumstances, be very dangerous. He thought the preparatory forms increased the power of their operation, and advised me to make trial of their effect in very small portions, without previous preparations.

“This I did, one day after dinner, when this gentleman, who dined with me, was present. The materials were all thrown into the chafingdish, when certainly a figure showed itself; but a shuddering, which I was unable to control, overcame me. I was obliged to leave the room for three hours; I was extremely ill, and had the figure constantly before me. By the use of a great deal of vinegar, which I inhaled, and drank with water, I recovered, towards the evening; yet, for three weeks afterwards, I felt a loss of strength: and what is most singular, is, that even to this time, when I think on the circumstance, and look upon a dark body, a lively representation of the ashy-pale figure presents itself before me. Since that time (adds he) I have never ventured to repeat the experiment.”

The following note is added by a lady of erudition, who had read Eckartshausen’s work, and remembers these particulars, viz. –“that certain previous forms and conditions are required before the operation takes place; upon omission of these, the operator is threatened with either loss of health, insanity, or the most serious derangement of his temporal circumstances. The particulars I do not remember distinctly, but I think three days’ utter seclusion is commanded. During these days, the operator must employ himself in devotional exercises, he must often turn his thoughts to the subject he wishes to see, must have a particular regard to him in his prayers, must recollect and dwell on his good qualities, and be very certain that no impure view mixes with his wish to see him. The subject must have committed no crime; and if a living person, he must have no wound in any part of his body. This last condition is remarkable; the tendency of the other is obvious, when it is considered that they came from Arabia (where the Jew first found the secret), and therefore originate with a people not professedly Christian. I think it will be allowed that their piety is worthy notice.”

Mr. E., in his second volume, says that he may venture to give the fumigating ingredients without fear, as the success of the experiment depends upon their exact proportions of Opium, Saffron, Aloes, Henbane, Nightshade, Poppy-seed, and Hemlock.

I must here regret that the author did not communicate whether his own experiments were made with a living subject, and what the state of that person might be during the operation.

From the same hand, Eckartshausen received another fumigation, which, used in a church-yard, would bring into visible existence the spirits of the persons there interred; and an ointment which, upon being applied upon different parts of the body, would transport the spirit into any part of the world. These, however, were composed of narcotics of such intense and fearful potency, that the author states he never considered it safe to use them.

Communicated bv Philadelphia.

Although it has been suggested that the list of drugs listed above, were likely acquired from Schröpfer, it is also worth noting that an almost identical recipe was give in Agrippa’s The Philosophy of Natural Magic (1531)Thus, the effects of these substances, which according to Agrippa were used to “to make the image of spirits to appear in the air or elsewhere” were by no means new to people with interest in magic.

Such effects from smoke filled invocations were also noted by Eliphas Levi, who wrote that “the intoxication of the incense and the exaltation of the invocations will soon transform the phantasmagoria into a true dream: we will recognize persons we had known, phantoms will speak” (Levi, 1856/2017). Levi,  as noted, refers to the use of  a “lamp” as in the magic lanterns, used to to enhance such effects, combined with “redoubling the fire of the perfumes” and through this, “something extraordinary and unexpected will occur” (Levi 1856/2017). Like Schröpfer, regardless of any effects or “trickery”, Eckartshausen seems to have taken the invocations he performed with fumigants quite seriously.

Karl von Eckartshausen had described his own experiments with such suffumigations. He reports that immediately after throwing the narcotic substance in a brazier, a life-size human body seemed to appear right above it, with a pale colour and an ashen face. The smoke clearly affected his state of consciousness, for he could not clearly recall his conversation with the spectre afterwards and felt numb as though awakening from a dream…. When he tried it again, at a later date, he was overwhelmed by such fear that he had to leave the room. The next hours he felt very bad, and even for weeks afterwards kept feeling weak. All the while, he kept thinking that he still saw the ghostlike figure hovering in front of him. After this he never dared try again…

As I have suggested elsewhere (Hanegraaff 2012…), such experiments with poisonous narcotic suffumigations may be of greater importance to the emergence of occultism than has previously been assumed. (Hanegraaff, 2016)

Curiously, the published English translation of von Eckartshausen’s Aufschlüsse zur Magie titled Magic: The Principles of Higher Knowldge, (1989) leaves the section on drugs out, with no reference to the edit, patched in such a way that you wouldn’t notice anything was missing in the translation if you just read through the section in question. This is interesting in regards to the way many of the passages concerning psychoactive substances in magical grimoires, are treated in their modern translations and the commentaries which accompany them, and they have generally been skimmed over and ignored with no comment. This is how magic is lost….. and to this all I can say to whom ever made such a decision, is “Fick dich Miststück, Leck mich am Arsch!!”…. Ahem, as For Eckartshausen, the translation of his writings on drugs from Aufschlüsse zur Magie, that was used for Liber 420, does offer some interesting insights into his views of such substances for magic purposes, and their effects, and is more fully discussed there.

A 1791 advertisement for a stage version of the Phantasmagoria show. Over time it went from occult ritual to a staged performance, leading the way with its primitive slide projectors for the later cinema.

Interestingly in the 19th century the techniques of the Phantasmagoria went mainstream as a stage show, and on occasion some sort of drug still seems to have been used. As well,  phantasmagoria like effects were incorporated into Victorian era Masonic rituals. For more on the fascinating role of marijuana in magic check out Liber 420: Cannabis, Magickal Herbs and the Occult 

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Chris Bennett
Chris Bennett

Chris Bennett has been researching the historical role of cannabis in the spiritual life of humanity for more than a quarter of a century. He is co-author of Green Gold the Tree of Life: Marijuana in Magic and Religion (1995); Sex, Drugs, Violence and the Bible (2001); and author of Cannabis and the Soma Solution (2010); and Liber 420: Cannabis, Magickal herbs and the Occult (2018) . He has also contributed chapters on the the historical role of cannabis in spiritual practices in books such as The Pot Book (2010), Entheogens and the Development of Culture (2013), Seeking the Sacred with Psychoactive Substances (2014), One Toke Closer to God (2017), Cannabis and Spirituality (2016) and Psychedelics Reimagined (1999). Bennett’s research has received international attention from the BBC , Guardian, Sunday Times, Washington Post, Vice and other media sources. He currently resides in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada.