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From Phantasmagoria to Video Games: A Short History of Popular Occulture

Throughout the modern era there has been a popular appetite for occult-themed experiences. Think back to those wonderful phantasmagoria shows of the early nineteenth century.

 

Phantasmagoria were magic lantern shows that projected all kinds of frightening images onto screens. It is often considered the first “horror theatre.” The earliest phantasmagoria shows began in the late 1790s, but they continued to be popular throughout the following century.

 

Audiences attending phantasmagoria would encounter all kinds of horrifying ghouls at these performances. Skeletons, demons, ghosts, and goblins, are just some of the nasties captured in the slides.




CAPTION: Étienne-Gaspard Robert’s Phantasmagoria at the Cour des Capucines in 1797


With the advent of modern spiritualism from the late 1840s onward, another kind of occultic (and equally immersive) experience became popular: séances.

 

There were all kinds of séance performances during the height of the modern spiritualist movement between the late 1840s and the end of the Great War. Some were designed for small private audiences. Others, were bigger public affairs.

 

All manner of incredible phenomena were supposedly witnessed at these events ranging from spirit communications, levitation, or even my personally favourite, spirit apports. These were sensational feats where objects were said to be carried into locked séance rooms by spirits, and dropped down on the table for the sitters to inspect.

 

One famous Victorian medium named Agnes Elisabeth Guppy was allegedly so skilled at encouraging spirits to carry things into her séances that there are multiple accounts claiming it would sometimes snow over her sitters, almost as if a cloud hovered above their heads.



CAPTION: Spirit Photograph Featuring Guppy (Right), Along with Fellow Spiritualists Mrs Tebb (Left) and Georgiana Houghton (Centre)


As popular forms of occultic entertainment continued to blossom, those involved in the burgeoning industry were quick to adapt new forms of media technology to their performances. Photography, film, and radio were just some of the media that popular occultic practitioners used to engage broad audiences.

 

After the Great War there was a steady decline in popular occulture. However, things began to change by the mid 1960s, when occultism regained popularity with the counterculture movement of the period. By the 1970s occultic themes were widely prevalent in popular media again.


Stephen King’s novel Salem’s Lot from 1975 was a best-seller, and it even won a World Fantasy Award in 1976. The story is set in the small town of Jerusalem’s Lot in Maine. The protagonist Ben Mears, a writer, returns to the town only to discover that the residents are slowly becoming vampires.




CAPTION: Cover to Stephen King’s Salem’s Lot 


Vampires have long been central to popular representations of the occult. They are, to a certain degree, the perfect representation of the sacrilege. They are evil, soulless beings looming in the dark and preying on the vulnerable. They are harbingers of death and destruction.

 

Vampires also translate well to popular entertainment. Novels such as Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1897), filled with all kinds of action and drama, are easily adapted to different forms of media.

 

The 1992 Francis Ford Coppola film based on Stoker’s novel is probably the most well-known adaption. It is a mixed bag, even if it has become a classic vampire film. While Gary Oldman was wonderful as Count Dracula, the shoddy British accent of Keanu Reeves, who portrayed the solicitor Jonathan Harker, is difficult to forget. Winona Ryder’s performance isn’t much better as Mina Harker. Anthony Hopkins fairs better, and was a pretty good Abraham Van Helsing.




CAPTION: Film Poster for Francis Ford Coppola’s Cinematic Adaption of Bram Stoker’s Dracula


The film was a box office smash, grossing over 200 million dollars, compared to its budget of only 40 million. Throughout the film the viewer is hit by a barrage of well-known occult-themed imagery. You’ve got lots of scenes in Gothic castles, dark candle-lit spaces, monsters looming in the shadows, and crucifixes galore!

 

Coppola’s cinematic adaption of Stoker’s novel might be well-known to most vampire enthusiasts, but the video game produced as part of the film's wider marketization is largely forgotten.




CAPTION: Box Art for the Super Nintendo Version of Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1993)


In a bid to cash in even further on the success of the film, a video game loosely based on the cinematic story was created by the British game developers Psygnosis Limited. It was essentially a side-scrolling platformer. The player is Jonathan Harker and needs to hack and slash his way to Dracula and defeat him. 


The occultic imagery throughout the gameplay is fantastic and typical of the period. The game opens with a dark and stormy night with flashes of lightning, before the figure of a monstrous foe (Dracula) appears.




CAPTION: Gameplay from Bram Stoker’s Dracula


The levels are also visually quite Gothic. Harker, for example, fights his way through eerie caverns and spooky forests on route to an old castle set against the backdrop of mountains.

 

Occult-themed games were immensely popular during the 1980s and early 1990s with mega hits like Super Ghouls ‘n Ghosts and Super Castlevania IV regularly ranking among the most popular video games of the time.




CAPTION: Box Art for the Super Nintendo Game Super Ghouls ‘n Ghosts (1991)




CAPTION: Box Art for the Super Nintendo Game Super Castlevania IV (1991)


The makers of the video game for Bram Stoker’s Dracula were hoping to rake in on the popularity of the genre. However, the game was too derivative, and a poorer version of Super Ghouls ‘n Ghosts and Super Castlevania IV.

 

If you were a gamer in the early 1990s and had to choose between buying one of these two classics or Bram Stoker’s Dracula, it is doubtful you’d spend your money on the film-inspired adaption of Stoker’s novel.

 

Popular occultic themes in media entertainment have a long history. As early as the 1790s we see examples of immersive performances like phantasmagoria, where audiences had the opportunity to encounter terrifying creatures for fun. As new media technologies developed in the centuries ahead, more forms of popular occultic media were created.


The horror film industry is the most well-known form of popular occulture, but the cultural phenomenon generally can be seen elsewhere.

 

By the early 1990s occult-themed video games were one of the most popular ways for people to engaged the horrible or macabre. This was only the beginning of horror-inspired gaming.

 

Nowadays, it has grown to become a mega industry. Players can choose from a wide-range of series devoted to the occult. Franchises like Diablo and Resident Evil have grossed billions of dollars and there is no end in sight to this darker form of entertainment.

 

Popular occulture in media may have started out as a more fringe form of entertainment, but today it is firmly rooted in mainstream society.


REFERENCES

 

Christine Ferguson and Andrew Radford (eds.), The Occult Imagine in Britain, 1875-1947, (Abingdon: Routledge, 2018).

 

Kirstin A. Mills, ‘Vampires and Digital Mobile Media,’ in The Palgrave Handbook of the Vampire, ed. Simon Bacon, (Palgrave Macmillan: 2023) ONLINE FIRST COPY, 1-17.

 

Simone Natale, Supernatural Entertainments: Victorian Spiritualism and the Rise of Modern Media Culture, (University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2016)

 

Christopher Partridge, “Occulture Is Ordinary,” in Contemporary Esotericism, eds. Egil Asprem and Kennet Granhlom, (Abingdon: Routledge, 2013), 113–133.

 

Carl Wilson, ‘Vampires in Video Games,’ in The Palgrave Handbook of the Vampire, ed. Simon Bacon, (Palgrave Macmillan: 2023) ONLINE FIRST COPY, 1-19.



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