Tag Archives: theatrical effects

Weird Ghost Girls: 1914

Weird Ghost Girls Bathe in Light That They May Be Truly Ghostly.

An Indian maiden has a song to sing. What does she sing of? Men long dead. What does she say of them? She invokes their spirits; she invites them to reappear on earth. A sweet, strange music fills the air—but it does not come from her throat. The light grows dim, and from out the gloom glide forms pale and shadowy, in long robes of light. Noiselessly, swiftly they flit up and down the long aisles. The music but emphasizes the eerie silence. Then, suddenly, it ends in a discordant shriek. Up blaze the lights. The ghosts have faded—vanished into thin air.

Of course it is only a trick, you say to your neighbor. You are not quite sure that you are back on solid earth again, for surely you must have been in Shadowland. Otherwise, how could figures clad in blinding light dart past you, so close that you could almost touch them? You could understand it if they were on the stage, or if huge reflectors were enveloping them in dazzling beams. But they were no on the stage, and no slanting cones of light were breaking the darkness overhead. How is it done? How can human beings—for they must be human beings to move so surely and swiftly—radiate light from their own persons?

Well, it used to be a secret, but it will be no longer. Pale, pretty girls bathed in light—white light, the cold dead gleam of a winter moon, which off times scares the midnight wayfarer by lurking shadows cast in churchyard corners.

You don’t see how a girl could be baked in light? Well, come into the dressing room half an hour before the performance starts. There you will see the chorus girls “make up” for their ghost act. Over their costumes they slip doublets and cloaks of a white leathery substance painted with phosphorus. Cowls of the same material shroud their heads and faces. Then electricians take the soon-to-be-spirits in hand. In a row of giant arc lights, armed with powerful reflectors, stand the girls, and for twenty minutes or more they bathe in the strongest rays that a dynamo can conjure up. There they turn and twist until every portion of their costumes has been exposed to the light over and over again. Big black goggles have to be worn the whole time, for no eye could stand the intense glare, even for a moment. The phosphorescent paint with which they are daubed drinks in the light and stores it up until the time comes for the ghosts to flit up and down the aisles, thrilling the audience by their nightly apparition. But this paint must be renewed regularly or the power of the phosphorus would die out, leaving the ghosts just ordinary mortals.

But how do they pop so suddenly out of the darkness of the auditorium and fade away again? Quite simple! Each ghost has a gown and hood of deepest black and an attendant to handle it. They steal softly to the head of the aisles in parquet and balcony and stand there behind the audience ready for the cue. It comes. Off slip the robes and hoods and down the aisles play the weird forms. So quickly do they dart in and out through the auditorium that the spectators are conscious of nothing but a moving streak of gleaming light. And all the time the orchestra plays strange fairy music and so softly that it seems to come from a great distance. Otherwise, not a sound is heard, and the vast theater is plunged in utter darkness save for the ghostly figures of the light-robed girls. The effect is weird. You sit half terrified, half fascinated, and absolutely silent. The apparitions gradually move toward the head of the aisles. Then the attendant slips on the hood and robe and darkness envelops them once more. Up go the lights, and the thrill is ended.

Plain Dealer [Cleveland, OH] 11 January 1914: p. 37

Mrs Daffodil’s Aide-memoire: The thrill might be ended for the audience, but one wonders how long the horror went on for the “pale, pretty girls,” exposed to the poisonous phosphorus. Possibly the leather gave some protection, but one is not sanguine.

The dangers of phosphorus were well-known; the match-girls of London went on strike in 1888 to protest their exposure to the toxic substance, which caused a horrible disease called “phossy jaw,” (phosphorus necrosis of the jaw). Phosphorus was banned from matches in 1906, but was still available for other applications, including, apparently, theatrical special effects. We have met with an equally dire exposure before, in a novel Parisian “x-ray spook party.”

Mrs Daffodil invites you to join her on the curiously named “Face-book,” where you will find a feast of fashion hints, fads and fancies, and historical anecdotes

You may read about a sentimental succubus, a vengeful seamstress’s ghost, Victorian mourning gone horribly wrong, and, of course, Mrs Daffodil’s efficient tidying up after a distasteful decapitation in A Spot of Bother: Four Macabre Tales.


Week-end Compendium: 23 January 2016

"The Snow Queen"

“The Snow Queen”

Mrs Daffodil  hopes that all of you are warm and safe from the impending snow-storms, or, if house-bound, have sufficient bread, milk, and brandy laid on.

This week’s links for Mrs Daffodil:

Sixteen-button Bouffants: A Chat with the Fashion Gazette Editor: 1888, in which an innocent young girl is given some quixotic fashion advice by a well-meaning male editor.

The Flapper and Her Corset: 1921 offers dire warnings to all flappers who wish to leave off their under-pinnings. An early example of “fat-shaming.”

The sad story of Old Lisbeth and her ghostly visit to a former master who had treated her kindly.

See Mrs Daffodil on Sunday for how to make a sandstorm on stage.

Over at the Haunted Ohio blog we find the following:

“Uncanny Meteors:” Spook Lights in New Zealand, in which a naturalist relates his very close encounter with apparently sentient glowing orbs.

The Ghost of Mary Seneff, who haunted the site of her watery grave, after she was hacked to death and thrown into a local creek.

From the Archives: Enough Rope: The Hangman’s Rope in the Press, a light-hearted look at specifications for hangmen’s ropes and the superstitions surrounding them.

Favourite posts of the week: Cellphones and the Paranormal. And The Awful Greatness of the Cherry Sisters.

A "Snowflake" costume by "Zig," c. 1925. http://collections.vam.ac.uk/item/O1222891/costume-design-zig/

A “Snowflake” costume by “Zig,” c. 1925. http://collections.vam.ac.uk/item/O1222891/costume-design-zig/

Mrs Daffodil invites you to join her on the curiously named “Face-book,” where you will find a feast of fashion hints, fads and fancies, and historical anecdotes

You may read about a sentimental succubus, a vengeful seamstress’s ghost, Victorian mourning gone horribly wrong, and, of course, Mrs Daffodil’s efficient tidying up after a distasteful decapitation in A Spot of Bother: Four Macabre Tales.

Chris Woodyard is the author of The Victorian Book of the Dead, The Ghost Wore Black, The Headless Horror, The Face in the Window, and the 7-volume Haunted Ohio series. She is also the chronicler of the adventures of that amiable murderess Mrs Daffodil in A Spot of Bother: Four Macabre Tales. The books are available in paperback and for Kindle. Indexes and fact sheets for all of these books may be found by searching hauntedohiobooks.com. Join her on FB at Haunted Ohio by Chris Woodyard or The Victorian Book of the Dead.

Mrs Daffodil Reviews Her Readers’ Favourite Posts of 2015

reading woman


Mrs Daffodil has been leafing through her scrapbooks and noting the posts that most found favour among her readers. As the year 2015 passes, here are some nostalgic favourites. Mrs Daffodil wishes her readers the happiest of New Years!

An archival post on The Angel of Gettysburg is a perennial favourite.

A look at the grewsome relics of King Charles I was also popular.

A Bashful Bridegroom was the “hit” of the June bridal specials.

Strange Flower Superstitions in Many Lands continues to fascinate.

How to Make Stage-Thunder and Lightning seems to have struck a chord.

Also popular were An X-ray Spook Party, Motto Dresses, Men who wear Corsets, Bicycle Jewellery, and, a personal favourite of Mrs Daffodil, who was able to “scoop” that person of mortuary fancies over at Haunted Ohio, The Death Drawer.

Mrs Daffodil will return to her regular level of service early in January 2016. Happy New Year!

Mrs Daffodil invites you to join her on the curiously named “Face-book,” where you will find a feast of fashion hints, fads and fancies, and historical anecdotes

You may read about a sentimental succubus, a vengeful seamstress’s ghost, Victorian mourning gone horribly wrong, and, of course, Mrs Daffodil’s efficient tidying up after a distasteful decapitation in A Spot of Bother: Four Macabre Tales.




How to Make Stage Thunder and Lightning: 1829-1900


Stage thunder machine with cannon-balls.

Stage thunder machine with cannon-balls.

It is raining “cats and dogs” at the Hall—one may take the “April Showers” reference as read—and Mrs Daffodil has been peeping out the window, hoping for lightning displays.  Nature, however, has disappointed.  Mrs Daffodil has been at the theatre recently and the “natural” thunder-and-lightning has proved utterly inadequate when compared to the theatrical article.  Let us draw back the curtain on how these effects were produced in the theatres of the past.


Mr. Lee, when he was manager of the Edinburgh Theatre, was determined to improve on stage thunder, and having procured a parcel of nine-pound shot, they were put into a wheelbarrow, to which he affixed a nine-pound wheel; this done, ledges were placed at the back of the stage, and one of the carpenters was ordered to trundle this wheelbarrow, so filled, backwards and forwards over these ledges. The play was Lear, and in the two first efforts had a good effect; at length, as the King was braving the pelting of the pitiless storm, the thunderer’s foot slipped and down he came, wheelbarrow and all. The stage being on a declivity, the balls made their way towards the orchestra, and meeting with feeble resistance from the scene, laid it flat. This storm was more difficult for Lear to encounter than the tempest of which he so loudly complained; the balls taking every direction, he was obliged to skip about like the man who dances the egg hornpipe. The fiddlers, alarmed for their cat-gut, hurried out of the orchestra; and, to crown this scene of glorious confusion, the sprawling thunder lay prostrate in sight of the audience like another Salmoneus. The Dramatic Magazine, Issue 1, 1829

This was a special make of thunder. A very common kind is produced by rattling suspended sheets of iron or tin, and, to punctuate with crashes the roll thereby caused, dropping at intervals cannon-balls or heavy pieces of iron or lead. How much it resembles real thunder may be judged from a story that is told of Sir Augustus Harris. He was staging a storm. “Now, then,” he shouted, “hurry up with that thunder.” Immediately he had spoken a clap of real thunder burst over Drury Lane Theatre. “Not a bit like it!” exclaimed Sir Augustus angrily, proceeding to give directions that another man should be employed to manipulate the “teatray,” as the thunder sheet is sometimes flippantly called. At the Adelphi Theatre, where no pains are spared to secure realistic effects, thunder is produced by beating with a drum-stick a six-foot square leather-bound reverberator. When the thundermaker was new to this instrument and had not yet learnt its power, he played upon it with such effect that many rushed in terror to the exits. From the same instrument, differently manipulated, is produced the booming of cannon.

Though thunder is often heard in nature without lightning being seen, it is seldom so in the case of the manufactured article. Lightning is easily made, and it helps to bear out the illusion. Some thunder is so bad that, but for the lightning, it would not be recognised. In pre-electric days powdered resin, which is still burnt to imitate conflagrations, used to be blown through a flame to make flashes; now electric lamps, quickly flashed and extinguished, are employed. In outdoor scenes, the electric light is flashed behind cloud scenery, in which there is a zigzag opening covered with some transparent material. This gives a very powerful effect, vividly resembling the forked lightning of actuality, with its blanching terrors. By means of electric light, shed through coloured screens, all ordinary shades of sunlight and moonlight are now strikingly imitated. When the moon herself is visible, and supplies the light direct, she consists of a glass disc set in a case, with a light and a powerful reflector.

Water-scenes, however, which used to be generally represented by mirrors, are now made more realistic by means of the presence of actual water in the tank-stage. This water, coloured green and plentifully supplied with suds to provide foam, agitated by a broad paddle with hinged blade, becomes an ocean, the swish of the waves being represented by slowly working the rainmaking appliance. If required, a rocking deck-scene can be added by an additional flooring placed upon the stage and hinged to it in front; the back corners are then drawn irregularly up and down by cables worked by machinery. A most effective and thrilling touch is given to such a scene by the introduction of twinkling stars. These come from judiciously distributed incandescent lights, shining through a dark blue curtain allowed to swing gently. The scenic artist can easily provide a fog or mist, if wanted, by means of gauze suspended in front of the scene. Movable clouds are painted on canvas, and can be made to rise or fall diagonally or otherwise by winding machinery.

A rain-making machine, full of shot

A rain-making machine, full of shot

The patter of rain comes, true to nature, from a rapidly-revolved, large metallic drum, containing small shot or hard peas; and the howl of the wind from a cogged cylinder worked against a tightly-stretched sheet, which gives an exaggeration of the whistling sound one hears on moving the hands over new silk.

Pale moonlight special effect

Pale moonlight special effect

One or two different methods of manufacturing stage-thunder have already been described. In the machine illustrated cannonballs are also used. These are let go on the inclined plane marked X, and roll rumbling down till they strike the iron plate at the top of the box, so giving the crash which is succeeded by another crash when they reach the bottom. Cassell’s Magazine, Volume 20, 1900

Mrs Daffodil’s Aide-memoire: The expression “to steal one’s thunder,” comes from the theatrical tradition thusly:

We are told by Alexander Pope, that stage thunder was invented by that great critic john Dennis, who was so jealous of his bolt being wielded by an improper hand, that being once in the pit at Drury-lane theatre when the company were performing Macbeth, and hearing the bowls rattling over his head, he started from his seat, grasped his oaken stick, and exclaimed, with an emphasis that drowned the voices of the players, “Eternal curses light on these  scoundrels! they have stolen my thunder, and don’t know  how to roll it!”

[The “bowls” refers to a tradition of beating bowls with pestles to produce thunder.]

When De Loutherbourg, who was for a time scene-painter at Drury Lane under Mr. Garrick’s management, opened his dioramic exhibition, which he called the “Eidophusicon,” we learn that the imitation of thunder with which he accompanied some of his pictures was very natural and grand. A large sheet of thin copper was suspended by a chain, and being shaken by one of the lower corners, produced the sound as of a distant rumbling, seemingly below the horizon; and as the clouds rolled over the scene, approaching nearer and nearer, the thunder increased, peal by peal, “until,” says an enthusiastic eye-witness, “following rapidly the lightning’s zigzag flash, which was admirably vivid and sudden, it burst in a tremendous crash immediately overhead.” Tubes charged with peas, and gradually turned and returned on end, represented the fall and patter of hail and rain; and two hoops, covered with silk tightly strained, tambourine fashion, and pressed against each other with a quick motion, emitted hollow whistling sounds in imitation of gusts of wind.

Appliances something similar to these are still in use at the modern theatres when a storm has to be represented. The noise of storm has been simulated, however, by other methods: notably by rolling to and fro a large empty cask on the floor of the room above tho ceiling of the theatre; a plan rather calculated to excite the anxiety of the spectators lest the thunder should come down bodily, crashing through the roof into the pit. Once a Week, 23 June, 1866