The Untold Truth About Carnivals

“Magic Lantern” shows predated film

We’ve all heard the tale (that’s probably not true) about the audience fleeing the theater at one of the early short films because they thought the train was coming at them. It may be surprising to learn that these same audiences may have already been familiar with rudimentary animation from carnival sideshows in the form of what were called “magic lantern” shows. Part mechanical and part shadow-puppet, they were projected on the wall or through a special visor using a strategically placed lantern.

Much of the fare was family-friendly historical vignettes or replications of foreign landscapes. However, it wasn’t uncommon for them to depict gruesome horror or even pornographic scenes for adult audiences. Because sometimes, day-to-day life in the 19th century was so stressful, the only way to unwind was to watch psychedelic puppets boink and/or murder each other. Simpler times and such.