5 Spooky Ways Our Ancestors Used to Entertain Themselves

Before haunted houses, we watched people stab each other onstage
5 Spooky Ways Our Ancestors Used to Entertain Themselves

Today, people celebrate the spooky season by changing their screennames to be Halloween-themed. Previous generations had stranger and more complicated customs, including donning costumes, demanding candy from strangers and throwing toilet paper into trees. The past sure was weird.

If we explore the deeper past, we come upon even older customs. Our ancestors loved scaring themselves, and they could get very creative about this — or very perverted. 

Paris’ Live Horror Shows

In 1897, Le Théâtre du Grand-Guignol opened in Paris, with the goal of staging naturalistic plays showing people’s everyday lives. After a little experimenting, the owners quickly learned the public was not interested in naturalistic plays showing people’s everyday lives. They were interested in horror. Specifically, they were interested in seeing the violent crimes they read about in the news recreated onstage by live performers. 

le Grand guignol

Agence de presse Meurisse

This photo’s from 1937, by which point they’d slitted throats for decades.

The showmen focused on depicting gore, and they came up with new techniques for this. As a step beyond traditional fake blood, the Grand Guignol created a variety that people could watch congeal onstage. At the time, criminals often threw acid at victims’ faces, so the theater simulated melting flesh using latex. If you wanted to see someone being skinned alive, they had that covered, too: a sticky bandage, with the underside painted red, looked just like skin with sufficiently skilled acting. 

le Grand guignol

Agence de presse Meurisse  

By showing anatomy, these plays were educational.

While people may have come just for the violence, these plays did have plots. In one, a doctor turns his wife’s lover into a zombie through brain surgery. Then the zombie gets up and performs some crude fatal surgery on the doctor. Another medical story took place in an asylum, where a pretty new inmate joins three hags. The hags stab her eyes with scissors. 

le Grand guignol

The Drama Review

With a poster like this, how could you not buy a ticket?

Like many theaters, Le Théâtre du Grand-Guignol had both house seats and private boxes. Unlike many theaters, these private boxes were screened off, hiding the occupants from outsiders. Fairly often, audience members became aroused by the performance, and inside these boxes, they acted on their passions. Sometimes, this became audible enough to disrupt the show. Actors would stop in the middle of a scene and call out, “Have you finished yet?

After several successful years in Paris, the theater opened a new branch in London to entertain the British public. They closed almost immediately because British censors stopped them from doing anything they were famous for. 

One of the First TV Shows Was About Ghosts Describing Their Murders

Television dates back to before you might think. A TV show called The Television Ghost aired all the way back in 1931. This is remarkable because no one had yet invented a TV that used familiar tech like vacuum tubes and electron beams. In 1931, they used mechanical televisions, a now-forgotten technology involving spinning discs and (we imagine) steam-powered clockworks. 

mechanical-scan television system.

C. G. B. Rowe

This replaced the earlier system, whereby TV was transmitted by gnomes.

With CBS stepping into television with an “experimental” TV station, you might think they’d stick to the basics. News, perhaps, or maybe a live broadcast of a music performance. Nope. They jumped right in with a horror anthology show. It was hosted by a shriveled ghost, who looked something like the Crypt Keeper from the Tales From the Crypt comics, except this show predated those comics by a good 20 years. 

Each episode featured a new ghost telling the story of how they were murdered. It was a different character and story each time but was always played by the same actor (George Kelting) in the same getup since everyone was still figuring out how this whole television acting thing was going to work.

The Television Ghost


TV couldn’t yet transmit clear images, and that worked in this show’s favor.

Each episode ran 15 minutes, and the show lasted for an impressive two years. We have no recordings of it, however. TV was not recorded back then; it was simply broadcast. The studio could have separately filmed Kelting’s performances (as in, recorded it to film, with a film camera, which is a completely different process from TV broadcasting), but they didn’t. Nor did they record any of the audio. It’s gone now, vanished like a ghost. 

Fantasmagorie, Shadows on Smoke

Before TV, we had film, and before film, we had another form of entertainment that used projection. It was called the magic lantern, and it shone light through a glass slide to send an image onto a screen. Unlike with slide projectors that would be invented later, magic lantern shows sometimes used tricks to make the image seemingly move toward the viewer. They’d sometimes project onto smoke, making an image that looked like a ghost, and might reflect the light with mirrors. Yes, literal smoke and mirrors — this is where the phrase “smoke and mirrors” came from. In the late 18th century, these lantern shows tended to have a horror theme, creating a form of theater known as Fantasmagorie.


Bibliotheque National

Featuring a live skeleton, for real!

The lantern would produce (say) skeletons, “which, grinding their teeth, shook the mass of their bones and rattled their arms, while brandishing flaming torches whose pale light further heightened the horrors of the place.” Other special effects enhanced the experience. Blasts of air spread the smell of sulfur. A separate torch and a hammered tin tube simulated lightning and thunder. “Fools, who believe only in white magic,” said a voice. “Tremble! Here is Hell and all the devils.” In the audience, people would weep in fear. 

The weeping may have been physical pain in addition to emotion. One theater included wires in the floor and sent an electrical discharge to electrocute the audience. Theatergoers also faced some risk from the glass balls that exploded to give everyone a little more impact. 

Phantasmagoria medusa’s head

Laurent Mannoni Collection

Occasionally, the audience felt quite paralyzed. 

Sometimes, exhibitors tried to sell the horrors on display as actual apparitions rather than projections. Sometimes, they didn’t, but people believed this was an attempt at black magic regardless. The big man behind the Fantasmagorie, Étienne-Gaspard Robert, described himself as a scientist, even calling himself “Robertson” because he somehow thought that sounded smarter. When a spectator once asked him at a show to summon the ghost of Louis XVI, he said he’d had the recipe for this but had lost it. 

This might have been a joke. The Revolutionary police took no chances and arrested him. Gosh, what ever happened to liberté? This sounds like something British police would do. 

Burning a Sack Full of Cats

Just as we have an autumn festival for All Hallow’s Eve, the day before All Saints Day, there’s a summer festival for Saint John’s Eve, the day before the Feast of Saint John. Traditionally, people would light bonfires and dance. In the 18th century, our old friends the French took things a little further. 

Saint John's Eve

Auteur inconnu

They did not honor John the Baptist with a beheading. What they actually did was worse. 

People would throw items into the fire, for good luck. The most popular item: cats. They’d throw in a sack full of cats or would perhaps burn a cat at the stake. One historical account lists several variations on this, celebrated in different parts of France. Some people would light a cat on fire and then chase it through town. Another region would leash a cat to a maypole and dance around it as it burned. One town had a tradition of burning a dozen cats in a basket, till in 1765, a new law banned this practice. 

It's easy to conflate this with medieval stories of the public trying to exterminate cats, either from fear that they were witches’ familiars or as an attempt to control the plague. These stories tend to be apocryphal, which means that any Frenchmen who burned cats for real did so purely for fun. And if even the St. John’s Eve cat burning was apocryphal, it’s probably apocryphal no longer because some people who read about it today will surely put it into practice.  

We already associate Halloween with cats, and we also associate Halloween with fire, whether bonfires or pumpkin flames. The logical thing would be to combine cats and fire together, sanity be damned. 

The Skull Banquet

Renaissance Italy used to have some elaborate themed banquets. Maybe you’d walk into a party and find yourself surrounded by lions, which turned out to be made of pastry and were designed to be eaten. Maybe sea monsters would descend from the ceiling, and waiters would have to cut them open to retrieve the food, served on giant seashells. They all sound like fun to us, but they threw some guests off when they were just expecting a normal meal.

Take one banquet held in 1519 by Lorenzo of Florence. The guests included cardinals, courtesans and comedians. They entered the palace, which was in complete darkness. A waiter lit a candle and led them to a room with blackout curtains on all walls, covered in skulls, and with one full skeleton spotlit thanks to more directed candlelight. Lorenzo then offered the following line, innocent and even inane, which still sounded sinister in this setting: “Gentleman, have lunch, for then we shall proceed to dinner.” 

skull candle

Micheal Elliott Photography via Unsplash

Eat, drink and be merry. Hey, how does the second half of that line go? 

The skulls were all edible, you see (guests would have foreseen this twist if they’d attended any other such banquets). But before they could start on the meal, the table rotated, sending the skulls flying at everyone. The guests moved quickly to the next room now, where more traditional food came their way, but thanks to the darkness, they couldn’t see who brought it. 

Then two famous jesters arrived, Mariano and Brandino. “I am Mariano, and I too want to eat,” said one of them. Only problem was, Mariano and Bradino were both already guests at this banquet, so they didn’t understand the presence of these impersonators. “Since you and I are here,” said the real Mariano to the real Bradino, “I don’t know what those things might be.”

Portrait of an Augustinian Monk, identified as Fra Mariano da Genezzano

Yale University Art Gallery

It was like a screwball comedy, like Jordan Peele’s Us.

The entire room now started spinning. Not because everyone was drunk — Lorenzo had installed mechanisms to rotate the whole room like a carnival ride. The women screamed. Various guests started vomiting, including two cardinals. No one could eat anything more because they all felt too nauseous. 

This is remembered by documentarians as the most beautiful dinner hosted in Rome, ever. So, if you find yourself vomiting at 2 a.m. Halloween night, frightened and not knowing what’s happening, don’t regret a night gone wrong. All has transpired according to plan. 

Follow Ryan Menezes on Twitter for more stuff no one should see.

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