Charles Dickens, Christmas Ghost Stories, and Victorian Magic Lantern Shows

Dickens, ghosts, and Christmas just seem to go together. After all, who does not have at least a rudimentary idea of the plot of A Christmas Carol or know the name of Scrooge and his catchphrase of ‘bah humbug!’? One does not have to look hard to find a ‘Victorian Christmas’ themed event either – something which is no doubt due in part to the repeated presence of Dickensian characters on our screens at this time of year.

Indeed the connection between ghost stories and Christmas goes back beyond Dickens to at least the early nineteenth century. Washington Irving writes of telling ‘strange accounts of popular superstitions and legends of the surrounding country’ by the fireside on Christmas Day in The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent. (1820). But although Dickens did not invent the Christmas ghost story, he certainly helped to establish its place as a major cultural tradition. And one of the ways in which this popularisation occurred was through visual adaptations of his work.


Figure 1. Magic Lantern Slide. ‘The Story of The Goblin Who Stole a Sexton’ (from The Pickwick Papers) c. 1850-80. Courtesy of the National Media Museum.

Dickens’s first Christmas ghost story appeared in his first novel, The Pickwick Papers (1837). In the novel, a character tells ‘The Story of The Goblins Who Stole a Sexton’ in which Gabriel Grub, an ill-humoured sexton who is digging a grave one Christmas Eve, is visited by goblins who pull him underground to meet their king. In a tale that prefigures some of the themes of A Christmas Carol, the goblin shows Gabriel a series of tableaux until ‘he came to the conclusion that it was a very decent and respectable sort of world after all’. The story is interesting not only because it offers some insight into how Dickens’s ideas for A Christmas Carol evolved, but also because it was so frequently adapted into magic lantern shows (see figures 1 and 2).


Figure 2. Magic lantern slide showing Gabriel Grubb. Undated. From

The magic lantern was, essentially, a projector that used a series of lenses to project the image from a painted slide on to a screen. The technology itself had been around since at least the seventeenth century, though it gained a massive popularity at the end of the eighteenth century that lasted throughout most of the Victorian age. The images of the magic lantern were, by the nature of the darkened room and the sense of transparency and intangibility, rather ghostly, and showmen took advantage of this by showing grotesque and supernatural subjects which they would accompany with stories and narration. If we think of modern film versions of A Christmas Carol as being a part our modern experience of Christmas, then we can see the precursor of this in magic lantern slides. Indeed, for the purposes of this blog post at least, we might consider the magic lantern as a kind of early cinema in the same way that Gabriel Grub was an early Ebenezer Scrooge. Looking at these slides we can see the beginnings of our own Christmas traditions, but we also get an insight into how early Dickensian images of Christmas were created outside of literature.

There were, of course, adaptations of A Christmas Carol for the magic lantern too (figure 3). Slides like this bring a welcome element of domesticity to the magic lantern show which isn’t present in the tale of Gabriel Grub. If the thought of Christmas ghost stories conjures up ideas of warm firesides (as it did for Washington Irving) then this slide of a scene from A Christmas Carol gives us an image to accompany that thought. Not only is there a fire place on the edge of the slide, but there is a snug looking bed too. And rather than the cold blues and greens of the underground land of goblins and graveyards, there are the warm hues of a well-to-do house. In place of strange and grotesque goblins, we have a rosy cheeked ghost. This is a Christmas scene that makes us think of the comfort and warmth of domestic life. It caters to, and plays a part in forming, the sense of domestic comfort and contentment that goes along with the rich foods and drink, crackling fires, and everything else that make up our Christmas traditions.


Figure 3. From ‘A Christmas Carol’. Undated. Courtesy of the National Media Museum.

Magic lantern slides can tell us something about how we read Dickens’s works too. Slides from a show of the tale of Gabriel Grub that utilise both painting and photography are particularly interesting (see figure 4). This slide comes from a series which, in a way somewhat analogous to the use of monochrome and colour film in The Wizard of Oz (1939), uses painted artwork to depict the fantastical realm of goblins and photography to show the ‘real’ world. The photograph has been coloured by hand which gives it a slightly unreal appearance to modern eyes, but otherwise it fits in to our expectations of photographic accuracy. This contrasts strikingly with the obviously fictitious artistic painting that surrounds it. These two modes – photograph and painting – offer us an interesting way to read Dickens.


Figure 4. Magic Lantern Slide. The Goblin King showing Gabriel Grub scenes of everyday people. Undated. From

Photography holds a certain cultural weight as a supposedly ideal method of realist depiction of the world. The sense of realism one gets from a photograph was not lost on nineteenth-century commentators either. Edgar Allan Poe, for example, praised the ‘absolute truth’ of the daguerreotype, an early form of photograph (‘The Daguerreotype’, 1840). Likewise, in unveiling his invention Louis Daguerre himself promised it was ‘not merely an instrument which serves to draw Nature; on the contrary it is a chemical and physical process which gives her the power to reproduce herself’ (1839). Photography from the start was advertised as nature reproduced.

On the other hand, the magic lantern has long been associated with the supernatural, the ghostly, and the unreal, hence the name magic lantern. And indeed, the massively popular form of magic lantern show from the late 18th century was called the ‘phantasmagoria’. A quick look in the Oxford English Dictionary tells us that this was the first usage of the word. The second usage – the one more familiar to us – meaning ‘a rapidly transforming collection or series of imaginary (and usually fantastic) forms, such as may be experienced in a dream or fevered state’ comes from this show.

The combination of that seemingly perfect photographic realism with the fantastical, phantasmagorical form of the magic lantern and the painted glass slide, might suggest a certain tension within Dickens’ works themselves. When we read A Christmas Carol for example, we begin, having been culturally informed, expecting a ghost story. Yet as we read, we begin to have a lingering sense of doubt that these aren’t ghosts at all. It begins at the very start with the narrator’s repeated insistence that ‘Marley was dead, to begin with. There is no doubt whatever about that’. And it follows through until we get to Scrooge’s famous suggestion that there is more of ‘gravy than the grave’ about the ghost. It doesn’t really matter, of course, whether it is a real  ghost (whatever that means) or a hallucination brought on by an ‘underdone potato’, the moral effect on Scrooge remains the same. If one wants to deal in effectiveness, then underdone potatoes would seem to be as good as visitors from the other world.

This line between the sort of material realism you get in a photograph, interested in physicality, and the fantastical is one that Dickens is constantly straddling, refusing to ever cross to either side for long. In his early journalistic work Sketches by Boz (1839) we find him bemoaning that, on one occasion, ‘by some means or other, we were not in a romantic humour; and although we tried very hard to invest the furniture with vitality, it remains perfectly unmoved, obstinate, and sullen’. Even here in his supposedly ‘realist’ mode – that of the journalistic documentary, he wants to animate the furniture, to do something fantastical, to tell a story. In some ways we still view Dickens in this way, as a sort of amalgamation of photographic realist and fantastical painter, whether this is in our competing perceptions of him as social activist and eminent novelist, or in our depictions of him in popular media as a kind of semi-fictional, semi-real cultural figure.

On Saturday 14th December (2-6pm) Belgrave Hall in Leicester will host a Victorian Christmas event, which will feature a magic lantern show, as well as Victorian dancing. Entry is free and refreshments will be available. Please see the Leicester City Council website for more information.


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