Ectoplasm, The Fabric of the Occult
Sitting in near darkness, a group of sitters assemble around a large table, waiting with baited breath as a medium or seer conjures spirits from the hereafter. Almost indistinguishable at first a strange substance begins to exude from the ears and nose of the psychic. It’s white and billowy, like a cloud, but as it forms it becomes more gelatinous and begins to take shape in the air above the table. The witnesses hold their gasps of disbelief and watch as the ectoplasm morphs loosely into the form of a small girl, the shape of the ghost with whom they have finally made contact.
The above description of a séance or a variation thereof could probably be found in just about any book on 18th or 19th century spiritualism, as it was the common experience of those who participated in the trendy fad of contacting the dead. A large component of those experiences was the witnessing of ectoplasm materialization, and as such there has been a great deal of investigation of the phenomenon, calling many of the accounts and evidence into question.
The term ectoplasm was coined by the French physiologist Charles Richet in 1894 but its discovery has been traced to the works of 17th century alchemist Thomas Vaughan. According to the inimitable Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, ectoplasm enjoyed its first published description in 1774 at the whim of famed 18th century seer, Emmanuel Swedenborg, wherein he said of ectoplasm:
"…a kind of vapour steaming from the pores of my body. It was a most visible watery vapour and fell downwards to the ground upon the carpet.”
As far as definitions are concerned, ectoplasm has two, but we’re only interested in the classic rather than the biochemical (relating to cytoplasm), ectoplasm is:
A substance said to be excreted by mediums during trances; a slime-like substance said to be associated with hauntings.
A good portion of the modern paranormal community views ectoplasm as something altogether different thanks in part to its use in the classic movie Ghostbusters. It’s largely thought of as the residual physical after-effects of ghostly manifestation or apparitions, but those of us who are more traditional reject that notion in favour of its original expression. Though in its original form it is largely regarded as a fraud.
Popular among late 19th and early 20th century occult enthusiasts, ectoplasm became a staple of the séance, wowing sitters (the term used for séance attendees) along side the tipping table and mediums trumpet. As the description above suggests, it is, or was thought to be a supernatural substance excreted through various bodily orifices by the medium. In some instances the ectoplasm would be a simple gelatinous blob, but other times it would take the form of a specific entity, using the ghost’s non-corporeal shape as a sort of wire frame.
Here’s the catch though, it was believed that ectoplasm would disintegrate under the harsh rays of light, so, as was common anyway, séances were held in near or total darkness (which would greatly inhibit the sitter’s ability to detect a fraud). This atmosphere of darkness and mystery did foster quite a few wild tales, and famous psychics such as Elizabeth D’Esperance, Eva C. and Mina "Margery” Crandon were scrutinised by many investigators and scientists.
The first systematic study of ectoplasm was a joint effort by Baron Albert von Schrenck-Notzing and Juliette Bisson, who experimented with Eva C. Prior to this, Gabriel Delanne, Enrico Morselli, and Charles Richet published descriptions of the different evolutionary states of ectoplasm. Most famously the literary giant Sir Arthur Conan Doyle investigated and was apparently taken in by the phenomenon.
While many witnesses were convinced that these mediums were in fact manifesting a physical representation of the dearly departed, scientific efforts eventually debunked nearly every documented instance of ectoplasm. Commonly it was found that mediums used fabric, such as cheesecloth, or butter muslin to simulate ectoplasm.
Many grotesque photographs of what were supposed to be ectoplasm have been put forward over the years. They tend to show gelatinous, viscous material oozing from all the natural orifices of the medium’s body, and also from the top of the head, from the breasts, and from the fingertips. Most often it comes from the mouth. The form of the substance varies, according to Gustave Geley – French physician and psychical researcher – between threads, cords, rigid rays, membranes, and fabric-like or woven material with indefinite and irregular outlines.
As mentioned, the modern idea of ectoplasm resembles not the true history of this wonderfully weird phenomenon. In fact much of what the modern paranormal investigator does is so departed from the traditional notions of occultism and spiritualism that one wonders where the current ideology of ghostly phenomenon came from. In my opinion, the modern paranormal investigator would do well to delve into the rich history of ghost hunting available at their fingertips and perhaps even try to duplicate the results of earlier spiritual efforts.
What do you think of ectoplasm and its associated methodologies? Voice your opinion in the comment section below.