Encyclopedia of Occultism and Parapsychology. Editor: J Gordon Melton. 5th edition. Volume 1. Detroit: Gale, 2001.
A term coined by psychical researcher Charles Richet and widely used in Spiritualism, derived from the Greek ektos and plasma (meaning “exteriorized substance”). It denotes a mysterious vaporlike substance that, Spiritualists claimed, streamed out of the body of entranced mediums. The manipulation of ectoplasm, either by the subconscious self or by discarnate intelligences, resulted in the phenomena of a superphysical order (including partial and complete materializations.) Psychoplasm and teleplasm are terms similarly used to convey the same meaning, the latter denoting action at a distance from the medium’s body, while ideoplasm progresses a step further and means the molding of the ectoplasm into the likeness of a self.
From the eighteenth century through the early twentieth century, numerous reports of an ectoplasmic substance were reported. Emanuel Swedenborg, for example, in his first vision spoke of “a kind of vapour steaming from the pores of my body.” It was a visible watery vapor and fell downward to the ground upon the carpet. Eugene A. D. Rochas compared the luminous vapor he saw arising from the breast of Elizabeth d’Esperance to the Milky Way. Paul Lecour likened the process to the condensation of a nebula. The same idea is suggested by Venzano’s description of a mass of swirling vapor at the side of Eusapia Palladino. In the case of Franek Kluski and that ofEva C., the substance was observed as white luminous spots from the size of a pea to that of a crown piece on the medium’s clothes. In Kluski’s case they were much brighter than in Eva’s.Gustav Geley described a dimly phosphorescent column that formed beside him, out of which a luminous hand, perfectly formed and of natural size, appeared and patted him several times on the forearm in a friendly way. At the slight shock, a drop of luminous liquid fell on his sleeve and shone there for 15 to 20 minutes after the disappearance of the hand.
D’Esperance wrote of her experiences with ectoplasm:
“As soon as I have entered the mediumistic cabinet, my first impression is of being covered with spider webs. Then I feel that the air is filled with substance, and a kind of white and vaporous mass, quasi luminous, like the steam from a locomotive, is formed in front of the abdomen. After this mass has been tossed and agitated in every way for some minutes, sometimes even for half an hour, it suddenly stops, and then out of it is born a living being close to me.”
Another time she added, “It seemed that I could feel fine threads being drawn out of the pores of my skin.” This is significant in view of the cloudy, faintly luminous threads between the phantom and the medium that are sometimes observed in materialization séances. Such séances may help in understanding telekinetic phenomena.
The claimed discovery of ectoplasm is, of course, not recent. In the works of the alchemist Thomas Vaughan (1622-1666) is found a description under the term first matter or mercury of a substance, drawn from the body, that has some of the characteristics of ectoplasm. However, 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. Subsequently, important contributions to the discussion were made by Gustave Geley.
The questions that entertained psychical researchers, besides the basic one of establishing the very existence of ectoplasm, were its properties, the effect of its outflow upon the medium, and the means by which it could be manipulated. It was originally hypothesized that ectoplasm was a form of matter, invisible and intangible in its primary state but assuming vaporous, liquid, or solid condition in various stages of condensation. It was said to smell like ozone and to possess a number of extraordinary properties.
Experimental Findings and Inferences
A variety of photographs of what were supposed to be ectoplasm was put forward, some of which are rather repulsive. They show gelatinous, viscous material oozing from all the natural orifices of the medium’s body—from the mouth, ears, nose, eyes, and lower orifices, 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 Geley, between threads, cords, rigid rays, membranes, and fabriclike or woven material with indefinite and irregular outlines. The most curious picture is that of a widely expanded membrane with fringes and rucks and resembling a net in appearance. This resemblance to such materials as cheesecloth often provoked allegations of fraud, and, in fact, many mediums were caught in attempts to simulate ectoplasm.
The amount of ectoplasm found in the experiments varied greatly. It seemed at times to be conditioned by psychological factors of will and emotion. It could completely envelop the medium as in a mantle. It had different colors—white, black, or grey. White was the most frequent, or perhaps the most easily observed. Sometimes the three colors appeared simultaneously. Visibility varied a great deal. The impression to the touch was sometimes moist and cold, sometimes viscous and sticky, more rarely dry and hard. The substance was mobile, slow, reptilelike, or at other times quick as lightning. It was sensitive to light. The production could affect the general temperature of the room, a change being particularly noticeable near the medium or any object touched by the exuding substance.
Schrenck-Notzing in his book The Phenomena of Materialisation (1920) sums up hundreds of experiments conducted for a period of five years with Eva C.: “We have very often been able to establish that by an unknown process there comes from the body of the medium a material, at first semi-fluid, which possesses some of the properties of a living substance, notably that of the power of change, of movement and of the assumption of definite forms.”
In Munich, with the Polish medium Stanislawa P., the baron succeeded in making a cinematographic record of ectoplasm as it flowed out of the medium’s mouth.
The similarity between these observations and those of a Mrs. Davidson at the haunted Willington Mill is of interest. She saw:
“… what she supposed was a white towel lying on the ground. She went to pick it up, but imagine her surprise when she found that it rose up and went behind the dressing table over the top, down on the floor across the room, disappeared under the door, and was heard to descend the stairs with a heavy step” (Journal of the Society for Psychical Research, vol. 5).
In séances in Boston with Mina S. Crandon, ectoplasm was photographed as it was being reabsorbed by the medium’s body through the openings of the mouth, nose, and ears. In several of these photographs the ectoplasm still had the form it had first assumed in the materialization, a form then reduced to a species of placenta attached to the medium by a cord similar to an umbilical cord.
Dr. F. Schwab, in his experiments with Maria Vollhardt, made a photographic record of telekinetic movements and found ectoplasm on them. The matter was usually streaming out of Vollhardt’s mouth. Her teethmarks were often found in it, suggesting it was a plastic substance.
The sensation of touch produced by ectoplasm also varied in the experiments. According to the invisible operators of the séance room, it could be made to have any desired “feel.” “Walter,” the control of Margery (Mina Crandon), put an ectoplasmic terminal in the hand of Dr. Crandon, telling him to feel and squeeze it gently. It was a more or less conical mass, half an inch wide at its tip, getting rapidly wider, up to about an inch and a quarter where it left Dr. Crandon’s hand. The mass was ice cold, somewhat rough on the surface, and yielded slightly as a rubber eraser might do. On repetition with another sitter, named Conant, he was required to scrape his hand carefully, and he stated that through this process he recovered and put down on the table at Walter’s command something that acted much like the finer inner membrane of an egg.
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle also spoke of an occasion with Eva C. when, in good light, he was allowed to squeeze a piece of ectoplasm between his fingers. It gave him the impression of a living substance, thrilling and shrinking under his touch.
When ectoplasm was suddenly exposed to light, mediums reported being thrown into agony. However, it was suggested by Dr. W. J. Crawford that it is not so much the ectoplasm as the medium that cannot bear the light. If the medium is shielded with black cloth, the pain is considerably reduced and flashlight photographs become easily procurable. Juliette Bisson confirmed these observations with Eva C. Sudden flashes of light were avoided. Warnings were normally given before taking a picture, in the understanding that a sudden flash would drive the substance back into the medium’s body with the force of a snapped elastic band.
Franek Kluski reportedly received an open wound from a violent retreat of ectoplasm. Doyle quoted the case of a medium who exhibited a bruise from the breast to the shoulder caused by the recoil of the ectoplasm. The medium Evan Powell, at the British College of Psychic Science, suffered a bad injury on the chest owing to an unintended violent movement of a sitter touched by an ectoplasmic arm. Hemorrhage was also reported as a result of sudden exposure to light. H. Dennis Bradley spoke of an instance in which the medium George Valiantine got a black bruise, measuring about two inches by three, on the stomach by the shock of returning ectoplasm when a powerful electric light was suddenly switched on in his garage, which faced one of the windows of the séance room. The substance was seen and described by the writer Caradoc Evans as a slimy, frothy bladder “into which you could dig a finger but through which you could not pierce.”
Galey gives this report in From the Unconscious to the Conscious (1920):
“To its sensitiveness, the substance seems to add a kind of instinct not unlike that of the self-protection of the invertebrates; it would seem to have all the distrust of a defenseless creature, or one whose sole defence is to re-enter the parent organism. It shrinks from all contacts and is always ready to avoid them and to be reabsorbed.”
Many observations led to the hypothesis that ectoplasm has an immediate and irresistible tendency toward organization and, as a natural sequel, tends to assume the shape of the medium’s body. This hypothesis was supported by the frequently noted duplication of the medium’s face in materialization séances as a preliminary to individualized forms and also the frequent identification of a phantom hand with that of the medium.
An alternative to this theory was that the double of the medium serves as a pattern on which the new creations are actually built up. The double, wholly or partially detached, might magnetically attract the ectoplasm; and one observer suggested that the initial stimulation of the medium’s body before the double’s detachment contributes to the ejection of the ectoplasm, but only when the double is fully withdrawn does it attract the ecto-plasm and clothe itself with it.
In a series of interesting experiments in the Goligher Circle, W. J. Crawford traced the flow of ectoplasm by using powdered carmine. He found that the ectoplasmic stream carries coloring matter. Staining various parts of the medium’s body, he discovered that in this particular case the flow started at the base of the spine and passed down to the feet. On returning, it encountered frictional resistance; the fabric of the medium’s clothing was found abraded in places. After staining Miss Goligher’s blouse with carmine and asking for a rap on the wall, Crawford found carmine spots at the location of the raps.
Materialized hands produced wonderful paraffin molds in séances with Franek Kluski. He was amply controlled, yet once he was found smeared with wax. On another occasion, particles of wax were found in out-of-the-way corners of the séance room and even in the adjoining room, indicating a long extension of psychic structures.
It was not only particles of paint but also particles of clothing material that were believed to have been carried along by the ectoplasmic flow. At least, this conclusion was suggested to Crawford when he found that the fabric of the medium’s stockings was nearly always impressed in the soft clay when he asked for an impression to be produced by the psychic rods. Because these particles were not deposited, they apparently flowed back giving rise to the possibility that ectoplasm acts as a solvent on material particles through which it passes, reducing them to an unknown fluidic state.
Crawford also noticed that if he passed his hand between the medium’s ankle and the levitated table, the table dropped to the floor. If his hand was gloved, the table dropped more slow-ly. If he passed a glass rod between the table and the medium, the levitation was unaffected. Similarly, he found that if the medium touched the levitated table, the psychic energy became short-circuited and the table dropped. The medium’s touch with a gloved hand retarded the drop, whereas a touch with wood or paper had no appreciable effect.
Schrenck-Notzing was able to get a fragment of ectoplasm into a tube. The moment he tried to trap it, it vanished with lightning speed. Occasionally, however, with the medium’s consent, specimens were amputated for chemical and micro-scopic analysis. Of the result Schrenck-Notzing wrote:
“Very probably the formation of the substance, which appears in the sittings as liquid material, and also as amorphous material, or filmy net-like and veil-like material in the form of shreds, wisps, threads, and cords, in large or small packets, is an organised tissue which easily decomposes—a sort of transitory matter which originates in the organism in a manner un-known to us, possesses unknown biological functions, and formative possibilities, and is evidently peculiarly dependent on the psychic influence of the medium…. As regards the structure of the teleplasm, we only know this: that within it, or about it, we find conglomerates of bodies resembling epithelium, real plate epithelium with nuclei, veil-like filmy structures, coherent lamellar bodies without structure, as well as flat globules and mucus. If we abstain from any detailed indications concerning the composition and function of teleplasm we may yet assert two definite facts:—(1) In teleplasm, or associated with it, we find substances of organic origin, various cell-forms, which leave behind cell detritus. (2) The mobile material observed, which seems to represent the fundamental substance of the phenomena, does not consist of india rubber or any other artificial product, by which its existence could be fraudulently represented. For substances of this kind can never decompose into cell detritus, or leave a residue of such.”
Schrenck-Notzing also analyzed ectoplasm obtained from Stanislawa P. This analysis was made in February 1916. It was controlled by a Dr. Dombrowski, who obtained half of the ecto-plasm in Warsaw, Poland. He found leucocytes and epithelial cells, but otherwise the analysis yielded no secret. The summary of a bacteriological report published by the Polish Society for Psychical Research concluded, “The substance to be analyzed is albuminoid matter accompanied by fatty matter and cells found in the human organism. Starch and sugar discoverable by Fehling’s test are absent.” Camille Flammarion described Eusapia Palladino’s sensation during the withdrawal of ecto-plasm:
“She suddenly experiences an ardent desire to produce the phenomena; then she has a feeling of numbness and the goose-flesh sensation in her fingers; these sensations keep increasing; at the same time she feels in the lower portion of the vertebral column the flowing of a current which rapidly extends into her arms as far as her elbow, where it is gently arrested. It is at this point that the phenomenon takes place.”
As regards telekinetic effects produced by psychic rods, Conan Doyle suggested that the psychic rods may not be strong in themselves. They may be conveyors of strength, similar to a copper wire carrying electricity. According to all indications the ectoplasmic lines are conveyors of feeling and emotion, too, not only between the materialized figure and the medium, but between the medium and the sitters as well. Elizabeth d’Esperance writes in Shadow Land (1897) of the period when she was conscious during materialization: “I felt conscious of the thoughts, or rather the feelings, of everyone in the room, but had no inclination to as much as lift a finger to enable me to see anything.” She also states that her brain apparently became:
“… a sort of whispering gallery where the thoughts of other persons resolved themselves into an embodied form and resounded as though actual substantial objects. Was anyone suffering, I felt the pain. Was anyone worried or depressed, I felt it instantly. Joy or sorrow made themselves in some way perceptible to me. I could not tell who among the friends assembled was suffering, only that the pain existed and was in some way reproduced in myself. If anyone left his or her seat, thus breaking the chain, this fact was communicated to me in a mysterious but unmistakable manner.”
In a lecture reported in Light (November 21, 1903), she added:
“I lost physical strength, but no particle of my individuality. On the contrary, the loss of physical power seemed but to intensify that of the senses. Distant sounds, beyond hearing at other times, became painfully audible; a movement of any of the sitters sent a vibration through every nerve; a sudden exclamation caused a sensation of terror; the very thoughts of the persons in the room made themselves felt as though they were material objects.”
The exteriorization of ectoplasm seemed to require a state of passivity on the part of the medium. D’Esperance had no strength to exert herself during the process of materialization; but if she made a great effort, this invariably compelled the materialized forms to retire to the cabinet, as though deprived of the power to stand or support them.
It also seemed that feelings of pain could be transferred from the medium to the materialized phantom. Once, d’Esperance scorched her arm prior to a séance and felt herself fainting, during the séance, from pain. Suddenly she felt a series of something like electric shocks and the pain left her; but the phantom “Yolande” carried her arm as though she were in pain, and when accidentally touched she flinched as though hurt. Another time, however, when a dislocated shoulder required d’Esperance to wear a surgical bandage for a few days, Yolande appeared with both arms uninjured. Nor did she exhibit any sign of weakness, for she lifted with ease a pitcher of water in her right hand, a feat that, under the circumstances, would have been quite impossible for the medium. D’Esperance conjectured that Yolande had sufficient material on that occasion from the persons in the circle, who numbered more than 20. On the occasion of the burnt arm fewer than 10 persons formed the circle.
The physiological effect of the sitters on the medium was again curiously demonstrated in a case with d’Esperance. After sittings for spirit photography in Sweden, she felt prostrate. The symptoms were those of nicotine poisoning. Through experiments it was discovered that none of the uncomfortable sensations were felt when the séances were conducted with nonsmokers.
W. J. Crawford, in his study of the Goligher Circle, decided that the sitters also contributed to the ectoplasmic flow. He measured the variation in weight during the séance of both the medium and the sitters. Ordinarily the loss of the medium’s weight did not amount to more than 10-15 pounds. In one case, however, it amounted to 54 pounds, the normal weight of the medium being 128 pounds. At 30 pounds the stress on the medium appeared to be severe. The withdrawal of her bodily substance went on with difficulty, in fluxes, as if an elastic resistance had to be overcome. There was a distinct collapse in the hips of the girl; however, they filled back out when the ectoplasm was reabsorbed.
The medium Charles Williams, whose normal weight was 153 pounds, was weighed while the materialized spirit “Peter” left the cabinet. His weight shrank to 35 pounds and remained there for half an hour. Annie Fairlamb Mellon and Miss C. E. Wood were several times observed to have lost half of their weight during the apparition of phantoms. It was noticed with George Spriggs, in Melbourne, Australia, that when there were tall people in the circle the forms were taller than when the sitters were of lower stature.
The apparent contraction of the medium’s body was seen to reach further stages, even to the point of disintegration of the extremities and, in certain exceptional cases, the temporary disappearance of the entire body. On one occasion Eusapia Palladino was described by Julien Ochorowicz as “all shrunken together” during physical phenomena. Her hand seemed to be contracted. Arthur Levy, at a séance on November 16, 1898, similarly observed, “Her burning hands seemed to contract or shrivel. Eusapia seems shrunken together and is very much affected … when the lamps are again lighted she is seen to be very much changed, her eyes dull, her face apparently diminished to half its usual size.” A Dr. Vezzano also once stated that he noticed the disappearance of the lower limbs of Eusapia. The control “John King” claimed to have dematerialized them to gain more power.
Of the medium Charles Eldred, before his exposure as a fraud, Charles Letort and Ellen S. Letort report as follows in Light:
“He had shrunk up like a mummy; his head seemed to have sunk in between his shoulders and his legs seemed to have become shorter. When he had sat down at the beginning of the sitting we had seen his feet reach out under the curtains; now they scarcely touched the floor. He seemed all shrivelled up, but on his cheeks there was a feverish red spot.”
Willie Reichel, in the journal Psychische Studien (1905), writes of one of Charles Victor Miller’s séances in San Francisco, “In the space of about three minutes the head of the medium became like that of a child, and after further shrinking disappeared altogether.”
Florence Marryat claimed that she was led by the materialized spirit “Florence” behind the curtains to see the medium Mary Showers. She observed:
“The first sight of her terrified me. She appeared to be shrunk to half her usual size and the dress hung loosely on her figure. Her arms had disappeared, but putting my hands up the dress sleeves I found them diminished to the size of those of a little child—the fingers reaching only to where the elbows had been. The same miracle had happened to her feet, which only occupied half her boots. She looked in fact like the mummy of a girl of four or six years old. The spirit told me to feel her face. The forehead was dry, rough and burning hot, but from the chin water was dropping freely on the bosom of her dress.”
The famous case of the partial dematerialization of d’Esperance’s body in Helsinki on December 11, 1895, is described in Alexander Aksakof’s book A Case of Partial Dematerialization (1898). He was not present himself, but he collected testimonies of 15 witnesses. As he reconstructed the case, the lower part of the medium’s body, from the waist downward, disappeared. Her skirt was lying flat on the chair for about 15 minutes, and her trunk was apparently suspended in the air above the seat. The light was sufficient to see by, and d’Esperance permitted five persons to verify the phenomenon by passing their hands below her trunk. This examination caused her great distress, and she was ill for three months after the occurrence.
D’Esperance’s account of her feelings is especially interesting. Aksakof quotes her as follows:
“I relaxed my muscles and let my hands fall upon my lap, and I then found out that, instead of resting against my knees, they rested against the chair in which I was sitting. This discovery disturbed me greatly, and I wondered if I was dreaming. I patted my skirt carefully, all over, trying to locate my limbs and the lower half of my body, but found that although the upper part of it—arms, shoulders, chest, etc.—as in its natural state, all the lower part had entirely disappeared. I put my hand where my knees should have been, but nothing whatever was there but my dress and skirts. Nevertheless, I felt just as usual—better than usual, in fact; so that if my attention had not been attracted by accident, I should probably have known nothing of the occurrence. Leaning forward to see if my feet were in their proper place, I almost lost my balance. This frightened me very much, and I felt that it was absolutely necessary to assure myself whether I was dreaming, or the victim of an hallucination. To this end I reached over and took Prof. Seiling’s hand, asking him to tell me if I was really seated in the chair. I awaited his answer in a perfect agony of suspense. I felt his hand, just as if it touched my knees; but he said: ‘There is nothing there—nothing but your skirts.’ This gave me a still greater fright. I pressed my free hand against my breast and felt my heart beating wildly.”
Fifteen minutes later her skirts filled out and her lower limbs appeared in full view of the sitters.
Professor Haraldur Neilsson, of the University of Reykjavik, Iceland, states (Light, October 25, 1919) that he witnessed the entire disappearance of the left arm of Indridi Indridason. It occurred three times. The medium was examined in light and the absence of the arm in the sleeve was also plainly felt. It reappeared half an hour later. Other professors testified to the same phenomenon.
In the Journal of the American Society for Psychical Re-search (March 1925), there is an account by Miss Helen C. Lambert of a sitting in an experimental circle where the medium’s forearm shrank in length and finally vanished. The hand appeared to grow out of the elbow. The return to normal was slow and the medium was badly scarred.
Ectoplasm in Scientific Perspective
The foregoing experimental findings appear as incredible to contemporary researchers as they were to the people who originally reported them. They attained some attention in psychical research circles because they often came from reputable observers, whose reports could not be simply dismissed as hallucination or fraud. It seemed reasonable to propose as a working hypothesis that something like the ectoplasmic process occurred during séances. The attempt to investigate that possibility was fraught with difficulties.
In the early investigations, psychical researchers speculated on the nature of such a mysterious and strange substance. French scientist Gustav Geley, for example, highlighted four striking analogies of the ectoplasmic process in the organic realm: the chrysalis, in which the body of the caterpillar is resolved into a creamy mass and reformed into the butterfly; the cold light of insects and microbes; the pseudopods of some protozoa; and certain similarities in the evolution of animal forms and dermoid cysts. In his last book, Clairvoyance and Materialisation (1927), he reaches the following conclusions:
“The primary condition of ectoplasmic phenomena is an anatomo-biologic decentralisation in the medium’s body and an externalisation of the decentralised factors in an amorphous state, solid, liquid or vaporous. This decentralisation is accompanied by a considerable expenditure of vital energy. The vital energy thus released may take the form of mechanical energy, thus producing telekinesis or raps. It may be transformed into luminous energy, producing living lights in all respects similar to normal animal lights. Sometimes the luminous energy seems to be condensed in some organ either already materialised or in process of materialisation; sometimes it is connected with a phosphorescent secretion which can agglomerate and form actual living lamps; and sometimes it may manifest as discharges or flashes. The same vital energy which is manifested by telekinesis and bioluminescence may ultimate in the organisation of amorphous ectoplasm. It then creates objective but ephemeral beings or parts of beings. Complete materialisations are the final product of the ectoplasmic process.”
On the question of whether “telekinetic” ectoplasm is a purely human contribution or if animals might also have a share in it, a séance with the medium “Margery” (Mina Crandon) shed some light. She took a cat with her into the cabinet. As told by F. Bligh Bond in Psychic Research (1929), “… presently we all observed a luminous appearance over the table, like a tall pale flame. This seemed to move slightly and vary in height. Then came Walter’s voice, ‘Here, someone take this animal out; it’s croaking.’ The sitter on Margery’s left bent over and took up the cat from her lap. It was quite comatose and stiffened….” Walter then explained that he had borrowed the cat’s ectoplasm and that was what we had seen as a flame on the table. However, the strong presumption of fraud at some of the Mina Crandon’s séances makes it difficult to place any reliance on this single claim of animal ectoplasm.
The evidence for the reality and the nature of telekinetic ectoplasm rests largely on the claims of the generation of psychical researchers at the end of the nineteenth and beginning of the twentieth century who examined the several Spiritualist mediums who claimed to produce the different forms of physical phenomena. This era came to an end as one after another of those mediums were discovered to be engaged in fraudulent mediumship and as more sophisticated forms of detection were developed. For example, even though most physical mediums wanted to operate in the dark, infrared cameras can take pictures as if it were daylight. Even the most capable manipulations can be quickly revealed. Harry Houdini was one of those who wrote against mediums faking ectoplasm.
Although many have bemoaned the inability of mediums in more recent decades to reproduce the feats reported by mediums in the decades prior to World War II, it is evident that such manifestations were largely the product of stage magic rather than any paranormal ability. Such manifestations either disappeared under controlled conditions or were uncovered by competent observers. Parapsychologists abandoned the search for telekinetic ectoplasm and have largely abandoned any belief that it exists.