Fall/Winter 2003

Ethereal Body: The Quest for Ectoplasm

Marina Warner

Your belief will help create the fact.
—William James

Under “Duncan, Helen, Mrs.” in the catalogue of the archives of the Society for Psychical Research, now kept in the University Library, Cambridge, this entry appears: “Sample of Ectoplasm. Material alleged to have been captured from Mrs. Helen Duncan, materialising medium....”

I asked to see “the sample of ectoplasm.” The librarian looked at me strangely; he said, “Are you sure? It’s very nasty.” My response was, “Would you prefer me to look at it somewhere else?” I thought there might be a desk of shame, where I could be supervised and other readers would not be disturbed. He said, “No, but be discreet.”

There was nothing corporeal about the “sample of ectoplasm” when it arrived, in the strict sense of human or animal tissue. Inside there was a folded heap of dressmakers’ lining material, a cheap man-made fiber now yellowing white in color. About four yards had been cut straight from the bolt, with no hems, and the selvedge left plain. It had been washed and ironed, but the creases where it had been crumpled were still marked; the pattern of these showed it had been tightly wadded. There were traces of old blood that the laundry had not erased.

This bulky fabric was the spirit stuff that Helen Duncan had extruded from her body as ectoplasm, which had been “captured”—the metaphor habitually used by spirit investigators—from Mrs. Duncan during a séance in 1939.

Helen Duncan was a Scottish medium who was born in 1898 and died in ­1956; her dates reveal how the quest for ectoplasm, the stuff of the other side, the substance of the ethereal body, continued well into the 20th century. Its existence still receives detailed discussion on the web, with the portraits and the stories of its heroic protagonists. Mrs. Duncan was celebrated in her lifetime for the clouds of shining, billowing spirit stuff that emanated from her as she sat in the spirit cabinet, groaning and shuddering as the trance state took hold. A medium’s body became a porous vehicle as the phenomena exuded from mouth, nose, breast and even vagina: she acted as a transmitter, in an analogous fashion to the wireless receiver, catching cosmic rays whose vibrations produced phantoms and presences.

Materialization was the word used in the circles of psychical researchers to describe a phenomenon that first became common in séances in the 1870s: the summoning of spirit presences in the form of objects and of bodies, or of traces of objects and bodies—touches to the cheek or hands of the sitters, slaps or caresses or breezes as of something passing, sometimes fingerprints or other marks, the sounds of bells ringing or ethereal music, apported flowers and other gifts from the spirits, and, above all, ectoplasmic manifestations. These took two predominant forms: luminous, veiled, phantom-like beings, or revenants, such as Helen Duncan’s favorite “spirit control,” known as “Peggy.” Peggy was the manifestation of a dead child, who had been recognized by her mother during one of Mrs. Duncan’s séances and continued to appear regularly thereafter, doing winsome routines, singing and dancing like a child film star of the period.1 But from its very beginnings, ectoplasm was pursued by scientifically minded researchers, who did not believe in spirits as ghosts of the dead and did not declare themselves to be spiritualists. They were questing to know the structure of the universe, and the concept of ectoplasm grew out of Victorian physics and cognitive sciences, not faith. Ectoplasmic phenomena are generic stuff of the spirit, not unique ghosts of dead souls.

Ectoplasm did not haunt these believers: it offered a solution to the problem of imponderables, and embodied a postulated prima materia. These experimenters discovered ectoplasmic phenomena manifest in nameless, amorphous structures, called “pseudopods” (resembling limbs, webs, primal ooze), or casts of bodies like shed skins (“spirit gloves” or socks, for example, became a speciality of some mediums.)2 Most frequently, the medium dribbled from her mouth scrims on which the faces of spirit visitors were impressed, like Christ’s face on the veil of Veronica (as described in the account of Mrs. Henderson’s séances). These images were “ideoplasts”: projections of the mind of the medium.

Seances dramatize a very profound change in thinking about the human subject: experiences are shared telepathically between sitters, identities mingle and merge, and individuals are taken over, possessed by other persons’ presences, speaking in their voices and expressing their wishes. The theories about psychology and spirituality in which the idea developed borrow heavily from both pagan oracles and Indian mysticism; Frederic Myers, who coined the word telepathy in 1882 and was a fervent researcher into psychic phenomena and upholder of the truth of materializing mediums, was a classical scholar with a deep interest in Hindu belief.

The word ectoplasm, from the Greek ektos, “outside,” and plasma, “something that can be formed or molded,” as in plastic, first enters the discourse about spirit in Germany and France.3 It was borrowed from biological usage: the OED gives as its first citation a quotation from 1883 which discloses vividly the operating metaphor: “Its [the amoeba’s] jelly-like body becomes faintly parceled out into an outer form (ectoplasm) and an inner soft (endoplasm) layer.”4 It is further defined as “a viscous substance ... from which spirits make themselves visible forms... alive, sensitive to touch and light... cold to the touch, slightly luminous and having a characteristic smell....” In the 1920s, a French doctor who conducted numerous experiments expanded on the characteristics of the stuff: “The color white is the most frequent.... On touch ... it can seem soft and a bit elastic when it spreads; hard, knotty or fibrous when it forms strings.... Sometimes it gives the sensation of a spider’s web fluttering over the observers’ hand.... The substance is mobile. At one moment it evolves slowly, rises, falls, wanders over the medium, her shoulders, her breast, her knees, with a creeping motion that recalls that of a reptile...” The same witness warned, “Any touch will resonate painfully on [the medium]. If the touch is ever so slightly harsh or prolonged, the medium evinces pain compared to that which a shock to the quick would produce.”5 After making its appearance, ectoplasm was reabsorbed into the medium’s body—unless it was rudely captured, as in the case of Helen Duncan.

Ectoplasm is shapeless, it is “informe,” a kind of primordial paste—and to show itself as this, it annexes semiotic markers that designate intermediate spirit worlds. When looking at these fluid, inchoate forms, sometimes imprinted with a face, it is worth recalling that the word larva, used in English for the early stage of a caterpillar, meant “ghost” or “specter” in Latin, but is also used by Horace to designate a mask, such as might frighten an observer, while the verb larvo meant “to bewitch” or “enchant.” Ectoplasmic masks are indeed larval: they promise the emergence of forms, but don’t deliver them. The term pseudopod catches this relationship with the embryonic—and indeed with abortion.

In the 1940s, after the fervor of the initial quest had waned, the Surrealist filmmaker and art critic Jacques Brunius contributed an entry to an absurdist encyclopaedia in which he defined ectoplasm with mischievous mock learning: it was, he wrote, “part of the human body, external to it, unstable, sometimes soft, occasionally hard, from time to time vaporous, variable in volume, visible only in semidarkness, making an impression on photographic emulsion, presents to the sense of touch a humid and slippery sensation, leaving in the hand a residue which, when dry, has under microscopic examination the appearance of epithelial cells, without odour or definite taste, in other respects fleeting and transient, whether projected or otherwise, of uncertain temperature, fond of music.” He adds, knowingly, “Fish-and-game-birds’ intestines, even inflated with a bicycle-pump, are not ectoplasms.”6 Ectoplasm is cosmic goo: the joke shops of the New Age, picking up on the tradition, now sell “Space Mucus” in “Slime Eggs” that glow in the dark.

Darkness was essential for the phenomena to appear: light, almost everyone agreed, was highly destructive to their organism. William Crookes, the great Victorian experimental chemist, preferred moonlight, and reported excellent results by this pale illumination; Dr. Gustave Geley hankered after the light emitted by certain animals, vegetables, and microbes, reporting wistfully that highly successful séances had been held in Brazil by the light of glowworms, but that this was very difficult in practice to realize.7

Photography was above all the form of modern communications that dominated the concept of ectoplasm as a product of the séance, far more even than the new telegraphy or radio transmission. In many ways, the séance reproduces the camera obscura itself, and the relations with the invisible that it stages correspond to the relation between light and the photographic medium: ectoplasm becomes the equivalent of light, acting to leave a trace of its insubstantial passage in material form. Ghostly inhabitants of the other side, immaterial substances that informed the realm of the ether, impressed themselves onto the sensitive film of the here and now, through the lens of the medium seated inside her black box in a dark room. This imitation of photography’s processes was then itself authenticated by documentary images: psychic images taken with magnesium flares proved the prodigious character of the phenomena and the fleeting existence of ectoplasmic apparitions.

Photography, as well as offering a deep metaphor for the relation between external matter and immaterial thought, also played an inestimable role in disseminating the mise-en-scene and the conduct of mediums from country to country. The mediums themselves were nomadic: a cross between the peripatetic conférenciers of today’s academe and international artists, performers, and entertainers. Eusapia Paladino, for example, an innovatory materializing medium of the late 19th century, was born near Bari in southern Italy, and was invited to France and England by eminent scientists keen to investigate her remarkable paranormal powers. After Paladino, another dramatic channeler, Eva Carriére, known as Eva C., first appeared conducting séances in Algeria, but after she was exposed there (the servant she had set up to perform a spirit confessed), she changed her name and resurfaced in Munich where she starred in an extraordinary photographic record of her ectoplasmic feats. A contemporary and collaborator of hers, Stanislawa P., performed in a black veil swathing her head, and was photographed spitting or leaking long viscous skeins of white stuff, which seem to pass as if miraculously through the fabric over her face. Sometimes wearing a blindfold, sometimes undressed, Eva C. and Stanislawa P. make disturbingly fetishized and erotic figures.

The impresario of the séances was Mme. Juliette Bisson, a rich widow, and the patron of a physician-turned-psychologist, one Baron Albert von Schrenk-Notzing; the Baron acted as photographer and archivist, and later published exhaustive, solemn minutes of the séances, in books with such titles as Phenomena of Materialisation (1913). In these volumes, his lurid commingling of female physical display, scientific language, and forensic, evidentiary process brings to a prurient culmination the labors of psychical investigators since the foundation of the Society for Psychical Research. Mme. Bisson could be enrolled among the remarkable studio artists of the period, with her eerie sequences of intimate, indoor tableaux vivants.

The symbolic range of ectoplasm as spirit-made-matter stretches from ethereal, phantasmic whiteness, exemplified by Helen Duncan’s yards of white fabric, to a state of emergent being, typified by the cold, formless lumps of some sort of tissue, as produced by Eusapia Paladino and Eva Carriere. These two poles correspond to two classes of phenomena that were conflated under the term. Frederic Myers defined them as first, “projections of the double”—namely the spirit of a person—and secondly, as “precipitations of the akas”—akas being a Hindu term borrowed by the Theosophists and designating the invisible energy that flows through and unites creation.8 However, once these two forms are distinguished, it is clear that ectoplasm uneasily converts two contradictory concepts of person and spirit’s relation to persons: the phantom makes manifest an individual who has died, as does the ectoplasmic mask. But the ectoplasmic effluvia and pseudopods that Carriere and Crandon also spewed do not body forth the mediums’ own vital spirits, or even the spirit of their spirit controls. They are phantasmic templates on which the conjured spirit—the IPA or “incorporeal personal agent”—makes his or her mark.

Eminent men of science all over Europe and America joined in the quest for the immaterial in the 19th and 20th centuries, and ectoplasm enjoyed respectability for a long time to an extraordinary degree. Sir William Crookes, one of the great, versatile experimental chemists of the day, was working, in the mid-1870s, with Michael Faraday’s proposal of a fourth state of matter—“radiant matter;” he also became controversially involved with a young materializing medium, Florence Cook, and, in the eyes of many of his colleagues, mystifyingly risked his reputation on her claims to raise the dead. In 1882, the Society for Psychical Research was founded by Henry Sidgwick, the Cambridge philosopher, his wife Eleanor Balfour, and Frederic Myers. A little later in the decade, Oliver Lodge, a pioneering physicist, joined the Sidgwicks, Myers, and others at a villa in the South of France belonging to Dr. Charles Richet, Nobel prize winner, to investigate the truth of Eusapia Paladino over a series of séances, in which guitars played by themselves and floated through the air, bells rang by themselves, and “a vase full of jonquils” appeared.9

The craze for such experiments did not abate after numerous exposes of the mediums’ claims. In the 1920s, Margery Crandon caused a furor in Boston, where she was married to a society gynecologist. Crandon, who performed under the name Psyche, surpassed her predecessors when she began to produce teleplasmic hands and heads, and even, most significantly, promised to deliver an ectoplasmic fetus. Lady Barrett, who performed the examinations of Margery Crandon during her London séances, explained afterwards that she considered that the ectoplasmic rods had been formed by a kind of birth process.10 It has to be said as well that the notes to these “birth processes” make dismaying reading.

The very subject of ectoplasm now tends to provoke involuntary laughter, shivers, and on closer look, real horror; the documentary images of the mediums, often in considerable physical distress, strike us now as foolish, crazy, embarrassing, prurient, repellent. The disparities in class, wealth, and education—and, above all, gender—between the researchers and the mediums remained shamefully ignored, it seems, at the time. But ectoplasm is an important chapter in the story of spirit: it represents the final shake of the pieces that make up the traditional picture of ethereality. It offered a proof of the existence of Other states of matter, and as such, embodies a transition in the history of scientific inquiry between Christian metaphysics and quantum theory. The concept attempts to understand the amorphous indeterminacy of paradisical symbolism, combining elements from many images of spirit realms, including the heavenly garments in which the souls of the blessed will be arrayed on the day of judgment, the cloudiness of angels’ seats, the luminous vehicles of ascent and descent used by immortals and the inhabitants of the highest heaven, the ether. In the case of the spiritualists’ conjuring of spirits as ectoplasm, this new supernatural stuff approximates, awkwardly, to the hyle of matter in Aristotelian thought, which receives the stamp of the spirit conjured by the medium, and is extruded as form.

Between 1888 and 1898, Oliver Lodge made a major contribution to the understanding of radiotelegraphy with his experiments in wavelengths , thereby paving the way to the theory of relativity; he published a book called Ether and Reality as late as 1925. One of the most staunch supporters of the Society for Psychical Research, Sir Oliver, as he became, gamely persevered in the Einsteinian world with his theory of the Ether, a word which he always capitalized. It was “the tertium quid, the essential intermediary” between mind and matter. Ether itself was not “what we ordinarily speak of as matter,” but nevertheless it was “a very substantial substance, far more substantial than any form of matter.” “A physical thing ... the vehicle of both matter and spirit ... it is manifestly the vehicle or substratum underlying electricity and magnetism and light and gravitation and cohesion....” He concluded, rapturously, “It is the primary instrument of Mind, the vehicle of Soul, the habitation of Spirit. Truly, it may be called the living garment of God.” He explained that one of the Ether’s functions was “to transmit vibrations from one piece of matter to another,” and it was because the Ether vibrated at a different frequency from matter that, he continued to believe, in certain very carefully constructed experiments, it would reveal itself—fleetingly, ethereally—in the form of ectoplasm. 11

  1. See Malcolm Gaskill, Hellish Nell, Last of Britain’s Witches (London: Fourth Estate, 2000). Gaskill also enjoyed an interesting encounter with the Duncan cloth: “I let it catch the air, and watched it billow and shimmer, only to be sternly reminded by one of the University Library staff that they preferred readers not to throw the manuscripts around the room…” (personal communication).
  2. Franek Kluski, one of the rare male materializing mediums, specialized in ectoplasmic gloves and socks. See Gustave Geley, L’Ectoplasmie et la clairvoyance: observations et experiences personelles (Paris: Alcan, 1924), Plates XXI and XXX, pp. 240–241.
  3. In the late 1850s, when the poet Robert Browning was composing his long, satirical dramatic monologue, Mr. Sludge, the Medium, he may have wanted his fraud’s name to hint at ectoplasmic sludge but he does not introduce such phenomena specifically into his plausible villain’s rigmarole of self-justification, grievance, and malice. The brilliant conjuror Daniel Dunglas Home, who, after the Brownings attended a séance in Ealing in 1855, inspired the character of Mr. Sludge, did not produce ectoplasmic structures but focused his energies on other prodigies, his most celebrated being his ability to levitate. He once flew out of one window and came in feet first and horizontal from another; Houdini, who made a habit of exposing supernatural claims by reproducing them as conjuring tricks, countered with a promise to repeat the feat, but called off the event—to the delight, of course, of D.D. Home’s supporters.
  4. J. E. Ady, Knowledge, 15 June 1883, 355/2.
  5. Geley, op. cit., p. 199.
  6. Jacques Brunius, “Ectoplasm,” in Encyclopaedia Da Costa [1947], available as part of Encyclopaedia Acephalica (London: Atlas Press, 1995).
  7. Geley, op.cit., p. 15.
  8. F. W. H. Myers, “Note” following “First Report of the Committee of Society Psychical Research appointed to investigate the evidence for Marvellous Phenomena offered by certain members of the Theosophical Society,” Society for Psychical Research Archive, University of Cambridge Library.
  9. Hesperus, [pseudonym], “Eusapia Paladino,” in Light, 23 May 1896, pp. 243–244.
  10. Letter from Mowbray to London Spiritualist Alliance, 13 June 1947. Society for Psychical Research Archive.
  11. Oliver Lodge, Ether and Reality (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1925).

Marina Warner’s most recent book is Signs & Wonders: Essays on Literature and Culture (2003). She is currently finishing a study of spirit images, Figuring the Soul, about waxworks, fata morgana, and ectoplasm.