Ectoplasm (What is Ectoplasm?)



A popular subject during the Spiritualism movement, ectoplasm (from the Greek ektos and plasma: exteriorized substance), is a mysterious protoplasmic substance that streams out of the body of mediums during a trance. The word was originated by Professor Richet. Psychoplasm and teleplasm convey the same meaning, the latter denoting action at a distance from the medium's body, while ideoplasm progresses a step farther and means the moulding of the stuff into the likeness of a self. The questions which demand paramount consideration are: the properties of this mysterious substance; the effect of its outflow upon the medium; the method of manipulation.

The first thing that has been definitely established is that ectoplasm is matter, invisible and intangible in its primary state but assuming vaporous, liquid or solid condition in various stages of condensation. It emits a smell which reminds of ozone. It has strange properties.

Swedenborg in his first vision speaks of "a kind of vapor steaming from the pores of my body." It was a most visible watery vapor and fell downwards to the ground upon the carpet. Colonel Rochas compared the luminous vapor he saw arising from Mme. d'Esperance's breast to the Milky Way. P. 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 Paladino. In the case of Kluski and Eva C. the liquid type was observed as white, luminous spots from the size of a pea to that of a crown piece here and there on the medium's clothes. In Kluski's case they were much brighter than in Eva's. Geley describes how a dimly phosphorescent column formed beside him out of which a luminous hand, perfectly formed and of natural size, 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 fifteen to twenty minutes after the disappearance of the hand. The solid form is the last stage of ectoplasmic development. "As soon as I have entered the mediumistic cabinet," writes Mme. d'Esperance, "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."

At another time she said: "It seemed that I could feel fine threads being drawn out of the pores of my skin." This is suggestive in view of the cloudy, faintly luminous threads that are sometimes observed in materialization seances between the phantom and the medium. In such instrumentality may lie a nearer understanding of telekinetic phenomena. 

Experimental Findings and Inferences 

The photographs of the nascence of ectoplasm are rather repulsive. They show a gelatinous, viscous stuff, oozing from all the natural orifices of the medium's body; from the mouth, cars, nose, eyes and lower orifices, also from the top of the head, from the breasts and the finger tips. Most often it comes from the mouth. The form of the substance varies, according to Geley, between threads, cords, rigid rays, membranes and fabric or woven material with indefinite and irregular outlines. The most curious appearance is presented by a widely expanded membrane provided with fringes and rucks, and resembling in appearance a net. The output greatly varies. It is conditioned by psychological factors of will and emotion. It may completely envelop the medium as in a mantle. It may have different colors, white, black or grey. White is the most frequent, or perhaps the most easily observed. Sometimes the three colors appear simultaneously. The visibility varies a great deal. The impression to the touch is sometimes moist and cold, sometimes viscous and sticky, more rarely dry and hard. The substance is mobile, slow, reptile-like, or quick as lightning. It is sensitive to light. The production can affect the general temperature of the room. This is particularly noticeable near the medium or any object touched by the exuding substance.

Baron Schrenck Notzing in Phenomena of Materialization 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 Mrs. Davidson's experience in haunted Willington Mill is suggestive. 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 S.P.R. Vol. V.)

In the Margery seances in Boston 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 is visible still conserving 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 which, in its turn, calls up the appearance of the umbilical cord.

Dr. Schwab, in his experiments with Frau Vollhardt, made a photographic record of telekinetic movements and found ectoplasm on them. The stuff was usually streaming out of Frau Vollhardt's mouth. Marks of her teeth were often found in it, proving it to be a plastic substance.

As indicated before, the sensation of touch produced by ectoplasm varies. According to the invisible operators of the seance room it can be made to have any desired "feel." Walter, the control of Margery, put an ectoplasmic terminal into the hand of Dr. Crandon telling him that he might 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, 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.

Conan Doyle also speaks 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.

If ectoplasm is suddenly exposed to light the medium is thrown into agony. It was found, however, by Dr. Crawford that it is not so much the ectoplasm as the medium which cannot bear the light. If the medium is shielded with black cloth the pain is considerably reduced and flashlight photographs become easily procurable. Mme. Bisson confirmed these observations with Eva C. Another point is that the flash of light should not be sudden. Warning should be given as there is ground to suppose that the effect of a sudden flash drives the substance back into the medium's body with the force of a snapped elastic band. Kluski received an open wound from a violent retreat of ectoplasm. Conan Doyle quotes the case of a medium who exhibited a bruise from the breast to the shoulder caused by the recoil of the band. 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 may also result from sudden exposure to light. Dennis Bradley speaks of an instance in which 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 seance room. The substance was seen and described by Caradoc Evans, the writer, as a slimy, frothy bladder "into which you could dig a finger but through which you could not pierce."

"To its sensitiveness" - writes Geley in From the Unconscious to the Conscious - "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 defense 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 seem to justify the supposition that ectoplasm has "an immediate and irresistible tendency towards organization" and, as a natural sequel, it tends to assume the shape of the medium's body. This may account for the frequently noted duplication of the medium's face in materialization seances as a preliminary to individualized forms and also the often-observed identity of a phantom hand with that of the medium. An alternative to this theory is 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, may magnetically attract the ectoplasm and Mrs. Barbara McKenzie even suggests that the initial stimulation of his body before its detachment contributes to the ejection of the ectoplasm, but only when it is fully withdrawn does it attract it and clothe itself with it.

In a series of interesting experiments in the Goligher circle Dr. Crawford traced the flow of ectoplasm by powdered carmine. He found that the ectoplasmic stream carried coloring matter. Staining various parts of the medium's body he discovered that in his 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 knickers and stockings was found abraded in places. Staining with carmine Miss Goligher's blouse and asking for a rap on the wall he found carmine spots on the place of the raps. These observations suggest that a medium may not always be guilty of cheating if traces of the paint with which telekinetically moved instruments are covered are found on her body or clothes. 

Materialized hands produced wonderful paraffin moulds in seances with Kluski. He was amply controlled. Yet once he was found smeared with wax. At another time particles of wax were found in out of the way corners of the seance room, and even in the adjoining room, indicating a long extension of psychic structures.

It is not only particles of paint but particles of clothing material as well which may be carried along by the ectoplasmic flow. At least, this conclusion was suggested to Dr. 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. As these particles were not deposited they apparently flowed back. The question arises in what state is this clothing matter? May it not have some part in spirit drapery? May it not be that ectoplasm acts as solvent on material particles through which it passes, reducing them into an unknown fluidic state? Dr. 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 slowly. 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 gloved hand retarded the drop whereas a touch with wood or paper had no appreciable effect.

Baron Schrenck Notzing was able to get a fragment of ectoplasm into a tube. The moment he wanted to trap it it vanished with lightning-like speed. Occasionally, however, with the medium's consent, specimens were amputated for chemical and microscopical analysis. Of the result Baron Schrenck Notzing writes: "Very probably the formation of the substance which appears in the sitting as liquid material, and also as amorphous material, or filmy net-like and veil-like material, in the form of shreads, wisps, threads and cords, in large or small packets, is an organized tissue which easily decomposes-a sort of transitory matter which originates in the organism in a manner unknown 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."

This analysis was made in February, 1916. It was controlled by Dr. Dombrowski who obtained half of the ectoplasm in Warsaw. He found leucocytes and epithelial cells but otherwise the analysis yielded no secret. Said the summary of a bacteriological report published by the Polish S.P.R.: "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."

Flammarion described Eusapia Paladino's sensation during the withdrawal of ectoplasm: "She suddenly experiences an ardent desire to produce the phenomena; then she has a feeling of numbness and the gooseflesh 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 which carries electricity. If should be added to this that according to all indication the ectoplasmic lines are conveyors of feeling and emotion, too, not only between the materialized figure and the medium, but the medium and the sitters as well. Writes Mme. d'Esperance in Shadowland 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." At another place she writes of her brain "apparently becoming 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 said: "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 requires a state of passivity on the part of the medium. Perhaps it is to ensure this that trance is nearly always necessary. Mme. 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 themselves.

It appears that feelings of pain may be transferred from the medium to the materialized phantom. Mme. d'Esperance once scorched her arm previous to a seance and felt fainting, during the seance, from pain. Suddenly she felt a series of something like electric shocks and the pain left her. But Yolande carried her arm as though she was in pain, and when accidentally touched she flinched as though hurt. But, at another time, when a dislocated shoulder necessitated Mme. d'Esperance wearing 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 which, under the circumstances, would have been quite impossible for the medium. Mme. d'Esperance conjectures that Yolande had sufficient material on that occasion from the persons in the circle, which in this case numbered over twenty. On the occasion of the burnt arm under ten persons formed the circle.

The physiological effect of the sitters on the medium was again curiously demonstrated in a case of Mme. d'Esperance. After sittings for spirit photography in Sweden she felt unusually prostrate. The symptoms were those of nicotine poisoning. Experiments were made and it was discovered that none of the uncomfortable sensations were felt when the seances were conducted with non-smokers.

Partial dematerialization 

We may arrive at a better understanding of this strange occurrence by pointing to another finding of Dr. Crawford, namely that the sitters also contribute to the ectoplasmic flow. He discovered it by measuring the variation in weight during the seance of both the medium and the sitters. Ordinarily the loss of the medium's weight did not amount to more than 10-15 Ibs. In one case, however, it amounted to 541 Ibs., the normal weight of the medium being 128 Ibs. At thirty 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 which, however, filled out when the ectoplasm was reabsorbed.

Williams, whose normal weight was 153 Ibs., was weighed while the materialized spirit "Peter" left the cabinet. His weight shrank to 35 Ibs. and remained that much for half an hour. Miss Fairlamb and Miss Wood were several times observed to have lost half of their weight during the apparition of a phantom. It was noticed with Spriggs, in Melbourne, that when there were tall people in the circle the forms were taller than when the sitters showed a low average of stature.

The general shrinking and contraction of the medium's body may reach further stages. It may amount to the disintegration of the extremities and in certain exceptional cases to the temporary disappearance of the entire body. Eusapia Paladino was described by Dr. Ochorowitz as "all shrunken together" during physical phenomena. Her hand seemed to be contracted. Arthur Levy, at a seance 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."

Dr. Vezzano once noticed the disappearance of the lower limbs of Eusapia. John King claimed to have dematerialized them to gain more power.

Of Charles Eldred, before his exposure, Charles Letort and Ellen S. Letort reported 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 shriveled up, but on his cheeks there was a feverish red spot."

Willie Reichel, in the Psychische Studien of 1905 and 1906, writes of Mr. C. V. Miller's seances in San Francisco in one of which he observed: "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 was led by the materialized spirit Florence," behind the curtains to see Miss Showers. "The first sight of her terrified me" she writes. "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 Mme. d'Esperance's body in Helsingfors on December 11, 1895, is described in Aksakof's booklet A Case of Partial Dematerialization, 1898. He was not present himself, but he collected testimonies of fifteen 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 the medium's trunk was apparently suspended in the air above the seat. The light was sufficient to see by and Mme. 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 Mme. d'Esperance's account of her feelings is especially interesting. She said: "I relaxed my muscles and let my hands fall upon my lap and then I found 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.-was in its natural state, all the lower part had entirely disappeared. I put my hands 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 a 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 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, witnessed the entire disappearance of the left arm of Indride Indridason. It occurred three times. The medium was examined in light. The absence of the arm in the sleeve was plainly felt. It reappeared half an hour later. Other professors testified to the same phenomenon. (Light, Oct. 25, 1919).

In the Journal of the American S.P.R., March, 1925, there is an account by Miss Helen C. Lambert of a medium in an experimental circle whose forearm shrank in length and finally vanished. The hand appeared to grow out of the elbow. The return to the normal was slow and the medium was badly scared.

In the case of Carlo Mirabelli, the Sao Paolo medium, the dematerialization of his arms while he was sitting in a white costume amongst fourteen investigators was photographed. Only a slight shadow was visible in the place of the arms.

These instances make the assumption legitimate that the ectoplasmic process is an externalization of the medium. There is a wide field of speculation whether this externalization is automatic in certain constitutional states or whether it implies a surrender to an extraneous and discarnate will. The attempt to tell where the formative powers of the subconscious over this externalized bodily substance stop and where the supposition of something more becomes necessary is fraught with difficulties.

Scientific Analogies 

Geley found five striking analogies of the ectoplasmic process in the known 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 Materialization he reached the following conclusions: "The primary condition of ectoplasmic phenomena is an anatomo-biologic decentralisation in the medium's body and an externalization of the decentralized factors in an amorphous state, solid, liquid or vaporous. This decentralization 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 materialized or in process of materialization; 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 organization of amorphous ectoplasm. It then creates objective but ephemeral beings or parts of beings. Complete materializations are the final product of the ectoplasmic process.

The discovery of ectoplasm is not new. Foster Damon, of Harvard University, found in the works of the philosopher Vaughan, who lived about 1650, a description under the name of "first matter" or "mercury" of a substance, drawn from the body, which has all the characteristics of ectoplasm. The first systematic study was the result of the joint efforts of Baron Schrenck Notzing and Mme. Bisson in experimenting with Eva C. Before them Delanne, Morselli and Richet published descriptions of the different evolutionary states of ectoplasm. After them the most important contribution to the subject was made by Geley. On the question whether ectoplasm is a purely human contribution or animals might also have a share in it, interesting light was thrown in a seance with Margery. She took a cat with her into the cabinet. As told by F. Bligh Bond in Psychic Research, 1929, p. 101, "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."


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