The Return of Ectoplasm

Is it back from the dead?

By , Columnist

Ectoplasm used to appear a lot, extruding from the various orifices of spirit mediums during séances in the 19th and early 20th centuries. It’s not something you hear too much about in the 21st century though, so I was startled to read recent claims that a German group photographed this controversial substance just last year.

Given its current obscurity, I suppose I should explain what ectoplasm is supposed to be. The word was coined by the distinguished French physiologist Charles Richet and can be translated from the Greek as “exteriorised substance”. Some spirit mediums claimed to be able to produce this gauzy, usually white, material from out of their bodies, whereupon spirits from the Other Side - showing an unearthly disregard for hygiene - would drape it over their insubstantial forms, or else mould it into various shapes, enabling them to interact physically with our world.

This was happening at around the same time that the new art of photography was coming to the fore, and the inevitable craze for photographing ectoplasmic manifestations helped convince many people that the spirit world was real. But, just as the special effects in Hollywood blockbusters can quickly look dated and unconvincing, in retrospect many of these spirit photographs tend to look, well, a bit silly.

From around the 1930s onwards, as psychical research adopted increasingly scientific methods, it became the done thing to search mediums thoroughly before séances, to ensure they had not secreted any substance about their person that might manifest mysteriously later on. Perhaps it was coincidence that ectoplasm started to appear less and less frequently and eventually faded from view.

So what surprised me was the recent revelation that the Felix Experimental Group (FEG) in Frankfurt, Germany, took a series of photographs on 22 June last year that (they claim) shows “the building and dissolving processes of this strange etherical fabric”.

Looking at the sequence of images on the FEG website it’s a little difficult to work out what’s happening but the captions help to explain.

In a scene bathed in an eerie red light, the series of four photographs shows sitters watching a medium seated behind a curtain. Apparently, on the second occasion that the curtains were opened, the sitters saw that “from the ground upwards a mass of ectoplasm was building a malformed hand - moving and pointing upwards at the end.”

The group believe that the sequence then shows this column of ectoplasm “in some kind of changing state” as it begins to dissolve. Moments later the column has seemingly disintegrated.

Another short sequence of photographs taken during a FEG séance and supposedly showing ectoplasm can be viewed below:

Unlike most species of purportedly paranormal phenomena, ectoplasm offers the possibility of evidence that you can actually touch and test. However, although there have been scientific examinations of samples of alleged ectoplasm in the past, to the best of my knowledge no such test has shown a sample to be of supernatural origin.

With ectoplasm apparently still being produced, might a laboratory yet analyse a sample one day that proves to defy scientific understanding? I remain cautiously pessimistic - but, hey, never say die!

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James Clark is a freelance writer based in deepest, darkest south London, UK. His latest book, "Haunted Lambeth", exploring ghosts and legends from the London Borough of Lambeth, is due out in February 2013.

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