Ectoplasm is an extraordinary substance once believed to be exuded from physical mediums during seances in the late 19th and early 20th Centuries. It appeared as a manifestation of white and often slimy or cloth-like material, including faces and body parts, originating from within the medium’s own body.
The word itself, ectoplasm, comes from the Greek ektos (outside of) and plasma (something formed). The term was coined by the French physiologist Charles Richet, who had at one point served as the president of the U.K.’s Society for Psychical Research.
In 1894, he took an interest in studying the physical medium Eusapia Palladino, and used this terminology to describe the bizarre substances she allegedly produced, which took the form of “white veils and milky patches,” among other things.
This was a phenomenon which, it should be noted, Richet did not necessarily believe came from spirits, but rather possibly from some kind of human sixth sense.
Something we had not yet – and still haven’t — discovered.
“When we have fathomed the history of these unknown vibrations emanating from reality – past reality, present reality, and even future reality – we shall doubtless have given them an unwonted degree of importance.” – Charles Richet
Prior to the term ectoplasm, the phenomenon had been known as teleplasm.
And It Smells Like Ozone
In a paranormal sense, ectoplasm was once believed to be secreted from the bodies of mediums as they channeled spirits from the other side. It may have also been residue left by the manifestation of spirits or other entities.
The physical characteristics of ectoplasm have been described a number of ways.
White, milky, slimy, smelling of ozone. It was solid, but also sometimes appeared as vaporous, emanating from the mouths, ears, and noses of physical mediums, usually in a darkened room and surrounded by fellow spiritualists.
This idea, naturally, has fallen out of fashion, as most of the old “evidence” of ectoplasm has long since been debunked as fraudulent, nothing more than cheesecloth and other everyday materials.
In fact, some of the photographs are almost humorous, including made-up dolls and even magazine clippings of faces, meant to appear as the visions of lost loved ones.
But we were far more superstitious back then, and it’s hard to tell what happens in a dark, candle-lit room in the middle of the night, as a medium claims to conjure the dead.
No human being would stack books like this
In modern times, horror and science fiction have seemingly taken the reigns of ectoplasm lore.
In 1984’s Ghostbusters, one of the very first scenes involves Ray and the crew investigating a haunting at the New York City Public Library. Making their way through a maze of bookshelves, they eventually come upon the library’s card catalog, oozing with what Ray refers to as “ectoplasmic residue.”
This is what most of us think of when we imagine ectoplasm — a far cry from the cheesecloth of those old spiritualism days. Or perhaps that’s just me.
Later in the film, Peter Venkman would be “slimed” by the mischievous ghost Slimer. The feeling is, then, described as “funky.”
What do we make of ectoplasm? Most have written it off as simply a hoax or fraud perpetrated by early mediums during the height of spiritualism — and in most cases, they are probably very right. You can read about some of Eusapia Palladino’s “tricks” over at Wikipedia.
Of course – and this is where my own personal absurdism comes into play – just because something can be or is faked, that doesn’t mean every instance of that thing is fake. You can never be too sure. Of anything.
Many paranormal phenomena, from unidentified orbs in the sky to strange substances oozing through bedroom walls, share similar qualities to the alleged ectoplasm described above. In some cases, we may never know their true origin or composition, if they do exist as the stories say.
As for ectoplasm itself, perhaps it’s something better left to those old physical mediums in dusty photographs.