Mediums, Spirits, and Ectoplasm…Oh My!

1238249_1395261277371679_1954880206_nWritten by San Diego Team Member:

Flo Stair


According to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary’s definition ectoplasm pertaining to the supernatural is “a substance held to produce spirit materialization and telekinesis”. Ectoplasm is better remembered as green slime that ghosts left behind in the 1984 blockbuster hit “Ghostbusters”.  Whether ectoplasm is actually real or not has been much debated in the scientific and paranormal community.

After World War I there was an increased interest in spiritualism, a religious warner3movement that involved contacting deceased loved ones using a psychic medium. The increased interest in this movement was mostly likely brought on by all the soldiers and that had died during the war, and their family wanting to contact their loved ones beyond the grave.

Ectoplasm was supposed to be physical proof that they were communicating with the dead. It was a term used to define a physical emanation of the supernatural, most like coming out one of the medium’s orifices such as the mouth, nose or ears. Some early researchers merged the idea of ectoplasm with the theory of “ectenic force,” these researchers were trying to find a physical explanation for psychokinetic experiences happening during séances.  Count Agenor de Gasparin and his colleage M. Thury hypothesized its existence to explain the phenomena of tables turning and the sounds of tapping during séances. The two researchers claimed they have had success with their experiments on ectenic force, but their results have not been verified independently.

Ectoplasm was so commonplace that it was revered in the scientific community and was featured in scientific journals, its existence was confirmed by such great minds of the times such as Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and William Butler Yeats. Once Scientific America offered $5,000 to anyone that could demonstrate this phenomena to a scientific panel, this money was a means to an end to the validity of ectoplasm.


Many researchers uncovered fraud, and do not believe ectoplasm is plausible. Many séances were conducted in poor lighting which enabled the mediums to follow through with their illusion of ectoplasm. Researcher Harry Price debunked medium Helen Duncan’s ectoplasm, by analyzing a sample of the ectoplasm she produced from her mouth. His finding determined it was a piece of cheesecloth that she had swallowed and regurgitated later. Duncan also used dolls and masks that would ooze fake ectoplasm.

What the scientific panel uncovered was even more disturbing than what Price discovered. Many methods and materials were used to create the illusion of ectoplasm. Some mediums would cut magazines or photographs and stick them to cheesecloth and pass them off as spirits of the dead. The medium examined by the scientific panel had a very creative methodology. She concealed a sheep gut and fat mixture in her vagina, which she would expulse at a certain time to make it look like she was expelling ectoplasm.

With the exposure of these frauds the displays of ectoplasm and credibility of mediums waned. After the were war fake mediums preyed and exploiting desperate people wishing to contact their loved ones, and ruined the credibility of real mediums. Although this term is widespread in popular culture, it is mostly rejected in the science community and is still debatable up until this day if it is real or faux.


7 thoughts on “Mediums, Spirits, and Ectoplasm…Oh My!

  1. Great research!

    I add this little tidbit:

    Charles Richet (physiologist and Nobel Prize Winner) used smoked paper on a table set at a distance from a medium during a séance to detect unseen hands. His experiment seemed to demonstrate evidence of physical contact and he created a term from the Greek words meaning “exterior substance” which is ectoplasm. (Information taken from Deborah Blum’s “Ghost Hunters: William James and the Search for Scientific Proof of Life After Death”, page 193)

  2. Spiritualism is a Religion with many roots, and predates WWI. The world was changing in the mid late 1800’s, Population growth was higher, America had an influx of foreign residents, The industrial revolution was in full swing, and America was about to enter the Civil War.

    Ectoplasm isn’t real, or is it? I would argue for taking a second look. I 100% agree that the myriad of famous ectoplasm photos from the past were all fakes [Fact or Faked Season 2 Episode 203]. I would however point out , the phenomena of water like substances appearing without cause or reason has been witnessed as a result of possession, and poltergeists activity. In many cases the water like substance lacked, “a wet feeling,” Such a substance would? or would not by definition be considered ectoplasm?

    • You are certainly correct in that Spiritualism predates WWI. We’ve covered a few branches of Spiritualism in our blogs before more focused on the pre and post-Civil War Spriitualism in the past with our Spirit Photography post as well as our coverage of Achsa White Sprague. Many scholars have argued that the birth of Spiritualism happened in 1848 when the Fox Sisters heard the rappings in their house from “Mr. Splitfoot”, and was well established by the time the Civil War started in 1861. I have also seen arguments that include Emmanuel Swedenborg (1668-1722) as the father of moder Spiritualism from his “medium-like” reading of a nearby fire that was happening over 100 miles away in 1759. But anyway, Spiritualism surely saw a rise in demand of services after the Civil War brought on 750,000 casualities, and many soldiers having not experienced the “good death” that involved friends, family, and being buried in the family plot. Dr. Molly McGrary wrote an excellent book about 19th century Spritualism called “Ghosts of Futures Past” and there is actually a modern day Spiritualism Camp in Escondido, CA that we’ve worked with in the past. And of course, after WWI, there was also a surge in demand due to obvious reasons. Even Lincoln was said to engage in Spiritualist activities (check out Susan B. Martinez’s book The Psychic Life of Abraham Lincoln)

      Water and moisture phenomenon is certainly fascinating, but considering that ectoplasm has indeed been tested by scientists and other psychical researchers, it was concluded that ectoplasm was made by non-paranormal substances and not accepted by science, and has been questioned periodically whether it actually exists. Water would definitely fit in the category. Since Brian already defined the Greek roots of ectoplasm, I won’t repeat it. But also, because it hasn’t been accepted by science and there are conflicting definitions of ectoplasm, we would need to first DEFINE ectoplasm and what it is before attempting to find examples. A few would argue that the ectoplasm discussed in Flo’s blog is the same defined by Arthur Conan Doyle and Charles Richet that the substance was produced by psychic mediums and considered to be a *biological response of the human body* to spirit communication. With the water phenomenon we would hesitate to call it ectoplasm, mainly due to the fact it hasn’t been tested for biological components and chemical makeup to see what was in it. And we would need to decide on whether we agreed that ectoplasm was a human biological response or a product of paranormal activity. If ectoplasm was just a product of paranormal activity, then wouldn’t we see more of this water on investigations on a regular basis?

      Great points, Dan. You had me scratching my head for a moment. 🙂

  3. I don’t think Charles Richet was an honest investigator, you can read about it here

    He covered up a case of fraud regarding the medium Eva C. The photographs depicted fraudulent ectoplasm made from wires but Richet and other investigators hid the photographs, they were uncovered many years later.

  4. Kennedy,

    Richet was a very successful scientist and, unfortunately, a true believer in the paranormal. He was like many at this time who seemed to ignore common sense in order to further their beliefs in Spiritualism. These were different times and it is so easy to look back and assume fraud and place blame on ignorance, but this was more than just a weekend hobby it was an entire belief system and a way of life for many. These feelings toward the field are very similar to the current amateur movement in ghost investigations where people deny that orb photos are merely dust among dozens of other misunderstandings about science and common sense. History has been bad to Spiritualism (or should I say the Catholic Church who, among other things, successfully turned a child’s game into a demonic conduit of evil) and many of the mediums and psychics that defied logic have been lost in time.

    Richet may have coined the term ectoplasm, but he did not hold a patent on being a true believer.

  5. The problem I have about modern spiritualists is that some of them do not accept the evidence of fraud. They are still about on public internet forums claiming Helen Duncan was a genuine medium but only a click away on the internet are her pictures of her ectoplasm and they reveal cheesecloth or rubber gloves. I know people feel the need to believe in things, but this stuff is so blatantly obvious fraud.

  6. In all honesty I understand your point, but spiritualists and even scientists in the early twentieth century were fairly blind to many types of trickery and fraud. I have always been a big advocate of science, science, SCIENCE! Investigating in the dark is bad, we need proper controls, tech should be overlapping and not random, etc. The reality is there has to be a bit of trickery in order to get things moving. My research has found many things that went against my beliefs and I have been able to convince myself that certain “mood setters” such as the methods of trickery of old actually enable activity to take place.

    Kenneth Batcheldor was a pioneer in table tipping research where he was able to discover a set of “rules” that helped induce psychokinetic activity from the sitters involved. Of these rules he discovered that a “designated cheater” acted as a catalyst to help others believe in what was happening. This decreased the time in which activity happened and increased the intensity of the activity as well. This was based on many mediums and psychics that used the similar “fraud” techniques that also created “genuine” activity, but who’s to say if any of this actually worked, right? His work set the stage for the TSPR “Philip” experiment and has also helped in the design of my “E4” Method of client-based investigations. Fooling people and being fooled is actually part of the dynamic of paranormal activity. Yet as complete fraud is another topic…

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