My first introduction to ectoplasm was in Richard Matheson’s novel Hell House, later turned into The Legend of Hell House by John Hough. Here there is a scene where spiritualist Florence Tanner exudes ectoplasmic pseudo pods from her fingertips. Mr. Barrett commands the spectral force to leave a sample in a jar. The teleplasm, of course, does not oblige, veering away.
Another writer who actively uses ectoplasm is Mike Mignola. He even has a major character in the Bureau for Paranormal Research and Defense (the B.P.R.D.) who is entirely made up of ectoplasm. His origins were finally revealed in a Dark Horse one-shot, B.P.R.D.: The Ectoplasmic Man. Basically, Johann was a medium, whose ectoplasmic form survived his body’s death. He “lives” in a containment suit that allows him to interact with the physical world (an keep his ectoplasmic vapors from dissipating).
The character was recently introduced in the Hellboy II movie. His containment suit received a substantial remodel courtesy of Guillermo del Toro. Here, as in the comic, he demonstrates his ability to “possess” dead flesh and reanimate it.
Ectoplasm was “big” in the Victorian era. People went nuts for the stuff (along the same vein as fairy photography). Often ectoplasm (sometimes called teleplasm) issued from various bodily orifices (ears, mouth, nose, nipples and vagina). The term ectoplasm was coined from two Greek words, ecto (outside) and plasma (substance). These amorphous shapes had to be coaxed out of the medium, where they proceeded to slither about through the air. Sometimes they moved tables or interacted in some way with the physical environment.
People have often tried to snip a piece for analysis, yet all these have met with failure. The ectoplasm was believed to be like an umbilical cord. The medium would die if it were severed. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, in his History of Spiritualism (Volume 2), related the story of a medium who suffered a “near severe hemorrhage” after a flashlight was shone into her mouth by someone trying to get a better view of the ectoplasm.
One Russian scientist, Simyon Zinovieff, did manage to acquire a bit of the psychic stuff. His lab suffered a terrible accident. Molten glass, dripping from an unwatched test tube, ignited some chemicals. These exploded and set fire to the lab. Zinovieff committed suicide immediately afterward. To further compound the myth that ectoplasm kills, Zinovieff’s second wife died from a heart attack minutes after tossing a jar of ectoplasm into the Seine.
This photo, taken in December 1948 in complete darkness with a Kodak Infra-red plate, shows an ectoplasmic rod emanating from Minnie Harrison. The ectoplasm is solid enough to clearly see the shadow behind it. The tip of the pseudo pod has connected to a trumpet (no word on whether or not it could play Taps). The spirits “spoke” through the trumpet, which was suspended about five feet from the floor.
One of the most notable mediums was Mina Crandon, better known as Margery. Famous photographs show long strings of ectoplasm, like umbilical cords, pouring from her mouth, ears and nose, where they seemed to hang by tiny threads. Other extrusions came from between her legs. She even produced a third hand, grossly formed, from her navel. This feat was never fully explained, yet when touched, the hand felt live sewn tracheae tissue.
Harry Houdini alleged that all of these ectoplasmic manifestations were tricks. Usually people swallowed fabric or cotton balls only to regurgitate them during the séance. He would know, being able to spew up needles on command. He claimed that that Mina’s surgeon husband altered her vagina and this was where she concealed her teleplasmic hand. She would then use her groin muscled to “produce” the hand. Quite a nifty trick. Mina refused to wear tights, or be internally searched. Proof that Mina had been surgically altered has never been found.
In 1924, Eric John Dingwall of the British Society for Psychical Research, requested that Margery perform in tights. She refused. Most mediums were subjected to a thorough body cavity search that would make Homeland Security operatives proud. To avoid this invasion of privacy magician and medium investigator Harry Price invented the “séance garment.” It covered the medium from head to foot, including her hands, so that only her head stuck out. This would avoid the body search, and also ectoplasm leaking out the vagina or rectum. (A whole new meaning to anal leakage).
Hiram Maxim tells the story of a materializing medium who was put in such a garment that had been sewn tightly around her neck. The medium simply ripped open the outfit and stuck flowers under her breasts for later materialization.
Another medium, Eva P, would perform completely naked, in the company of another woman, Juliette Alexandre-Bisson. She secreted ectoplasm from her vagina. There are photos of Eva P. at the Met that depict ectoplasm as it emanates from Eva’s nude body. Alas, I could not find pictures for this.
Ectoplasm and physical mediums has virtually vanished from the world. It had a short reign at the turn of the century. Seeing how so many of these pseudo pods were obvious fakes may have dealt a death blow to what might be a true phenomenon.