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  • Ectoplasm and Spirits in the Material World
  • L. Anne Delgado (bio)

In the middle of the nineteenth century, the spirit world became emphatically corporeal. Luminous full-bodied phantoms emerged from the medium's cabinet, a concealing cupboard or curtained space that was a common feature of certain types of séances. These phantoms would perch [End Page 33] on the knees of proper Victorian gentlemen, or they might caress the faces of those seeking physical contact with the other side. The séance, a parlour-room diversion that was purported to conduct such otherworldly traffic and that had, by the closing decades of the Victorian period, become a cultural obsession, offered its audiences something that mere science and stage magic could not: contact with a world that was both tangible and fervently desired. But after several of these phantoms, known as full-body manifestations, were discovered to be fraudulent, the séance-room spirit transformed into something even more extraordinary. By the 1890s, the spirit world disgorged fat slabs of curdled plasma—what the Nobel laureate physiologist Charles Richet would call "ectoplasm" (515)—and this new material became one of the most sensational substances to emerge from the nineteenth century. It was also a contentious fluid that many believed would reconcile science with spirituality.

Before it was known as ectoplasm, it had been called a "soul substance" (Flammarion 80), a "biogen" (Coues), a manifestation of the perispirit (Kardec), and a psychoplasm (Lewes 118). It was believed to have emerged from the medium's bodily orifices and would often accumulate in pale clumps on her breast or shoulder, on the séance room table, or on the floor. Ectoplasmic blobs, however, became commonplace only at the very end of the nineteenth century. Before it was seen, ectoplasm was experienced as a phantom touch in the dark or force that tipped tables. Those who studied the substance were likely responsible for ectoplasm's evolution. Theories concerning its formation varied. Some believed that the stuff was evidence of the spirit world, others thought it was a material projection of certain psychic states, some considered it a manifestation of the fourth dimension, and still others believed it was nothing more than a grotesque stage act.1 Not unlike the full-body manifestation, ectoplasm dislodged furniture and made physical contact with members of the séance circle. The gifted and somewhat mischievous spiritualist medium Eusapia Palladino produced big wandering pseudopods that tipped tables (Richet 402). According to British physicist Oliver Lodge, Palladino's manifestations led Richet to exclaim: "C'est absolument absurd, mais c'est vrai!" [It's absolutely absurd, but it's true] (302). But ectoplasm would soon evolve into something even more absurd. It dripped from the noses, ears, and genitals of those skilled enough to produce it. It was soon viewed as a new biological order, a substance that made visible unseen mechanisms and worlds. And unlike the full-body materialization, ectoplasm showed no signs of disappearing. There were still mediums who produced fully or partially formed phantoms, but the modern manifestation became more viscous and rudimentary. It was not a body. It was not even recognizable as a ghost. It was as though the spirit world had reassessed the plausibility of the full-body materialization and found it wanting. [End Page 34]

But perhaps it wasn't the spirit world but the psychical researcher that dictated this shift. Richet argued that ectoplasm was a manifestation of the medium's will or life force rather than the physical embodiment of a spirit (458). This marked the beginning of the spirit world's transition. Contemporary science formed the foundation of these new non-spiritual theories of the séance room and its discontents. But the substance had been around much longer than Richet or Palladino.

According to Arthur Conan Doyle, one of the most zealous spiritualists of the period and creator of Sherlock Holmes, one of fiction's most ardent rationalists, ectoplasmic phenomena had first been described by the eighteenth-century mystic Emmanuel Swedenborg. In the midst of an angelic visitation, the mystic noted feeling "a kind of vapour steaming from the pores of my body. It was a most visible watery...