The most important thing to remember about movies is that most are fiction and for entertainment purposes only. Unfortunately, a whole lot of people forgot that when the movie “Ghostbusters” was released. Although a delightful show, the movie did a huge disservice to a little something called “Ectoplasm”. Prepare to have some common ideas set aside, if not shattered altogether.
Fastheath dictionary (1) defines ectoplasm as “the outer relatively rigid granule-free layer of the cytoplasm usually held to be a gel reversibly convertible to a solid” or, the outer layer of protoplasm. You probably aren’t, however, reading this as a biologist. Just keep this definition in mind as you read on.
French Professor and Nobel Prize winning physician named Charles Richet applied the word ectoplasm to a substance exuded from spiritual mediums to facilitate spirits contact with the living world. (2) Richet coined the phrase from two Greek words, ecto (exteriorized) and plasma (substance) after 30 years of experimentations with physical mediums. Ostensibly, the spirit extracted ectoplasm from the medium. The substance is described as a solid or vaporous substance, lifelike and moldable, that supposedly exudes from the body of a medium to form limbs, faces, or entire bodies. Ectoplasm is usually dense but liquid, milky-white substance with the scent of ozone. (3) It is said to be a cold and moist substance. According to Richet and Von Schrenk-Notzig (more on his work follows) the ectoplasm consists of white blood cells and skin cells. It has also been called Substance X and Teleplasm. (4) Richet was a physiologist who worked extensively with ectoplasm at the Sorbonne in Paris and was a member of the prestigious Institute de France. In its primary stage he found that ectoplasm is invisible and intangible but even then it can be photographed by infrared rays and weighed. In its secondary stage it becomes either vaporous or liquid or solid, with a smell. In its final stages when it can be seen and felt it has the appearance of muslin and feels like a mass of cobwebs. On rare occasions ectoplasm is dry and hard. Its temperature is usually about 40 degrees Fahrenheit . (10)
Richet’s conclusion was that:
There is ample proof that experimental materialization (ectoplasmic) should take definite rank as a scientific fact. Assuredly we do not understand it. It is very absurd, if a truth can be absurd (Richet 1927).
It was during the time of Freud that the concept of ectoplasm as ghost residue gained popularity. Studies of the time suggested ectoplasm was a yellow-green ooze around a ghost body. Residue was thought to be left behind and often spotted on a photograph or with special lights or goggles. Contact with ectoplasm was thought to have the potential to harm. One of the key properties of ectoplasm is that some of its forms are extremely sensitive to light, so much so that even flashing a torch drives the substance back into the medium’s body with the force of snapped elastic. Bruises, open wounds and hemorrhage may result. In a seance at the British College of Psychic Science one of the sitters made a violent movement when touched by ectoplasm; the medium, Mr. Evan Powell, immediately suffered a severe injury to his chest (10) Breathing it or moving through it was supposed to be the cause of illness or possession (5), although many times the supposed ectoplasm was found to be fabricated. Other samples of ectoplasm have been proven to be a composition of egg white, cheesecloth or wood pulp created by or for the medium. The distinctive texture and smell of ectoplasm can be created using various ingredients, such as a mixture of soap, gelatin and egg white. In the late nineteenth century many fraudulent mediums used muslin. (6) In the twentieth-century divining rooms that sprung up during the Spiritualist movement, seances were often held for members of the public. During these rituals, webs and pieces of gauzy fabric were covered with fluorescent paint and glowing materials to create fake ectoplasm. Sometimes liquid was released in an effort to create tears or rain by spirits, often dropped from the ceiling, and pulled back up before the end of the seance. Visitors would be warned not to touch the “spirit residue,” lest they come to grave harm. (7)
The first recognized systematic investigation of ectoplasm was undertaken by a French researcher, Madame Juliette Bisson. Between 1908-1913, Mme. Bisson and Dr. Schrenck Notzing, of Munich, conducted experiments on a well-known medium of the day, Eva Carriere, and the results are recorded in the books which each of them wrote. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle believed that Mme. Bisson would someday take her place in history beside Marie Curie. In preparation for the sitting Eva would have all her garments changed under supervision and was dressed in a gown which had no buttons and was fastened down the back. Only her hands and feet were free. She was taken into an experimental room to which she had no access at any other time. At one end of the room was a small space shut off by curtains at the back, sides and top but open at the front. The object of that was to concentrate the ectoplasm. Conan Doyle writes: “The results are among the most notable of any series of investigations of which we have record.” (8)
Baron Von Schrenck-Notzing, a Munich physician, showed that ectoplasm is composed of leukocytes— white or colorless blood cells— and epithelial cells— those from the various protective tissues of the body. During materialization it is taken from the bodies of the medium and the sitters.10 Schrenck Notzing describes the research saying:
“We have very often been able to establish that by an unknown biological process there comes from the body of the medium a material, at first semi-fluid, which possesses some of the properties of a living substance, notably that of the power of change, of movement, and of the assumption of definite forms. One might doubt the truth of these facts if they had not been verified hundreds of times in the course of laborious tests under varied and strict conditions. ….. Do not allow yourself to be discouraged in your efforts to open a new domain for science either by foolish attacks, by cowardly calumnies, by the misrepresentation of facts, by the violence of the malevolent, or by any sort of intimidation. Advance always along the path that you have opened, thinking of the words of Faraday ‘Nothing is too amazing to be true’.” (8)
Shrenck Notzing analyzed the hair cut from a materialized form (spirit form) and found it to be of a different structure to the hair of the medium (Eva). He burned ectoplasm and noted that it left the smell of burning horns. He analyzed the ash and found it to contain calcium phosphate and sodium chloride. Also in the study, mediums were weighed during séances when ectoplasm had been formed and were found to have lost pounds in weight. (8) Professor W.J. Crawford, a lecturer in mechanical engineering at Queen’s University Belfast, conducted long and meticulous studies of ectoplasm. He wrote three classic books The Reality of Psychic Phenomena(1916), Experiments in Psychic Science (1919) and The Psychic Structures in the Goligher Circle (1921). He found that during materialization the weight of his medium dropped from 120 pounds to 66 pounds. In other cases in the literature the medium has been found to suffer a weight loss of between 15 and 40 pounds. (10)
Rev. Simeon Stefanidakis, in Phenomenal Mediumship: A Look at Physical Manifestations 9, describes how the physical medium uses ectoplasm. Stefanidakis suggests that the most fundamental use of is when it is released from the medium’s body, and the spirit operator demonstrates how it can be fashioned and directed. This becomes a demonstration of Spirit’s ability to influence matter via the directed use of mind. According to Stefanidakis, ectoplasm can be used to move objects. The spirit operator might mold the ectoplasm into hardened rods and direct these rods to the underside of an object and cause the object to be lifted (levitation). Objects known to be levitated have ranged in weight from a few ounces to hundreds of pounds. Sometimes, the Spirit operators create an ectoplasmic voice box, through which they can speak physically and audibly. This is often done using a small conical device, known as a trumpet. When the voice first begins, it is often very garbled and difficult to distinguish and as the energy is built up, the voice becomes more powerful and more easily understood.
In current schools of thought, it is believed that it is possible that the ectoplasmic residue left on some photographs is instead a magnetic field emanating from the earth. Research has been done in this area, but there is no conclusive evidence that strange auras and shadows really are not simply natural phenomenon. Many mediums claim that ectoplasmic residue is the movement of spirits disturbing magnetic fields around the earth. (11) Cindy Blake of the Michigan State Ghost Watchers, suggests that ectoplasm is residue left over by a spirit who was recently in an area and that it is slightly more difficult to catch ectoplasm on film than it is to get orbs. She also offers that it “seems ecto-anything is only captured on film when conditions are exactly right. Large amounts of energy must be present, weather must be good, and the moon phase must be strong, not to mention the entity must be willing!” (12)
Human Spiritual Structure: The Tripartite Yogic Mind (13) describes something called “Citta Tattva”. These are the images in the mind of things done, including actions being contemplated and external sensory impressions. It is where perception and ordinary memory is stored. The citta is thought to be ectoplasm and is psychophysical in nature, being composed of mental waves as well as biological. The citta is the medium which holds the sensations caused by physical vibrations, so that they can be perceived.. The citta can also hold images produced by the mind, as in dreaming. When the mind is quite concentrated, the citta can also create an external form, like a ghost or vision.
In the over 400 sources read, it would appear that although it would be wonderfully helpful if apparitions or other spirits left a trail of ooze behind ala Ghostbusters, research and serious paranormal specialists conclude such a trail is not ectoplasm. Some Ghost Research societies do believe that ectoplasm has evolved to that level, but by and large the research shows the involvement of a spiritual medium to be necessary. If we as serious researchers remove the element of the spiritual medium, it is my opinion, then, that none of us could possibly have seen ectoplasm—either in person or on film. Dr. Schrenk Notzing’s extensive and well documented scientific research is, in my opinion, some of the best information that we as skeptical believers (those who believe in the existence of ecto but still want good proof) have. I believe it to be perfectly logical that so many have seen/experienced SOMETHING and that that something has a sound basis in biology even as it walks hand in hand with the paranormal experience. In my research I found no verifiable evidence of ectoplasm without the presence of a spiritual medium. This would lead me to believe that orbs and auras are not ectoplasm but rather something yet undetermined. International Ghost Hunters Society does support the idea of unmoderated ecto (without a medium) but the photos supplied on their web site are less than convincing, especially the photo of a “vortex dissolving into ecto”.(14) The Ohio Ghost Researchers even go so far as to claim one photo shows ectoplasm forming from the ground. (15) I certainly wish they had added in their collective notes just when ectoplasm evolved (and how and why!) into cosmospiritual neon signs saying “Ghosts Were Here.” Perhaps that will merit another round of research!
Robin Bellamy, Toronto, Ontario, 2003