What Is Ectoplasm? Reports of It Appearing Over Time

Updated June 23, 2021
Spiritualists newspaper article from the Victorian era

In the Victorian era ,ectoplasm was created by the medium when conducting a séance. Unlike the slimy green goo left in the wake of spirits depicted in the popular movie Ghostbusters, ectoplasm oozed out of the mouths, noses, and ears of real life mediums.

Supernatural Manifestation of Ectoplasm

During the Spiritualist Movement, ectoplasm was believed to be the manifestation of a supernatural substance. It was seen to pour out of the mediums when they were in a trance. The mediums explained that the ectoplasm was somehow controlled by their subconscious or the consciousness of spirits. In some instances, the ectoplasm transformed and materialized into a human shape.

The medium would sit in a spirit cabinet, usually with the curtains drawn. The curtains would then be pulled open to reveal the spirit and/or the materialized ectoplasm that came out of the medium.

Vintage woman sitting beside window

What Is Ectoplasm?

Nobel Prize winner psychical researcher, Charles Richet, coined the word ectoplasm to describe what he'd witnessed during a séance. The substance began as a vapor that slowly materialized as a wet, gooey substance that took the form of a gauzy type of material. The ectoplasm often left a watery trail along the floor or ground.

Other witnesses described it as a white substance that was usually sticky and literally oozed out of the mouths, noses, and ears of mediums. Other times, the ectoplasm was gray or black.

Dr. Richet described how he watched the ectoplasm come out of mediums. He stated, "It creeps, rises from the ground, and puts forth tentacles like an amoeba. It is not always connected with the body of the medium but usually emanates from her and is connected with her." In one instance, he described the materialization of a spirit called Katie King emerging out of the body of medium Florence Cook. He wrote that the spirit first appeared as a "cloudy, faintly luminous thread."

This Nobel Prize winner was no slouch when it came to logical thinking and scientific investigations. He said he'd thoroughly examined the premises of the seances. However, his involvement in researching ectoplasm slightly tarnished his standing within the scientific community that viewed spiritualism--and subsequently ectoplasm--beneath the dignity of scientific investigation. This ridicule didn't stop his investigations.

Photographic Evidence of Ectoplasm

Before and after his Sherlock Holmes series became popular, Arthur Conan Doyle was obsessed with capturing spirits with his camera. He was especially captivated by stories of ectoplasm. You can find a large collection of old ectoplasm photos online by various photographers. Many appear to be fake photos of gauzy material and in one instance, a woman appears to be coughing up a long white glove.

vintage style photographer

However, Doyle and others were convinced that ectoplasm was a real supernatural material. He wrote about Charles Richet witnessing the famous Madame d'Esperance manifest ectoplasm. He described how at first the material pooled on the floor then rose into the shape of a man who identified himself as Bien Boa. The spirit walked with a limp and on two occasions sunk down and disappeared into the floor with a "Clac! Clac!" sound. Richet compared it to the sound of a body falling onto the ground.

Dr. Richet watched the medium, still in the spirit cabinet, the entire time that the spirit emerged. One time, the spirit rose from a small white ball on the floor and the same clacking sounds accompanied it when once more it sunk again and disappeared. Richet reported the spirit's limbs struck a nearby attendee as it sunk into the floor.

Dr. Richet checked for a trap door and even tracked down the architect and obtained a certificate stating there were no trap doors in the house. Still, Dr. Richet was ridiculed for his exploration and reporting about ectoplasm. He even devoted a chapter on ectoplasm in his book, The History of Spiritualism.

Madame d'Esperance was also known for her spirit guide, Walter. In 1890, Walter was photographed as he supposedly manifested via ectoplasm that poured out of Madame d'Esperance and emerged from the spirit cabinet. However, in 2016, the Journal of Scientific Explorationpublished an investigation of Madame d'Esperance, concluding Walter was actually Madame d'Espearnce in costume.

E.A. Brackett and Ectoplasm Spirits

Dr. Richet and Doyle weren't the only authors that wrote about spirits and ectoplasm. E.A. Brackett, author of Materialized Apparitions, shared his encounters with ectoplasm spirits.

In the beginning, E.A. Brackett thought the ectoplasm generated beings were rather dull and not real. Then, one day a spirit suggested that he should be more welcoming to these ectoplasm beings. He was instructed to greet them the same way he would old friends. Brackett did as suggested and reported that as soon as he did this, the spirits became animated, chatty, and lively. In fact, one embraced him, stating that she was his deceased niece, and then rested her head on his shoulder.

However, the most compelling aspect of these ectoplasm materializations that Richet and others observed was the dematerialization of the medium's arm whenever the spirits would emerge. Richet described it as having a flat appearance. He and others surmised it was part of the process that allowed the manifestation of the spirit.

Is Ectoplasm Real?

During the Victorian era and the height of Spiritualism, the ethereal nature of ectoplasm gave charlatans a new tool to use in defrauding people. Fraudulent mediums duped many of their followers of the Spiritualist Movement. Those desperate to connect with their deceased loved ones were easy prey for the use of the spirit cabinet and various tricks and techniques used to deceive with so-called ectoplasm. Some scientists attempted to verify ectoplasm was real, and the few who did lost standing within the scientific field and among their peers.

While many charlatans capitalized on the emergence of ectoplasm and the Spiritualism Movement, there were cases examined by some of the leading scientific minds of the late nineteenth century and early twentieth centuries, such as Dr. Richet.

It was revealed by those debunking ectoplasm that the fake mediums would swallow gauze, paper, and other materials and then regurgitate them during their seances. The spirit cabinet was a valuable tool of deception for frauds. It allowed them to change into costumes, or sneak in a helper to appear as a spirit.

A man's blurred face appears next to the sitter, surrounded in an ethereal-looking 'mist'

Debunking Ectoplasm Myths

Many of the photos from the Victorian era that reveal ectoplasm appear to be hoaxes and poorly faked double exposures. Is it possible that a Nobel Prize-winning scientist and a famous detective series author could be so easily fooled? If ectoplasm was a real phenomenon, why did it stop with that generation of mediums and no longer appear in a smart phone camera armed society? Keep those questions in mind as you consider this phenomenon and in determining if ectoplasm was ever real.

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What Is Ectoplasm? Reports of It Appearing Over Time