A Brief History of Ectoplasm
Updated: Jul 11
The first time many people encounter the phenomenon known as ectoplasm is while watching the 1984 classic Ghostbusters.
Early into the film the original three ghostbusters Egon Spengler, Ray Stantz, and Peter Venkman visit the New York Public Library to investigate a report about a ghost. While exploring the basement of the building the trio come upon an old library catalogue cabinet covered in slime. Spengler explains that the substance is ectoplasm and asks Venkman to collect a sample.
Ectoplasm dripping for a catalogue drawer from the film Ghostbusters, 1984.
Of course the other scene in the film involving ectoplasm is the famous sequence at the hotel when Venkman is attacked by the ghost Slimer and left covered in goo.
The character Peter Venkman after being attacked by the ghost Slimer in the Ghostbusters, 1984.
Both of these depictions clearly portray ectoplasm as a slimy, gooey substance. But is that how historical cases of ectoplasm describe the phenomenon?
To answer this question, let’s explore a brief history of ectoplasm!
It is widely acknowledged that the term ectoplasm was coined by the French physiologist and psychical researcher Charles Richet in the 1890s. It first appeared in a printed text in 1895 in Richet’s Dictionary of Physiology.
According to the famous physicist and psychical researcher Oliver Lodge, best remembered among spiritualists for his book Raymond or Life After Death (1917), Richet coined the term while co-investigating the famed Italian medium Eusapia Palladino in 1894.
Generally speaking, ectoplasm denotes most kinds of materialized spiritual energy discharged from a medium’s body.
Although it is depicted as a gooey substance in Ghostbusters, the French physician and psychical researcher Gustav Geley described ectoplasm as “sometimes vaporous, sometimes a plastic paste, sometimes a bundle of fine threads, or a membrane with swellings or fringes, or a fine fabric-like tissue.”
However, the term ectoplasm is indebted to an older term ‘ectenic force,’ which was original hypothesized by Agénor Étienne, comte de Gasparin, and used to explain how physical manifestations of spirit and psychic energy were produced at séances.
Portrait of Agénor Étienne, comte de Gasparin
Before Richet coined the term ectoplasm in the mid 1890s there had been a long-established practice by nineteenth-century mediums to produce physical manifestations of spirits and psychic forces at séances.
Florence Cook was widely recognized by spiritualists as being one of the greatest spirit materializers in Victorian Britain, and her performance centred on the manifestation of the spirit of Katie King.
At a typical performance, Cook would either retire into an adjoining room, or enter into a large cabinet, where she would cover her head with some sort of shroud and enter into a trance.
The doors would then be shut, but inevitably reopen a few minutes later when the spirit of King would emerge to interact with guests. Usually someone appearing to be Cook would continue to lie covered but in view while the performance went on.
Afterwards, the doors would close again, before Cook would re-emerge to speak with the sitters about their spiritual experiences.
Although the spirit of Katie King was never referred to as an ectoplasmic projection, the fully-formed materialization was not too dissimilar to the later physical materializations that mediums specializing in ectoplasm produced. Even the physical attributes are comparable.
One of the reasons for Cook's success was due to a glowing endorsement from the renowned chemist and physicist William Crookes in May of 1874. He attested to the genuineness of her psychic powers.
Portrait of William Crookes and the alleged spirit of Katie King from 1874.
However, it is significant that Cook had already been caught cheating at another séance in December of 1873. It was reported that while the so-called spirit of Katie King walked around the room, a suspicious guest recognized an uncanny resemblance between King’s physical features and those of Cook. He grasped the spirit by the hand in the hope of exposing the whole performance as a sham.
Although Cook’s reputation just about survived the ordeal, she suffered a further blow to her credibility in 1880 when the antiquarian and politician Sir George Sitwell also showed that Cook and Katie King were the same person during one of her séances.
Despite these exposures, Cook was nevertheless an early pioneer of physical mediumship and laid the foundation for the next generation of psychics to perform even more daring feats. Among them was the Sottish medium Helen Duncan.
Duncan is one of the most famous early twentieth century mediums to allegedly produce ectoplasm. She’s most remembered today as the last person in the UK to be imprisoned under the Witchcraft Act of 1735.
It was in 1926 when Duncan claimed to have developed her mediumistic powers. She was around 29 years old at the time.
Originally Duncan mainly performed as a clairvoyant but as her reputation grew her séances shifted to physical phenomena. Eventually, Duncan claimed to be able to produced fully-formed physical materializations of spirits by emitting them as ectoplasm through her mouth.
In 1928 Duncan started to collaborate with a photographer named Harvey Metcalf. There are some wonderful photographs of Duncan supposedly producing ectoplasmic forms.
Photograph allegedly capturing ectoplasm emerging Helen Duncan’s mouth.
Rather than strengthening Duncan’s claims to the authenticity of her spirit materializations, Metcalf’s photographs exposed her ectoplasmic projections as fake. You can clearly see in the Metcalf photographs that the spirit forms are made using painted paper-mâché masks draped in white sheets and held up by wire coat hangers.
Photograph of Helen Duncan allegedly capturing a fully-formed ectoplasmic figure.
Things really got worse for Duncan after she was investigated by the famed paranormal investigator Harry Price in 1931.
Price believed that the ectoplasm Duncan excreted from her mouth was made from cheesecloth that she swallowed before her performances. She would then regurgitate it during the séance to create the effect of an ectoplasmic release.
Price managed to get a sample of Duncan’s ectoplasm from a much earlier investigation, but when he had it tested by a chemist the results showed that it was made from a mixture of egg whites, cheesecloth, and chemicals.
Harry Price and his Ghost Hunting Equipment, 1947
Duncan's conviction under the terms of the Witchcraft Act occurred in January of 1933 during a séance in Edinburgh. Basically, during the sitting one of the participants grabbed the supposed spirit and discovered it was made from fabric. The police were called and Duncan was arrested for fraud.
Another famous medium to produce supposed ectoplasm was Eva Carrière. Born in France, her birth name was Marthe Béraud.
Eva C, as she was also known, claimed that her psychic powers developed after the death of her fiancé Maurice Noël, who died of tropical disease while serving in the military in the Congo.
It was in 1905 while leading some séances with friends that Eva C claimed to have produced her first spirit materialization. That of of a 300-year-old Brahmin Hindu named Bien Boa. Some photos were taken of Bien Boa but the alleged spirit materialization looked more like a cardboard cut-out.
However, Charles Richet held a sitting with Eva C and claimed that the figure of Bien Boa appeared to be breathing, moved around the room, and even touched him.
Another photograph eventually revealed that Boas was a person dressed in a cloak with a helmet and fake beard.
Photograph of the alleged spirit of Bien Boa.
In 1906, there was an exposé in the press that claimed Eva C had hired a Middle-Eastern coachman named Areski to play the part of Bien Boa at her séances. The pair had met when Areski worked at the villa where Eva C was residing. Areski revealed that he entered the séance via a trap door and was therefore actively involved in the hoax.
The most scandalous investigation involving Eva C was led by the German physician Albert von Schrenck-Notzing in 1912.
The investigation is infamous because it was a highly-eroticized performance that was branded pornographic at the time due to some sexually explicit elements.
The performance was designed to arouse the male sitters and distract them, allowing Eva C (with the help of her assistant Juliette Bisson) to fake the supernormal phenomena.
Eva C was also completely nude during parts of the investigation; again, this was a way to misdirect the investigators’ gazes.
Censored photograph of Eva C with the alleged spirit materialization of King Ferdinand of Bulgaria
Another major supporter of Eva C was the author of the Sherlock Holmes stories, Arthur Conan Doyle. He argued that her psychic powers were genuine and that no form of deception was detected during his sittings with her. As a celebrity figure for the spiritualist movement, his endorsement held a lot of weight.
Harry Houdini by contrast also held a sitting with Eva C and stated that she was an outright fraud. He explained that most of the phenomena was produced through illusion, and used methods similar to the types of tricks practiced by stage magicians.
The anthropologist Eric Dingwall, who was also a leading figure at the Society of Psychical Research, investigated Eva C in 1920 with the help of V.J Wooley. The investigation was held in London and they determined that she was a fraud.
Dingwall and Wooley contended that Eva C’s ectoplasm was actually chewed paper. Apparently she used clippings of faces from magazines and newspapers to simulate her ectoplasmic projections.
Photograph of Eva C showing an alleged ectoplasmic face emerging from her ear.
So, there you have it, a brief history of ectoplasm. While the version from Ghostbusters is probably the most famous example, the substance in the film is quite different to the versions in historical cases.
Ectoplasmic phenomena is still something that some mediums claim to produce today, and you can arrange sittings to witness these supposed incredible displays.
Ruth Brandon, The Spiritualists: The Passion for the Occult in the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries, London: Weidenfeld & Nicholson, 1983.
M. Brady Brower, Unruly Spirits: The Science of Psychic Phenomena in Modern France, Chapaign: University of Illinois Press, 2010.
Hereward Carrington, The Physical Phenomena of Spiritualism, London: Herbert B. Turner & Co., 1907.
Richard Noakes, Physics and Psychics: The Occult and the Sciences in Modern Britain, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2019.
Janet Oppenheim, The Other World: Spiritualism and Psychical Research in England, 1850-1914, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985.
Alex Owen, The Darkened Room: Women, Power and Spiritualism in Late Victorian England, London: Virago Press, 1989.
Harry Price, Confessions of a Ghost-Hunter, London: Putnam, 1936.