Séances were once performed in hushed, darkened rooms, but those locales have been supplanted by wowed audiences and stage lighting. A field once reliant on intimacy now favors auditoriums. The stereotypical foreboding Gypsy has given way to congenial men in tailored suits and women with impeachable manicures, ideal for television.
Most of this is done to make mediumship more appealing, but one change made out of necessity was the exorcising of ectoplasm. This was any substance said to have spewed from a medium during a séance, and it was usually touted as having been draped over the sprit’s body before being imparted to the medium. It was supposed to be the deceased letting us know it was there.
Ectoplasm was offered as an explanation for the levitation, table-turning, and floor-tapping that was observed during séances. But this was Tooth Fairy science, where the reasons for a phenomenon are examined before the phenomenon has been shown to exist. It was described as vulnerable to light, so séances were conducted in the dark, providing convenient cover for those sneaking the materials in or removing them from their hidden location, such as the medium’s clothing, a body orifice, or under a trapdoor.
Manifestations were common during the séance heyday from the late 19th Century until the Great Depression. But after investigators exposed the ruse, ectoplasm fell out of favor with séance practitioners, and it had practically gone extinct by the middle of the 20th Century. I am aware of no medium today that claims to be producing this netherworld substance.
Normally, an ad hoc rationalization is fabricated when psychic fraud is exposed. Uri Geller instantly lost his power when Johnny Carson offered Geller spoons and other items to demonstrate his ability during a Tonight Show appearance. Since Geller had been unable to manipulate the objects beforehand, he was unable to ‘bend’ them and was left meekly attributing his failure to “not feeling strong tonight.”
Another time, James Randi was conversing with three Russian alternative medicine practitioners who claimed to be in possession of some type of psychically-charged water. They claimed they could identify this magic water through a dowsing tool. Randi challenged them to go into separate rooms while he placed the magic water in a container, then filled two identical containers with tap water. The three would then enter individually and try to identify the magic water. At this point, the experiment abruptly ended, as one of the Russians said the magic properties would seep out and infiltrate the regular water, making them all indistinguishable. In these cases, Geller and the Russians had to come up with a hasty rationalization, lest their entire ruse be upended.
Similarly, I checked out a Flat Earth page and one of its claims was that a north-south circumnavigation has never been accomplished. This was in error, as Ranulph Fiennes and Charles Burton did it from Dec. 17, 1980 to April 11, 1982. I posted this, but the Flat Earther who maintains the page will not have an epiphany and become a globalist, so to speak. Despite the Fiennes-Burton journey being verified by the likes of the Guinness Book, the Flat Earther will dismiss the circumnavigation as fraudulent. And I may be outed as one of the tens of thousands of world government agents the page insists monitors the Internet 24/7 to spread the spherical Earth myth.
East-west navigation, of course, also proves a round Earth, but the Flat Earthers have somehow convinced themselves this is untrue. From flateaerthsociety.org: “Circumnavigation is achieved because on a compass East and West are always at right angles to North. Thus traveling Eastwards continuously takes you in a circle around the North Pole.”
Actually, traveling east takes a mariner east, not north. But Flat Earthers have their rationale and they’re sticking with it. However, a north-south navigation would punch holes in their own theory, so it has to be dismissed out of hand.
Ectoplasm, then, is sort of the east-west circumnavigation of séances. Mediums can be OK with it going away since the central point of communicating with the dead remains. In fact, it makes it less messy.
Around the time that skeptics and researchers were exposing the ectoplasm ruse, other physical manifestations of séances were also coming undone. Hereward Carrington, a James Randi forerunner, revealed how slate writing, table turning, sealed-letter reading, and spirit photography were accomplished. Exposés like this largely eliminated physical props in in mediumship, but again, this was not a fatal blow to the field because the props were superfluous yakking with the dead.
The research showed ectoplasm to come from a variety of sources, none of them supernatural. This included cheesecloth, chewed paper, cotton, cloth, gauze, egg whites, soap, muslin, starch, handkerchiefs, animal livers, and newspaper and magazine photos.
Despite a general idea of what ectoplasm was supposed to be, its appearance, consistency, color, elasticity, strength, and constitution varied by whichever medium was producing it. It could be dry or wet, viscous or gelatinous, opaque or transparent. None of this would not have been the case had ectoplasm been genuine. That would be like blood changing in type, texture, appearance, and color depending on which nurse was drawing it.
In 1924, Mina Crandon, one of the country’s most celebrated mediums, was tested by Scientific American and Harry Houdini, and was unable to replicate her ectoplasm powers under controlled conditions.
Another well-known psychic of the era, the mononymous Carrière, flunked a similar challenge. She had claimed, through ectoplasm, to have produced an image of a man. But this was revealed to have come from a magazine. She said, yes, she knew that. She had read the magazine and that’s how the image of the man came to be imprinted in her brain and later excreted as ectoplasm.
With all due respect to Geller, Russian quacks, and Flat Earthers, that gets my vote for the all-time greatest ad hoc reasoning.