“Spiritus”

Foreword by David Neuman, director Magasin 3 Stockholm Konsthall and Mats Widbom, director of exhibition, Riksutställningar.

Spiritus by Richard Julin, curator Magasin 3 Stockholm Konsthall and Magnus af Petersens, curator, Riksutställningar (2002).

The Phenomena in a Clear Red Light – Mrs Henderson and her Ectoplasmic Manifestations by Frank Hawken, Marylebone Spiritualist Association (2002).

Ethereal Body: The Quest for Ectoplasm by Marina Warner, critic and novelist (2002)

Exhibition catalogue no 27. ISBN 91-974236-1-0. 88 pages, color, illustrated, soft cover. Texts in Swedish/English. Published 2003 by Magasin 3 Stockholm Konsthall and Riksutställningar. 
Price: 240 SEK
 (approx. 25 EUR)

 

Ethereal Body: The Quest for Ectoplasm by Marina Warner

“Your belief will help create the fact.”
William James

Under “Duncan, Helen, Mrs.” in the catalogue of the archives of the Society for Psychical Research, now kept in the University Library, Cambridge, this entry appears:

‘Sample of Ectoplasm. Material alleged to have been captured from Mrs Helen Duncan, materialising medium…’

I asked to see “the sample of ectoplasm”. The librarian looked at me strangely; he said, ‘Are you sure? It’s very nasty.’ My response was, ‘Would you prefer me to look at it somewhere else?’ I thought there might be a desk of shame, where I could be supervised and other readers would not be disturbed. He said, ‘No, but be discreet.’

There was nothing corporeal about the “sample of ectoplasm’ when it arrived, in the strict sense of human or animal tissue. Inside there was a folded heap of dressmakers’ lining material, a cheap man-made fibre, now yellowing white in colour. About four yards had been cut straight from the bolt, with no hems, and the selvedge left plain. It had been washed and ironed, but the creases where it had been crumpled were still marked; the pattern of these showed it had been tightly wadded. There were traces of old blood that the laundry had not erased.

This bulky fabric was the spirit stuff that Helen Duncan had extruded from her body as ectoplasm, which had been ‘captured’ – the metaphor habitually used by spirit investigators – from Mrs Duncan during a séance in l939.

Helen Duncan was a Scottish medium, who was born in l898 and died in l956; her dates reveal how the quest for ectoplasm, the stuff of the other side, the substance of the ethereal body, continued well into the twentieth century. Its existence still receives detailed discussion on the web, with the portraits and the stories of its heroic protagonists. Mrs Duncan was celebrated in her lifetime for the clouds of shining, billowing spirit stuff that emanated from her as she sat in the spirit cabinet, groaning and shuddering as the trance state took hold. A medium’s body became a porous vehicle as the phenomena exuded from mouth, nose, breast and, even, vagina: she acted as a transmitter, in an analogous fashion to the wireless receiver, catching cosmic rays whose vibrations produced phantoms and presences.

Materialisation was the word used in the circles of psychical researchers to describe a phenomenon that first became common in seances in the l870s : the summoning of spirit presences in the form of objects and of bodies, or of traces of objects and bodies – touches to the cheek or hands of the sitters, slaps or caresses or breezes as of something passing, sometimes fingerprints or other marks, the sounds of bells ringing or ethereal music, apported flowers and other gifts from the spirits, and, above all, ectoplasmic manifestations. These took two predominant forms: luminous, veiled, phantom-like beings, or revenants, such as Helen Duncan’s favourite ‘spirit control’, known as ‘Peggy’. Peggy was the manifestation of a dead child, who had been recognized by her mother during one of Mrs. Duncan’s séances and continued to appear regularly thereafter, doing winsome routines, singing and dancing like a child film star of the period. But from its beginnings, ectoplasm was pursued by scientifically minded researchers, who did not believe in spirits as ghosts of the dead, and did not declare themselves to be spiritualists. They were questing to know the structure of the universe, and the concept of ectoplasm grew out of Victorian physics and cognitive sciences, not faith. Ectoplasmic phenomena are generic stuff of the spirit, not unique ghosts of dead souls. (…)

(Excerpt from the catalogue text “Ethereal Body: The Quest for Ectoplasm” by Marina Warner. Her most recent book is “Fantastic Metamorphoses, Other Worlds” (Oxford University Press) and she is currently working on a study of the invisible, “Spirit Visions” (2003).