What Is Ectoplasm and Why Are the Ghostbusters Obsessed With It?
Walter Peck and the EPA were right to be suspicious of paranormal investigators.
The Travel Channel show Ghost Adventures, which follows three bros on a quest to play beer pong with ghosts in haunted mansions and asylums, is compulsively watchable. There are always photos of stray shadows and garbled audio recordings, but never anything that would hold up in a court of law, much less a lab. The show doesn’t demand belief precisely because it presents no evidence. Where, one wonders, is the residue? Where is the ectoplasm?
The short answer: Nowhere. When I asked Steve Barrell, the “Ghosts and Hauntings Representative” from the Rhine Research Center, a paraspsychology lab located in Durham, North Carolina, he basically shrugged off the idea of physical evidence — as well as the idea of watching Ghost Adventures.
“I’ve only read about it,” he said. “The few parapsychological field investigators who have sat in one such seances have expressed serious credibility issues about the mediums, who would not submit to physical searches.”
Rumors of the goo, most famous for its cameo on Bill Murray’s face in Ghostbusters, aren’t new, but they have always been seeped out of questionable practice. The popularity of the spiritualist movement that made the late 19th century so eery in America was largely a product of the idea of communication with the dead via seances. It was a pseudo-religion that attracted the most gullible people and a disconcerting proportion of the intelligentsia of the day, including insane First Lady Mary Todd Lincoln. During these events, chairs and tables would levitate (it’s an easier effect to achieve than you might think) and mediums would produce ectoplasm from their orifices as proof of connection to the netherworld.
The name for the substance was coined by Charles Robert Richet, a Nobel Prize winning physiologist who came up with it as a way to legitimize the movement. He described it thusly: “In the early stages there are always white veils and milky patches and the faces, fingers, and drawings are formed little by little in the midst of this kind of gelatinous paste that resembles moist and sticky muslin.” But even Richet, perhaps feeling the weight of legitimacy in the balance, eventually became a skeptic.
“When we have fathomed the history of these unknown vibrations emanating from reality — past reality, present reality, and even future reality — we shall doubtless have given them an unwonted degree of importance,” he wrote.
So it was no surprise when mediums were continually outed as frauds, tricking people with mere parlor tricks. Ectoplasm became particularly suspicious because so many psychics and mediums refused to allow people to touch the stuff, citing safety concerns.
So what was it? Well, that probably depends on the medium producing it. For instance, Mina Crandon, who Houdini caught storing a substance in her vagina, probably wasn’t using the same stuff as the gentlemen drooling the stuff on drawing room tables. If it looked quite a lot like wet muslin, then that’s probably what it was. If it looked like smoke, well, the pattern isn’t hard to discern. What it didn’t look like was green goop.
So ectoplasm ends up being nothing more than a bunk product of the pseudoscience of its time, a tool for hucksters to take advantage of the vulnerable people willing to go along with it. It doesn’t feature on Ghost Adventures because it doesn’t feature in life or life after death. When the three paranormal bros do finally find the stuff, rest assured that it’s evidence of a dwindling viewership, not life after death.