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Stunning and Stirring: A Theory on the Symbolic of Spirit Ectoplasm in the Early 20th Century

Picture by Pauline Picot

Europe, beginning of the 20th century. You are a middle-aged man. You are, in fact, a physicist or a physician; a physiologist or a psychologist. Either way, your field of interest has always been one of the in-between: you are not sure how yet, but you feel that something connects the body and the mind; the spiritual and the material; the palpable and the intangible.

Still, maybe you would have laughed at the subject of Spiritualism in the late 1840’s and early 1850’s, when it was all about ghost rappings and table-turning. You were too young of course, but out of curiosity – and mostly because it was immediately deemed fashionable –, you would have gone to the Palais Royal in 1853, to guffaw at L’Esprit frappeur [The Poltergeist] by vaudevillian playwrights Cordier and Clairville. And maybe you did see Spiritisme [Spiritualism] by dramatist Victorien Sardou at the Théâtre de la Renaissance in 1897, and weren’t so sure whether to sneer at the obvious make-believe, or shudder from the evocations of tragic premonitions. And gosh, this trend had been holding on for a long time by then.

Was it only a trend, though ? Couldn’t there be the slightest possibility that all those people – women mostly – claiming to bridge the gap between this world and the beyond were telling the truth ? You are a man of science; and the academic climate in this late 19th century is that of a passion for all phenomena intertwining the explicable and the inexplicable, the mysterious and the rational: the hypnotic state, the cathode-ray tubes, the Röntgen radiations, photography and its unsettling superimpositions. It would not be absolutely disreputable for you to investigate the case of those mediums.

As it happens, a new kind of spiritual manifestation has started to occur in the first decades of the 20th century in Italy, France, Poland, and England. The presence of the medium facilitates the apparition of a supernatural entity: a hand, a face, even a full-grown person. It is called materialization. Some women are said to be experts in that beautiful paradox of a physical spiritualism: they are called Eva Carrière, Stanislawa P, Eusapia Palladino, or Helen Duncan. Rumor has it that in their cases, materialization takes the form of some kind of… expectoration. French physiologist Charles Richet, the 1913 Nobel Prize laureate for medicine, has coined the term “ectoplasm” to describe it as he was studying Eva’s case in 1903 – from the Greek “ektos” (outside) and “plasma” (something formed or molded). You are not sure what this is, but you feel the urge – as a scientist, of course – to take a closer look.

The room is dimly lit, on account of the ectoplasm allegedly being a light-sensitive material. It is packed with men of your age and standing. Depending on the observation session, you may encounter the French physicist Pierre Curie, the Italian founder of scientific criminology Cesare Lombroso, the French psychologist Pierre Janet – who came up with the notion of subconscious mind in 1889 – or the Russian chemist Dmitri Mendeleev. You are all waiting for a woman to appear. You know her reputation. You heard about her wonders. You would not like to admit that you are conditioned to be fascinated by her, but maybe you are – just a little.

Her silhouette softly emerges from the darkness. The silence is so thick one could cut it with a knife. She looks like a wax figure from the recently opened Musée Grévin you visited a couple years ago. You can barely feel the presence of all the men around you, holding their breath. She seems out of this world. You would not like to admit that whatever power is radiating from her stuns you, but maybe it does – just a little. Her mouth opens so slowly you would not be surprised to spot a string attached to her jaw, and to find out she has always been a puppet manipulated by spirits. The medium’s eyes wander around the room absentmindedly, and her gaze abruptly pierces your cornea. You could swear she just winked at you. You could also swear she is just winking at anyone she crosses eyes with. You could swear she knows that she owns the room.

You heard about the hysterical women of the Salpêtrière hospital. From the 1860’s to the 1880’s, they displayed their contractured hands, their arching backs, their crazy stares for the whole scientific community to gaze at and wonder. It is said that no specialist – even the eminent neurologist Jean-Martin Charcot – could truly fathom the obscure and tragic crave behind their symptoms. But it is also said that these women captivated their observers to the point that they could hardly refrain themselves from embracing their mad charades.  Now this woman may be mad as well, but you also – quite inexplicably – feel on the verge of embracing whatever she is about to present you with. Were the hysteric women of the Salpêtrière aware of how they held entire assemblies of men in their gaze? Is she?

Suddenly it appears. A kind of very long and very slow whitish spittle is coming out of her mouth. You can’t take your eyes off of it. You can’t take your eyes off of this black orifice and the milky substance dripping from it. You would not like to admit that your whole body is ablaze with this vision, but maybe it is – just a little. You would not like to admit what it reminds you of. You wonder if all the scientific minds like yours are unconsciously making the same connection. The ectoplasm seems to be forever forming. The white substance is spreading. The dark orifice is widening. It has to be a spirit ectoplasm. It has to be. Otherwise, what are you even watching ? What are you eminent scientists gathered around ? You can’t possibly associate this image with what it symbolizes. You can’t even formulate what it symbolizes: it is unspeakable. Obscene.


A 2020 scientific publication by the German gender studies specialist Stephanie Haerdle demonstrated that the early 20th century in Europe marks the complete disappearance of the notion of female ejaculation from medical discourse. With both theory and practice largely monopolized by male scientists in the 19th century, the anatomical science shaped the representation of two distinct bodies – female and male –, each bearing a different responsibility in the act of sexual reproduction : the male’s prerogative was the ejaculation (from the Latin ejaculari: to project) of sperm containing spermatozoa, while the ovum was identified, in the female anatomy, as responsible for fertilization. Thus, the notion of female semen – which had become rhetorically “useless” from a procreative perspective – changed status within medical writings in Europe throughout the 19th century. It first became synonymous with pollution (characteristic of a perverted, lustful personality), and was gradually discredited by medical discourse, to finally be downgraded to the mere status of myth it carries today. The purpose of this article has been to interweave the history of spiritualist phenomena and that of sexuality in the 19th century, in order to demonstrate that a mixture of fascination and desire may have played a significant role in the observations made by the esteemed scientists who studied the case of “ectoplasmic mediums”, and thus may explain how they could be duped by their fraudulent stagings. The theory that this article would like to submit is that the scientists were stunned by these women’s boldness in staging themselves in front of crowds of male observants, and ultimately stunned by their display of a unsettling vision that implicitly echoed female ejaculation, which had become a taboo by the beginning of the 20th century in Europe.

Bibliographical references

BAUDOUIN Philippe, Apparitions. Les archives de la France hantée, Paris, Hoebeke, 2021.

BLONDEL Christine, « Eusapia Palladino : la méthode expérimentale et la “diva des savants” », in BENSAUDE-VINCENT Bernadette et BLONDEL Christine (dir.), Des savants face à l’occulte (1870-1940), Paris, La Découverte, 2002, p.143-171.

CARROY Jacqueline, « Charles Richet au seuil du mystère », in VAN WIJLAND Jérôme (dir.), Charles Richet (1850-1935) : l’exercice de la curiosité, Rennes, PUR, 2015, p.65-79.

EDELMAN Nicole, Voyantes, guérisseuses et visionnaires en France (1785-1914), Paris, Albin Michel, 1995.

EDELMAN Nicole, Histoire de la voyance et du paranormal : du XVIIIe siècle à nos jours, Paris, Seuil, 2006.

EVRARD Renaud, Folie et paranormal : vers une clinique des expériences exceptionnelles, Rennes, PUR, 2014.

HAERDLE Stéphanie, Fontaines : histoire de l’éjaculation féminine de la Chine ancienne à nos jours, Montréal, Lux Éditeur, 2021. Traduit de l’allemand par Stéphanie Lux.


Cover picture by Pauline Picot
Proofreading by Daniela Taitl

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