The Medium is the Message

Tags: the supernatural is political, suffragists from the Great Beyond, Ghostbusters, ectoplasm, creepy retro bondage gear.

(Part Two of Two. Read Part One.)

My post the day before yesterday described The Perfect Medium, an exhibition of spiritualist photographs on this month at the Met. I talked about spiritualism as a technology, or at least a technological endeavor, and about the funny place the Gilded Age spiritualists tried to occupy between science and religion. I didn’t talk, yet, about what it was that I found unsettling about the exhibition–and no, it wasn’t the gallery of surprisingly portly Victorian ghosts.

Besides the infatuation with technology that I talked about in the other post, another thing that makes the spiritualists an interesting bridge between the Victorian and the modern is their relationship to gender. Not that you can really separate their ideas about gender from their ideas about technology. Jeffrey Sconce’s book Haunted Media: Electronic Presence from Telegraphy to Television has a fine first chapter that argues for understanding spiritualism as, essentially, a dialogue about women and technology and the relationship between them.

The new media of telegraph and telephone, Sconce reminds us, were every bit as important to nineteenth century spiritualism as the medium of photography. Consider the various necrophones and necrographs, the Morse-coded table-rapping, and the ubiquitous figure of the female medium, operator at the switchboard of an electrically charged spirit world. “While the technology of the telegraph transformed America into a wired nation,” Sconce writes, “the concept of telegraphy enabled endless displacements of agency, projecting utopian possibilities onto a disembodied, invisible community, and recasting an often radical political agenda as an act of supernatural possession.”

A radical political agenda disguised as supernatural possession. I like that. Western Union’s telegraph carried news of commerce, banking, and other masculine affairs. But the spirit telegraph, if we can describe spiritualism in those terms, was principally used to talk about affairs concerning women. Often, this meant making connections with lost loved ones, but just as often, it meant feminist politics. A remarkable number of departed souls, not known in life to be politically active, returned from the Great Beyond to offer lectures, through a female spirit medium, on temperance, women’s suffrage, or progressive social principles. Spiritualism, Sconce argues, exploited the novelty and mystery of electrical communication to offer women a new kind of public voice.

The display text at the Met exhibit is good on the relationship between spiritualism and photography, but silent on these questions of sex and gender. And because the exhibit jumbles together photographs from several decades of occult enthusiasm, it took me a little while to recognize the trajectory of the images over time. By the turn of the twentieth century, a divide was opening in occult circles between traditional spiritualists, who believed they were communicating with the souls of the dead, and animists, who believed they were accessing some kind of supernatural life force generated by living things. The spiritualists really just wanted to talk to their departed loved ones. They read Ouija boards and peered into crystal balls and decoded the rapping of tables in hopes of some final message from Aunt Lucille. The animists, on the other hand, were all about the ectoplasm.

Ectoplasm, made famous to my generation by the movie Ghostbusters, is a mysterious slime that mediums in a state of trance were said to emit from their nose and mouth–and other orifices too. (Obligatory Simpsons ref: Dr. Hibbard: “By all medical logic, steam should be shooting out of Homer’s ears.” Krusty: “His ears, if we’re lucky!”) The straight-faced display text at the Met notes that ectoplasm was “not dissimilar” to cotton smeared in goose fat or similar concoctions.

Judging by the photographs at the exhibit, the production of ectoplasm was a dramatic affair: all dark rooms, contorted faces, naked bodies, unflattering lights. And here, finally, is the creepy part. The woman mediums of the 19th century had names. They may not have been wholly respectable in Victorian society, but they were public figures of a sort. They lectured and wrote books about the spirit world. As spiritualism slid out of the mainstream in the 20th century, the female mediums got younger and poorer. They often appeared as “subjects” or “patients” of a male parapsychologist, and were identified only by aliases or first names. If you’re sympathetic to Sconce’s portrait of a progressive, woman-centered spiritualism, the transition is not a happy one.

By the 1920s and 1930s, the young women in the ectoplasm pictures were almost invariably naked, or else trussed up in skintight retro bondage gear. Ostensibly this was to demonstrate that the mediums weren’t faking, because they had no place to conceal the ectoplasm. But sometimes a leather hood is just a leather hood, you know? I don’t have any good examples to show you–all the pictures I could find online are all from the kindler, gentler spiritualists of the 19th century–but frankly, I’m not too upset about that. The later photos are not lovely to behold. And there’s a lot more psychosexual stuff going on in them than “nothing up my sleeve.”

I’m midway through Ann Douglas’ book, Terrible Honesty: Mongrel Manhattan in the 1920s. Douglas believes that a central project of 1920s culture was the destruction of the moralistic middle-class Victorian matriarch, the symbolic mother figure that the moderns associated, rightly or wrongly, with everything they disliked about the previous century. I wasn’t sure if I was going to buy that argument until I saw the exhibit at the Met. I know Douglas isn’t really talking about spiritualism. She’s talking about Freud and Eliot and Hemingway and even Frederic Wertham (the psychiatrist who saved the Baby Boomers from horror comics in the 1950s). But the matricidal mean streak Douglas describes is on display in those photographs in a stark and unpleasant way. From primly-dressed matrons bathed in halos of light, to naked, hooded girls, tied up and vomiting goo: I’m not a big McLuhanite, but in this case it certainly seems the mediums are the message.


  1. Did you come across in your research about the medium Eusapia Palladino?

    The term spiritism is the correct term when defining the belief in life after death.

  2. There is an early book of witchcraft, by Gardener I think, that offers diagrams of something called a “witch’s cradle. This sounds very similar to what you are describing as it was supposed to enhance visions through sensory deprivation and help connect with the unseen world. This was going on well into the 1950’s, though I do not know if it is still practiced today.

  3. I think all these mediums are fake. I am sure they are trying to fools of people. Just it is stupid to believe in such things. IMHO.

  4. I´m spiritist and medium, and to those whoes don´t belive pay atention to your dream when someone close to us dies. What most of the people dream with the gone spirit is the prove of life after death. Wants proves? type SPIRITISM, CHICO XAVIER, or ABRAHAM LINCOLN SPIRITIST. peace from South America…

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