In an octagon-shaped house on the outskirts of Lily Dale in upstate New York, I sat with the photographer Shannon Taggart in a room whose windows had been shrouded with heavy black cloth. The door was similarly covered so that not even the slightest bit of light would peak through the cracks. Along with Shannon and myself, there were twenty or so other people seated in folding metal chairs that encircled the room along the walls. In the front of the room stood a large curtained rectangular box, known as a spirit cabinet. Inside the cabinet was a single low- back wooden chair and on the floor around the chair were various small drums and horns were inside. People spoke in quiet voices while we waited for the séance to begin.
I had seen the medium a few minutes before, outside smoking a cigarette. He seemed a bit shy, not quite standoffish, but clearly did not want to make small talk before he performed. When he finally came in to the room, he was self-possessed, with the demeanor of man about to attempt a high-wire act. He gave us all very specific instructions, and warned that to veer from them in any way was extremely dangerous. Once the lights were off, and the door closed, no one was to leave the room, nor could we, under any circumstance, get up from our seats. If we felt something come near us, we should not reach out to it. We had already placed our cell phones, keys, and watches in a basket outside the door; we should not attempt to sneak in an electronic device. A breach of these rules, even the smallest, could result in terrible consequences and could prove fatal to the medium. One young woman was starting to think she might not want to stay, and had to be reassured that as long as we did as we were instructed, everything would be okay.
The door was closed, its edges sealed with more of the heavy black cloth so no light could bleed through. The medium sat in the high-backed chair and two volunteers bound his wrists to the wooden arms with straps. A gag was placed over this mouth, the curtains of the cabinet were drawn shut and all the lights were extinguished. After a few tense, quiet minutes there was sound of a chair scraping and banging on the floor. It grew louder and louder until it was suddenly silent, followed by a boom like a sudden exhalation and then the room was filled with sound. The beat of a drum encouraged a bit of rhythmic clapping, and the noise of feet stomping, until a pained raspy roar took over. Long cardboard horns, known as spirit trumpets, had been decorated with glow-in the dark tape floated and soared around us. The sound of a slide whistle startled me. It was otherworldly, despite being slightly comical. The unexpectedness of it was also because it was clear that before the lights had gone out, a slide whistle was not one of the props that were laid out by the medium’s feet. It was important that we had seen what the medium had access to, how he sat, and the way he was bound and gagged. Even the floating trumpets were not as strange as the enigmatic noise of the slide whistle.
We were then introduced to various spirits, including a child that added a bit of creepy unease, but the leader was a spirit with a deep booming voice. As each spirit revealed itself, the room erupted in encouragement, with some of the participants eliciting a call akin to witnessing in a Christian revival meeting. For the dedicated Spiritualists in the room, the voices of the spirits were not startling, but recognizable, like seeing an old friend after a long absence. There is joy, and a moment of surprise, but then you carry on as usual. People here were not expecting or hoping for transcendence or an unexpected encounter with the supernatural. Spiritualism accepts the reality of spirits interacting with the living as commonplace. They cheered, clapped along to the music, laughed at the terrible jokes that the spirits made. I was trying to find the ineffable,
but the energy of the people around me rejected any feeling of the uncanny. I was ready and open to being altered, but it never came, not during the séance at least. The sense of enchantment, of having been in the presence of a rift in the space where spirits and mortals can interact wouldn’t come for me until the experience was filtered through technology, in this case a digital SLR.
Shannon had arranged to take photographs of the séance with the hopes to capture images of ectoplasm, a kind of spiritual goo that — although rarely seen — has been known to extrude from human orifices such as the mouth and nostrils. The medium couldn’t guarantee the spirits would allow her to take pictures, but he suggested she have her camera and other equipment ready in case the permission was granted. Even this, however, had to be done under strict controls. Before the séance began, the camera’s battery had to be removed and everything else placed under her chair. Under no circumstances was Shannon to attempt to use camera until she was given specific instructions on when and how it would be permissible.
After an hour of various sounds such as drumming and whistles, conversations with the spirits and the participants about love and faith, and continued commands to clap, sing, and then to sit quietly, the spirit-in-charge told Shannon it would be possible for her to take photographs. “Listen precisely to every word of instruction,” the voice warned. “Is that clear?” Shannon agreed, and the spirit continued in a tone that flashed a degree of flirtatiousness, “In a moment you will be asked to attach your battery and then turn it on.” When the order was given, Shannon did as she was told and then asked if she could set the camera on a tripod. All the while the participants were sitting quietly, so as not to disturb whatever machinations were happening in the space between the worlds to allow a camera to become an element in the séance. The spirit agreed to the tripod, and then said, “At no point are you to point your device anywhere near the
cabinet.” Shannon would be allowed to take “snapshots” only and then had to immediately “disengage the battery.” Once everything was set up, the spirit told a helper sitting near the cabinet to light a small tea candle that sat on a dish near the front of the cabinet and then to start the CD-player and to turn the volume up. Once the song ended, Shannon would then be allowed to turn on the camera. “Do not engage your batteries until the song has finished,” the spirit said in its most serious manner thus far. Everyone sang along to “Sweet Caroline,” as if we were at a Red Sox game and not a room filled with the talkative spirits of the dead, while we waited, a slight tension in the room as we watched the faint flickering movement of Shannon as she prepared her tripod and camera.
It appeared, at least on this night in the darkened room of the octagonal house, that the ghostly denizens were not as predisposed to having their pictures taken as they once were. The dramatic decision whether Shannon would be allowed to take photographs, and then the detailed directions that followed, suggested that the spirit world was mistrustful of the camera. This suspicion of technology and what it might reveal is not what I expected. While this kind of physical mediumship — the production of ectoplasm, floating instruments — is certainly rarer than it was in the 19th and early-20th centuries, the contemporary interest in ghosts, haunted houses and other supernatural phenomena has been made increasingly popular by television shows like Ghost Hunters and films such as The Conjuring. I expected that those in the spirit business would invite the camera as a source of potential documentary evidence, if not an excellent marketing tool. Moreover, there was a time when mediums, and the souls that they channeled, were once dependent on the photographer’s craft. In the 19th century, the two were inexorably linked, and in some cases the photograph itself was the true medium, a tool used by the spirits to
become manifest. Using special lenses for seeing spirits and related otherworldly denizens was a decidedly 19th and early-20th century development.
In Arthur Conan Doyle’s slim 1922 volume, The Coming of the Faeries, the creator of the beloved character Sherlock Holmes speculates that we might one day invent a pair of “psychic spectacles” that would allow us to see beings whose existence is invisible due to their vibrating at different frequencies. Like many spiritualists of his time, Doyle believed that the world was populated by spirits, fairies, and other supernatural entities. Only a select sensitive few — mediums — had the faculties to apprehend them, but human ingenuity could allow for everyone access to the occult secrets of the cosmos. And Doyle had proof. The shutter speed of a camera, for example, was able to capture the playful interaction of fairies and young girls in the idyllic woods of Cottingley, England. Doyle’s belief that a camera could see what the unaided eye could not represent marks an important moment in the relationship between technology and spiritual ideas. Doyle’s willingness embrace technology — even as science undermined the substance of his spiritual beliefs — marks an essential quality of the supernatural imagination.
When Doyle was presented with evidence that the faery photographs were faked, he still insisted that with the right technology, human beings would have access to another level of reality. We had conquered the land with the steam engine and could communicate across vast distances through the air using wireless transmitters. It would not require much more inventiveness to sweep open the veil that separates our world from the hidden realm of the spirit. Doyle’s imagined spectacles are a mediator, a means through which mortals can withstand seeing the divine realm. Doyle’s glasses are also objects of power, to be crafted by human beings in order to wrest secrets from nature, and to place mankind at the zenith
Those who accepted that photography could capture images of the presence of spirits often pointed to X-rays as an example of where the unseen could be rendered visible. More importantly, it was believed that the spirits themselves “directed” the medium to be photographed. A decade before Doyle’ public declaration, James Coates published Photographing the Invisible in 1911 in which he refers to the “Intelligences in the Invisible,” writing “Intelligent messages can only come from intellects capable of sending them.” Thus, the spirits are participating in the capturing of their forms, and that the attempt would be impossible without “cooperation.”
Spiritualism arose at a time when photography — and other technological advances such as the telegraph — would elevate it beyond becoming merely another form of wishful religious fancy. Spiritualism was not only moral, it was rational. And unlike other beliefs in the supernatural, could be documented. It could be proved. Up until the time of Spiritualism the first spirit photographs, there was little in American religious practice that would suggest that people of faith would one day accept that technology could capture the reality of the divine and the supernatural. It wouldn’t be until the mid-20th century when Biblical literalists would try to merge scientific concepts with Biblical history in order to “prove” concepts such as the Flood as well provide ways to reconcile how dinosaurs and records of early humans square with accounts found in Genesis. Nevertheless, there is a quality inherent in Protestantism — the denomination out of which Spiritualism arose — that recognizes the value of human labor as a measure of salvation. The spiritual irony of Protestantism — and in particular Calvinism — as described by the early-20th century sociologist Max Weber, is that no amount of religious practice can affect whether one has received God’s grace. Therefore, the Christian man or woman must believe they have been chosen by God to receive salvation, and yet “intense worldly activity is recommended
as the most suitable means” to feel confident that they are among the chosen. Spiritualism absorbed this tension masterfully, at once believing that any medium with sufficient skill to be able to communicate and materialize the souls of the dead was chosen to be divine instrument without effort on their part, and second that the work of the medium was proof of their God- given gift. Many Christians still saw Spiritualism as the work of the devil, a form of magic explicitly forbidden in the bible (“Do not turn to mediums or wizards; do not seek them out, to be defiled by them” Leviticus 19:31). It is not the spirits of the dead that are manifesting they believed, but devils and fallen angels whose purpose is “toward working mischief against the well-disposed, and the debauchery over those whom they gain absolute control.”
Spiritualism and its supporters fought back. In his 1896 book The Religion of Modern Spiritualism Dr. William Cleveland asserted mediums are controlled by God’s angels, not the rebellious type who followed the devil in his retreat from heaven. More importantly he writes, “Jesus was a medium and devoted Spiritualist. He proclaimed it everywhere and on all occasions, and for his daring was nailed to the cross.” While this God-given gift would wait centuries before it would reveal itself again, the proof Cleveland believed was demonstrated in Hydesville, New York’s Fox sisters whose special talents would announce that “Death has gained a new victory; hell had lost its sting.”
The emphasis on observable phenomena that characterized Spiritualism reinforced what religious historian Anne Braude describes as the movement’s “claim to be scientific.” Braude explains that some mediums and their followers saw themselves as scientists of the spirit world, merely an aspect of “the nature of reality.” This relationship between the spirit and the medium was often described in technological terms, an important way to align Spiritualism with the very science that was undermining religion’s hold. The technology of optics, having recently opened a
once invisible world with the microscope and X-ray, offered a range of metaphors with which to describe mediumship. Allan Kardec, known as the “human telescope” and author and father of Spiritism (a belief in reincarnation as a means for spiritual evolution) wrote that “Mediumship has been for the spirit world what the telescope has been for the heavenly world and the microscope for the infinitely small world.” Technology is a means through which we conquer our own material limitations. Just as mediumship offers the selfsame mastery of the spiritual, “the microscope and the telescope are equally striking protests the limitations of sight,” the medium and spiritualist Horace Leaf writes in his 1926 The Psychology and Development of Mediumship. Spiritualism collapses the distance between the living and the dead.
The emotional aspect of Spiritualism, coupled with an explosion of technological innovation, would extend the metaphor of the medium as a lens into literal acceptance that a camera could in fact capture the spirit world. Just as the microscope and the telescope exposed the hidden aspects of the material world, it was not so implausible that the wondrous extraordinary technology of the camera might reveal another hidden realm. Grief or loss that induced people to not only seek out mediums who might channel the voice of their deceased loved ones, but to find those who could capture their forms in the new and wondrous technology of the camera.
The implication that the spirits require the mechanism of the camera to become visible might suggest that their power is limited, but for those who believed, it made sense that the veil between worlds was not easily lifted without an extension of the human operator, a tool. At the same time, there was a tension between wanting to accept with some confidence the science of how photography works and the “truth” of the spirit images. To this end, it was often put forth that not only did the spirit wish to be photographed, but that some other supernatural activity
exploited the camera’s own limitations. James Coates writes in his later 1922 work Seeing the Invisible:
Whether this transference is from the spirit side or from our side, one thing is certain, that these photographs resembling the likeness of departed friends are obtained — nay, more, are deposited on the photographic plates — independently of the photographic procedure necessary to obtain the likeness of the visible sitter.
Attempts were made to use contemporary scientific principles to at least suggest that even supernatural entities were subject to the laws of physics, even if those laws were not yet discovered or understood.
Standing outside of the Lily Dale Museum, Shannon pointed to the doorway of the building and told me this was where she took a photo of a woman named Dorothy. The image was taken without special filters, with a normal exposure. The photo, called “Dorothy with Bob’s Orb” shows Dorothy with a blueish orb hovering over her right shoulder. Shannon explained that at the time she saw nothing unusual when she was taking Dorothy’s picture. It wasn’t until she was developing the film that she saw the orb. Shannon showed the photo to Dorothy who remarked, “Oh, that’s Bob,” her then deceased husband. “I thought I’d spend one summer doing a very journalistic project, a straightforward piece about this town that’s so unique,” Shannon told me. The photo of Bob’s orb changed her motivation. “Lily Dale ended up presenting a lot of mystery to me, and the more I dug the more I found.”
Before the séance, Shannon gave me a tour of the village of Lily Dale. The summer season had not yet started up, the time of the year when believers and skeptics alike descend upon Lily Dale looking for a supernatural assignation, perhaps with a loved one who has died.
Now it was quiet, however, and the town seemed on pause, or like a stage curtain waiting to be raised. As we walked Shannon told me how she had chosen Lily Dale when looking for a project that had personal resonance. She had studied photography at Rochester Institute of Photography (RIT) for a Bachelor’s in Fine Arts in 1998. After RIT she worked for newspapers, public relation firms and freelance magazines. But something nagged at her. She remembered an impactful moment as a young child, when her cousin had gone to Lily Dale and received a message from the spirit of their grandfather through a medium, who told her specific details of how he died that the medium could not have known. This memory contributed to her decision over what subjects to photograph, and she went to Lily Dale to begin taking pictures.
The origins of modern Spiritualism might very well lie in two Hydesville, New York girl’s ability to crack their toe knuckles producing sounds akin to a table being rapped. In 1848, siblings Margaret and Kate Fox, known as the Fox Sisters, were fifteen and twelve respectively when they first began to communicate with spirits by calling on them to knock on the walls in response to questions. Their parents enlisted the help of neighbors to try and assess the source of the noises, and together they became convinced the girls were acting as a conduit to the spirit world. Things became stranger still when the sisters named their new friend, calling him Mr.
Splitfoot, a sinister moniker, conjuring an image of the devil whose hindquarters were often thought to be those of a goat, cloven hoofs and all. To calm the attention in their neighborhood, the two girls went to live with their older sister Leah in Rochester, but word of their abilities quickly spread and soon they were filling halls to demonstrate the knocking of spirits. There was no indication interest would spread beyond Rochester until the self-described prophet Andrew Jackson Davis — a devout follower of the 18th-century Christian mystical teachings of Emmanuel
Swedenborg — heard about Margaret and Kate and brought them to New York City. A religious movement was born as the sisters took their mediumship on tour.
It appears that the subsequent media attention, public scrutiny, and the desperate need of the bereaved began to take a toll on the young women. In 1888, the newspaper New York World paid Margaret 1500 dollars to admit she and her sister were a hoax at a public demonstration where she would reveal how they were able to create the sound of rapping. A reporter for the Ohio newspaper, the Defiance Daily Crescent, describes a nervous Margaret standing on stage “before a wearied and unsympathetic audience,” and unable to speak. A small table was placed next to her. The reporter writes: “Removing her shoe, she placed her right foot upon this table. The entire house became breathlessly still and was rewarded by a number of little short, sharp raps — those mysterious sounds which have for more than thirty years frightened and bewildered hundreds of thousands of people in this country and Europe.” Margarete would later retract her confession that it was just a matter of cracking her toe knuckles, but the damage had been done. Spiritualism’s public demonstrations retreated into the parlor and more private settings, but for the most part the movement had already grown and developed in such a way that its believers held firm. Spiritualism was too necessary as a spiritual path. It presented a relationship to the divine that was broadminded, without dogma, hopeful, and liberating.
Spiritualism offered a religion that was more progressive with regards to women, sexual norms, and — as with many forms of occultism — a belief that the individual could have a role in their own spiritual destiny. Spiritualism was also experiential. While there were several occult and esoteric societies that offered non-traditional spiritual wisdom such as Theosophy and Rosicrucianism, none could provide direct and immediate access with the spirit world. The medium and the client didn’t need ritual, dense Hermetic texts, or possess any arcane knowledge.
It was believed that mediums should train their minds to allow the spirits to properly guide them. As Drew Crispin Faust pointed out in her book The Republic of Suffering, this fit well within a culture that was inspired by a scientific, rational way of thinking. The attraction was also one of pragmatism as Faust writes, it “offered belief that seemed to rely on empirical evidence rather than revelation and faith.” Even abolitionists found support for their views in Charles Darwin’s writing and other rational perspectives.
The enormous death toll of the Civil War and the trauma of a conflict that had pitted family members against each other was a factor in the rise of Spiritualism (and would resurge again after World War One for the same terrible losses). The desperate need to reconcile, to forgive, or to simply hope for a better life beyond one that could have fashioned such a brutal struggle kept mediums busy. Faust also notes that one of the attractive qualities of mediums over the local minister is that Spiritualism could link the living and the dead. The Boston spiritualist newspaper The Banner of Light, Faust observes, offered communications from dead soldiers such as “Lieut. Grebble” who admitted in life he did not believe in Spiritualism, but having found a medium through which to speak, now sends his “appeal from the land of the shadows.”
Lily Dale that was founded in 1879 to offer a campground and meeting place for Spiritualists, only a loose collection of groups and churches at the time until 1893 when the National Spiritualist Association of Churches (NSAC) tried to create a denominational sensibility to organize the various communities. The camp officially became the Lily Dale Association in 1906. The character of the grounds indeed feels a little stuck in that time. It all has the standard features of a small town in upstate New York. There is a library, a small museum, and post office, each of them housed in buildings built between 1880 and 1887. But here is
where the likeness to a typical town ends. Lily Dale was built to create a safe place for mediums and their visitors to communicate with spirits. This, according to the NSAC, is the very definition of their religion: “Spiritualism is the Science, Philosophy, and Religion of continuous life, based upon the demonstrated fact of communication, by means of mediumship, with those who live in the Spirit World.”
To this end, Lily Dale has two temples, an auditorium, a mediation garden, a “Fairy Trail,” and even a pet cemetery. The museum itself offers portraits of mediums from the across the years, clips from newspapers, pamphlets, and a few reproduction vintage postcards for sale. One of the highlights of the museum are “spirit paintings,” which are artworks rendered by mediums in trance states, or when an image appears on a blank canvas during a séance. In one display case was an odd bit of technology, a pair of leather and glass goggles in a box labeled “Aura Goggles,” a card dating them in 1920. It was once thought that with a certain technological knowhow, anyone could see auras using the techniques developed by Walter Kellner, which require the use of special lenses which train the eye. Kellner, a British physician in the late 19th century who worked with early forms of electrical medical devices, discovered that if you look through a lens or filter that has been treated with a substance called dicyanin, a blue dye made of tar, your eyes would become accustomed to perceiving certain kinds of electromagnetic radiation. Writing for the American Freemason magazine in 1912, the author Francis Rebman contends that after about three minutes, the lenses can be removed and the auras will appear. Furthermore, he maintains, after extended use, “Many people do not require the light dicyanin screen at all.”
We made our way to Inspiration Stump in what are known as the Leoyn woods, where, since the 1880s, the mediums of Lily Dale have found to be a potent area for spirit
communication. Mediums will stand on the stump and receive messages twice a day during the summer season. The stump is also the favored location of orbs like the one Shannon captured with Dorothy, believed to be energy of souls, or even guardian angels. These images, usually taken at night with a flash, show small, round, slightly transparent “orbs,” hovering near people. The orbs are often singular, but some photos show them in blurry groups. Orb photography is a popular activity at Lily Dale, but it might be because orbs are the easiest to capture on film.
There is not much mystery here, however. The slightest mote of dust on the lens will flare into an orb on the captured photo. Nevertheless, typical orb photos, particularly those taken at Inspiration Stump, offer a kind of gentle nudge towards imagining the reality where the souls of the departed allow themselves to be photographed. There is an innocence in these photos, in some ways contrasting with the almost fierce images of Shannon’s photographs of Lily Dale’s mediums. Orb photos are easily duplicated, but what Shannon does is dependent on accident, and relies on a strange confluence of the subject, the camera, the viewer, and the spiritual expectations that are inherent in the photograph. This is clear in the photo Dorothy, where the orb of her husband Bob was not only taken in the daytime, but does not render itself as easily dismissible as the those displaying showers of dust flares. In Shannon’s photo, Dorothy’s orb is a delightful chance moment, possibly an accident of light, but also strangely ambiguous.
In another one of Shannon’s photographs, a woman stands by a window, her face a range of blurred features that seem to coalesce into a mask suggesting another identity. The illusion of another entity having taken over her aspect is heightened when looking at another photo of the same woman. The medium, Sylvia Howarth, does share some commonalities with the masked version of herself; broad nose, wide forehead. But the image of her in trance suggests that these features were utilized on behalf of the spirit to use what was available to make itself known. It’s
important to note that this effect is achieved technically by using a prolonged exposure in which the camera’s shutter is kept open for a length of time. “Doing these time exposures means I am open to any possibility,” Shannon told me. The photo of Sylvia was, as Shannon described, taken in “mundane” situation. “[Sylvia] simply told me she was going to channel spirits for me in the light.” Even with the long exposure, Shannon wasn’t expecting any kind of phenomena to reveal itself. At the same time, Shannon admitted using a prolonged exposure for a simple portrait of a woman standing by a window is purposely “trying to do everything wrong.” Sylvia had told Shannon she would be channeling Native American spirits, and looking at the photo, a tribal mask of sorts emerges around her face. “It truly shocked me,” Shannon said when she described first looking at the photo for the first time.
In her work documenting Lily Dale, Shannon isn’t trying to capture photographs of spirits, or in any way attempt to prove or disprove the work of the mediums. But she quickly discovered that it not possible to be purely objective, as a journalist would have to be. Over the years of photographing the mediums of Lilly Dale, she became a participant observer, having to interpret both the experiences of mediumship and séances, as well as what the photographs manifest. It also means that as an artist, she is making conscious choices about what to reveal to the viewer.
It’s a delicate balance, one fraught with potential misunderstanding both from the mediums who are her subjects and the audience of the photographs. “I’m trying to mine the mystery,” Shannon explained. “I’m trying make it as ambiguous and as confusing as possible or to have as many different interpretations as possible. I’m not trying to clarify.” This might sound like deliberate trickery, something the original spirit photographers were accused of. But Shannon is not trying to deceive. The truth for her is in the ambiguity. Shannon’s photographs
are not intended to prove that there is life after death. The question, and the answer, are both in many ways irrelevant. A more important phenomenon is taking place, one that was also apparent in my work with Nico and her automatons. Freud makes the point in his essay “The Uncanny,” which describes those frightening things that lead us back to the familiar, to what is known. He says that this titular feeling is not limited to the automaton, but “when something we have hitherto regarded as imaginary appears before us in reality, or when a symbol takes over the full functions and significance of the thing it symbolizes.” Because Shannon’s photographs are not of literal ghosts but of the mediums in their own state of encountering the spirits, it’s as if we are privy to the medium’s altered states of consciousness and what we can imagine is their experience.
Describing any photograph can be difficult, but Shannon’s are particularly challenging as at first glance they often look as though something in the process has indeed gone wrong. Many of her photos are of mediums in trance states, their faces upturned towards some unseen force or pointing downwards as if they have fallen into a state of deep hypnosis. The light is the key, though, as Shannon uses increasingly long exposures, enlarging time so that things that are happening between the seconds are made visible. The suggestion here is that spirits and their ilk move and act beyond what is normally perceptible, and so by slowing down time, details not seen with the naked eye will appear, captured by the open shutter.
Take for example a series of photographs of the Australian medium Gordon Garforth, who describes himself on various websites as capable of something called transfiguration. This process was described as early as 1912 in the affably titled Spirit Mediumship: How to Develop It. Here, the Reverend E.W. Sprague recounts how sometimes “our spirit friends” will change the face of the medium to look like the person who has passed away and is being channeled. In one
photo, Gordon’s face appears to be in process of transforming as wisps of light flow around him. A second photo shows Gordon tense up as another figure swells out from behind him. It is likely a double exposure, but the strain in Gordon’s body language shifts the perceived coincidence of the photo towards something more beguiling. “Gordon said to me that he makes ectoplasmic masks when he’s in a trance, and that I will see his face change,” Shannon told me. “I wasn’t seeing anything like that at the time. But he does look really different in every picture.”
Without a doubt, Shannon’s thirty-second exposure for these photographs would account for any of the strange effects, but it’s in the story of a third image where this explanation begins to dissolve. Gordon is seated, his torso pushing away from the back of the chair. His face is a blur, except for a distinct bushy mustache, which he doesn’t sport in real life. The photo isn’t too strange compared to others of Gordon, and Shannon herself wasn’t that impressed with it within the larger body of her own work. She was also worried that it made Gordon look a little like Adolf Hitler and so was hesitant to show it to him. “But he loved it,” Shannon said. He took Shannon back to his house and pulled out a yellowed and creased antique photo. It is a picture of Gordon’s great grandfather, the spirit Gordon said he was channeling, wearing the same style thick mustache.
It is hard to tell how much seeing the photo of Gordon’s great-grandfather might have changed the way I perceive the picture of Gordon in his trance state. The personas in each photograph are so strikingly similar that I can’t look at Shannon’s without now superimposing in my mind’s eye the face of Gordon’s relative. This is where technology can break down perception, of creating a space whereby even the memory of how I first saw the image is forever altered by the introduction of the antique photograph into the narrative. Whether or not Gordon actually channeled his bald mustachioed great-grandfather and was transfigured to appear like
him was only realized at the moment Shannon clicked open the shutter and the allowed the light and subtle movements of her subject to enlarge the actual experience. As Shannon said, nothing appeared out of the ordinary when she was taking the photos. No phantasmal mask appeared on Gordon’s face. The spiritual imagination is activated afterwards by the technology. It is in this sense that the Spiritualists maintained the truth of spirit photography in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary. The intent of the photographer is irrelevant to the spirits, who will find a way to render themselves visible.
Everyone at the séance was really there to see Ectoplasm, the physical intrusion of the spiritual into the material. As the climactic event, it is indeed a somewhat eroticized encounter with the spirits. It is the most intimate moment for the medium. For the first time during the séance, he was exposed and vulnerable. This sexual resonance was explicitly palpable in the 19th century when the mediums were women, and ectoplasm was often extruded from their vaginas. Any orifice would do of course, but this also made the woman a powerful vessel. Not only could she give birth, she could deliver a spiritual wonder into the world, often requiring the same kind of toil and strain as childbirth. It’s no surprise, then, that the most famous photographer of ectoplasm was a sexologist, among his other profession as doctor and psychologist. Born in 1862, Albert von Schrenck-Notzing was a doctor who studied medicine at Munich University and eventually became interested in hypnosis. He used these techniques to help cure his patients of what were then considered sexual deviations.
It was once believed that hypnotism was a spiritual force, or “vital fluid,” which in the mid-18th century Franz Anton Mesmer called “animal magnetism” and claimed it moved through and within the universe, capable of being manipulated for the purposes of healing illness. What if these “vital fluid,” or some aspect of it, could be made visible? This was something Schrenck-Notzing hoped to demonstrate and began working with the medium “Eva C.” a pseudonym for Marthe Béraud. Eva seemed to demonstrate extraordinary abilities beyond anything mediums had done before. The writer J.D Beresford, in an article for the March 1922 issue of Harper’s Magazine, claimed that Eva could even “materialize the perfect body of a tiny, nude woman, which moved all the material actions of life.”
Schrenck-Notzing published Phenomena of Materialisation in 1920, his complete account of working with Eva C. The book begins like many of the time related to spiritualism with a rational apologia, explaining that science should not dismiss any claims until sufficient testing and analysis had been performed. Schrenck-Notzing writes, “Our investigation of Nature is subject to change. We have no justification for condemning a priori, though a healthy skepticism can only contribute to the furtherance of truth.” As we saw, it was important for those early-20th century investigators and spiritualist sympathizers to be able to align their beliefs with the scientific method. Schrenck-Notzing went even further, however, asserting that mediumistic phenomena was not the result of anything supernatural, but is a function of the human being’s own unconscious. Schrenck-Notzing saw photography as the only legitimate means for capturing and documenting the materializations, but he also — maybe naively so — believed? that mediums must be studied under the conditions they themselves deem necessary.
Since mediumship arose out of the spiritualist milieu, this context, Schrenck-Notzing argued, had to be respected. Nevertheless, he still prepared to accurately photograph in way that
would prevent trickery. Schrenck-Notzing used up to nine cameras placed in various positions and various kinds of lighting. He inspected the cabinet and performed “a careful searching [Eva’s] body.” His book even provides helpful diagrams of the layout of the room showing where the equipment and the sitters were situated in relation to the spirit cabinet. The result of this was that despite what he believed were strict controls over the sessions he photographed, claims of fraud began to overwhelm him. The most notorious example can be seen in two photographs, the first taken on November 27, 1912 which shows Eva from the side, a cottony materialization emanating from her mouth, and rising from behind her is another odd form with lettering on it. Another photo from May 2 the following year shows Eva C. holding open the curtains of her spirit cabinet as a man’s face appears on her chest. Clever investigations by Schrenck-Notzing’s opponents revealed that the words seen in the first photo looked exactly like the typeface used for the magazine Le Mirror, and the man’s head was almost exactly that of a portrait seen on the cover of the issue from April 21, 1912. Looking back at other materialization photos, it seemed obvious that despite Schrenck-Notzing’s controls, he had been fooled. The photography curator Andreas Fischer writes in the essential The Perfect Medium, “There were many who supported this view, expressing malicious joy at the simplicity of the explanation.” Schrenck-Notzing pushed the envelope of his own imagination in trying to account for the likeness of the faces to the magazine’s images, going so far in his book to suggest that Eva may have indeed seen the magazine and it became the raw material that her unconscious mind used to create the materialization. He writes, “Reminiscences of former visual impressions and fragments of dream images coalesce unconsciously with the ideoplastic creations to form a unified presentation, which may be so misinterpreted as to give rise to suspicion.”
Schrenck-Notzing eventually conceded, but only to say that photography simply couldn’t properly capture the truth of what was with the naked eye during the séance. Rather than verifying the reality of materialization, the camera filtered out the experience and cast a pall of artificiality on the real. It is true that the photographs of Eva C. are both absurdly fake and profoundly ambiguous. In some, the faces entangled within the ectoplasm look flat and “cut- out,” and the ectoplasm itself looks like cheesecloth or cotton. In others, Eva appears to be in a deep trance state, the ectoplasm flowing out her mouth like smoke, defying gravity. It is between these two sensibilities? that the entire history of spirit photography is located: a phenomenon of some kind is being captured, and a narrative is implied that the photograph can only allude to. In the case of Eva C. there is a relationship between her and Schrenck-Notzing that is so intimate it is difficult to tell who is really the one with the most power. And power is exactly what is on display. Both are participating in an effort to provide the other with some mutual unspoken need. At the heart of magic, as we saw, is mode transcendence that is far beyond the trick or the ritual. The performance, the relationship between the magician and the audience, is one in which consciousness is altered and world is enchanted.
As the medium prepared for what was explained by the spirit guide as an extremely perilous endeavor, I wondered about ectoplasm and why, in the cosmology of spiritualism, spirits feel the need to present themselves in this way. Later, Shannon explained that some mediums would say it is an attempt to merge the material and spiritual worlds, which creates a healing atmosphere.
The ectoplasm is merely the expression of an invisible process. The medium functions not only as a voice for the gods, but as literal valves through which this strange spiritual substance is excreted.
For this medium in Lilly Dale to produce ectoplasm his hands had to be unbound, the curtain of the cabinet pulled aside, his gag removed, and a small candle lit in front of it. It was made it clear by the spirits that they were mistrustful of the camera, despite the realm of the dead supposedly having a long history this technology. The deep-voiced spirit then asked Shannon to take her camera from under her chair and allow it to be inspected. In complete darkness, the spirit instructed Shannon on what she would be allowed to do. She could set up her camera on a tripod, but could not use any artificial light, including the camera’s flash. The only available light source would be the from the candle. After everything was ready, the cabinet was opened. The medium was sitting very still, the straps that had bound his wrists now on the floor near his feet. After a moment, he started to produce a series of choking sounds until slowly a wad of white thick substance started to emerge from his mouth. Other than the strange gurgling coming from his throat, the only other sound in the room was the clicking of the camera’s shutter.
I watched through the dim candlelight as a white egg-shaped glob of matter began to extrude from the medium’s mouth. He lifted his hands to his mouth and as the substance took on more mass, his fingers clutched it and began drawing it out, like carding wool. There seemed to be much more than could comfortably fit in the medium’s cheeks, and I was reminded of a stage magician pulling multi-colored scarves from their mouth. The ectoplasm was drawn and stretched like ethereal taffy from the medium’s mouth. Shannon’s shutter measured the time of this strange performance with each photograph, building tension until the shutter would close.
Some gasped as they witnessed what they must have believed was spirit made corporeal. My attention was mostly on Shannon as she moved quietly to position herself, looking up at the medium and back to her camera, opening the shutter and then waiting for it to close. The effect of Shannon working in the room was a shift in my own experience as I tried to imagine what else
she might capture that I wasn’t seeing now. Was there some invisible process that might render itself in the photograph? People continued to quietly and nervously laugh, and some called out words of encouragement. I was enthralled by Shannon, however, witnessing an activity that was deeply connected Spiritualist history. It was an attempt to insert a technological device into a process that was dependent on a human agent. Thus, there were two mediums at work here. Both had access to a special kind of truth, but what they would produce was very different.
I left Lily Dale feeling a bit let down, lamentably unhaunted, and without a clear sense of what mediumship means in the modern world. I had gone without expectations, and worked to leave my skepticism back in Boston. In fact, I was hoping to have a preternatural experience, to be in the presence of a medium in a trance state, and then to connect that encounter with the photographs Shannon produced. I wasn’t sure how the banality of what happened would translate onto the digital image. I had felt twinges of old superstitions at Lily Dale, both hopeful and afraid that someone I had cared for deeply in this life would contact me from the other side. Alas, they had remained invisible. Or so I thought. A few days after I returned home, Shannon shared with me the photographs she had taken and at it was then I began to understand that the camera and the photograph, not the people, are the mediums through which a crossing over had taken place.
In one photo, the medium’s head seems to emerge from the darkness, his features cast in a gloom, an image that captures the dark mystery we would be encountering when he first warned us of the fraught nature of the séance. Another shows ectoplasm being drawn from the
medium’s mouth, a long fluid mass stretching down towards the floor. It is a grotesque image, stranger and more surreal than I witnessed in person.
Occasionally, the photograph also reveals that which should however remain
hidden. During the first half of the séance, one photo clearly shows a slide whistle on the floor, during the period Shannon could take photos. That delightfully strange noise we heard at the opening of the séance was now merely a magicians’ prop. This didn’t reduce its effect, however. The recollection of what I felt hearing it, and later seeing the photo, revealing it as an object the medium had at hand, waged a strange battle in my consciousness. If what we were seeing was a perfectly rendered magic show dressed as a séance, an essential question at the heart of my technological quest is made evident: how much of the occult, and in the history of mediumship, was also more performance than supernatural activity? And how does technology such as the camera suggest there is yet another phenomenon outside the realm of the merely performative?
Those popular brilliant high-resolution images of quasars and nebulae are imaginary, color added with an artist’s rendition of noise and math. And yet we recognize them to be accurate in their way. Because he colorful swirls of galaxies and Magellanic clouds are rendered out of something we can’t actually see, but can estimate, based on dozens of images stitched together using equations and scientific deduction, perhaps intuition. These are deliberate fabrications to facilitate our experience or understanding. Shannon’s photography, on the other hand, is not manipulating the images, but instead relying on chance, accident, and glitch. Both draw a certain truth out of the abstraction of experience, like ectoplasm out of an orifice. The supernatural echoes that appear in Shannon’s photos are neither true nor false, but are mirrors of a confluence of three things; the camera, the moment the photo was taken, and the viewer of the
photo. As Shannon explained to me in Lily Dale, “I’m trying to play a part but I am not trying to clarify anything.”
Shannon’s work is an inversion of the classical spirit photograph, particularly the ectoplasm images of Schrenck-Notzing. “He abandoned photography because it abstracted what he saw as reality,” Shannon said. “He was seeing these magical things and photography was destroying them.” Photography is a special kind of looking, and can’t perfectly mirror the experience of seeing. “I am embracing photography for the exact reason that Schrenck-Notzing abandoned it,” Shannon explained. Schrenck-Notzing, however, could never admit to the possibility of having been deceived, instead blaming the limitations of the technology. Shannon wants to embrace the idea of deception as an area to explore.
Those working today with the séance model of mediumship often present their performance as a religious ritual, which Shannon also sees as a kind of performance art. For the medium’s she’s photographed, Shannon also functions as an extension of the performance. She told me during an interview later over email, she sees herself as part magician: “I embrace the camera’s ability to trick or fool. Crossing the boundary of what is considered unprofessional in the practice of photography–playing with motion blur, lens distortion, light leaks, flare, overexposure, and underexposure–feels magical to me.”
This is not to say Shannon has not felt tricked herself or put into a situation where any ambiguity was clearly contrived. But this kind trickery is not necessarily deceitful. Today, there is a subculture in which the medium we sat with is a part of, that is trying to bring back the Victorian-era séance, with its dramatic effects; floating trumpets, dramatic and startling sounds like banging and otherworldly shrieks, and of course, ectoplasm. It is small, to be sure, but there is a desire to bring drama — performance — back to the séance. What I experienced in room with
the medium existed within a tradition of stage magic where the medium or magician was bound inside a closed cabinet and then a series of “supernatural” phenomena occurred, including floating trumpets, the sounds of tympani, and sometimes spirit forms would seem to appear in the darkness. Just as the stage magician would use these selfsame techniques to debunk spiritualism, the character of the magician and the medium were once so blurred it was impossible to tell what kind of performance was taking place.
[Shannon Taggart’s new book SÉANCE is now available from Fulgur Press.]
(Reprinted from STRANGE FREQUENCIES by arrangement with TarcherPerigee, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. Copyright © 2018, Peter Bebergal.)