The spectre of materialisation

To archaeologists and anthropologists ‘materialisation’ is the embedding of an abstract meaning into a solid, physical thing (see DeMarrais et al 1996).  A wedding ring might be seen as the materialisation of romantic sentiment or legal binding.  A gift materialises a social relationship of obligation between people. Thinking about materialisation questions the artifice that sets mind against matter.  But materialisation isn’t just for philosophical introspection.  It arises from a very human yearning to cast an otherwise unstable, uncertain and ambiguous world into a real, tangible and supposedly enduring physicality.  The small things we carry around with us daily provide little anchors that keep us from drifting off to sea.  However, as I was discussing in my last blog, this is all a bit of a conceit, objects crumble and the world we live through isn’t very stable at all.  Materialisation helps, but it cannot hold back the tide.

Phenomena of Materialisation by Baron von Schrenck-Notzing (image from

Baron von Schrenck-Notzing’s Phenomena of Materialisation is a book I came across when I was exploring Francis Bacon’s methods for my last blog.  One of his three furies at the base of a crucifixion was based on a photograph in the book of one of von Schrenck-Notzing’s psychic mediums, Eva Carrière, exuding ectoplasm bearing a human face.


Eva Carrière photographed in Phenomena of Materialisation (left), detail from Francis Bacon’s Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion (right).

Phenomena of Materialisation is a fascinating book, a product of early 20th-century spiritualism and the flux of the interwar period.  The book is a collection of scientifically-described seances during which ectoplasm was produced by mediums from unknown, otherworldly sources.  Spiritual forces became physical; projections of the mind became bodily; matter appeared from nothing.

Materialization was a surprisingly prevalent belief and subject of scientific research in the later 19th and early 20th century.  People would attend seances as a form of dubious entertainment or scientific investigation, which could be at once transcendental as well as pornographic.  During the seances, mediums who could achieve modest fame for their abilities (like Eva Carrière, Helen Duncan or Jack Webber), would enter trance states,  and communicate with particular deceased individuals, who would make themselves manifest through ectoplasmic extrusions depicting faces, hands, genitals, other body parts, whole bodies, or just semi-fluid forms.


Helen Duncan materializing an ectoplasmic infant (image source)

A modern interpretation of ‘Stanislava P.’ exuding ectoplasm  (image source).


Jack Webber, photograph from Edwards 1941 (see below for full reference).

Poor old Schrenck-Notzing, who seemingly believed his investigations to be scientific, was duped by Eva Carrière’s hoaxes.  Her ectoplasm was in fact made from nothing more supernatural than paper and textile.  Following the publication of Phenomena of Materialization the hoax was revealed and the baron became a laughing stock.

Schrenck-Notzing obviously wanted to believe in materialisation.  He was aware that not all of Carrière’s mediumship was entirely honest, yet he still held onto a faith in some of her abilities through tenuous concessions.  He had that human yearning to believe that the powers of the abstracted mind could create permanent physical objects, perhaps in a similar way that the anthropological understanding of materialisation reveals a desire to project the mind onto a material world.

The fact that it was all ultimately a hoax relates to anthropological beliefs in materialisation.  The wedding ring does not actually contain a materialisation of love and fidelity, it’s merely comforting to think it does.  The gift does not really contain a relationship between partners, but it’s a symbol of that bond, and a highly effective one.  It’s nice to fetishize the material world, believe in some tangible but incomprehensible, super-human power in materials, but perhaps ultimately it reveals something of human desperation in the face of a psyche capable of abstract thought.

Happy hallowe’en!


DeMarrais, E., Castillo, L.J. and Earle, T. 1996. ‘Ideology, materialization and power strategies’. Current Anthropology 37(1), 15-31.

Edwards, H. 1941. The Mediumship of Jack Webber. New York: E.P. Dutton. Full text available here.

Schrenck-Notzing, A. von 1920. Phenomena of materialisation: a contribution to the investigation of mediumistic teleplastics. London: K. Paul, Trench, Trubner & co. Full text available here.