I’m reading Mary Roach’s Spook, which I found at FireHouse Books in Ft. Collins. I’m a fan of Roach, who writes marvelous travelogues of research on curious subjects. Spook is about the afterlife, and scientific evidence for it.

One such piece of evidence, which Roach debunks thoroughly, is ectoplasm. I had read the word in an Agatha Christie novel, but hadn’t understood the idea at all. Apparently, turn of the 20th century mediums would regurgitate or otherwise produce from their bodies nasty wads of cheesecloth, which gullible people thought was a special type of substance from the other world.


This ectoplasm would lift tables or turn into images of people who had died or do other things to liven up seances.

In the Agatha Christie novel, Dumb Witness, the ectoplasm was a phosphorescent cloud issuing from the mouth of someone who had, as it happened, been poisoned with phosphorous. This made complete sense to me, and I thought therefore that ectoplasm was some kind of vapor.

If I saw someone at a seance breathing out phosphorescent vapor, I’d be impressed. But spitting out cheesecloth, or drawing it out from some other orifice of the body…

Well, it’s disgusting, but hardly impressive.


Roach was troubled, as I am, but how easily people believed things that were so obviously false, and how easily they were taken in by something so completely unconvincing.

I can’t help but think of our current political climate. People are willing to accept the most ludicrous and patently unbelievable claims. They are willing to ignore facts completely. I suppose it is a testament to our human creativity.