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Ectoplasm was (or is) an odd and elusive substance that, while skeptics refute its existence at all, is reported to be totally repulsive. It is a seemingly lifelike substance, solid or vaporous in nature, that allegedly exudes from the body of the medium and can be transformed into materialized limbs, faces and even the entire bodies of spirits. Ectoplasm often appears to be milky white in color and smells like ozone, according to most reports. 

Coined by a French scientists named Charles Richet in 1894, to explain a third arm that allegedly appeared from a medium named Eusapia Palladino, "ectoplasm" came from the Greek words of "ekto" and "plasma", meaning "exteriorized substance". Earlier than that though, there had already been reported vapors exuding around Daniel Douglas Home and others.

These emanations are reportedly warm to the touch and often are reported as thick, clotted, mucus-like substances. They can be rubbery and dough-like and emerge from a body orifice, such as the mouth, ears or nose but can also come from the eyes, navel, nipples and even the vagina. The structure of the ectoplasm varied from clouds and veils, to thin rods, membranes and heavy masses. Ectoplasm was also reported to disappear when exposed to light and would snap back violently. Touching the ectoplasm, or exposing it to light, was said to be able to cause injury to the medium. This was one of the reasons that mediums insisted that séances should take place in near darkness and that sitters should not approach the mediums or the emanations that had formed. 

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Critics had their own reasons for darkness and the avoidance of exposing ectoplasm to investigation -- fraud. Analysis that had been carried out on samples of the substance yielded few clues. Most critics claimed that it was chewed paper, gauze or fabric, which had likely been regurgitated. One investigator stated that the ectoplasm that he studied was nothing more than "butter muslin." He added: "It always has been and always will be.. I did seem some produced in a séance once. It smelt appallingly of body odor, which wasn't surprising, considering where it was kept."

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Investigator and magician Harry Houdini found most of the ectoplasm that he uncovered to be obvious trickery. He had seen mediums who used rubber bladders to blow ectoplasm from their mouths and had found others using cotton rubbed with goose grease and still others using strips of cloth that had been fashioned into odd shapes and veils. It was also easy, as Houdini himself knew for the mediums to swallow all sorts of substances and then regurgitate them at will. Houdini often would swallow and then cause keys, needles, thread and other items to re-appear again.

He, and many other investigators, came to the conclusion that most séance attendees were so amazed by ectoplasm due to the power of suggestion. Strange and bizarre substances that appeared in the midst of a sitting would seem incredibly dramatic in a dimly lit séance chamber and once the lights came up, the ghostly emanations would have vanished! Who wouldn't be amazed?

Fraudulent or phantasmic? Who can say? Believers were absolutely convinced of the reality of the stuff and skeptics (and some would say the rational!) were completely on the other side of the fence. Houdini once wrote that: "Nothing has crossed my path to make me think that the Great Almighty will allow emanations from the human body of such horrible, revolting, vicious shapes, which like 'genie from the bronze bottle' ring bells, move handkerchiefs, wobble tables and do other flapdoodle stunts."