Solid Souls: What We Talk About When We Talk About Bein’ Dead

It’s a human tendency to desire tangible and physical things where there are none. Our brains look for faces in inanimate objects, and atheists often say religion is a constructed attempt to make sense of an otherwise random world.

People have attempted to personify and make physical the concepts in life which they find most distressing. There are countless examples of Death personified in classic art, sometimes as a skeleton, and sometimes as a cloaked figure. My favorite depictions of Death are devoid of malice, as if Death is just doing his solemn job in taking our loved ones away.

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Mexican culture venerates Santa Muerte, or Saint Death, as an agent of God.

In medieval art, intangible threats like the Bubonic plague were sometimes personified as Pesta, the plague hag. Something about a sinister spirit-woman taking children away was easier to stomach than a virus, which wasn’t a concept familiar to those living at the time. No one could fathom a threat like bacteria, so a monster, with malicious intent, emerged culturally to take its place.

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Death is one big party o’ skeletons.

Death in Hinduism is sometimes personified as the work of Yama, or the Destroyer, God of Death. Yama has both righteous and insidious attributes, and artistic portrayals of the God of Death tend to change based on any given death’s context.

Yama, the Destroyer, God of Death and also impressive dance moves.

Yama, the Destroyer, God of Death and also impressive dance moves.

In Marjane Satrapi’s “Chicken and Plums,” we’re treated to a rendering of Azraël, the God of Death as personified by Iranian artists and theologians. He slinks through the shadows, taking souls when their time is up, but sometimes visiting his “clients” beforehand, to check in and announce their impending doom.

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Notice the sleek, subtle horns he’s given in the film version.

While Death has enjoyed plenty of characters and personified images, other intangible parts of the human experience have been studied and artistically rendered as well, namely the weight and mass of the human soul. I was surprised to see much of the studies conducted to “weigh the soul” took place in Massachusetts, as I’ve been a Boston resident for about a year now and creepy news is good news. (We’re a great city for monsters and ghosts, but I digress.)

As LiveScience.com describes it, in 1907, Duncan McDougall put four dying patients on large scales and “weighed them before, during and after their deaths.” This ruled out what my first thought had been upon hearing about the study: don’t our bowels excavate themselves after we die? As it turns out, all the gross bodily systems and their aftermath were included on the scale, and McDougall reported that the four humans lost, on average, around 21 grams at the moment of their deaths. He suggested that perhaps the human soul weighed just that.

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Somewhere in death, Carl Sagan’s (stagnant) blood is boiling that the first image on Google for “human soul” is a shot of the cosmos.

For more information on McDougall’s attempts, check out Discovery.com’s “Dark Matters: Weight of Human Soul” online (cheesy period-piece re-enactments included), or read Mary Roach’s great book on “the science of ghosts”, Spook.

But why study this stuff at all? Does it matter (heh, puns) that the soul should have mass? Positive results for a study like this would suggest that our consciousness has some physical weight to it, and this would suggest emotional weight, or at least some relevance.

If an idea doesn’t have physical mass, does that render it meaningless? Psychiatrist Jule Eisenbud believed that the singular human thought was one of the most powerful forces on the planet, and he attempted in the 1960s to record images of these thoughts on Polaroid film.

"Well, I was thinking about a ghostly black and white gazebo, so this is legit."

“Well, I was thinking about a ghostly black and white gazebo, so this is legit.”

Though Eisenbud’s creepy thought-photos were never accepted into any scientific canon, they were digitized in 2011 and released as contemporary art installations around the country. (How often does the art world accept and celebrate science-experiments gone awry, I wonder…) As far as I could tell in my research, Eisenbud didn’t do much other than coin the term “thoughtography,” which I think is probably available as an iPhone game for 99 cents.

Photography has long been the medium (so punny) used as evidence for the existence of ghosts. While many of these spiritual photographs, or as ghostresearch.com calls them, “ghost pics“. (I continue to cite only the most respectable sources here.) Typical tropes of spirit photography include spirit orbs, likenesses of historical figures, faces/forms visible in windows and images suggesting loved ones to those taking the photographs.

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I will, of course, cover ghosts and the undead in a future post, but more explorations are ghost photography are available here, here and here. It’s important to note that photography is a next-step down from physical evidence of something we’re not fully able to understand. If verbal descriptions of ghost-encounters aren’t considered valid enough, it seems logical that ghost photography would be the next step toward proof. Photographs are tangible, but are they tangible enough, considering they’re so easily manipulated? What’s next?

The concept of ectoplasm seems derived from our desire to find tangible proof for intangible concepts.

Ektoplasma

In the more palatable photographs of spirit mediums experiencing this phenomenon, ectoplasm appears to be a viscous substance which emits from the mouths, ears, or genitals of those connecting with the dead.

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In more disturbing photographs, the process of secreting ectoplasm appears painful.

And, of course, the question of purpose is relevant: if ghosts exist, why would they leave behind slug-like trails? Are they embodying the mediums they’re communicating with, making ectoplasm the physical byproduct of this connection?

The ectoplasm fascination found footing, for some reason, during World War II, and investigators like Gustave Geley conducted studies on willing participants who reported gooey substances emitting from their bodily orifices while they communed, or even thought very hard about, the dead.

The very word ectoplasm means loosely in Greek, something formed or molded from outside, which is an interesting concept. Geley defined ectoplasm as ” variable in appearance, being sometimes vaporous, sometimes a plastic paste, sometimes a bundle of fine threads, or a membrane with swellings or fringes, or a fine fabric-like tissue”. This tissue was said to be expelled with what Geley called “ectenic force” from the orifices of the mediums he studied. He also reported ectoplasm in the cases of telekinetic individuals, and this led to the belief that both telepathy and telekinesis involved the realm of the dead in some way. No concrete evidence was provided for many of these claims, aside from grainy photographs, and furthermore, many individuals involved in the study were later found to be faking ecotoplasm using everyday materials such as flour, twine and corn starch.

ethercoverproofIn the fascinating “Ether: the Nothing that Creates Everything,” studies of ectoplasm and telekinetic individuals are linked the concept of “ideoplasty,” researched by Albert von Schrenck-Notzing. Albert studied individuals who believed they could make their thoughts physical, whether in viscous substances resembling ectoplasm, or in hazy images that resembled thought-photographs.

Although Albert’s research proved more interesting to mainstream scientists, he became more of a parapsychologist (or “stepsister of science,” as I’ve heard it called) in his later years. Scientists who originally supported the publishing of his findings were later quoted as believing Albert’s spiritual medium subjects had simply “regurgitated” the matter Albert had used as proof of a physical, ectoplasmic substance.

“Ether” as a concept fascinates both parascientists and fans of “grey areas,” as a loosely defined concept of “matter” can cover a lot of ground. Ether can mean physical proof of existence beyond death, but it can also signify the byproduct of some mysterious process at work, one we don’t fully understand yet. As with thought photography or the weight of the human soul and consciousness, ether seems important simply because it has physical mass.

Monsters fascinate me because they tend to be made up of more questions than assertions. Frankenstein’s creature wonders why it exists, and that question of purpose is more important than the specifics on how he came to be (this involves cadavers and electricity, if you’ll remember.) Can humans will things into existence, or will them to move? What do you call a substance with no known origin? What, if anything, connects the dead to the world of the living? Does our proof of a spirit world, our proof of a grand design choosing the hour of our deaths, or of the existence of the human soul need to be physical in order to have merit? Is it enough to exist in the liminal space?

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