Modern culture mines material for the creation of paranormal beliefs from many sources: religion, folklore/urban legend, psychosis, hoax, mystical experience, drug-induced hallucination, and legitimately unexplained phenomena.
In an episode called “Home Again,” watchers of the recent X-Files reboot learned of another source (dodgy scholarship) when Fox Mulder, showing some out-of-character skepticism and taking rather pointed aim at the recent and widespread proliferation of the concept online, explained that the popular notion of “tulpas” or “thought-forms” is actually just a mistranslation of the Tibetan word “tulku” by Theosophist H.P. Blavatsky. While Mulder’s claim greatly oversimplifies things (**), it does speak to the need to closely examine the origins of an idea before you go believing in it.
(**) Theosophists didn’t make up tulpas out of whole cloth. The core concept does exist in Tibetan tantric practice. They did however take tulpas out of their original context, blended them with other occult traditions like the Golem, and ultimately gave them a different shape and more weight on the physical plane.)
In an earlier post about the cross-pollination of artistic influence, I briefly touched upon the case of the young girls who very nearly stabbed their classmate to death in order to appease a fictional being called Slenderman. Additional crimes attributed to Slenderman’s nefarious influence soon followed. In this example, a sort of digital tulpa did in fact exert an undeniable real world effect. Whether those kids would have committed their crimes if Slenderman creator Eric Knudsen hadn’t projected his thoughtform onto the world is impossible to say. The djinni was already out of the bottle.
Today’s post is about another type of mental extrusion. It goes by many names: psychic photography, nensha, thoughtography, sympsychography, and most recently, projected thermography. Like telekinesis, ESP, and channeling the dead, the concept of psychic photography was popularized by the Spiritualist movement of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. But unlike those other phenomena, thoughtography has a specific and modern point of origin. More on that in a minute.
The most influential early proponent of thoughtography was Tomokichi Fukurai, a professor of Psychology at Tokyo University. Though disparaged within academia and the media, Fukurai’s experiments with clairvoyants Chizuko Mifune and Ikuko Nagao and his 1913 book Clairvoyance and Thoughtography gave the phenomenon an early and lasting stamp of authenticity. They also served as the inspiration for Koji Suzuki’s Ring novels and their blockbuster film adaptations.
In the 1960s, a Chicago bellhop named Ted Serios revived interest in the phenomenon when he claimed and endeavored to prove an ability to project images onto Polaroid film. Serios also received quasi-scientific support from a psychiatrist named Jule Eisenbud, who wrote a popular book on the subject. Less well remembered is the fact that Serios’ technique was exposed by photographers Charlie Reynolds and David Eisendrath.
Psychic photography has been the subject of several X-Files episodes, horror films, and countless paranormal reports. By far the greatest recent bump in its perceived legitimacy came from The Scole Experiment, a series of seances conducted in the late 1990s by the Society for Psychical Research under what were purported to be scientific conditions. The mediums tested by the SPR were primarily interested in proving the existence of life after death, but one of their methods for doing so was to project their channelings onto unexposed film. Results include everything from colorful blobs to Sanskrit handwriting to a portrait of Arthur Conan Doyle.
At the outset of this post, I stressed the importance of tracing origins in evaluating phenomena. As far as I can determine, 1896 was the year the concept of thoughtography was first introduced to the general populace. Three publications appeared that year which had a cumulative and pervasive effect on public perception. Examining them is quite elucidating. The first was an article in the February 20th issue of Amateur Photographer by Dr. Ingles Rogers called “Can Thought Be Photographed?” The second is a book by Arthur Brunel Chatwood called The New Photography which cleverly paired coverage of the new science of x-rays with a chapter on “psychic photography.” The third, however, was almost certainly the most influential. Volume 49 of Popular Science Monthly included a fascinating piece called “The Sympsychograph: A Study in Impressionist Physics.” While Rogers and Chatwood were unknowns and easily discounted, this last article was penned by none other than David Starr Jordan, a famous ichthyologist and then president of Stanford University. Jordan’s article introduced Dr. Rogers experiments to a much larger audience and, like Chatwood, referenced William Röntgen’s pioneering work with x-rays . It also profiled a group called the Astral Camera Club which had not only perfected the art of the psychic photograph, but allegedly succeeded in having seven of its members simultaneously concentrate on a real cat and project a sort of Platonic composite ideal onto film. To Jordan’s amazement, despite the fact that numerous clues were sprinkled throughout the article to indicate it was completely satirical (the club met on April 1, the ridiculousness of the “sympsychograph” neologism, calling the photograph an “impression of ultimate feline reality”), many readers assumed it was factual, even after Jordan wrote a follow-up and (quite literally) let the cat out of the bag. Imagine the chagrin: a well-respected scientist’s most enduring legacy was over a century of pseudo scientific folly. In a deeply ironic and metaphorically dense twist, Jordan legitimized the very thing he sought to satirize. He gave a phantasmal thoughtform life in the real world. Perhaps even more amazing, modern scientists are now beginning to actualize mind-technology interactions like thought-controlled prosthetic limbs. Once that architecture is in place, projecting mental images into the digital realm can’t be that far behind.
Now is probably as good a time as any to reveal my own foray into photographic hoaxing. In December of 2012, I anonymously posted a frame story on the /x/ (paranormal) board of 4chan in which I claimed to be the production editor on a canceled publishing project– a book of never-before-seen paranormal photographs. I called the whole thing “Anomalies” and supported the frame story with fourteen image and text pairings, also of my own creation, that all purported to depict something supernatural. I did so entirely for my own amusement and that of whoever might happen upon it. My Photoshop skills are journeyman at best and threads on 4chan usually disappear within a few hours, so there was never any expectation of permanence or lasting effect. The thread got a decent reaction in the moment, however, and was ultimately archived and reposted on a site called the Creepypasta Wiki. One photo/tall tale in particular, about a folklorist’s deadly encounter with a witch in the Oklahoma panhandle, seemed to strike a nerve and has since been spread to every corner of the Internet. Go ahead and Google “Charlie Noonan” or search that name on Youtube if you want to get an idea of what I mean. One video adaptation by a South American paranormal popularizer has been watched by two and a half million people (making the fellow quite a bit a coin, I might add). Why out myself now? Because the jig is already up. Some blogger found the original photo I used and posted a debunking. Nevetheless, Charlie Noonan continues to appear on page after page of “true” urban legends. It just goes to show you, be careful what you project onto the world as it just might come back to haunt you.