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Random Dictionary of the Damned
Psychic Photography

Capturing spirits

Thought Projector

Nicola Tesla's 'thought projector'.

FT254 / FT256

Japanese psychologist Tomobichi Fukurai coined the term “Thoughtography” to describe the psychic project­ion of images directly onto film. Apart from the mediums that Fukurai described in his 1913 book Clairvoyance and Thoughtography, perhaps the most famous exponent of this facility was Ted Serios (1918–2006), who was studied at length in the 1960s by Denver psychoanalyst Jule Eisenbud. But this aspect of an accomplished medium’s psychic repertoire had several precedents in the séance rooms of the late 19th century and, in turn, had its roots in the thriving trade in ‘spirit photo­graphy’ that appeared almost before Frederick Scoff Archer had had time to sigh with satisfaction at inventing the wet-plate process.

The presumption of those who took photographs of spirits was, and is, that the camera (whether using photosensitive plates, film or digital technology) is able to see what the eye cannot – the ethereal or astral presence of the departed. Whereas the assumption behind thoughtography is that people, who ma y be gifted in the art or who may be able to learn it, can transfer images in their minds directly to film; true adepts don’t need a camera for this, only a light-sensitive medium. Even Serios, who preferred to work with a Polaroid camera, reportedly did this on occasion.

Thoughtographers as we think of them now were not much concerned with dead people in their work, but the exploitation of the camera by spiritualists almost inevitably meant that some para­normal images of the departed were created directly onto film by mediums. In 1916, William Hope of Crewe, for instance, generated a picture for Sir William Crookes of Lady Crookes as she had looked 10 years previously, and Crookes said that this image was like none in any photograph known to him. (Cynics, naturally, note that the knight was 81 at the time; and they would rather that Hope had produced an accurate picture of, say, one of the Crookes’s grandchildren as they would appear 10, or even five, years hence, since no one could then wonder whether Hope had gone poking about for material in long-forgotten family albums.)

Hope was also tested by the criminologist and expert conjurer Dr Lindsay Johnson – who made certain to bring all his own kit and to keep Hope well away from it, except when the medium was allowed to place his hands on (not in) a box of unexposed plates. Brian Inglis (The Paranormal, p132) reports that “on the unexposed plates in the box, two in the middle had ‘extras’ [as images of spirits had come to be called] – ‘one showed four heads of the same person, and the other a photograph which had appeared the day before.’”

It has to be said that Hope was more than once caught in fraudulent acts, and was variously exposed in reports to the Society for Psych­ical Research by Fred Barlow and Major W Rampling-Rose as well as by Harry Price, although this did not seem to faze his admirers. For instance, Archdeacon Thomas Colley recognised his mother in a picture Hope had taken; and this was something of a coup for Hope, for the lady had apparently never been photographed while alive. Unfortunately, a Mrs Spencer of Nantwich recognised the ‘spirit’ as bearing the face of her grandmother, and Hope scurried to inform Colley of his error in psychic transmission. Colley would have none of it, and responded that it was “madness to think that a man did not know his own mother”; he then put an advertisement in a local paper asking all who remembered his mother to contact him. No less than 18 people identified Hope’s spirit portrait as the likeness of the deceased Mrs Colley, and signed statements to that effect. We don’t know Mrs Spencer’s reaction to this striking manifestation of the will to believe.

In 1893, the no less enterprising Nicola Tesla came up with a plan for a Gedankenprojektor (‘thought projector’). As he recalled 40 years later: “I became convinced that a definite image formed in thought must by reflex action produce a corresponding image on the retina, which might be read by a suitable apparatus. This brought me to my system of television which I announced at the time… My idea was to employ an artificial retina receiving an object of the image seen, an optic nerve and another retina at the place of reproduction… both being fashioned somewhat like a checkerboard, with the optic nerve being a part of the earth.” The checkerboard might have appealed to Charles Fort, who might also have observed that, with a little extra wiring and a lens or crystal or two, the thinker’s thoughts could be projected onto a photographic plate or roll of film.

The idea of thoughtography was, as they say, ‘in the air’ in the 1890s. Clément Chéroux, in The Oxford Companion to the Photo­graph (2005), pins this to a rift in the ‘occult’ world of the time: “In the last decades of the 19th century, occultism was riven by conflict between supporters of spiritualism and those of animism. The former believed that the explanation for occult phenomena lay in the world beyond, while the latter attributed them to the power of mediums. This division favoured the development of effluvio­graphical imaging: the cameraless capture, directly on a sensitized plate, of ‘fluids’ emanating from the medium: the soul, the vital force, but also thoughts and dreams.”

Thus WT Stead suggested in The Review of Reviews for April 1893 that “experiments should be tried to obtain psychic pictures without the agency of the camera” – presumably to try to obviate the obvious risks of tampering, double-exposures, and like hanky-panky, as well as to demonstrate a psychic power free from any association with questions of life after death. The November 1895 issue of Amateur Photographer carried a report of “W Inglis Rogers, the experimenter” gazing “for a minute at a postage stamp” after which “he went into the dark room and gazed at a sensitive plate for 20 minutes. When the plate was developed two images of postage stamps were plainly visible.”

And, according to the 1911 edition of Cassell’s Cyclopaedia of Photography (p541), “it is recorded that [in 1896] Prof. Jordan… placed seven men in front of his camera and asked each one to think of a cat; they did so, and the resulting photograph was ‘a collective psychical image which is none other than the astral cat in its real essence.’” This experiment, its original report makes clear, was inspired in part by the work of Inglis Rogers.

One should not mock, for ‘Prof. Jordan’ was none other than David Starr Jordan, PhD, LLD, (1851–1931), since 1891 the president of Stanford University, California, and a highly distinguished ichthyologist for whom more than two dozen species of fish were named, including Jordan’s snapper, Jordan’s damsel, Jordan’s tuskfish, and the Yellow Irish Lord (Hemilepidotus jord­ani). Tracking down Jordan’s original article in the US magazine Popular Science Monthly (“The Sympsychograph: A Study In Impressionist Physics”, PSM  Vol 49, Sept 1896, pp597–602), we discover that it was in fact a Mr Asa Marvin, a member of the Alcalde Astral Camera Club, who “had devised a camera with a lens having curved facets arranged on the plan of the eye of the fly. To each one of the seven facets led an insulated tube provided within by an electric connection, so that electric or odic impulses could be transferred from the brain or retina through the eye of each different observer to the many-faced lens. From the lens these impulses would be converged on a sensitive plate, as the rays of light are gathered together in ordinary photography.”

And so,

From the members of the Camera Club, seven of those having greatest animal magnetism and greatest power of mental concentrat­ion were chosen for the experiment. Connection was made from the eye of these observers to the corresponding parts of the lens; then all were to remain in utter darkness and perfect silence, each person fixing his mind on a cat. They were not to think of any particular cat, but of a cat as represented by the innate idea of the mind or ego itself. This was highly important, for the purpose of Mr. Marvin was not simply to fix by photography an ephemeral recollection [..] it was to bring out the impression of ultimate feline reality. The innate image in the mind was the object desired. One man’s thought of a cat would be individual, ephemeral, a recollection of some cat which he had some time seen, and which by the mind’s eye would be seen again. From seven ideals, sympathetically combined, the true cat would be developed. This combination is the essence of sym­psycho­graphy , a term suggested by Prof. Amos Gridley, of Alcalde… The personal equation would be measurably eliminated in sym­psycho­graphy, while the cat of the human innate idea, the astral cat, the cat which ‘never was on sea or land’, but in accordance with which all cats have been brought into incarnation, would be more or less perfectly disclosed.” (pp599–600)

The collective image of this cat-of-all-cats duly appeared on film:

“Prof. Jordan admits that this is perhaps not everyone’s idea of the epitome of feline beauty, explaining that ‘Mr Gridley, the schoolmaster, had planned his cat on a large scale, a huge cat face with grey radiant whiskers looking directly at the beholder. Most of the others thought of the cat in lateral view or profile. These variant and vagrant individual impressions naturally appeared on the camera before the ether waves were co-ordinated and the reflex influences came back from all to one, regulating and co-ordinating the thought of the cat.

We might have left readers to measure the eminent academic’s account against their own edition of Earl Russell’s truth tables (see his and Whitehead’s Principia Mathematica), but that we were puzzled by the whereabouts of the Camera Club. Alcalde is never precisely located in Jordan’s article. There are towns called Alcalde in New Mexico, Kentucky, and Nevada, and another seven in Mexico – none of them exactly an afternoon’s stroll from Stanford, and we surmise few places in Mexico have ever had a schoolmaster called Amos Gridley. Also, Jordan reports that the ‘astral cat’ was ‘photographed’ on 1 April 1896, and announces casually that the Club’s next experiment will be “by similar means to photograph the cat’s idea of man”. Herding cats—?

Then we stumbled on Edward McNall Burns’s biography, David Starr Jordan: Prophet of Freedom (Stanford 1953), and found this:

Next to intellectual and political and social freedom, humor was perhaps the quality which Jordan prized most highly. … At times he spoke or wrote so gravely that he misled people into thinking he was serious when he was only fooling. An illustration was an article entitled ‘The Sym­psycho­graph’ which he wrote for the Popular Science Monthly in September 1896. The article purported to describe an experiment performed by the Astral Camera Club of Alcalde… Although the article was written in pseudo-scientific jargon, richly interlarded with Latin phrases, it was clearly a burlesque. Nonetheless, so many readers took it seriously that the editors in their next issue almost apologized for having published it. They expressed regret that so many people had been deceived, and carefully explained that it was all a joke, a ‘rich feast of absurdities’”. (p36)

Nonetheless, we observe, many people took it perfectly seriously. We nearly did ourselves. The quasi-metaphysical idiom tumbling from an illustrious academic who ought to know better, the grandiose intent, the improbable apparatus, and perhaps most especially the half-sheepish exegesis of a botched result – are so exactly of a piece with the outpourings of 1890s psychical researchers that the ‘burlesque’ is barely detectable.

Back among the serious researchers, in May 1896, Dr Hyppolite Baraduc (1850–1902) probably startled the Paris Académie de Médecine with the news that he had photographed thoughts. In his experiments, subjects placed their hands on a photographic plate in a darkroom and were asked to concentrate on an object whose image they wanted to appear on the plate. According to Gale’s Occultism and Parapsychology Encyclopedia, “Many curious markings were obtained, some of them representing the features of persons and the outline of objects.”

Also in France in 1896, Commandant Louis Darget of Tours obtained a number of “thought photographs”. He would gaze attentively at an object long enough to “engrave it firmly on the mind”, and then, in a darkroom, place the non-emulsified side of a photographic plate against his forehead for a quarter of an hour, while concentrating on a mental image of the chosen object and willing it to appear on the plate. For a further quarter-hour he put a hand on the plate, still maintaining his concentration on the object. He then developed the plate, keeping the fingers of one hand on the edge of it for 10 minutes. Mysterious images duly appeared.

In the later 1890s, the multi-talented medium Eusapia Pallad­ino (1854–1918) couldn’t stretch to creating images on film, but did produce bas-reliefs of herself, and of her ‘spirit control’ John King (who also managed psychic affairs on the Other Side for the coquettish materialisation medium, Florence Cook), in tubs of wet putty, some of them weighing over 65lb, that had been kept away from anyone’s physical contact – but particularly hers – at various sittings.

In 1897, for example, a series of séances was held at the home of one M. Blech, at Montfort l’Amaury in France. Camille Flamm­arion described part of the proceedings in his Mysterious Psychic Forces (Small, Maynard: Boston, 1909, pp74–6):

The medium pants, groans, writhes. The chair in the cabinet comes forward and places itself by the side of the medium, then it is lifted and placed upon the head of Mme. Z Blech, while the tray [containing putty, and weighing some 9lb] is lightly placed in the hands of M. Blech, at the other end of the table. Eusapia cries that she sees before her a head and a bust, and says ‘E fatto’ (It is done). We do not believe her, because M. Blech has not felt any pressure on the dish. Three violent blows as of a mallet are struck upon the table. The light is turned on, and a human profile is found imprinted in the putty. Mme. Z Blech kisses Eusapia upon both cheeks, for the purpose of finding out whether her face has not some odor (glazier’s putty having a very strong odor of linseed oil, which remains for sometime upon the fingers). She discovers nothing abnormal.

“This discovery of a ‘spirit head’ in the putty is so astonishing, so impossible to admit without sufficient verification, that it is really still more incredible than all the rest. … The imprint has a resemblance to Eusapia’s face. If we supposed she produced it herself, that she was able to bury her nose up to the cheeks and up to the eyes in that thick putty, we should still have to explain how that large and heavy tray was transported from the other end of the table and gently placed in the hands of M Blech. But how?”

There seems to be little difference in principle – if one can speak of principles at all when dealing with unknown forces exerted by sometimes deceitful people – between paranormally impressing an image in putty and psychically creating one in light-sensitive chemicals. And yet more ‘thoughtography’ was to appear in Europe before it caught on in Japan, and perhaps drove its practitioners to suicide.

By the end of the 19th century, a clear split had developed in psychical research. There were those who saw evidence of life after death in the ectoplasm, floating trumpets, self-playing accordions, materialisations of spirits, para­normally produced photographs of the dead, and so on, that mediums produced in séance rooms. On the other side were those who were prepared to agree that these ‘higher phenomena’ were produced psychically, but that their source was rooted firmly in the medium, not in the influence of the souls of the departed. Out of the latter tendency came the attempts in the 20th century to bring scientific protocols to the investigation of extrasensory perception, and to the investigations into the ‘metal benders’ who emerged in the 1970s and early ’80s.

By that time, the scientific wing of the psychical research establishment had largely turned its face away from the question of survival of death. In part this was because a general belief had spread that spiritualists were mistaking telepathically or clairvoyantly acquired information as communications from the dead. Mostly it was a continuation and development of that divide of the 1890s, when investigators first began to realise that the principle of parsimony (Occam’s Razor) obliged them to concentrate first on the practitioner and his or her abilities, and to disregard – at least for the time being – any hypothetical entities that might, or might not, be endowing living people with unusual powers. Or, as Nandor Fodor put it, [1] they could “divest the phenomena of the séance-room of the miraculous and reduce them to facts of physiology and physics”. As might be expected, things turned out to be not quite as simple as that.

As we noted above, by the beginning of the 20th century it had occurred to researchers that one way of concentrating on the medium, rather than the message, was to try to produce “the cameraless capture, directly on a sensitised plate, of ‘fluids’ emanating from the medium: the soul, the vital force, but also thoughts and dreams”. This intriguing, perhaps even questionable, image of ‘fluids’ – ‘vibrations’ had yet to be thought of – originated with the academic psychologist, philosopher and poet Julien Ochorowitz (1850–1918) of the University of Lviv (Lemberg) in the Ukraine, and from 1907 co-director of the Institut Général Psychologique in Paris. Unimpressed by the claim that mediums were communicating with or acquiring their powers from the spirit world, he developed the idea that the medium’s ‘fluidic double’ detached itself from her body and, drawing energy from the medium and those around her, invisibly created what were then called ‘telekinetic’ effects.

Between 1908 and 1909, Ochorowitz experimented with the Polish medium Stanislawa (‘Stasia’) Tomczyk. Like spiritualist mediums, Tomczyk had a control, ‘Little Stasia’, who directed events. Ochorowitz discovered her, and Tomczyk’s psychic ability, through taking Stanislawa on as a psychiatric patient; he hypnotised her in the course of therapy, whereupon Little Stasia emerged. Initially, Ochorowitz took this personality to be an alter ego, albeit one that could, in Fodor’s words, “stop a clock by looking at it. She could produce movement in objects without contact. She could influence a roulette wheel to the extent that the number chosen by the medium turned up more often than justified by chance. As a miracle worker she was without peer.” Ochorowitz revised his opinion, and decided Little Stasia was a ‘fluidic’ double of Stanislawa.

On 11 September 1911, he attempted to photograph this double, sans camera, by sealing a rolled-up piece of film in a bottle. As Fodor recounts it:

“The film, as it lay in the bottle, measured about three-quarters of an inch [19mm] in diameter. The bottle had an orifice of about two-thirds of an inch [17mm]. It was closed with the palm of Dr Ochorowicz’s right hand. With his left he laid it on his knee and held it there firmly. The medium then placed her two hands on the bottle between his. She seemed excited and exclaimed that she wished that a small hand might appear. Then she said: ‘It is strange! The bottle seems to enlarge under my fingers; but perhaps this is an illusion. My hands swell, I cease to feel them.’

“An attack of cramp ensued, the medium screamed aloud, a moment or two later Dr Ochorowicz broke the bottle, developed the film and found on it the imprint of a large hand with the thumb posed in line with the index finger, so that it might find room to appear on the film, which was 13cm [5in] wide. The hand had the characteristics of that of the medium. In automatic writing, Little Stasia gave the following explanation:

“‘I crept in by a chink between your hand and the orifice of the bottle. Then I slipped my hand flat between the folds of the roll, and the light caused itself, I do not know how, I merely took care to make the film opaque.’”

Magicians among the readership will recognise the technique.

As an interesting aside: Ochorowitz attributed Tomczyk’s more run-of-the-mill psychokinetic powers such as the levitation of small objects not to ‘Little Stasia’ and her fluidic powers, but to “rigid invisible rays” emanating from Tomczyk’s own fingertips.

The next major venture into non-spiritualist psychic photography took place in Japan; the results were published in 1913 [2] by Dr Tomobichi Fukurai, who was then assistant professor of abnormal psychology at the Imperial University of Tokyo. Fukurai seems to have been unfortunate in his choice of subjects: one, 24-year-old Chizuko Mifune, whom he believed to be a gifted clairvoyant, was denounced as a fraud by the press; shortly after, she took poison and died. [3] In the summer of 1910, he made his first experiments in thoughtography (which he called nensha, spirit photography) with Ikuko Nagao. Her psychic ability apparently developed as a result of intense meditation following the death of her eldest son in 1891, when she was 20.

On 27 December 1910, Fukurai drew a “black round figure” on a piece of paper and “asked [Mrs Nagao] to print the figure by her psychic activity” on an unexposed photographic plate that he had sealed in a box within a box and placed in another room. Immediately after Mrs Nagao finished concentrating on her task, Fukurai took the plate to be developed at a professional studio. The plate indeed showed a round black blob on it. Later that day, she produced a black square on one unexposed plate, and a cross on another.

Unimpressed by any of this was the Yale-educated physicist Professor (later Baron) Kenjiro Yamakawa, then the president of Kyushu Imperial University. He made no secret of believing that fraud was at work, and proposed an experiment of his own with Mrs Nagao. This was set for 8 January 1911, when she would attempt to impress a specific Japanese character on a photographic plate. The actual experiment was designed and set up by another arch-sceptic, doctoral student Noriatsu Fuji, and included various elaborate precautions against fraud, particularly interventions by any accomplice.

On the day, Mrs Nagao concentrated on the letter for about a minute, then announced that she suspected a ruse. The reason, she said, was that she could not detect clairvoyantly a photographic plate in the box where it was supposed to be. After some kerfuffle, Prof. Yamakawa had the bright idea of looking for himself, and found that there was indeed no plate in the box. Mr Fuji admitted the mistake and made off. Prof. Yamakawa, however, literally went down on the floor to apologise to Mrs Nagao, then “made a rapid exit”. Fuji subsequently published a pamphlet that, in Fukurai’s words, “skilfully conveyed his opinions with a crafty and artful pen, in order to make the reader believe that someone ‘behind’ Mrs Nagao had been lacking in sincerity”. Mr Nagao responded with a pamphlet of his own defending his wife. There the matter might have been left, unresolved, except that it was clear that the various seals and precautions against tampering had been disturbed. Someone had taken the plate and disposed of it; and each side, in so many words, accused the other of the wicked deed.

Two days after the débacle with Messrs Fuji and Yamakawa, a story appeared in the press claiming that Prof. Yamakawa had discovered Mrs Nagao had been guilty of a “spurious trick” [sic] and that the medium had solemnly promised to abandon clairvoyance. Fukurai was convinced these calumnies had been planted by a die-hard sceptic. Further experiments with Mrs Nagao proved fruitless; perhaps as a result of the uproar, or perhaps not, she fell ill with a fever on 26 January 1911. Complications set in, and she died of pneumonia a month later.

Fevers were also a characteristic of a later Fukurai subject. Mrs Sadako Takahashi would react to emotional upsets by running a normally-lethal temperature of 42˚C (108˚F) for up to a fortnight. Fukurai says she was “of a melancholy nature”, taciturn, and solitary by preference, but she became “bright and cheerful” on starting psychical research with him. She was also devoutly relig­ious, never forgetting “to worship St Nichiren and her ancestors every morning”.

She also produced a couple of alter egos when in trance (Mrs Takahashi produced most of her ‘thoughtography’ in this state). One was Nichiren, the controversial 13th-century monk who founded a school of Japanese Buddhism and whom she worshipped as a saint. The other claimed to be a “long-nosed goblin” that emerged as a kind of spiritual guardian – but also something of a manipulator, for if ‘its’ ideas weren’t followed it would trigger one of Mrs Takahashi’s fevers, and bring her temperature down only when its whims were met.

Mrs Takahashi’s psychic abilities were, it seems, initially developed by her husband (a respectable judge), who had helped her produce a number of ‘thoughtographs’ in the spring of 1911; he introduced her to Fukurai in February 1913. One doesn’t have to be much of a psychic detective to notice, in the guilelessly detailed accounts given by Fukurai, that Mr Takahashi also had every opportunity to intervene in the experiments Fukurai set up with Sadako (who was clearly exquisitely suggestible and may never have questioned the real source of her talent), and her ‘thoughtographs’ tended to appear on plates not selected as targets. The ‘goblin’ took credit for one of the more interesting ones. It was on the theme of money; perhaps significantly, the Japanese character that appeared had not been set as a target, and seemed to have appeared spontaneously.

The ‘goblin’ maintained it had produced the picture “because I wanted to give the warning that one should not be tempted by personal profit”. One wonders if the ‘alter’ was not indeed in some sense her guardian, and if its warning was quietly directed at her husband.

Fukurai, still smarting from the dismal outcomes of his work with his previous subjects, wanted Mrs Takahashi to “try with plates presented by men of learning”. Perhaps aware of the fates of her predecessors, she adamantly refused, and within a few weeks she and her husband left Tokyo, never to return, and never again to produce evidence of clairvoyance or psychic photography. “The reason why her faculty came to naught was… incomprehens­ible to me,” Fukurai later wrote innocently.

His experiments, and his book, produced something of a seismic, and lasting, reaction in the groves of Japanese academe. Japan’s first chair of psychology had been established only as recently as 1888 in the Tokyo university. It was still a politically vulnerable discipline, and Fukurai had translated ‘abnormal psych­ology’ into ‘parapsychology’ in one swoop. In 1919, he was asked to take leave of absence from his post, and in due course resigned. Tatsuya Sato [4] notes:

“After Fukurai’s resignation, no further clinical psychologists were appointed as university professors in Japan before World War II, leading to a major decline in the field in Japan.

“After the Fukurai affair, Tokyo Imperial University professor Matataro Matsumoto… declared that the department’s psychologists should focus on normal phenomena so that they might regain lost credibility.”

Fukurai himself took up a position as a professor at the Shingen Buddhist Koyasan University, and there still exists the private Fukurai Institute of Psychology, Inc. Since then, most research into thoughtography has taken place in Japan and in China, [5] mainly by amateur groups, and details of their findings have not been translated in the West.

In the 1960s, the West was to be treated to a controversy almost as great as that surrounding Dr Fukurai, when word of one Theodore Judd Serios (1918–2006) reached its ears. Serios, a former seaman, waiter, car thief and elevator operator, could apparently project images directly onto Polaroid film – a feat that precluded accus­ations of fraud in the darkroom, double exposures, etc. In 1962, Pauline Oehler of the Illinois Society for Psychic Research sent Dr Jule Eisenbud, a Denver psychoanalyst, a copy of an article about Serios that she had published in Fate magazine. Eisenbud initially responded by saying that he had “seen enough of this sort of stuff” to know “there must obviously be something fishy somewhere”, but he was eventually prevailed upon to research Serios’s talents in depth. The Chicago bellhop duly moved to Denver, and two years of experiments followed, during which Serios produced hundreds of photographs by apparently psychic means, and converted Dr Eisenbud to his cause in the process.

Sessions with Serios tended to be disorderly, not least because he was a drunk, and demanded constant, copious refuelling with alcohol. Nile Root [6] describes the scene:

“Sessions last as long as eight hours. Usually Serios becomes quite drunk, and is sometimes uncontrollable. Most of the time he is wild and erratic. He runs around the room, yells and curses and makes foolish demands to his audience to which many participants acquiesce. He may take off his clothes or sometimes just his shoes or shirt. He always appears to empty his pockets.

“He violently distorts his face when attempting to obtain photo­graphs; he becomes frenzied, snapping his fingers or feeling his pulse. He usually plays continually with one of the several gismos he uses.”
The gismo, Root explains, is “a rolled piece of black paper about one inch [2.5cm] in diameter and an inch or so long. Serios holds the gismo to the lens of a Polaroid camera while usually a member of the audience holds the camera and trips the shutter at his command.”

Root profiles Serios thus:

“Among the neurotic affectations manifested by Serios are: the claim that the presence of metal on himself interferes with his psychic power; complaint of frequent severe headaches; complaint of bleeding from the mouth and anus after concentration; habituation of the rolled piece of paper called a gismo…

“He is a compulsive liar and often lies for no obvious reason. He also seems to have paranoid tendencies and has threatened to seek revenge against at least one person who, he thinks, believes he is a fraud.

“He feels that he has not been recognized for his power and that he should be honored with awards.

“He is masochistic, often picking fights with men who are obviously physically stronger than he. He invites trouble in bars and is often badly beaten. He has little respect for women and prefers his sex partners ‘dirty and dumb’. He seems to be anxious to exhibit himself naked to strangers (men) and has done this more than once.”

Eisenbud himself [7] admitted that “Ted Serios exhibits a behavior pathology with many character disorders. He does not abide by the laws and customs of our society. He ignores social amenities and has been arrested many times. His psychopathic and sociopathic personality manifests itself in many other ways. He does not exhibit self-control and will blubber, wail and bang his head on the floor when things are not going his way.”

From none of these unconventional, even anti-social tendencies does it necessarily follow that Serios was up to no good, although the constant carry-on at sessions is a classic distraction/deflection technique in sleights-of-hand. Eisenbud may have been attempting to call on the cliché that genius is close to madness – that extraordinary powers demand extraordinary, and even quite nasty, characters; or perhaps the Freudian in Eisenbud believed that the onerous possession of such powers creates the frail and wayward character. But not unnaturally, as Serios’s fame grew, a monstrous regiment of ‘skeptics’ and debunkers descended on him, and from this point both Eisenbud’s degree of commitment to his ‘discovery’ and Serios’s technique began to be exposed.

The first to work out how Serios could be producing his pictures non-paranormally were two journalists, Charles Reynolds and David Eisendrath, whom the magazine Popular Photography packed off to Denver to investigate. [8] Their attention soon fixed on the ‘gismo’. Serios said it helped him concentrate (like the booze, and working in the raw, presumably). Reynolds and Eisendrath constructed just such a gismo and showed how it could be used. The method not only works, but produces the blurred and unfoc­used images typical of Ted Serios’s ‘thoughtographs’.

Naturally, those who remain convinced that Serios enjoyed a paranormal talent along with the occas­ional snifter have raised objections to such a nasty, negativist accusation. [9] They point to anomalies within the ‘thoughtographs’ that they consider proof of their psychic origin. One favourite example is the apparent misspelling in his thoughtograph of the Royal Canad­ian Mounted Police Air Division building in Ottowa.

Depending on how you look at it (and at what size and resol­ution) the word CANADIAN can be seen as SAINADAN, CAINADAIN, SHINADAN, or even SAINAHAM. There is, in other words, an inherent ambiguity in the blurry image. Careful tracking of the up- and down-strokes of the capitals does, however, indicate that there’s no misspelling at all, and some cross-strokes can be made out (and in the right places). Only careful examination – and perhaps image manipulation, not available in the 1960s – resolves the uncertainty.

Another of Serios’s allegedly inexplicable pictures features part of a livery stable opposite the old Opera House in Central City, Colorado. Serios defender Jeffrey Mishlove [10] says:

“The way in which Ted’s mind ostensibly shaped the pictures was sometimes quite remarkable. In one session, in front of several witnesses, Ted first tried to reproduce images of the medieval town of Rothenburg. Then the experimenters asked him to try to reproduce an image of the old Opera House in Central City, Colorado. Serios agreed, and then asked the experimenters if they would like a composite of both images. The results are extraordinary. The photo­graph shows a striking resemblance to the livery stable across from the old Opera House. However, instead of the brick masonry, the image shows a kind of embedded rock characteristic of the buildings in the medieval town.”

To the right, above, is the picture Serios made, and below it a heavily sharpened version, and the version Mishlove publishes online.

The enhanced image shows not so much a “a kind of embedded rock” as a fine mesh across the whole image, which sits at a 45-degree angle to any lines of brick and so would break them up. A splurge of some kind is also more apparent, which may be a smudged finger- or thumb-print, or an artefact of merging two different images. (No one, as far as we know, has dug up pictures of mediæval Rothenburg for compar­ison.) Apart from the flipped angle of the building in Mishlove’s illustration, the faded lettering of the name WILLIAMS in the others has somehow receded into invisibility.

Pictures of the actual livery stable are different in several details (particularly the windows; and the Williams name is sharply evident) from the ‘psychic’ production, [11] suggesting that Serios’s photo is indeed a hybrid. It doesn’t seem to cross the minds of his apologists that he could have prepared this beforehand – he was familiar with cameras and film – nor does it seem to bother them that he himself suggested the odd wheeze of combining his target images. Oddest of all, he managed only to get a shot based on a stable across the street – rather like asking for a picture of the Empire State building, and then getting one of Mr Grabowski’s deli over the way on 33rd Street.

In winding up, we note that James Randi once announced that he could reproduce Serios’s effects without recourse to psychic powers. When told he would be stuck inside a Faraday cage in a monkey suit, at a considerable distance from the camera, and would have to get as rat-arsed roaring drunk as Serios usually was when he worked, Randi unsurprisingly declined. In writing of this episode, [12] he notes that Serios’s defenders [13] claim he produced ‘thoughtographs’ under just such tight controls; but Randi finds no account of any such experiments in Eisenbud’s book. Mishlove says Serios was a “co-operative subject” during tests at the Division of Parapsychology of the University of Virginia Medical School, where “researchers failed to detect any signs of fraud”. As with so many anomalous phenomena, we see here how the study of Ted Serios and of ‘thoughtography’ in general rapidly shades into a study of investigators as much as of the subject itself. 

1 Nandor Fodor: These Myst­erious People, Rider, 1934.
2 Toushi To Nensha, translated and published as Clairvoyance and Thought­ography by Rider & Co in English in 1921; revised edit­ion 1931; reprinted 1975.
3 Chizuko Mifune had a second life as the inspir­ation for the character of Yamamura Shizuko, the avenging spirit in the Ring novel and movies. 
4 See “Rises and Falls of Clinical Psychology in Japan: A Perspective on the Status of Japanese Clinical Psycho­logy”, Ritsumeikan Journal of Human Sciences, 13, 2007, pp133–144.
5 For a survey of this work, see Hideyuki Kokubo, “Research on Psi with Devices for Photon Detect­ion” (Lecture), 2004
6 See www.Niler.com/estitle.html. All quotations from Nile Root are taken from this site.
7 Jules Eisenbud: The World of Ted Serios: “Thoughto­graphic” Studies of an Extraordinary Mind, William Morrow, 1966.
8 See C Reynolds and DB Eisendrath: “An amazing weekend with the amazing Ted Serios”, Popular Photo­graphy 61:4 (Oct 1967), pp81–87, 131–141, and 158.
9 They have not, however, objected to the ethics of Dr Jule Eisenbud, who was willing to ply Serios with as much beer and hard liquor as he could take until he generated a ‘psychic’ photograph. Nile Root (loc. cit.) suggests that in these experiments, knowing Serios was manic-depressive, alcoholic, and violent when drunk, Eisenbud breached a number of protocols including the Code of Ethics of the World Medical Associat­ion, known as the Declar­ation of Helsinki. 
10 Jeffrey Mishlove: “Unusual Powers of Mind over Matter”, 2007.
11 Even stranger, there are two ‘original’ versions floating about of the picture on which Serios probably based his composite. One has a pixellated area in the top left-hand corner, and the advertising sign on the left of the main door has vanished; the other shows this clearly and the livery company name more sharply. Neither shows the billboard (?) at the left of the recess.
12 James Randi: Flim-Flam! Psychics, ESP, unicorns and other delusions, Prometheus, 1982, pp222–8.
13 Stephen E Braude repeats the claim that Serios worked successfully when in a Faraday cage and at distances of up to 61ft from the camera (The Gold Leaf Lady, Univers­ity of Chicago Press, 2007, pp11–2).


Bookmark this post with:














David Starr Jordan.


Mrs Ikuko Nagao.

  First thoughtograph

First real 'thoughtograph'.


Sadako Takahashi

  Goblin's pic

Thoughtograph made by Takahashi's 'goblin' alter-ego.

  Serios 1

Serios's picture.

Serios 2

Heavily sharpened version.

  Serios 3

The version published by Mishlove.

Astral cat

David Starr Jordan's "astral cat".



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