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February 2002, Week 2


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"Sarah L. Higley" <[log in to unmask]>
Reply To:
Film and TV Studies Discussion List <[log in to unmask]>
Sun, 10 Feb 2002 23:05:09 -0500
TEXT/PLAIN (75 lines)
On Sun, 10 Feb 2002, Donald Larsson wrote:

> Sarah Higley wonders:
> > What she and I would like to know is the amount of circulation this word
> > and its meaning had beyond Ellison in the film world, if it did.  The
> > removal of this third definition from the latest edition of AHD is in
> > itself interesting... the invisible man goes back to being invisible. Was
> > it a slang term with a short life, or an eccentric use in Ellison's novel?
> > The connection of ectoplasm to film has strong metaphoric relevance to
> > both our separate works: hoaxes, vanishings, filmic "proof" of the
> > paranormal, etc.; it's a potent connection, and we would of course be
> > interested in knowing if "ectoplasm" had wider circulation in the forties
> > or earlier.

> The term was apparently being used by spiritualists just before the
> turn of the last century.  One source attributes this use to a founder
> of the Society for Psychical Research, FWH Meyers in HUMAN PERSONALITY
> AND ITS SURVIVAL OF BODILY DEATH (although it's a posthumous volume,
> published in 1903).  Arthur Conan Doyle was using the term as early as
> 1901.

Yes, we both are intrigued by this early use of the term as the "material
substance" of spirit. And also the attempts to film it.  Thanks for the
reminder about Meyers.

> I'm not sure when it was first used in film, although I recall it being
> used freely in the TOPPER films.  I'd also look at things like THE
> GHOST BREAKERS (with Bob Hope and Paulette Goddard),THE GHOST AND MRS.

Yes...thanks; but remember that we're interested not in the mere use of
this term in film, but the equation of this term WITH film; i.e., AHD's
third definition.  Do the Topper films and these other titles use the term
ectoplasm in ways that connect it to filmmaking?

Another colleague has suggested to me by private email that the reason the
third definition was removed in the fourth edition of the AHD was that a
lexicographer had misread the Ellison passage.  In other words, Ellison's
protagonist is not saying that he is not a "projection of an image on a
movie screen" (Meaning #3 in the AHD), but that he is not a ghost, in
either Poe's sense or in the sense of the Hollywood ghosts in popular
horror films (i.e., "Hollywood ectoplasms").  He is invisible in a
different way.  But film essentially and literally produces "ghosts,"
"apparitions," but also "visible icons," the opposite of an invisible man
as Ellison means it. So the equation, while it might have been imperfectly
understood by the dictionary makers, is still a fertile and complex
metaphor in his novel.

If my private emailer is right, and the AHD definition solely refers to
this passage, then that's one thing.  But if film images are referred to
as "ectoplasms" in film jargon somewhere, somehow, that would be really
useful!  Are they in any of the films you mention?

> Good luck!


Sarah L. Higley                            [log in to unmask]
                                           [log in to unmask]
Associate Professor of English                office:  (585) 275-9261
The University of Rochester                   fax:     (585) 442-5769
Rochester NY, 14627
Py dydwc glein / O erddygnawt vein?
"What brings a gem from a hard stone?"               Book of Taliesin

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