The art of the paranormal: telepathy, ectoplasm, poltergeist

In her new show, Modern Experiments, Susan MacWilliam explores the paranormal, from people who see with their hands to those who make ectoplasm

Visit Susan MacWilliam’s Modern Experiments at the Highlanes Gallery and it is as though you’ve wandered into the middle of a vintage laboratory devoted to paranormal research.

The show is full of all kinds of paranormal goings on: mediums, ESP, telepathy, X-ray vision, telekinesis, poltergeists. In flickering black-and-white footage, a stream of ectoplasm issues from the mouth of a medium, Helen Duncan; a "teleplasm" unsteadily spells out the name Flammarion as it reportedly appeared on the wall of a séance cabinet in Winnipeg in 1931, evidently a reference to French astronomer and psychical researcher Camille Flammarion; an installation creates an approximation of the experience of viewing the stage act of New York mystic Kuda Bux in the 1930s and 1940s as he set about reading a newspaper and writing – while blindfolded. Various pieces of apparatus and props are distributed throughout the gallery.

Then we move on to videoed interviews with some of those inhabiting the otherworld of the paranormal. Eileen Coly, who died in 2013, was the daughter of Irish trance medium Eileen Garrett. The latter became something of a celebrity on regular visits to New York in the 1930s as a guest of the American Society for Psychical Research. She founded the Parapsychology Foundation there in 1951. A pioneer of Dermo Optics, "also referred to as eyeless sight or fingertip vision", Yvonne Duplessis established a laboratory in Paris to investigate the phenomenon. In the course of a visit to the laboratory to interview Duplessis, MacWilliam becomes a subject in an experiment designed to establish whether, without being able to see them, one can identify colours remotely or by touch. In the event, she does very well.

Dermo Optics

Another three-screen video recreates an experiment created in the USSR in the 1960s to test an apparent example of Dermo Optics there. The aim was to establish whether a young woman, Rosa Kuleshova, could, as was claimed, see via her fingers. Investigators contrived several devices, including blackout goggles, enormous paper collars and barrier screens, to ensure she could not use her eyes as she attempted to read and perform other perceptual tasks. MacWilliam details these and other experiments with a stark, no-nonsense directness that recalls the tone of classic performance-video works by Martha Rosler and Bruce Neumann.


MacWilliam never expressly set out to become so immersed in the paranormal but, as she delved into it and became a habitue of specialist libraries and archives, she realised that several individuals directly involved in important historical episodes were still living and she made efforts to contact them. The formidable Duplessis, for example, was born in 1912. From being an outside observer, MacWilliam found herself adding to the historical record, producing primary rather than third-party research.

One of the intriguing aspects of her continued interest in the subject is that it cannot be taken as indicating her own faith in or convictions about the paranormal. In fact she remains carefully agnostic in terms of articulating her own stance. As she put it: “I am not interested in the categorical understanding of, or the veracity of such phenomena, but in the experiences and narratives around them.”

Dark inference

MacWilliam was born in Belfast in 1969. When she began to study art, she made paintings, but became interested in the idea of, as she put it, lifting the image away from the surface of the canvas. While at college she saw Nicholas Roeg's Don't Look Now and it made an impact. In 1997 she made an installation at the Project Arts Centre in Dublin. Opting for the unusual medium of plasticine, she fabricated "three bas relief sculptures of theatre and cinema curtains". The installation was called simply Curtains. The drapes obscured what lay behind them while alluding to theatrical and cinematic spectacle. There was, as well, a certain dark inference to the very term "curtains".

In a transitional phase between painting and lens-based imagery, she had acquired a video camera. Happening to see a documentary about séances and spirit photography, she was fascinated. There was on the one hand the idea of photographing something that usually could not be seen and, on the other, the idea of the photographic image as being true, as providing incontrovertible evidence.

From early on, photography was harnessed in efforts to test the paranormal. In carefully staged experiments, women mediums were subject to a range of controls and restraints, including screens, being bound with ropes and otherwise confined. There was a distinct echo of the witchcraft trials in the way a male inquisitorial establishment set about its interrogations of female subjects.

Witchcraft Act

MacWilliam's first video work, The Last Person, was based on the trial of Helen Duncan. It may sound unlikely, but in 1944 Duncan became the last person to be tried and imprisoned under the Witchcraft Act of 1735. She had gained fame as a medium, and then some notoriety for manufacturing ectoplasm using such materials as cheesecloth and egg white, and for the use of other props in séances. There were suggestions that her prosecution was motivated by malice – earlier, during the war, she had referred to the sinking of a Royal Naval ship, HMS Barham, when the information was being kept out of the public domain. Certainly her trial was at best anachronistic and pointless. MacWilliam takes on the role of Duncan, and performance became an important part of her work.

One of her simplest videos is 1999's Faint, an atmospheric work installed on multiple screen in the Highlanes, distributed around the alter steps in what was a Franciscan church. A young woman – MacWilliam, in 19th-century attire – faints in the setting of a formal garden to the sound of birdsong. The frame of reference here includes the widespread diagnosis of female hysteria in the late 19th century and the use of hypnosis on patients. Interest in the paranormal flourished into the 20th century, paralleling the growing campaigns for women's suffrage.

Psychical research is not simply an expression of a patriarchal desire to limit and control women's autonomy, though that was surely a significant factor on occasion. Certainly, MacWilliam does not formulate her historical material purely in terms of the politics of gender. In Experiment M, for example, a double-channel video made in 1999, she draws on the case of the Belfast table-tilting medium, Kathleen Goligher. Between 1914 and 1920, a lecturer in mechanical engineering, Dr William Jackson Crawford, investigated Goligher's séances. Rather than setting about discrediting her, he became an enthusiastic fan. He was convinced her abilities were genuine and he devised an elaborate scientific theory to explain her apparent levitation and production of ectoplasm. Photography played a key role in his research. Sadly, he killed himself in 1920. Subsequently, Goligher was discredited by other psychical investigators.

Spiritualism Vs horror

It has been suggested that Crawford's credulity may have been encouraged by his emotional and sexual interest in her (on his evidence, the ectoplasm issued chiefly from her vagina) but it is worth noting that his infatuation with the paranormal was in tune with the times. As with many others, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, the creator of the unfailingly logical fictional sleuth Sherlock Holmes, found solace in the promise of spiritualism in the face of the horrors, and personal bereavements, of the Great War.

It seems fair to say that what fascinates MacWilliam most are the related ideas of unacknowledged histories, as in the case of women and minority groups in patriarchal societies, and emotional truth: that is, the importance of subjective experience in people's lives. This is brilliantly apparent in Kathleen, about Derry writer Kathleen Coyle (1886-1952), who led a busy, creative, adventurous life, but one significantly unbothered by and outside of conventional norms and expectations.

The film doesn't have any overt paranormal content – though as it happens Coyle had worked with a spiritualist and contributed to Eileen Garrett's magazine Tomorrow. What comes across is MacWilliam's determination to capture a sense of an inner world and the workings of inner life: the dense, rich layering of subjective experience. She tries to grasp, in Kathleen: "How we navigate life; how we may be in the present while thinking of the past and wondering about the future; as such we jump about, we repeat, we follow tangents."

She is trying to get inside Kathleen Coyle's head, figuratively speaking, and does so impressively well. Kathleen is an important work for MacWilliam in that it illuminates much else of what she has done. The domain of the paranormal may be an exceptional case but its fundamental appeal for her is what it tells us about how we experience life in what we think of as our normal, everyday world.

Susan MacWilliam's Modern Experiments runs at the Highlanes Gallery, Laurence Street, Drogheda, Co Louth, until April 18th.