Thoughtography: From Out the Great Darkness

Leon Marvell
Associate Professor of Film and Digital Media
School of Communication and Creative Arts
Deakin University
Email: leonmarvell@gmail. com
Reference this essay: Marvell, Leon. “Thoughtography: From Out the Great Darkness.” In Leonardo Electronic Almanac 22, no. 1, edited by Lanfranco Aceti, Paul Thomas, and Edward Colless. Cambridge, MA: LEA / MIT Press, 2017.
Published Online: May 15, 2017
Published in Print: To Be Announced
ISSN: 1071-4391
ISBN: 978-1-906897-62-8


In the mid-1960s, an alcoholic, chain-smoking bellhop from Chicago found himself at the center of a psychic cyclone. Ted Serios could produce images on Polaroid film just by projecting his thoughts into the lens of the camera. Serios was an overnight sensation, and his unique abilities were the subject of worldwide attention. Famous prestidigitators, such as James Randi aka the Amazing Randi, endeavored to prove that Serios was—of course—a fake, and that the scientists who were studying Serios were gullible saps. The Amazing Randi even claimed to have produced ‘thoughtographs’ through simple stage tricks and misdirection, thus demonstrating that Serios was a charlatan. In fact, he accomplished no such thing. However, the popular press, tired of the hard-drinking Serios and his strange abilities, accepted the Amazing Randi’s claims and Serios quickly disappeared from public consciousness. Yet Serios continued to produce his puzzling, fantastical images under strictly controlled scientific conditions, and the fact remains that we have no ‘natural’ explanation for them—at least, no natural explanation that relies on a strictly materialist mode of explanation. To assist in the exploration of the post-material psychodynamics of Serios’s unsettling oeuvre, this paper calls upon a series of images to remediate the fractious geometry of Serios, his ‘thoughtography,’ and the ‘real.’ These images are found in Robert Fludd’s magnum opus of 1617, Utriusque Cosmi Maioris scilicet et Minoris Metaphysica, Physica Atque Technica Historia (History of the Macrocosm), and offer a hermetically unsealed disquisition emerging from the very first image, The Great Darkness.


Thoughtography, Ted Serios, Uri Geller, psychic, photography, Robert Fludd

The invention of the daguerreotype in the mid-nineteenth century coincided with the beginning of the spiritualist movement that had begun in the United States and quickly spread to Europe. Early experiments in photography revealed an efflorescence of what might be called an ‘evanescent aesthetic,’ something perhaps enforced by the unstable chemical reactions appearing on the glass plates of pioneering photographers. This evanescent aesthetic quickly became affixed to interest in the ‘spirit world,’ with spiritualist photographers producing a steady stream of what we might call psychic or paranormal photographs. This body of work can be divided into two broad classes of images: the first is what has been called spirit photography. Many will be familiar with this type of image: photographs of ghostly apparitions at séances, ectoplasmic manifestations appearing like psychic goo draped over the bodies of spiritualist mediums, and the shadowy appearance of long-dead relatives haunting family portraits. Many people of the time believed that these images provided proof of the survival of the spirit after bodily death, and thus early photography played a very large part in the feverish spread of spiritualism across the United States and Europe.

Many of these images were undoubtedly fraudulent, the result of darkroom tricks that were unknown to the uninitiated. Even Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, creator of the most rational of heroes, Sherlock Holmes, became a supporter of the spiritualism movement, believing that the famous Cottingley Fairies photographs taken by cousins Elsie Wright and Frances Griffiths in the early twentieth century were genuine. Today, we look at reproductions of these fairy photographs and wonder how it was possible for people to have been so ignorant of darkroom tricks. Yet this was an era in which the camera and the darkroom were not wholly seen as part of the technological imperative—that is, they were not immediately seen as scientific breakthroughs—but rather were appreciated as the most recent manifestation of a very long tradition, dating back to at least the Renaissance, wherein the camera obscura and the magic lantern were part of public entertainments that included prestidigitation, stage illusions, and magic-mirror tricks. In other words, at this time, photography was still a part of the world of ‘enchantment’ that Max Weber recognized was very quickly disintegrating.

The second type of psychic or paranormal photography has no direct connection with psychic survival after death. This form has been dubbed “thoughtography.” The term was first introduced in 1910 by a Japanese professor of psychology, Tomokichi Fukurai. [1] Fukurai was working with a clairvoyant who could manifest Japanese ideograms on a photographic plate. This discovery came about by accident; Fukurai had asked the clairvoyant to identify an ideogram that had been impressed on an undeveloped photograph. After the clairvoyant accomplished this, Fukurai noticed that another plate lying nearby had also been impressed with the same ideogram. Fukurai suspected that this had occurred through some sort of inadvertent psychic transmission on the subject’s part, so he then proceeded to see whether the clairvoyant could be encouraged to do this deliberately. The results of these experiments were positive, and often the experimental setups were ingenious. For example, Fukurai created a sealed container in which three photographic plates were stacked, one upon the other. He then asked his clairvoyant subject to imprint an image on only the middle plate. [2]

The important point here is that even though Fukurai was very careful in the design of his experiments, and despite his rigorous attempts to exclude any possibility of fraud on the subject’s part, Fukurai was severely criticized by his peers and the scientific community. Eventually, he had to abandon his research and resign from the university where he conducted his work. By this time, of course, the disenchantment of the world was already in full swing.

Experiments in thoughtography continued in Europe and the US, however, but allegations of fraud always curtailed these experiments before they could really amass a substantial body of evidence. Then, in the 1950s, interest in thoughtography was galvanized by the appearance of one man, Ted Serios. This interest was due to the fact that Serios produced his images in a way that ruled out any possibility of fraud. The key to this was that Serios used a comparatively new technology to register his images: the Polaroid camera. Previous experiments and experimenters had to use the darkroom to develop their psychic images, and thus there was always suspicion of darkroom tricks. But the Polaroid camera, in which the registering and developing of the image were all self-contained, precluded the possibility of most darkroom sleight of hand.

Ted Serios was in his mid-thirties when he became famous. He worked as a bellhop and elevator operator in a Chicago hotel, and had developed an interest in hypnotism. He discovered that he had the ability to manifest images onto film, first using an ordinary box camera and then a Polaroid land camera. Serios demonstrated these skills to various researchers in the Chicago area for several years, but it wasn’t until he drew the attention of Jule Eisenbud, a Denver psychiatrist and psychic researcher, that Serios’s star began to rise.

From May, 1964 until 1967, Eisenbud conducted and supervised thousands of scientific trials exploring Serios’s remarkable abilities, and these experiments were witnessed by at least one hundred different observers, nearly all of whom were scientists or academics. Of the other witnesses, some were professional conjurors or prestidigitators who were called in to rule out any trickery on Serios’s part.

The trials produced around one thousand Polaroid photographs, all of which have been preserved in the Special Collections section of the University of Maryland in Baltimore. More than four hundred of these Polaroids contain specific images; that is, images chosen by Eisenbud and his team to be the specific target of the experiment. Typically, Eisenbud would choose an image at random (from a copy of National Geographic, for example) and conceal it in a sealed envelope so that Serios could not see it. The target images were usually of buildings. Typically, Serios would manifest Polaroid images that were blurry and rather distorted, but that were all recognizable as variants of the target image. I use the term “variants” because one of the most peculiar aspects of these particular experiments was that the images Serios produced seemed to be from perspectives that were considerably different than the original image. For example, many of Serios’s images of the target buildings appear to be from a perspective that would be physically impossible in the real world, and were certainly different from the angle at which the target images were taken. It is as if Serios’s images were registered by someone floating in space or circumnavigating the structure in a hot air balloon. Even stranger, when Eisenbud concealed an image of one of the barns on his property in an envelope, Serios, who was certainly familiar with the barn as it existed, produced an image of the barn that resembled the appearance of the barn twenty years in the past, with various contemporary additions missing—an image that he could not possibly have been familiar with. [3] Some of Serios’s images closely resemble the target images, except his photographs have significant differences: a door is on the wrong side of a building, for example, or windows are missing. It is as if these are images of the structures as they exist in an alternative reality, in another dimension that resembles our own but with significantly different details, or that distorts within a non-Euclidean space.

As to the usually blurry nature of Serios’s images, Eisenbud himself reasoned that this may have been the effect of the workings of Serios’s unconscious on the transmission of the images. At any rate, nearly all experiments in extrasensory perception (ESP) produce some degree of distortion on the subject’s part—the target image of a cat produces a drawing that looks like a dog, or the target letter “E” looks like an “F” when drawn by the experimental subject.

Serios’s psychic images were produced under conditions that clearly rule out fraud on both Serios and Eisenbud’s part. So what are we to make of this? What explains the chilling silence that has resulted from these experiments?

Serios was an alcoholic; he was undereducated and was often a very difficult person to get along with. He was thus a very different person from his contemporary, Uri Geller, who had made a name for himself by appearing on television and bending various metal objects supposedly through the nonphysical agency of his psychic abilities. Yet Geller was famously unable to demonstrate this ability under laboratory conditions. So Serios, who was surly, cantankerous, and often drunk—quite different from the dapper, urbane Geller—was rejected by the public and thrown, erroneously, into the same “scientifically unverified” basket as Geller.

This rejection became definitive when a famous stage magician, the Amazing Randi, who moonlighted as a psychic debunker, claimed to have reproduced Serios’s images using stage legerdemain alone. To this day, the Amazing Randi maintains this on his website, but in fact he did no such thing—such a feat was neither recorded nor witnessed by anyone. In this regard, the Amazing Randi is himself guilty of a considerable amount of conjuror’s misdirection.

Among the Polaroids that Serios produced, there are two anomalous types that are particularly intriguing. Serios called these images “blackies” and “whities,” so-called because the Polaroids are either entirely black or entirely white. [4] Under normal circumstances, all-black, or “blackie,” Polaroids are produced if the camera lens is somehow obscured (if the lens cap was inadvertently left on, for example), while “whities” are only produced if an intense light source had been photographed by the camera. But none of Serios’s “blackies” or “whities” were produced under these conditions. The “blackies” and “whities” were created under normal lighting conditions, with the expectation that Serios would register a chosen target image. But at seemingly random intervals, the experiment would produce these “blackies” and “whities.” Serios brushed them off as momentary failures, yet I believe it should be asked, how is darkness produced when there is an abundance of light? How is a super-saturation of light produced in an image taken where little light is available?

I interpret the “blackies,” in particular, as being the metaphysical background without which Serios’s thoughtographic abilities cannot be properly understood. They are, if you like, the dark, matrix-like background from which Serios’s psychic images emerge. The ‘blackies’ are signals of the Origin—of the eternal non-light that lies beneath the spatiotemporal order of reality. This is the ground before the emergence of the existential ground—the plenum Void for which there are no possible predicates that cannot be conceived of or discovered, except through the periodic appearance of anomalous non-images such as those produced by Serios. Both the “blackies” and the “whities” are the absolutely necessary corollaries of Serios’s otherwise-evanescent, psychic Polaroid images. In this, they represent the foundational architectonics of Serios’s oeuvre.

To make this notion clearer, I want to draw into my discussion a couple of images by a much earlier explorer of the psychic, Robert Fludd. In his Utriusque Cosmi Maioris scilicet et Minoris Metaphysica, Physica Atque Technica Historia, we find an image very similar to one of Serios’s “blackies.” [5] Around the edge of this entirely black image, we can read the legend, Et sic Infinitum: and so on, infinitely. This is Fludd’s image of the pleromatic matrix, the great Void, and thus it is the early equivalent—albeit, in a more primitive form—of Serios’s “blackies.”

As Fludd’s series of images demonstrates, this infinite Void is the primal ground from which paranormal images of the world—phantasms, eidolons—emerge. These images are initiated through flashes of light, just as the phenomenal world we know is now thought to have originated in the Big Bang, and just as Polaroid photographs are, too, initiated with flashes of light.

Utilizing a visual metaphor for the phenomenon of Ted Serios—again drawn from the work of Robert Fludd—I perceive an imaginal affinity between the Renaissance metaphysician and Serios. This particular image is tripartite. In the topmost part of the image, we see a ‘standard’ Renaissance image of the sun as a face haloed with rays. In the middle section, we see a moiling array of black, turbulent clouds. In the bottom third of the image, we observe what can only be described as a cosmic turd, which can be seen emerging from the black clouds and plummeting to earth. This is Fludd’s rather peculiar image of matter coalescing and descending within the drama of the creation of the cosmos. [6]

Like Fludd’s great cosmic turd, Serios was extruded from the moiling chaos of the data cloud—the creatura to the original pleroma—and then plummeted to earth. This turd is a black diamond formed by the pressures of our violent beginning. This excremental excess, this ‘shit of the cosmos,’ is Serios’s oeuvre. And like the proverbial turd in the swimming pool, this reverberant shock, this confrontation between the two lenses of Serios’s eye and the lens of the polaroid camera, reminds us of the fragility of our encounters with the phenomenal, material world—the conception of which is becoming progressively rarified as ‘information’ and data come to dominate discussion, a conception very different from the old-world Newtonian discussions of forces, substance, and atoms in the void.

In effect, the production of Serios’s images stages a confrontation between Serios’s personal camera obscura (his eye) with that of the polaroid. The interference produced by the meeting of these two dark spaces represents a kind of gigantomachy (wherein the titans battled amongst the primordial chaos before the gods of the ancient world were even born). You may consider this rhetoric too grandiose to use in describing the phenomenon of Ted Serios, but I would disagree. How else can one discuss an individual who demonstrated the fallacy of an absolute boundary between psyche and physis, and intrinsically challenged the orthodox view that the world is but an endless collision of mindless atoms?

The Serios experiments are no longer discussed because his images, his “blackies” and “whities,” represent a fundamental challenge to all our pictures of reality. And if there really are only atoms colliding in the Void, then Serios is the lightning declination—the clinamen—that illuminates and throws into disturbing relief our precarious understandings.

References and Notes

[1] Jule Eisenbud, The World of Ted Serios (New York: Penguin, 2006), 245; Stephen E Braude, The Gold Leaf Lady and Other Parapsychological Investigations (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 2007),107.

[2] For examples of these images, see Ibid., 251.

[3] For these images see Stephen E. Braude, The Gold Leaf Lady and Other Parapsychological Investigations, 113. Also cf. Eisenbud where many such images are reproduced.

[4] See Jule Eisenbud, The World of Ted Serios, 337; Stephen E. Braude, The Gold Leaf Lady and Other Parapsychological Investigations, 111, 120-123.

[5] This image can be found on page 24 of Jocelyn Godwin, Robert Fludd: Hermetic Philosopher and Surveyor of Two Worlds (London: Thames & Hudson, 1979).

[6] The image within which I have isolated this ‘cosmic turd’ can be found reproduced on page 32 of Godwin’s Robert Fludd: Hermetic Philosopher and Surveyor of Two Worlds.

Author Biography

Leon Marvell is Associate Professor of Film and Digital Media in the School of Communication and Creative Arts at Deakin University, Australia. He teaches and researches film theory and history, art theory and history, cyberculture, and digital culture. As Associate Head of School in the School of Communication and Creative Arts he has recently been instrumental in introducing the Image Cluster, a teaching and research nexus consisting of the sub-disciplines of film, photography, visual arts, visual communication, and motion capture at Deakin. A regular contributor to art and media journals, he is the author of Transfigured Light: Science, Philosophy and the Hermetic Imaginary (2007).