Those that remember the days of real photographic film will recall how strange it was when the image wasn’t right. Double exposures, lens flares and processing errors led to weird shapes and shadows. This was nothing compared to the images created by thoughtography.
What is thoughtography?
If you are unfamiliar with the term then that isn’t a surprise. It is an awkward word for a now-debunked paranormal phenomenon. A better term is that of physic photography. This explains the process a little better as thoughtography is the act of transferring images from the mind onto photographic film. The idea is that the mental image is so strong that it burns into the film and can be developed as a photograph. Another term is projected thermography. This implies something of a more scientific nature that better explains the process of using heat and light to create the image. Whatever name you use, the idea is the same and only a handful of people have claimed to have the gift.
The most famous of these individuals was Ted Serios.
The name thoughtography originates from a Chicago bellhop called Ted Serios. He used the term to describe his apparent ability to project images from his mind onto photography film. He would hold a small tube he called a “gismo” up to the lens of the camera. Then, after some animated movements, he instructed the photographer to take a picture when he was ready to transmit an image.
The pictures are precisely what you would expect from this sort of unexplained phenomenon. The more famous scenes are sharp enough to clearly show the object or location in Serios’ mind. But, there are also blurry enough to suggest distortion as they were projected. Some even appear to show a shadow of his eye. Serios found fame due to a psychiatrist called Eisenbud who believed the ability. Few others supported the claims.
Thoughtography in Japanese culture
In the 1910s, the founder of the Fukurai institute of psychology studied the phenomenon of nensha with three female subjects. This is the Japanese term for spirit photography but works on the same principle as projected thermography. Each woman claimed to create photographic images from their minds in the same manner as Serios – just without the special gismo. One was famous for an image of the dark side of the moon. This was something that could not exist within photographic evidence and was difficult to dispute. Serios has something similar to this with one of Jupiter’s moons.
The re-emergence of the practice in the late 90s/early 2000s.
The phenomenon became more well-known in Western culture in this period due to its use in popular culture. The process occurs in the Japanese horror movie Ringu, and later in the US remake. In 1996, the X Files TV show ran an episode that played with this idea of physic photography. A pharmacy clerk develops a woman’s camera film to find an image of her screaming. She is later found dead. Mulder and Scully also discuss the images of Serios when working on the case.
How are these images actually produced?
The main question sceptics have about this process lies in the way that those images are created. In the case of Serios, we can’t help but wonder what was in that “gismo” he needed to hold up to the lens. Was this his way of channelling his thoughts into the camera? Or, more likely, was there some sort of image or substance that triggered the right reaction on the film. Could Serios have created anything without holding this first? It seems unlikely. An alternative theory is that the film was already exposed. This idea was also cited as a solution when Uri Geller tried a similar trick in the 1990s.
Altered images have been around since the start of the photography craze.
In the 1900s it was even easier to trick people into believing what they saw in photos because of a lack of understanding over chemical processes. Clever photographers would alter images to create ghostly shapes. This took advantage of the Victorian craze for mediums and contacting the dead. Science would later disprove the images but they were convincing enough to the average consumer at the time. A similar craze happened with the Cottingley Fairies photographs that showed “proof” of the creatures in a garden. They looked so real that even Arthur Conan Doyle was convinced. There is no link between spirit photographs and thoughtography in terms of the proposed methods. But, there are similarities in their intended purpose if all the images are fraudulent. Even today, doctored images still attract a lot of interest in social media and YouTube.
The era of the Paranormal Activity films took advantage of altered surveillance footage. Modern technology makes it even easier to Photoshop images and alter the scene to suggest that there are ghosts or unexplainable occurrences. We should have enough rational thought to know that they are fake because anyone can create them. Yet, they are also very convincing at times. There is also the fact that so many paranormal hunters are so keen for proof that they will see whatever they want to see. This notion may also apply to those that believed in the original nensha images, Serios’ work or those images from the 1900s. If we want to believe in the impossible, we sometimes surrender our rational knowledge of what is actually possible.
The age of projected thermography is definitely behind us.
The process of thoughtography is only believable if you have real photography film to burn the image upon. You can’t use the same scientific ideas and apply them to a digital camera or a smartphone. However, we can still look back on those images created in the mid-century and wonder how they came to be. There has to be a scientific answer. The theory that there was an image in the “gismo” is the most likely answer in the Serios case. But, it is unclear how those nensha images were created. Without concrete proof, we have to file it away as an unexplained paranormal phenomenon.