Sir Arthur Conan Doyle Predicts Spirit Moving Pictures

From The Arthur Conan Doyle Encyclopedia

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle Predicts Spirit Moving Pictures is an article written by Samri Frikell published in Movie Weekly on 12 august 1922.

There was a second article on the same topic by the same author in the next issue of the magazine (19 august 1922).

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle Predicts Spirit Moving Pictures

Movie Weekly (12 august 1922, p. 6)

At left: Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, who says, "If ordinary photography can compass it (the spirits) why not the cinemateograph (motion pictures)?"
Movie Weekly (12 august 1922, p. 7)

At left: A selected cinemateograph showing the substance known as ectoplasm being absorbed again into the medium's mouth. From this substance, faces of departed ones were formed... This is the first motion picture taken of this phase of spiritualism. ("Phenomena of Materialization," by Baron Von Schrenk Notzing. Pub. by Dutton.)

Fig. 179. Selected cinematograph pictures of 25 June 1913, showing absorption of the substance into the mouth.
Movie Weekly (12 august 1922, p. 26)

An amazing revelation of what spiritualism may do for motion pictures.

The spirits of the dead are going into the movies?

Before long, scientists are now predicting, it will be possible to film and screen the shades of the departed, as a final and positive evidence of the survival of identity beyond the grave, and the return of ghosts to the earth.

These predictions are based on the results already obtained with still cameras, together with one reel of movie film. During his recent lecture tour of the United States, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, author of the "Sherlock Holmes" detective stories, and now the foremost spiritualist of the world, exhibited a series of startling spirit photographs.

In spite of the charges hurled against him that these pictures were clever fakes, Sir Arthur stoutly maintained that they were genuine, and brought forward evidence to show they had been secured under the strictest of test conditions, eliminating all possibility of trickery.

It is the contention of Sir Arthur that the science, the philosophy and the religion of spiritualism is still in its infancy. Undreamed of wonders, he declares, are still in store for the world, and therefore, motion pictures of ghosts are in no wise to be called impossible.

These pictures must not be confused with the motion pictures which Sir Arthur brought with him to the banquet of the Society of American Magicians, and which created such a tempest in a tea-pot, following their screening in the dining hall of the Hotel McAlpin. Those were admittedly faked pictures, taken to illustrate one of Sir Arthur's novels, and were offered in a humorous spirit, to have a little joke on the wise-acres among the mystery men.

But the photographs of phantoms, ghosts and spooks which Sir Arthur exhibited in his public appearances are of an entirely different character. He insists they are absolutely genuine.

And, Sir Arthur demands. if it is possible now to secure still photographs of the shades of the departed. why will it not be possible. by continuous experiment, to attract the dead to the studios? Attracting the spirits to Hollywood, Fort Ice or Long Island, and capturing them with the camera, will be only a matter of patience, care and the use of competent mediums!

During an interview which I had with Sir Arthur, while he was stopping at the Hotel Ambassador in New York. I brought up this and a number of kindred subjects of interest to the movie world. Before going to see him, I had fortified myself with all the information I could get on the subject. especially with regard to experiments which had been made with motion pictures at seances.

I speedily learned that this was almost a virgin field. Very little attention, apparently, had been given to it, perhaps because of the expense attached to such experiments, and the extreme difficulty under which the experiments were conducted. However, I did learn that Baron Von Schrenk Notzing, the eminent Munich savant, had made a series of attempts with his celebrated medium, "Eva C."

The entire scientific world has been startled by the experiments of the Baron. He has published an enormous volume, describing his seances with "Eva C.," in which there are almost three hundred flashlight photographs which he took of the miracles performed by this strange woman. Under the strictest control, and with every precaution taken to prevent dupery, he secured whole scores of photographs, on which strange faces and figures appear.

It then occurred to the Baron that he could film these figures in the process of materialization — show how the white mist, called ectoplasm, streamed out of the medium, formed itself into ghosts, and then melted gradually away into the air. When the first attempt was made, there were eight still cameras and one motion picture camera trained on the cabinet. On the eight still negatives, ghost impressions were secured. But there was nothing on the motion picture film.

But later, they did succeed with the motion picture camera!

This success came by the use of another medium, a Polish woman whose name is given in the Baron's book as "Stanislava P." While at the time of this spectacular sitting she was considered a novice by the distinguished scientists who investigated her, and ranked far below the "Eva C." already mentioned, nevertheless she did succeed in transferring to the celluloid the strange wonders which she wrought while in trance.

In the Baron's account of the sittings, he goes into great detail as to those present, the location of the cameras and cabinet, the illumination of the room, and other evidential details. Finally the medium was hypnotized and the seance began.

At these and other subsequent seances, a wisp of white gas was seen to emerge from the mouth of Stanislava, and coil down upon her breast. The book contains photographs of this, plainly developed, together with pictures showing this wisp of mist forming itself into the semblance of a human hand.

During all these extraordinary performances, the motion picture camera was clicking away.

Whole sections of the film are reproduced in the Baron's book, showing how this substance emerged from the medium's mouth, formed itself into spirit hands and features, and then was drawn back into the medium.

Here was a distinct achievement. True, it did not include the transference to the film of the weird faces and forms obtained on the still negatives, but it did reproduce the strange appearance and disappearance of the ectoplasm, under conditions which amply prevented the possibility of trickery.

Beyond these experiments, I was unable to find any other records of successful experiments with motion pictures at seances, and when I arranged the interview with Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, I was anxious to learn his views on the subject. Why was it that the motion picture camera failed, while the still machines caught the spectres? And would it be possible to eliminate the difficulties now present, and obtain motion picture records of the seances of the future?

These were the questions in my mind when I walked up Fifth Avenue one brisk and windy morning, distinctly curious, withal, as to the type of man I was on my way to meet.

Allow me to say at once that the first impression of this gifted novelist, and courageous spiritualist, is his complete sincerity. I have heard a great deal of discussion about Doyle and his theories, and very frequently I run up against the man who says:

"Why, do you think Doyle believes all this guff himself ? Not on your life! He's in it for the cash! He's got hold of a new sensation, and he's making it pay. That's all there is to that!"

No one who has ever talked with Sir Arthur would say that, or believe that. He is in the last degree removed from the theatrical type of mystic. Instead I shook hands with a lusty, manful Britisher, with the face of a lion. In his greeting he was jovial, good-natured and dignified. But what I noticed most was the serene and honest glow of his eyes, and his granite poise and power. He suggested nothing so much as a physician — which was the role in which he first entered the stage of public life. One rather looks to him to he standing by the bedside and asking for a glass of water and a spoon.

After a very few preliminaries in politeness, Sir Arthur threw himself down on a divan, clasped his hands behind his head, and instructed me to "Fire away!"

"Our interest in spiritualism," I explained, having told him that I represented "Movie Weekly," is entirely practical. Our field is the cinematograph, as you call it in England. What we want to know is, can these spirits be captured by the motion picture camera?"

Sir Arthur's reply was characteristic, and shows how restrained and careful are his judgments.

"Questions like that," he answered, "cannot be answered authoritatively off hand. They need mature consideration, investigation and experiment. That is already being practiced, on the Continent, I believe. It must not be forgotten that this science is still in its infancy. We are distinctly not in a position to dogmatize. Moreover, I must confess that this phase of the subject is new to me. It would certainly merit the fullest' investigation. But I do not think there is any doubt that such pictures can he taken, when we understand the conditions better. If ordinary photography can compass it, why not the cinematograph?"

I asked Sir Arthur how he accounted for failure in movie cameras and success in others. He replied that it was generally because harmony was lacking in the sittings, and harmony was sometimes exceedingly difficult to secure.

"I object to any man," he declared, "who comes to a sitting, throwing out thoughts of suspicion and ill will. 'Of one accord,' says the Bible, and that is my experience. If a critic had been in the upper room, they would never have got the tongues of fire. Harmony is everything!"

"What about the charges that your still photographs are fakes?" I inquired.

"As to faking photos, that is easy enough," he chuckled. "These expert photographers who are always rushing into print explaining how I am deceived in my pictures seem to think I don't know anything of these methods. It is when you get photos of the dead which are like them, but differ from any taken in life that you are beyond the reach of rogues. All this talk of fake is absolute nonsense. These self-advertisers are parasites on the movement!"

As he developed this thought, Sir Arthur became more and more enthused with the boundless possibilities of mediumship in the future. "We must not forget," he declared earnestly, "that we are on the threshold of an entirely new world. What seemed impossible, even fantastic before, may now become entirely normal when we understand spiritualism better. Certainly our experiments with still cameras should give as good cause to expect some startling motion pictures before we have exhausted all the possibilities. After a moment's pause, the great novelist developed a new twist to the discussion which took me entirely by surprise.

"Not only may one expect motion pictures of spirits," he remarked, "but what is to prevent the spirits from aiding us in the writing, directing, acting and general production of pantomime drama?"

"That!" I cried, "is certainly a new and astounding idea!"

"I confess that it is new to me," continued Sir Arthur. "But we may well ask ourselves, whence come our inspirations? What the motion pictures need is inspiration. The chief criticism made against them is the machine-like quality of their stories. You have wonderful photography, splendid settings — but the inspiration is lacking from the plots. Now I have always been inclined to believe that what we call inspiration comes from within ourselves. What seems to well up in cur minds, independent of our normal brain, really comes from the subconscious mind. That is the generally accepted theory — but I am now beginning to believe that it is not always a true theory.

"Every person who does creative, artistic work does reach the point where he must realize that the highest of our creations do not evolve from within ourselves. There comes a day when a thought is projected like a bullet through your brain. That inspiration is from the beyond. It has come from on high. Some spirit has given it to us.

"Now that fact is of tremendous importance to the makers of motion pictures!

"It must not be forgotten that there are only a very few spirits who know anything about the motion picture business. It is such a new enterprise altogether, and a development of the last quarter of a century, that most of its pioneers are still alive, I suppose. The proportion of living motion picture men to dead ones is very large. A hundred years from now you would have a greater reservoir to draw from, because more will have died. Thus the motion picture business is like spiritualism in that it is just beginning to find itself. You have very few veterans on the other side.

"But even now there is a possibility of helping hands being extended, to the motion picture men not only, but to every phase of creative effort. In more elevated moments of inspiration we can contact with higher intelligences. We all know that there is an ebb and flow of inspiration. Occasionally I am convinced we can draw down mighty thoughts from mighty thinkers — artists, painters, musicians, poets who have passed away. All such material could be utilized in making better motion pictures, I should imagine. There is certainly that definite possibility and unquestionably it fits in with the general spiritual hypothesis."

There was also the possibility of motion picture stars getting spiritual assistance in delineating great roles. The wonderful actors and actresses of the past — Modjeska, Ellen Terry, Robert Keene, Booth, Barrett, Macready, Forrest — all the geniuses of the footlights might be summoned through mediumship, and their help and inspiration gained by modern players.

Sometimes, when one is listening to such an eminent scholar as Doyle discussing miracles of spiritualism in matter of fact terms, one is apt to rub one's eyes to be sure one is not dreaming. It all seems so preposterous. Motion pictures of spirit land! Stills of your dead great grand-father! Getting actors and actresses, long mouldy and rotten in their graves, to coach you in a part !

It sounds like stuff and nonsense, doesn't it?

And yet, for a moment, pause and reflect!

What would your old school days' friend George Washington have told you, if you predicted to him the steam railroad, the electric railroad, the modern ocean liner, the subway, the skyscraper, the telephone, the telegraph, the phonograph, the air-plane, the submarine, the radio, or the moving picture?

You know what George would have thought about you! He would have said it was all stuff and nonsense, and turned back to his chess board. With such a record of achievement behind us, it is not wise to sneer too loudly at these men who insist that they have spoken face to face, voice to voice with their dead. Some of them rank as the foremost scientists of their time — Sir Oliver Lodge, Sir William Crookes, Charles Richet, Lombroso, Von Schrenk Notzing and a cloud of other witnesses.

In every land and clime, reports are rising constantly of the marvels wrought in seances by mediums in the condition known as trance. Inquire quietly of your neighbors and you are certain to find some one who has had a ghostly experience they cannot explain. The subject is in the air. The belief is spreading. It may all he stuff and nonsense. that is true. But again, there may be something in it.

At all events, this much is true — that some of the cleverest men of science in the world declare they have seen these spirit forms; that there are inure than a thousand spirit photographs in existence, and that Von Schrenk Notzing and his assistants did actually succeed in recording some of the seance-phenomena on motion picture film.

Now, Sir Arthur predicts that the day is coming when these authentic reports will become the common property of mankind, exhibited in every movie theatre in the land.

It is something worth waiting for, anyway!

(In a subsequent issue, Mr. Frikell, who it one of the best known spirit investigators in America, and who has exposed many fraudulent mediums, will describe an exciting seance in which he supervised an attempt to get motion pictures of the spooks for "Movie Weekly." Don't miss it!)