Ted Serios: Mind Over Molecules?

THE WORLD OF TED SERIOS. By Jule Eisenbud, M.D. William Morrow & Co., 339 pp. $6.50.

THE TWISTY courses of an aspiring art, photography, and a suspicious science, psychic research, describe a rough parallel. Each is a creation of the first decades of the 19th century, each has been fostered by a succession of inspired amateurs, fuddled bunglers, sensational charlatans, and uncomfortable professionals. Each has survived a series of tumultuous popular vogues, and each today seems to have found tenuous public acceptance. Out of the black box and darkroom came what may really be the vital art of the moment. Out of the spiritualist's dim salon has emerged what may prove to be tomorrow's scientific revolution. In reaching a toe-hold, each discipline has sacrificed a measure of color and excitement: gone are the horrific lantern shows of the early photographer-magicians, gone too the emphasis psychic investigators once placed on communication with disembodied spirits from the "other side." Art photography graces a hundred glossy magazines on a million polished coffee tables, and down at Duke, Dr. J.B. Rhine (now respectable: his science has even acquired a medical-sounding title, parapsychology, plus a whole gaggle of acronyms to mark its divisions) flips his cards, dot, star, squiggle, and contributes to the journals. This failure of vitality is in part just the ordinary story of progress, but it is, in any case, where both paths have led. The travelers now begin to exude a faint odor of despair: photographers still have no masterpieces to hang with the great paintings, and the parapsychologists have an equivalent problem. They have failed to work a great shift in popular thought, a psychological counterpart to the Darwinian impact, precisely because they are relying on a statistical preponderance of evidence rather than a single staggering tour de force demonstration to make their case. Out and out radicule and rejection breed action, but hesitating half-acceptance makes only for frustration.

Perhaps the parapsychologists need not settle for mere tolerance. Whenever photographic art and psychic science run close enough to touch for a stretch, parapsychology, at least, seems to derive an infusion of new energy. It was so during the "spirit photography" vogue of the 1860's and '70's, which commenced in 1861 when one W.H. Mumler, an engraver employed by a Boston jewelery firm and in his off hours an amateur photographer, first claimed to have stumbled upon the ability to produce images of the dear departed standing or clustering behind a portrait sitter. After Mumler, a deluge of spirit photographers, most notably Mssrs. Beattie, Hudson and Bournsell of London, Duguid of Glasgow, Bland of Johannesburg, Wyllie of California, and Buguet of Paris, practiced widely and appear to have been extensively if carelessly investigated by photographic experts who failed to detect them in fraud. It is only fair to note that these early spirit photographers seem to have operated largely by their own lights, without anything resembling scientific control, and that even confirmed believers in psychic phenomena doubted their results, suggesting an ample variety of ways that a middling to clever fraud could have hoodwinked an observer in the many phases of picture-taking and development that made up 19th century photography. Many of the pictures themselves appear to a McLuhanized eye to be patent fakes, double exposures and paste-ups. In 1869 Mumler, along with his wife and a convert, William Guay, was charged with fraud in New York. Despite a grandiose, sneering summation by the then Public Prosecutor, Eldridge T. Gerry ("If the prisoner's innocence is as strong as his supernatural powers are said to be, perhaps, like some of his 'spirits,' he may be able before a jury of his countrymen, to create in their minds a marked impression of that innocence by his own reflected light.") the case was tossed of court. But the exposure seems to have been too much for Mumler, who disappeared, while spirit photography itself declined dramatically.

We stand at a distance too great to allow any final judgment on Mumler and his contemporaries; nor can we even find to reproduce that gentleman's most striking pictures (including one of the dead Abe Lincoln standing behind Mary Todd, who had arrived at Mumler's studio heavily veiled, announcing herself as "Mrs. Liddall"). Further, in trying to penetrate the muddle of spirit photography, we encounter an obvious problem: even assuming that one practitioner may have a legitimate supernormal gift, for that one, ten fraudulent imitators can be expected to spring up and confuse the issue a little further. This difficulty, and the obvious lack of control and documentation, relieve us of the ability and responsibility to determine exactly what the spirit photographers were about. Luckily, we have now a modern, well documented case of psychic photography before us. The two paths have met again, in the investigations of Dr. Jule Eisenbud, a reputable Denver analyst with a standing interest in psychic matters, into the apparent supernormal abilities of an alcoholic ex-bellhop from Chicago, Ted Serios. Dr. Eisenbud's book, The World of Ted Serios, details what is either one of the most sophisticated and widespread hoaxes of modern times, or a genuine gift of life to parapsychology in the form of a psychic event which can, within limits, be controlled and repeated, but cannot be explained away as an aberration of probability theory, the very tour de force this uncomfortable science needs so badly. Unlike Mumler, Serios represents a phenomenon we can and should investigate. The question of the reality of his powers is not an intellectual toy, but an issue of immediate importance, for if those powers are real, nothing can ever be quite the same again. If Ted Serios can mentally cause or influence the production of images on Polaroid Land film, then the traditional divisions of mind and matter, the life of the mind and the life of the physical world, are to some extent plainly invalid. If Eisenbod and Serios can demonstrate the truth of mind-over-matter (psychokinesis or PK), it matters little that the mind involved is that of a nearilliterate social outcast, or that the matter is only the molecules of a photographic emulsion. The principle, once established, generates ramifications which simply have no end.

COMPARED to traditional spirit photography, the Serios phenomenon is easy to describe. The spirits, after all, have been almost entirely exorcised from parapsychology, and many of their historical manifestations are now considered to have been the result of the supernormal mental powers, conscious and subconscious, of living men and women. (Consider the advantage that PK or ESP ability would give a medium in convincing a circle of sitters that contact had been made with the other side, to say nothing of what such unrecognized powers might lead that medium to believe about the nature of his or her psychic abilities.) We deal now only with the potential powers of the human mind, and in this instance, if one gives credance to Eisenbud's documentation, the mind of Ted Serios seems capable of producing images on fresh Polaroid Land film used in a Polaroid model 95' camera, of causing complete exposures in cases where the light level would seem inadequate, and of preventing any exposure at all, when light considerations would make some marking of the film appeal inevitable. (This production of' 'blackies" and "whities" is typical of Serios's off days, and of his warm-up periods prior to getting actual images.) Serios's exact conscious role in image production seems to vary: on some occasions he has duplicated or approximated target pictures, photographs either known to him or brought to his sessions scaled in opaque envelopes, and so known to him only by some psychic means, while at other times he has caused pictures to appear which neither he nor any other person present could identify or explain. His efforts are marked by fierce concentration, but that concentration is often directed simply at the fact of a picture's appearance, with the nature of the image itself left to luck or the unconscious.

Ted Serios's working procedure, as described by Dr. Eisenbud, also varies considerably, but it can be generally described, and a few of the more typical exceptions noted. Serios claims to have succeeded with many types of camera, including various models of the Polaroid and conventional negative-positive instruments, but now uses the Model 95 (a discontinued Polaroid line) almost exclusively, as he finds it gives him the best results. Eisenbud documents only his use of some other Polaroid models. At sessions, Serios ordinarily sits wth a bright light source shining from behind him over one shoulder (though he has worked and succeeded in conditions of semi-darkness) and holds the camera on his knees or lap, with its focus lever set and taped at infinity, and its lens pointing toward his face (he has managed images with cameras from which the lens has been entirely removed, but to the date of Eisenbud's writing, never has met success in attempts to influence film when the lens opening is taped shut, or when the camera is dispensed with altogether). Between the lens and himself he holds a small cylinder of paper or other material he calls the "gismo" (he typically employs a circlet of blackened Polaroid paper, formed with celluloid tape and prepared by anyone who wishes from their own materials at the beginning of a session, though he has used rings of other sorts of paper, napkin rings, and even the core of a roll of toilet paper, and succeeded with some of these variations). He suggests the camera, which is often equipped with a wink light (a variation Serios prefers to either a flash or the absence of any light attachment) with one hand, holding the gismo with the other. Though he has been guilty of truculent moods, he almost invariably will allow inspection of his person and all the equipment at all times during any session, and has done so during his most successful hot spells. As is obviously a necessity before his effort can be seriously considered, he will attempt to produce and has produced pictures with camera, film and gismo supplied by guests at the session, and guarded up to the moment that the session begins. Serios has also produced images with the camera held at a distance from him, separated from him by a lead-glass screen, pointed away from him at a blank wall, and triggered by other participants in the session. He has again succeeded when the gismo was held in position by invited observers, sewn into a pocketless monkey suit, and according to Paul Welch (Life, Sept. 22, 1967), a reporter who observed Serios in Chicago for several years before Dr. Eisenbud entered the case, entirely stripped. (About the only other noteworthy point in Welch's Life article is the implication that the magazine had been sitting on the story for at least four years.)

Throughout the investigations Serios has been, on the whole, remarkably anxious to convince and notably open about all procedures, suggesting that if he is a fraud, he is one of the more skillful and calculating variety, a suggestion which nothing known about his intelligence, background, manual skills or working condiitons (Serios often seems to attain best results when soused) would support.

A word should be said about the observers and guests just mentioned, one or another of whom seem to have been present at every step of Eisenbud's Denver investigations of Serios. They consist of local physicians, professors from Denver area colleges and universities, including several from the University of Colorado Medical Center, and at least one expert in photography and optics, Mr. Billie Wheeler, the head of the Center's Department of Audio-Visual Education. Eisenbud asserts that all of them have signed statements attesting to the physical events his book describes, and further stating that after participating in a Serios session, they could advance no material explanation for what they saw. As Eisenbud himself points out, these men and women, whatever their credentials, are neither experts in the field nor trained observers, and it is not statistically impossible that all or some of them could have been deceived. But their very number, and the fact that several of them interested themselves in the Serios phenomenon to the extent of attending and participating in many sessions make it unlikely that a flawless wholesale deception could have been affected without a pattern of collusion involving Serios, Eisenbud, and at least a few of their regular co-workers.

IT IS with this background that the only major published response to The World of Ted Serios (the book having been in print for at least five months) must be considered. As detailed in the October 1967 issue of Popular Photography, the editors of that magazine sent an inquiry team, consisting of two photographic experts who double as practicing magicians, to investigate Ted Serios. They passed what sounds like a tense and uncomfortable weekend in Denver, saw no images produced in the course of three sessions (though there were several blackies--which unfortunately seem to be the least convincing effects in Serios's reportory), on one occasion found Serios unwilling to permit their inspection of the gismo and the hand that held it, and returned to write: "Whether or not Ted Serios is a charlatan or a genuine psychic we cannot say. We can only state that whe arrived in Denver profoundly skeptical about his ability to produce what Dr. Eisenbud claims in his book--and left even more skeptical." (Compose for tone with the report of the London Daily Mail Commission for the study of spirit photography, July 16th, 1909: "We are therefore of the opinion that no evidence whatever--experimental or otherwise--has been placed before the committee in support of the contention to investigate which the committee was formed.") In addition to issuing a challenge to Serios and Eisenbud to produce even a single picture under conditions entirely dictated by Popular Photography (and here we are up against one of the more crucial difficulties in all psychic research: while the skeptic cannot be converted unless the psychic meets the letter of his exacting demands, the psychic may often be completely incapacitated by hostile surroundings; and spheres within spheres, this whole argument naturally reads like an elaborate justification of a fraud's unwillingness to show himself up, and in 9/10ths of all cases is probably exactly that), the writers describe a simple device which they suggest as a possible agency for fraudulent thoughtography. Constructed from a cheap lense (or a dime store souvenir viewer) and a tiny, transparent photographic positive, this simple optical device could, they suggest, be concealed inside Serios's gismo, and would produce results similar to his under similar conditions. It is such a gimmick, they further suggest, that Ted Serios may have been using all along, until frightened off the game by the arrival of their inquiry team: "...pictures might have been made by him in a similar maner, if he had so wished." They do not deny that the use of such a device would require some skill at sleight of hand, and some knowledge of photographic technique, neither of which Serios has ever been shown to have, but content themselves in stating that a very moderate amount of ability would suffice.

The Popular Photography inquiry team takes, or attempts to take, a middle line, suggesting that for years (since 1955, in fact) Serios may have been using one simple trick to convince witness after witness of his thoughtographic powers. I cannot, however, accept a middle line as meaningful in the Serios case. The inquiry team's suggestion fails to cover a number of the conditions, described above, under which Eisenbud asserts that Serios has produced images (is it reasonable to assume, for example, that the miniature optical device secreted in the gismo would pass muster when an objective observer rather than Serios is holding the gismo, etc.). Neither does the posited gimmick explain certain notable examples of Serios's pictures described below. The moderate approach fails because the effect of Eisenbud's documentation is to polarize opinion about the Serios affair. There seems to me to be only two opinions possible: 1) Serios is honest and his abilities are genuine; 2) Serios and Eisenbud, and some largish number of witnesses, are involved in a grand collusive hoax.

WHAT finally fixes this polarization of possible viewpoints on Serios and his thoughtography is the nature of his pictures themselves. There are many that with the aid of a camera and a darkroom always at the ready, Serios might have been able to create first on a tiny transparent positive print (though even here the question arises: Could Serios have carried on this sort of minor photoraphic cottage industry without being detected by Eisenbud, with whom he was in constant, daily contact in Denver? If not, then again it is a question of either collusive hoax or genuine talent, with no middle ground apparent.). But far too many of the thoughtographs are are either impossible to duplicate at all (if this could even be conclusively proved, for even one photo, the whole matter could, of course, be immediately resolved) or, at best, impossible to duplicate without the time, aid and money to which the Ted Seros who Eisenbud describes simuly had no access. Among these "impossible pictures" are: 1) high angle shots, among them an exposure showing part of Westminster Abbey and the book's color frontispiece representing the Denver Hilton Hotel, which could have been taken only from vantages barred to the earthbound photographer; 2) shots of objects which have apparently never been photographed, like the prints which seem to show Russian Vostok rockets orbiting in space; 3) Serios's near-misses, in which a thoughtograph duplicates an object or building, but with some crucial detail altered, like the plate of the Central City, Colo., Opera House (reproduced on p. S-1), which is a match for the genuine article except that it bears a playbill where the building shows only a discolored patch of brick, and that it shows the building with its windows bricked shut, though Eisenbud's enquiries determined that those windows had apparently never been filled in any way; 4) Serios's hits on sealed target pictures (here, if Serios was a fraud, no amount of photographic support would have pulled him through without an additional measure of collusion; 5) those few of Seros's images which can be seen to materalize progressively, acquiring form and pictorial meaning gradually from print to print, much like a developing embryo, and even more like the often described psychic phenomenon of object materialization. Eisenbud prints two samples from a series of prints in which an unidentifiedS-