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Those Spooky Photos Are Back... PDF Print E-mail
Written by James Randi   

Dr. Mikita Brottman, 45, is a professor of humanities at the Maryland Institute College of Art. She is Oxford-educated and widely published.

The Chronicle of Higher Education – based in Washington, D.C. – states that it is the major news service in the United States academic world.

A news item the Chronicle featured this week concerns a show at the Albin O. Kuhn Library and Gallery at the University of Maryland-Baltimore County. The article – written by Professor Brottman – is titled, “Psychic Projections/Photographic Impressions: Paranormal Photographs from the Jule Eisenbud Collection on Ted Serios," a display of some 60 examples of how rationality can be easily abandoned when a sufficiently attractive woo-woo subject is brought up and dignified by such individuals, colleges, and media outlets.

Note, first, the title of the show clearly states that the photographs are paranormal in nature, not “claimed” or “purported” or “possibly,” and that they are “psychic.” No modifiers. Moving along…

First, to set the stage, the two actors involved in this drama: First is Theodore (Ted) Judd Serios [1918-2006] was a bellhop from Chicago who discovered a great trick: he would have a Polaroid camera aimed at his forehead while he held a small tube of black paper in his fingers so that it pointed into the lens, then he would instruct the person holding the camera to release the shutter and hand over the result, which he called a “thoughtograph.” These were most often blank or black, but occasionally a fuzzy image would be seen that could be interpreted many different ways, and on rare occasions a relatively clear and identifiable image showed up.

Second we have Dr. Jule Eisenbud [1908-99], a clinical professor of psychiatry at the University of Colorado Medical School and a charter member of the Parapsychological Association, among other distinctions, and he gleefully embraced the Serios “miracles” as genuine. He wrote extensively on ESP, PK, and other claimed psi phenomena, and accepted them all as proven.

Serios’ method was quite simple: the small cylinder – about ½” in diameter and 1¼” in length, concealed a smaller slide-in tube that had a simple lens at one end, and a tiny transparency at the other – exactly as the keychain attachments widely available in those days in which the owner could view Marilyn Monroe or a baseball star – depending on immediate needs… Held to the Polaroid camera’s lens with the announced intention of concentrating the “thought waves” of the holder, it projected its picture onto the film.

In my book Flim-Flam! [1982] I devoted six pages – 222 to 227 – to the Serios/Eisenbud matter, providing a thorough exposure and diagrams of the methodology of the trick, though I thought that to be too much space for such a trivial and transparent hoax. Now the Chronicle of Higher Education – for whatever reason – has brought attention back to the matter.

Author Brottman shows clearly that she has accepted uncritically as true, everything that Eisenbud wrote or said about these silly photos, and even mentions that the exhibit has

…a short film of Eisenbud debating aspects of the Serios phenomenon with detractors.

That film is an excerpt from a 1967 NBC Today Show episode in which I successfully duplicated the Serios trick on live TV – with him sitting right there, looking very uneasy. Using a regular  Polaroid camera supplied by NBC, I held a tube of black paper to the lens – as Serios regularly did – and I produced an image of a baby  – actually of myself at six years of age – and then I stepped to  a studio  TV camera  and  similarly produced a shot of a taxi on Broadway… Though I’m sure that Ted Serios caught my “moves,” Jule Eisenbud was careful to be studiously looking away and mumbling – as if disinterested – while I did the tricks.

When Professor Brottman uses terms like “under quite stringent test conditions,” she is quoting directly from Eisenbud, to whom control of his subject was a quite foreign concept. Never wondering whether a fellow academic might have been fooled by some simple sleight-of-hand, she marvels that some of the Polaroids produced by Serios were

…quite clear, particularly when Serios was attempting to produce the image of a specific physical monument or building.

Very true, but those wonders were attained during sessions lasting several days, when Serios had been told that the following day this particular “target” would be hoped for… It was a simple matter for the wonder-worker to produce a tiny transparency of the target overnight and conjure it up to order when required. Professor Brottman – naively – also notes that Serios

…was in many regards erratic and demanding, a heavy drinker who produced the most vivid and compelling of his thoughtographs when drunk.

Also very true, but anyone experienced with such subjects quickly recognizes that when they appear to be most impaired, that might well be because they need the grand misdirection thus invoked, and can get away with much more when thought to be a little “out of it.” She tells of cases in which Serios

…could produce an image on a camera that was some distance away from him (as far as 66 feet in one instance), and he even produced images when the camera was in another room altogether.

This quotation is, again, taken directly from Eisenbud’s account. But I’m surprised when Brottman writes:

While many people, including Eisenbud himself, have produced similar images using gimmick lenses and transparencies, no one has been able to do so in an undetectable fashion.

Professor Brottman, please! At that time in my lecturing career, I was regularly doing this, as I did on that Today Show, very much “undetected,” thank you!  As my final comment on all this, I’ll quote a revealing statement from Brottman that clearly reveals her attitude on the matter:

Yet to my mind, the Ted Serios phenomenon goes beyond the notion of "real versus fake," providing insights into the relationships among photography, subjectivity, representation, and the unconscious.

No, ma’m, not at all. It simply shows these three phenomena: the well-known psychological phenomenon known as “expectation confirmation,” how academics often choose to accept statements from their peers as unquestionable, and how evidence of magic can be found where none exists.

Consider: If Ted Serios did not use a trick method, all the rules of physics, particularly of optics, everything developed by science over the past several centuries, must be rewritten to accommodate this claim. No such revisions have been found necessary…