Thomas Alva Edison is a man who requires little or no introduction. In his 84 years of life Edison came up with many, many innovations including the phonograph, the motion picture camera, the stock ticker, the power station, and of course, the light bulb. In fact, Edison is still the fourth most prolific inventor in history, holding 1,093 patents in the USA alone. He also routinely electrocuted numerous animals including an elephant, but that’s another story. All this, as I say, you probably already know. You may even have heard, or read, that Edison's last breath is preserved at the Henry Ford Museum (AKA the Edison Institute) in Dearborn, Michigan. Ford having convinced Edison’s son Charles to seal a glass vacuum tube of air from the inventor's room shortly after his death in October 1931. Granted, that seems a bit odd, but memento mori were not so uncommon then, and Ford was a great friend of Edison’s after all. Even so, some might wonder whether it’s something Edison senior would have consented to himself. It does seem rather morbid – superstitious even – and surely at odds with the hard scientific logic of a man who was quoted by the New York Times in 1910 as saying he had come to the conclusion that “there is no ‘supernatural,’ or ‘supernormal,’ that all there is can be explained along material lines”. But then again, perhaps not.
The October 1920 issue of American Magazine contained an article with the rather attention grabbing title of “Edison Working on How to Communicate with the Next World” written by one Bertie Charles Forbes (founder of Forbes Magazine). In an interview conducted by Forbes and published in Scientific American soon after, Edison expressed some rather interesting – some might say surprising – opinions concerning no less a subject than life after death:
If our personality survives, then it is strictly logical and scientific to assume that it retains memory, intellect, and other faculties and knowledge that we acquire on Earth […] I am inclined to believe that our personality hereafter will be able to affect matter. If this reasoning be correct, then, if we can evolve an instrument so delicate as to be affected, moved, or manipulated [...] by our personality as it survives in the next life, such an instrument, when made available, ought to record something.
Indeed, it would seem that these were not just idle musings, because in a private journal entry, again dating from 1920, Edison wrote:
I have been at work for some time building an apparatus to see if it is possible for personalities which have left this earth to communicate with us […] I am engaged in the construction of one such apparatus now, and I hope to be able to finish it before very many months pass.
A second Scientific American piece ran in 1921 in which Edison was quoted as saying:
I don't claim anything, because I don't know anything [...] for that matter, no human being knows […] but I do claim that it is possible to construct an apparatus which will be so delicate that if there are personalities in another existence who wish to get in touch with us [...] this apparatus will at least give them a better opportunity.
By this time it seems it must have been pretty widely known that Thomas Alva Edison, one of the greatest inventors of all time, was working on a machine which might prove the existence of spirits or ghosts. The editor of Scientific American reportedly received more than 600 letters from readers enquiring about the device. This was big. So, what happened next? The answer is nothing. Absolutely nothing. The machine was never mentioned again during Edison’s lifetime and the whole matter seems to have been all but forgotten. Forgotten that is, until old Edison had been in his grave for two years.
Page 34 of the 1933 October edition of Modern Mechanix (motto: “Yesterday’s Tomorrow Today”) bore the intriguing headline “Edison’s Own Secret Spirit Experiments”. “For thirteen years results of Edison’s astounding attempt to penetrate that wall that lies beyond mortality have been withheld from the world, but now the amazing story can be told.” The prodigiously illustrated three page piece tells a tale of the “black, howling wintry night in 1920 – just such a night when superstitious people would bar their doors and windows against marauding ghosts—”when Edison and a group of scientists and spiritualists “assembled like members of a mystic clan” to test his theories concerning life after death. Edison was, we are told, armed with a powerful lamp whose light was concentrated into a beam and directed at photo-electric cell which in turn transformed that light into an electric current. Any object passing through that beam of light, no matter how miniscule or insubstantial, would disrupt the electrical current and that fluctuation would be displayed on the dial of a meter connected to the photo-electric cell. This rather disappointingly simple set up was, we are informed, the machine with which Edison sought to prove or disprove the existence of ghosts or spirits once and for all. “When the experiment was ready to begin the spiritualists in the group of witnesses were called upon to summon from eternity the ethereal form of one or two of its inhabitants, and command the spirit to walk across the beam”. And the result of this groundbreaking experiment? Well, in the long hours that followed, during which the “wind howled around the corners of the laboratory”, the needle, we are told, never so much as wavered. “It was because of these negative results that the news of the amazing experiments was never given out to the world. Edison would not reveal his belief-shattering discoveries to a believing world”.
The Modern Mechanix piece is written (as you can no doubt tell from the portions quoted above) rather more like a story than a factual article and no author credit is given in the magazine’s table of contents. This, coupled with the fact that no members of Edison’s “mystic clan” are named, and no sources or references are given, has led some researchers to conclude that the article is, in fact, a piece of fiction (albeit one with a rather anticlimactic ending) woven out of the fragments of information given in interviews and articles published during Edison’s lifetime. There is, however, another reason why some who are interested in Edison’s paranormal experiments might instantly take the Modern Mechanix piece for a fiction: the apparatus described is all wrong.
In a 1921 New York Times article Edison was said to be developing a machine that would measure “one hundred trillion life units” in the human body that “may scatter after death.” The Modern Mechanix article reused much of the material from that earlier piece in explaining what it referred to as Edison’s hypothesis of “immortal units”. Edison is said to have taken a print from one of his fingers and then to deliberately burn that fingertip so as to remove or alter its print. Later, when the finger had healed, he took a second print which proved to be identical to the original. “From this experiment, Edison got confirmation of his hypothesis that it is these aforementioned “immortal units” which supervised the re-growth of his finger skin, following out the original design. Man, he believed, is a mosaic of such life units, and it is these entities which determine what we shall be.” These “immortal units” then are supposedly what Edison was expecting to break his beam of light (though exactly why Spiritualists would be required to summon them is anyone’s guess).
I first began researching Edison’s alleged supernatural experiments several years ago. At the time I did quite a bit of Googling round and bookmarked about twenty or so webpages containing relevant information. It was always a subject I meant to come back to but, for one reason or another, I just didn’t find the time. A couple of weeks ago I spotted the folder marked EDISON is my bookmarks and clicked to Open All in Tabs. More than half the links were dead. Of those that remained, most focussed on the idea that Edison could have been working on an apparatus or experiment very much like the one described in the Modern Mechanix article – a way of seeing or measuring the hypothesised “life units” or “immortal units”. Such an experiment would, naturally, have been doomed to fail. Many of those websites since deleted, and a handful of the links remaining however, focussed on Edison’s own journal entry of 1920 “I have been at work for some time building an apparatus to see if it is possible for personalities which have left this earth to communicate with us”. Communication with – rather than mere detection of – ghosts or spirits is still believed by some to have been Edison’s true goal. Edison’s Spirit Telegraph, or Spirit Telephone are wonderfully evocative terms which still turn up a few interesting search results. “Thomas Edison was trying to build a machine to talk to the dead,” writes one blogger, “I can recall first coming across those very words in an old, dusty book back in the 1970s”. “After his death, the plans for the apparatus could not be located. Many have searched extensively for the components, the prototype or even the plans to the machine but have never found them,” concludes another.
Some, however, have expressed doubts as to the authenticity of the 1920 diary entry, much of which seems like a mere reproduction of portions of the original Scientific American interview with the “I have been at work for some time building an apparatus […]” paragraph tacked on at the end.xiv Furthermore, there is one very important piece of evidence which many seem to have overlooked, whether accidentally or wilfully. In an interview published in the New York Times in 1926 Edison was asked about the comments he’d made six years earlier concerning the prospect of investigating the survival of spirits after death, to which he replied “I really had nothing to tell him [Forbes], but I hated to disappoint him so I thought up this story about communicating with spirits, but it was all a joke.” And so, like the Modern Mechanix piece before it, our own tale of Edison’s Secret Experiments ends with something of anticlimax – the whole thing was merely a hoax. But then again, perhaps not.
In 1941, a séance was supposedly conducted in New York in which a spirit claiming to be that of Thomas Alva Edison made itself known. This spirit, it is alleged, named certain associates (members of the “mystic clan”, if you will) who apparently still had in their possession the missing plans for, and elements of, his machine. These people were located. A prototype was built. It did not work. This prototype somehow passed into the possession of one J. Gilbert Wright - a General Electric researcher whose claim to fame was the discovery/ invention of a special kind of silicone putty. Wright, it is said, spent the rest of his life trying to perfect the machine. In some versions of the tale, Wright frequently consults Edison’s ghost, via regular séances to get his advice on how the machine might be improved. When Wright finally passed on in 1959 all trace of the machine is said to have vanished. A more fittingly farfetched end to a tall tale? Perhaps. Even so, surely I’m not the only one left wondering; what if there was just one component needed to complete the machine that Wright could never lay his hands on? Something another member of Edison’s “mystic clan” wasn’t willing to part with. Something, perhaps, as small and innocuous seeming as one very specific glass vacuum tube.
Dagobert D. Runes (editor): The Diary and Sundry Observations of Thomas A. Edison (New York Philosophical Library, 1948)
This article is taken from John Reppion's collection STEAMPUNK SALMAGUNDI and was originally published in SteamPunk Magazine #9, 2013.
Gazelle Amber Valentine is one half of sludge / doom / death metal two piece Jucifer, formed in Georgia, USA in 1993. For more than seventeen years Gazelle and her bandmate (and husband), drummer Edgar Livengood, have adopted a nomadic lifestyle. The pair live, tour, rehearse, and sometimes even record in their Winnebago, towing the literal wall of amplification Valentine utilises on stage in a trailer behind them. The duo describe this life as an endless tour, and they can easily find themselves playing live shows in twenty or more countries in a single year.
Jucifer's music can be (and usually is) harsh, aggressive, and loud, but its subject matter and lyrical content are not necessarily what people might expect. 2008's L'Autrichienne was a concept album based around the French Revolution accompanied by extensive historical notes, while 2013's За Волгой для нас земли нет ("There is no land beyond The Volga") dealt with the Soviet Union and WWII. Equally though, there is a strong sense of Americana embedded in much of Jucifer's music and lyrics; dark folk sounds and sensibilities; finger-picked banjo and violin strings, and dissonant, melancholic melodies. Nowhere is this side of their work more apparent than in Gazelle's solo album Devil's Tower I, released in 2013.
All of this - the nomadic life, the artistry, the power and intelligence of her writing - made Gazelle Amber Valentine someone I was very keen to approach as a contributor to Spirits of Place. Her essay, entitled "I Have Trod Such Haunted Land", ended up being the first in the book and remains one of my favourites. Even though her internet connection can be intermittent as she and Edgar continue their never ending tour, Gazelle was kind enough to answer a few questions for me about the book and her contribution to it.
John Reppion: You and Edgar have lived a nomadic life for seventeen years now, how much of an influence do you think that lifestyle has on you creatively?
Gazelle Amber Valentine: The main thing I believe our nomadic existence has affected is our capacity to see all places with equal passion and simultaneously, equal dispassion. Delineation between 'home' and 'away' and between 'us' and 'them' becomes forever blurred in context of such a life. In every capital, one sees all the lovely decorations of propaganda and state fantasy, so impressive yet unable to conceal rote greed, violence and inequity. In every dwelling one imagines life and family; death and suffering and redemption. For natural empaths like us, the universality and futility of humans is enhanced almost unbearably. So although we always felt deeply about our art, I think it becomes wiser as we go farther on this path.
Other than that, our way of life has made us even less respectful of conformity and pandering than we were to begin with--- which wasn't very, haha. The immediacy of survival requires enshrinement of integrity, and of the bonds with your life partner. No room for falseness.
JR: Home for you is obviously the van, but are there places you feel anchored, or connected to no matter where you are?
GAV: Yeah, we both feel that certain places live inside of us wherever we are. For me some of these still exist and are physical, others are stories or memories, and still others are dreams which feel like memory.
JR: Have you encountered different cultural attitudes to place when travelling? I assume people are always asking you about the nomadic life and that opens up all kinds of discussions. Is there any particular country or city where you've felt that their sense of place, and relationship with it, was very different to your own?
GAV: I've felt that place affects people's customs and very subtle mannerisms in that people living in large countries (US, Canada, Russia, Australia) share more commonality along those lines than they do with people living in countries having comparatively small land mass. Although one can find xenophobia and competitiveness anywhere, there is a certain subconscious isolationism that's possible when 'foreigners' remain far away. For this reason and many other, perhaps unnameable, nuances which seem attributable to nation size, I've felt for example that Russians are more similar to Americans than are English folks --- despite origins of the US and despite most Russians having likely had more contact with people from the UK.
Beyond that observation, I've found that my personal attitude towards place seems replicated in different ways almost everywhere. Most countries, cities and neighborhoods have some kind of reverence for their history, albeit always threatened by forces of modernization and gentrification. If I were to make a worldwide guess, I'd assume that in every place, indigenous communities are most in touch with the importance of connecting to place and to its past. Colonists in every region only profit by obscuring historical connections (at least ones that predate their own) while indigenous peoples maintain their own families, nations and traditions by constant awareness of such links. Regardless of location and manner or conception of ownership, whenever people care about place it seems based on an idea of belonging. This is universal, and applies even when current inhabitants don't historically belong.
JR: What's your take on the Spirits Of Place core premise about stories being physically embedded in a place or landscape?
GAV: I said something in my piece about the fact that my personality combines skepticism and gullibility in a satisfactory ratio. This plays into my feelings about genus loci. On some (curmudgeonly) level the concept seems unscientific. Conversely, there is science that supports the possibility for kinetic transmittance of thought and its ability to accrue and manifest physically. Namely, that thought is electric and that electricity travels and accumulates.
Spirits of Place is available in digital, paperback, and limited edition, signed hardcover from www.spiritsofplace.com
HBO, 2016ce, 117mins.
Director; Irene Taylor Brodsky. Broadcast 23 January 2017.
(Art by Joe Coleman)
There is a concept in the consideration of supposedly ‘non-fictional’ presentations, a vital one in these times of ‘fake news’, called Gell-Mann Amnesia. The term comes from a comment made by the late science fiction author Michael Crichton, creator of the original Westworld, in his 2002 essay “Why Speculate?”. He describes it thus:
Media carries with it a credibility that is totally undeserved. You have all experienced this, in what I call the Murray Gell-Mann Amnesia effect. (I refer to it by this name because I once discussed it with Murray Gell-Mann, and by dropping a famous name I imply greater importance to myself, and to the effect, than it would otherwise have.)
Briefly stated, the Gell-Mann Amnesia effect is as follows. You open the newspaper to an article on some subject you know well. In Murray’s case, physics. In mine, show business. You read the article and see the journalist has absolutely no understanding of either the facts or the issues. Often, the article is so wrong it actually presents the story backward—reversing cause and effect. I call these the “wet streets cause rain” stories. Paper’s full of them.
In any case, you read with exasperation or amusement the multiple errors in a story, and then turn the page to national or international affairs, and read as if the rest of the newspaper was somehow more accurate about Palestine than the baloney you just read. You turn the page, and forget what you know.
That is the Gell-Mann Amnesia effect. I’d point out it does not operate in other arenas of life. In ordinary life, if somebody consistently exaggerates or lies to you, you soon discount everything they say. In court, there is the legal doctrine of falsus in uno, falsus in omnibus, which means untruthful in one part, untruthful in all. But when it comes to the media, we believe against evidence that it is probably worth our time to read other parts of the paper. When, in fact, it almost certainly isn’t. The only possible explanation for our behaviour is amnesia.
This is not a concept I wanted to have to consider in the first full-length documentary about the Slenderman phenomenon.
Irene Taylor Brodsky’s HBO documentary has been heavily publicised, some reviews suggesting that it could become ‘the new obsession’ for true-crime fans of recent explorations of the genre in the podcast Serial, among others. The focus of the documentary is, inevitably, upon the 30 May 2014 knife attack in Waukesha, Wisconsin, where two twelve year old girls named Morgan Geyser and Anissa Weier lured a classmate, Peyton ‘Bella’ Lautner, into the nearby park, knifed her 19 times and left her to die, in attempt to gain the attention of Slenderman and become his ‘proxies’ - mind-controlled servants.
Brodsky’s previous documentaries have focussed on parent/child relationships, often in relation to trauma, and personal struggles with harsh circumstances and disaster: she clearly has a rapport with parents in trying times. The film has an unprecedented level of access to the parents of Geyser and Weier (understandably, Lautner’s parents were not involved: the only appearance of ‘Bella’ is a video of her giving a school presentation). The majority of the film is made of court footage, home movies, police video of the assailant’s post-arrest interrogations and lengthy interviews of the parents from as early as two months after the incident, showing their struggle to both support their incarcerated children and attempt to get on with their lives: there are many heart-wrenching scenes of the parents (mostly Geyser’s mother and Weier’s father - a late appearance of Geyser’s father is significant).
It isn’t until about 25 minutes in that the film focusses, after several tantalising hints and pieces of spooky footage, on the origin of Slenderman itself, employing a series of Skype interviews with people associated, if sometimes tangentially, with the phenomena (including a surprisingly good section with Richard Dawkins explaining meme transmission theory and how it relates to the fast spread of Slendy’s influence).
It is here that everything, for me, goes very wrong.
The early origin story is told by Brad Kim, an editor at Know Your Meme. He briefly talks about the original 10 June 2009 Something Awful ‘make a supernatural monster’ photoshop thread where Slenderman was created by Eric Knudsen aka ‘Victor Surge’. But then he goes on to say that Slenderman’s spread to the wider internet came first via the games associated with him - the Slender first-person horror game and the Minecraft Enderman character, and from there to YouTube videos and blogs. This is, to be blunt, completely inaccurate.
The first Slenderman mythos YouTube video, Episode One of Marble Hornets, aired on 20 June 2009, only ten days after the original Surge post on Something Awful. Minecraft was not published until November of 2011 and the Slender game did not appear until June of 2012. (My own interest in the phenomenon occurred during its first year of life, directly as a result of hearing about Marble Hornets.)
At no point in the filming and editing process was this fundamental error caught and corrected. Its presence implies the film-makers simply did not do their homework. The fact that Dr. Shira Chess, an acknowledged expert on the phenomenon and author of a fine book on the subject, is credited as ‘Research Consultant’ makes this all the more puzzling.
The time devoted to the actual Slenderman phenomenon itself is mostly video clips, with the occasional piece of commentary (the best of which comes from digital folklorist Trevor J. Blank). Vital and relevant parts of the mythos’ development are simply not mentioned - for example, the tendency for many blogs and video series to be told in a factual-seeming form from the point of view of Slenderman proxies themselves (and the resulting, highly connected set of linked blogs grouped together under the heading of Core Theory): something you would think was worthy of note when the core of the case is that the assailants believed Slenderman was real. The film actually devotes less time to the known origins of Slenderman than it does to a retelling of the story of the Pied Piper of Hamelin.
And, shockingly, the word Tulpa does not appear once.
The lack of any discussion of tulpas - the concept that Slenderman is a ‘thought-form’ created by the belief of his enthusiasts, which has been core to the mythos since the very same day Marble Hornets first aired - is especially interesting, considering the focus of the latter half of the film; in fact, it may have been deliberately left out.
A great deal of time is devoted in the latter half of the film to Morgan Geyser’s court-supervised schizophrenia diagnosis, including a moving Act 4 revelation that her father also had schizophrenia. By focussing on this aspect and avoiding any mention of tulpas (even merely as an influential-if-fictional aspect of the mythos), the emphasis on Geyser’s illness - she reported being pinched by ghosts’ and talking to an entity she called The Man from as early as 3 years old, as well as her belief that she communicated with other fictional entities, such as Severus Snape - makes a clear statement: this was all just a schizophrenic kid getting another child in a folie à deux, leading to tragedy. Those damn kids and their internets.
Nothing weird to see here. Move along.
(It must also be noted that there is far less discussion of Anissa Weier’s mental health: especially as Geyser was transferred to a hospital facility while Weier, who, though she was first to discover Slenderman online did not perform the actual stabbing, is still in juvenile detention.)
The film itself is strikingly beautiful: the combination of Benoit Charets’s score and the cinematography of Nick Midwig providing a haunting, but not too spooky-cliché, atmosphere.
If anything, I would say the film is too beautiful for its own good: there is probably a tighter and more compelling 90 minute version of the film to be had simply from losing 90% of the drone aerial footage of the Waukesha area. And even then, knowing that key elements of the story are simply incorrect, the overall film in any form must be taken with a large pinch of salt.
(It should also be noted that the many clips from YouTube videos and other artworks were used in the film without credit or payment. A Reddit discussion started by one of the creators includes the form reply HBO sent them regarding ‘Fair Use’. The various interviewees are credited; The Pied Piper animated footage is credited. The actual creators of the Slenderman mythos, from Knudsen onwards, are not. Whatever the legal position, choosing not to thank the creators who make the mythos so interesting and powerful is, at least, unkind.)
Style over substance; alternating shallowness in some areas with intimate depth in others; dealing with a story full of supernatural overtones by reducing it to a tale of tragic mental illness and online enthusiasm - Beware The Slenderman is, accidentally, a near-perfect summation of our modern relationship with fact and truth.