An artist's instant mystery

Critics have developed many theories about how Ted Serios' 'thoughtographs' — on display at University of Maryland, Baltimore County — were created

  • An image from the exhibit "Psychic Projections/Photographic Impressions: Paranormal Photographs from the Jule Eisenbud Collection on Ted Serios," on display at the Albin O. Kuhn Library & Gallery at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County.
An image from the exhibit "Psychic Projections/Photographic… (Handout photo )
February 20, 2011|By Mary Carole McCauley, The Baltimore Sun

The black-and-white Polaroid photo shows a building tilting precipitously to the right. Above what appears to be a picture window, a curving line of type clearly spells out "The Old Gold Store."

But when Ted Serios snapped that shot on May 13, 1965, he was sitting inside a hotel room, and the camera was pointed directly at his face.

More than 46 years later, there's no consensus as to whether what Serios described as a "thoughtograph" is an example of a genuine paranormal event, or if it ranks among history's most clever cons.

The alcoholic bellhop from Chicago, a former car thief and compulsive liar, claimed to be able to place images from his mind onto Polaroid film. In the mid-1960s, he participated in experiments conducted by Dr. Jule Eisenbud, a psychiatrist from the University of Denver. Over time, Serios generated about 1,000 images, 40 percent of which Eisenbud deemed to be paranormal.

"The images are spooky and mysterious," says Emily Hauver, who curated an exhibit currently running at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. "To this day, Ted Serios' psychic abilities are hotly debated. They have never been disproven, but they also have never been explained."

Not surprisingly, Serios was a pop-culture sensation in the mid-1960s. His story appeared in Life magazine, and would-be debunkers challenged him before a live audience on "The Today Show." In 1999, Chris Carter, who created "The X-Files," optioned Serios' story for a movie.

Between 2002 and 2010, the Baltimore County university acquired the Jule Eisenbud Collection, consisting of 400 of the puzzling photographs. A few have previously been displayed in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and Paris' La Maison Europeene de la Photographie.

But this is the first time a large-scale exhibit has been mounted of Serios' work, and it provides new fodder for believers and skeptics. The thoughtographs are grouped chronologically and by test session.

"If you're interested in the paranormal, you can come and look at this exhibit," Hauver says. "There's evidence for both points of view. You can decide for yourself whether the thoughtographs are real."

When Eisenbud first met Serios in April 1964, he expected to expose him as a fraud. But when his admittedly troublesome test subject continued to produce the thoughtographs despite a series of increasingly stringent barriers, the scientist was gradually won over.

The exhibit contains thoughtographs supposedly taken when Serios had no physical contact with the camera or film. His equipment was always procured by observers, and on several occasions, he was separated from the observers and equipment by distances of up to 66 feet. (Either Eisenbud or a witness would snap the shot when Serios dropped his arm.)

The exhibit displays four classes of the snapshots taken during these sessions:

There are blurry shots of portions of Serios' face or of the room in which he was working. Called "normals," they're the images that would be expected to result under the circumstances.

Then there are all-white photographs called "whities," which would appear to indicate that the film had been overexposed, and all-black images called "blackies," which suggest underexposure. But both are considered paranormal because the shots were snapped at times when over- or underexposure should have been impossible.

For example, the exhibit contains examples of "whities" taken when a witness' hand was covering the camera lens, blocking all light, as well as "blackies" taken when Serios was several miles from the camera and the light was ample. (Serios communicated with the scientists by telephone, instructing them when to depress the shutter.)

The final category consists of recognizable, albeit inexplicable, images. There's London's Big Ben, a double-decker bus and a man sitting with his back to the camera while wearing a striped shirt.

"There were people who claimed to create paranormal photographs before Serios," Hauver says. "But Ted was the first to make these images using a Polaroid camera. This eliminated the darkroom as a place for trickery."

Still, it had to be admitted that in person, the supposed psychic didn't exactly inspire confidence. Eisenbud himself described Serios as possessing "a psychopathic and sociopathic personality."

Most sessions were conducted while Serios was raging drunk. He spewed obscenities at the witnesses, and frequently disrobed — chaos-inducing behaviors described by magicians as classic techniques for distracting an audience.

Skeptics also were puzzled that the images generated on the thoughtograph were emotionally flat. The thoughtographs often consisted of architectural landmarks frequently displayed on postcards, such as Athens' Acropolis, Chicago's historic Water Tower or Moscow's famed onion domes.

But it's one thing to be suspicious, and quite another to demonstrate how the trickery occurred.

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