"Think of it as a massage for your aura," a compact man who looked like he composted religiously assured me as I lay in a basement between two large, glowing glass orbs.
I was at the Alchemist's Kitchen, a wellness outpost in Manhattan's boutique-strangled NoHo neighborhood. The boutique sells expensive loose teas, Himalayan salt bowls, sensual tinctures, aphrodisiac elixirs, purifying sage bundles, reiki sessions, and a hangover treatment where vitamins are absorbed intravenously. It's a ritzy hippie oasis that isn't affiliated with Gwyneth Paltrow, but really feels like it should be. Goop-adjacent. I went there on a snowy afternoon to learn about one of its newer treatments, the Theraphi, which New York magazine's "The Best of New York Health & Self 2017" list in March mentioned.
Before meeting my aura-massage-endorsing pal, I met Roger Green, a congenial salesman with a trace of a New Zealand accent, who evangelizes the Theraphi as part of a many-pronged approach to selling wellness. (He later gave me a brochure for the anti-aging pills he shills.) Green led me through the Alchemist Kitchen's lower level, past an organic wine bar, a "cryo-facial" center, a set of infrared saunas, and a sign that read "drip alchemy," into a sparse back cubby furnished with the Theraphi and a bench. The Theraphi was created by a duo of unconventional inventors, researcher Paul Harris and former IBM systems analyst Dan Winter, and it looks like a massage station sandwiched between delicate steampunk art pieces. A modified Tesla coil and switch system are hidden underneath its blanket-covered table. Two large, oblong glass lights sit on end tables at the head and the foot of the massage station. When the machine is switched on, the noble gases inside form a glowing plasma. It promises a "full body recharge" for people who lie in between its lights. It makes grandiose claims about the ability to reduce swelling, heal wounds, enhance cancer remission, and reduce the effects of aging. Right now, there are only around 30 to 40 either in existence or in production, so the treatment is still a rarity in the wellness world, with devices scattered around the U.S. and Europe.
Despite being a rarity, it is notable for its extreme claims. The device has never been clinically tested, and yet the Theraphi website offers glowing testimonials about its myriad miraculous health benefits. A recent entry claims that the device cured someone suffering from an alleged vaccine-related seizure condition. The website features an exuberant remix of scientific jargon and wellness catchphrases; it's like reading a quantum physics textbook summary written by someone on salvia. How does it work? "The Theraphi negentropy effect on the cells and tissues of the body is the only scientific definition we have of 'Healing and Rejuvenation' and 'Anti-Aging.'" It differentiates itself from cheaper electromagnetic wave wellness devices by specifying that it uses "longitudinal EM waves and time-polarized EM waves." The two orbs on the table supposedly create "precise frequencies for the production of 'Bio-Active Fields' which effects [sic] the bodies [sic] cellular regenerative system." It repeatedly announces itself as "inspired by Nikola Tesla."
"There's a wonderful long history of healing with electromagnetic energy that started with Nikola Tesla. There's a whole lineage there. These types of machines or devices were in American hospitals right up until the end of the '60s," Green told me. "Essentially, the pharmaceutical companies started to take over and I suppose, who knows, one presumes they started to put pressure on the hospitals and say, 'Oh look, you don't need these machines anymore, because we've provided the chemicals for pain relief.'" I asked which hospitals, in particular, had used the devices in the past. "All of them," he said.
Green told me a story about a man named Antoine Prioré, a player in the French resistance who invented a large-scale device to treat people with cancer using electromagnetic fields in France during the 1960s and 1970s, convincing the government to fund his project with enormous sums of money. He insisted that Prioré's device had worked, but since the inventor hadn't been able to explain how, he lost his funding and was dismissed as a quack.
When it came time to try the device, I laid on the table and closed my eyes while Green attuned the Tesla coil to its "Phi" frequency, which allegedly uses the golden ratio. Once he left the room, I could hear ambient, Norah Jones-esque noise emanating from the wine bar, but it was lulling, like being in an underwater Starbucks. I felt the same zoomy sense of static I got from rubbing a balloon against my hairline as a kid, and came close to falling asleep as the people above me bought fancy herbs. About five minutes later, Green re-entered the room with two associates whose names I never caught, a tall, intense man in an aged leather jacket, and the compact, aura-massage-endorsing man I mentioned earlier.
(Theraphi via Facebook)
They all asked how I liked the experience. I said that I felt like something pleasant had happened to me, but that I couldn't be sure whether I felt that way because I had expected something pleasant to happen to me when I laid down. They said they understood.
I asked why someone couldn't just lie there and take a nap overnight between the lights, to get the maximum amount of possible benefits. "It speeds your metabolism," Green told me. "So that means if you're around it too much, it might affect your sleep pattern, and you might be a little over-energized." Instead, the recommended dosage of exposure is capped at around 10 minutes for a healthy person. This explanation, like everything else about the machine, made little sense; lying between lights does not make a person burn fat faster.
Nikola Tesla inspires devotion. The prolific Serbian American inventor worked on alternating current electricity, wireless communications, X-rays, neon lights, remote controls, and lasers. Despite his contributions to science, he was bested by Thomas Edison and died broke, alone, and in love with a pigeon. He was a mistreated innovator with a prickly, iconoclastic persona that has enamored people interested in the esoteric and odd for decades. Elon Musk cofounded a company named in honor of Tesla, and he exists in the rarified "beloved historical science kook" category of pop culture reserved for Ben Franklin and Einstein. Many devices that invoke his name, including the Theraphi, remain on the fringe of the fringe.
I called Tesla biographer Marc Seifer to ask what he thought of the Theraphi. He wasn't convinced, although he is interested in electromagnetic wave therapy as a concept. "In theory, what they are suggesting has merit. Whether or not their actual machine is any good or it's just baloney, I don't know," he told me. "I'd stay skeptical of this. They need to show some experiments. Get seven sick rats and seven healthy rats, zap them with that golden ratio, and see if there's any result that could be tested." (Green had told me that while he and his cohorts would like to clinically test the device, the cost of funding is an issue.)
Seifer encouraged me to research a man named Royal Rife, who Green had also brought up as an example of an electricity-based healer. Rife gained notoriety during the 1920s and '30s for building a device, known as the Rife machine, which he claimed could cure cancer and other maladies through vibrations. While his work was dismissed as pseudoscience and never underwent clinical trials, he remained a figure of interest in alternative medical communities, and was the subject of a 1987 book called The Cancer Cure That Worked!: Fifty Years of Suppression, which posited that his device had worked but had been suffocated by the American Medical Association. His devices were also the center of a midlevel marketing scam in the 1990s. Most of what is written about Rife depicts him as a con artist, with a similar story told about the people who have sold devices inspired by him. In 2009, a San Diego man was convicted of selling $8 million worth of unapproved medical devices inspired by Rife.
Rife's story reminded me of poor Antoine Prioré, who hadn't been able to explain why his machine worked. "Refusing constantly to explain in detail the constructive plan and the settings of the apparatus, Prioré condemned his own invention. Nobody succeeded to reproduce in a standardized way the therapeutic results. A cancer fraud or an apparatus with therapeutic abilities? Prioré's machine still remains a mystery," researchers for a Balkan oncology journal, JBUON, wrote. The most in-depth journalistic look at L'affaire Prioré came from a July 1975 Esquire article, which suggested that the machine did have therapeutic benefits despite its inventor's inability to explain them; however, the writer of the Esquire article, David Rorvik, was soon embroiled in his own controversy, as he wrote a book in 1978 claiming to have participated in the successful cloning of a human man. The book was legally declared a hoax in 1981.
So the history of Rife and Prioré's machines is a history lacking evidence to back up their much-hyped healing powers. And these are just two examples of a long-standing and widespread racket. As I researched, I found plenty more. "One of the most infamous of the electromagnetic devices was the I-ON-A-CO, marketed in 1926 in California by entrepreneur Gaylord Wilshire, for whom Los Angeles' main street is named," a 1994 American Cancer Society article called "Questionable Methods of Cancer Management: Electronic Devices" described. The device was a circular collar covered with leather which supposedly used magnetism to cure "human ailments." After a brief moment as a fad, skepticism derailed the I-ON-A-CO's success and Wilshire died in 1927.
(Theraphi via Facebook)
"Electricity and magnetism were a very common form of quackery beginning in the 18th century," medical historian James Whorton told me over the phone. "This has a continuous history, throughout the 21st century and, I suspect, right on up to the device you're investigating. The first person to use magnetism in this way was a Viennese physician named Franz Mesmer, who is the origin of the term 'mesmerism.'"
Whorton then told me the story of the mysterious Mesmer, who had developed an idea in medical school that all living things were filled with an magnetic fluid, and that illness was an imbalance in this fluid.
"He started experimenting with patients by rubbing magnets all over their bodies. Lo and behold, a lot of them got better — which, of course, people do. Most people who get sick get better, given enough time. But that convinced him that he actually was affecting a magnetic fluid inside sick people, and somewhere along the way, he stopped using the magnets and started just running his hands over people, figuring his own magnetic fluid could be injected into them in a way, and it could restore their balance," Whorton told me. Mesmer noticed that his patients often seemed to fall asleep during his treatments. "In essence, he had discovered hypnotism, but he believed what he had done was to calm these people into a state where their magnetic fluid could be manipulated and they could be restored to health."
(This all sounded familiar, after the pitch Green had given me.)
"He went on to become one of the biggest celebrities of the late 18th century. He left Vienna and moved to Paris and opened a magnetic healing institute in Paris that was a big hit among the upper classes," Whorton continued. "He was still a physician in good standing at this point, but eventually, the French medical community became very suspicious, partly because he was taking patients away from them." Whorton explained that a committee was organized to investigate Mesmer's work, chaired by Benjamin Franklin.
"This committee came to the conclusion that it was purely the placebo effect. But that didn't stop Mesmer. He kept offering his services and attracting disciples," Whorton said, noting that Mesmer spawned imitators across Europe and eventually in America. "Magnetic healing has remained a very popular form of what you'd call alternative medicine on through the rest of the 19th century. There were still a lot of people identifying themselves as magnetic healers." Whorton added that the founder of chiropractic had began his career as a magnetic healer.
Electric currents are an important part of conventional medicine. A defibrillator uses electricity to jump-start the heart, to use an obvious example. Electric currents are used to help heal broken bones, and although a 2016 Scientific Reports article noted that clinical trials were inconclusive about how well it really worked, surely this demonstrates that mainstream medicine certainly does not have a blanket rule against pursuing experimental treatments involving electricity. Despite Green's theorizing that the pharmaceutical industry has disincentivized the medical industry from pursuing electricity-centered wellness tools, startups like the San Francisco-based Halo Neuroscience are peddling electric-currency headsets to Olympians and NBA players, and Johns Hopkins recommends transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation, a treatment where small electric pulses are sent into the body, for arthritis pain management. The argument that treatments that are based in "natural" ideas are suppressed in favor of chemical or pharmacological solutions doesn't reflect the reality of the wellness landscape at all, as there is now a thriving industry predicated on the idea that alternative and holistic healthcare is superior.
The men selling Theraphi aren't celebrity healers, but they seem, to me, like more kindred spirits to Mesmer than Tesla. Like Mesmer, they believe in what they're doing, and their treatment leaves people happily dazed. And also like Mesmer, they seem less inclined to discover evidence to support their claims than to find clients to dazzle.