Spirits in the Material World

A Ouija board is nothing to play around with

Photograph by Getty Images

This is a Halloween story, but it starts with Christmas. One Christmas, when I was about 9 or 10 — so in the mid-1970s — I got an unusual present from my grandmother: a Ouija board. That was odd in itself, but just as strange, to my mind, was that it came from my über-Catholic dad's mom, and for unknown reasons, my mother let me keep it. I don't think I knew exactly what it was, but the Ouija board went into our game closet, along with Life, Parcheesi, Sorry and Connect Four.

Every now and then, usually when bored out of our minds over the summer, my friend Amy and I would pull the Ouija box out and go into the tiny, windowless downstairs "office" that my dad used mostly as a place to talk on his ham radio. We'd close the door, sit on the carpet and pull out the board, along with its pointer (called a planchette). We'd set the beige pointer on the board, lightly place our fingertips on the sides of the quasi-heart-shaped plastic and ask Ouija a question. (I say "lightly" because I always did put my fingers ever-so-slightly on the pointer and I thought — and still think — Amy did, too. In other words — for those who haven't "played" Ouija — we did not make the pointer move.) We'd wait for a response. And wait and wait. Usually, the planchette would move ever so slightly, painstakingly, in fits and starts. It didn't take long for us to tire of this "game" and back it would go into the closet. I thought that's how Ouija was played — like so many things adults liked, a complete mystery to me.

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And yet I invariably got freaked out when Amy and I would play in that small, quiet, remote room. It wasn't just boredom at the maddening slowness of the pointer that made me shove the game back into the closet. I think it was the instructions on how to use the Ouija board (I was, and remain, an avid rule-follower where games are concerned) that contributed to the creepy feeling I got every time we used it. I remember reading that the board tends to summon the "jokesters and tricksters of the spirit world," so their responses, the instructions warned, should not be trusted.

But we never got any real answers (it was never as satisfying as the Magic 8 Ball, for example), so as a kid I wasn't so worried about that. The feeling I had is one I've never forgotten, though, since it's the same way I feel whenever I see or hear something about "The Amityville Horror" (a book I read while babysitting at 13 and lost two weeks of sleep over) or "The Exorcist" (which I've never been able to watch all the way through). It's the same spine-tingling that came over me in the final scenes of "The Blair Witch Project" and "Rosemary's Baby," two movies I wish I could un-watch. All have resulted in nightmares for me.

But back to the Ouija board: Fast-forward about 10 years, to college. One evening, someone in my dorm had a board and suggested we play. By this point, what has now become a lifelong curiosity-fear relationship with the occult was in place, plus I was happy to do anything besides study. Another girl and I placed my fingers on the planchette as I'd done as a kid and I got exactly the same response: sluggish movement from letter to letter, or maybe to "YES," "NO," "HELLO" or "GOODBYE," the other answers on a Ouija board. It took forever to get an answer to a question that was no doubt about some guy. I removed my fingers from the pointer to let someone else have a turn.

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As soon as the other girls placed their hands on the planchette and asked their question, the pointer zoomed around the board, traveling speedily from letter to letter to spell out the answer. It was so fast that it seemed impossible that the women could be controlling it — pushing it — since it would have required knowing the answer they wanted to spell out and coordinating their movements. I was floored. This was how Ouija was supposed to work, I realized. You asked, and the spirits responded. So why didn't it work that way for me?

I decided to ask the board. We didn't know if you could get an answer to a question without placing your own fingers on the planchette, but we went ahead. While I sat near the board (my fingers kept to myself), I asked Ouija, or more precisely whatever spirit we had called up (and don't ask me where the idea for or phrasing of this question even came from in my 19-year-old self), "Will you not work for me because I won't let you through?" Lightning-quick, the planchette moved to "YES" and a chill ran down my spine.

Now, I will never know, of course, if those girls were controlling the pointer or not. All I can say is that in addition to the fear and disquiet that the Ouija board's "answer" incited in me, it also made me feel protected from ornery (or worse) spirits, if any are out there. It also made me, perversely, sad that I would never be the sort of person they'd feel comfortable talking to or being channeled through; I'll never be the Los Angeles version of "Long Island Medium." Maybe that experience is part of the reason I've seen quite a few psychics and other medium types over the years. Some friends can't understand what I get out of these encounters, but perhaps for me they're a safer, more reliable version of the Ouija, since the psychics always answer me.