This is my Ouija board story

I think I’ve told this story here before, but that was several years ago, and since I just wound up again doing the pendulum trick, I’m going to tell it again.

This is my Ouija board story. Or, more specifically, this is the story about the thing I do when people ask me about Ouija boards and about the one time when this didn’t quite work as usual.

One night a week in college I was in charge of the night crew in our campus dining hall. We cleaned everything, turned out the lights, and locked up the place for the night. It was me and a bunch of guys from the baseball team. Good guys.

One night they come in and they’re all kind of jittery and wired. Turns out they’d spent the night before spooking themselves silly with a Ouija board in Tommy’s dorm room. They were completely freaked out, still convinced that they had been communicating with the spirits of the dead. Even with Suzie Walton herself.

For around $20, Parker Brothers will sell you a bit of glossy cardboard and a little plastic pointer. It’s been a big seller for the toy company but, alas, it will not actually allow you to commune with the spirits of the dead.

Suzie is the resident ghost legend at Eastern University. She’s supposedly a flirtatious teenage ghost said to haunt the fourth floor of the administration building — the same building that housed the dining hall.

I started in on the standard Suzie-debunking. Wrong age and wrong building. There had been a Suzie, but she’d died as a small child, and not there in the admin building. (Probably in Doane B, for anyone from Eastern reading this. And if you’re worried about a beautiful young ghost dressed in white, that’s not Eastern’s ghost. That’s Lucyshe’s across the street at Cabrini.)

That never really worked. The Suzie Walton legend was too good a ghost story to shrink from a bunch of boring facts.

So I started on the idea of a Ouija board. I started to explain that Ouija boards work by the power of suggestion. “You guys were moving the pointer around, not Suzie.”

They swore up and down that they hadn’t been. It moved all by itself, they were sure of it.

OK, so, here’s where I do that thing. Tommy wore a cross necklace on a long silver chain and that was perfect for this.

I told Tommy to take off his necklace and sit down at one of the tables in the dining hall. I had him hold the end of the chain with one hand, his elbow resting on the table, so that the cross dangled freely.

“Don’t move your hand,” I said. “Just keep your hand perfectly still and keep your eyes on that cross.”

We all gathered around, staring at the little cross on the end of the chain.

“Don’t move your hand,” I said again. “Just stare at the cross and think, ‘Circle, circle, circle.’ Everybody, ‘Circle, circle, circle.’ But keep your hand completely still.”

We all watched as the cross began to swing in a tiny circle.

“He’s moving his hand,” someone said.

“No! I’m not! I swear I’m not,” Tommy said. And it sure didn’t look like his hand was moving at all.

“Now the other way,” I said. “Everyone picture the cross turning counter-clockwise.”

Tommy’s eyes grew wider as the cross reversed its pattern, twirling in the opposite direction. While repeatedly warning Tommy not to move his hand, we made the cross swing like a pendulum, back and forth, and then front-to-back, and then again in a circle, with Tommy’s hand all the while appearing perfectly still.

He seemed amazed to watch the cross swinging as he held his hand motionless. “I’m not doing this,” Tommy said. “I swear I’m not moving my hand.”

And at that point, as usual, I started to explain that in fact he was moving his hand, but that this subtle motion was imperceptible even to himself. This is how Ouija boards work, I explained, by the power of suggestion and these seemingly involuntary, invisible motions of our own hands.

I think that’s a pretty nifty illustration of how that works, and over many years I have found it to be an effective way of illustrating why there’s nothing supernatural at work in Ouija boards.

On that particular occasion, though, my illustration didn’t go quite as planned. A few members of the night crew instead latched on to an alternative theory.

“He’s got some kind of mind power,” someone said, pointing at me. “He’s doing it!”

I denied having any such powers … but then I suppose that’s exactly what a secretly telekinetic psychic would say, isn’t it?

The idea that I had been causing the cross to swing with my “mind power” seemed to strike a few of the others as a plausible hypothesis, and I’m afraid the matter was left unsettled as we got up from the table to start our scrubbing and mopping and emptying duties. My illustration, usually so successful at debunking Ouija boards, seemed to have resulted instead in a rebunking.

The lesson there, I suppose, is that there are many different kinds of bunk, and we have to deal with them one at a time.

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  • Andrew_Ryans_Caddy

    My spooky Ouija board experience is it doesn’t end up with anything coherent and everybody gets bored.

  • Bificommander

    Yeah, I do remember the cross swinging part from an older post. Though I don’t recall if you said it was to debunk a Ouija story.

  • My Ouija board story involves a magnet and me under the table with said magnet…

    It’s a long story.

  • Right around Halloween, I caught a bit on a morning radio show where they were asking the audience about whether kids should be allowed to play with Ouija boards. The overwhelming majority of callers were saying that they shouldn’t, with reasons that centered around “They might get too scared” but many of which veered into “THere is real power behind the ouija board and Something Could Happen.”

    Now, I do believe in the general principal of the possibility of supernatural forces.  But I am absolutely dead certain that you can not access the spirit realm using anything with a Parker Brothers logo on it.

  • I was in a new age shop, playing with their pendulums, and after a while I realized that whatever answer I thought the thing was going to give, it would…and since I couldn’t tell the difference between my subconscious moving my hand and the universe or whatever force is supposed to move the pendulum, it seemed a pretty useless endeavor. So yeah, I discovered Fred’s cross-swinging trick by accident, I suppose.

    Never had an Ouiji board. Mostly because, maybe it is all bunk…but if ghosts and spirits are real, an Ouiji board would be a really easy way for them to make contact. And un-trained people messing with spirits just…isn’t a good idea, IMO.

  • So, what I’m getting from this is that sometimes secret telekinetic psychics inadvertently expose their sinister powers to others while attempting to sway mortals away from belief in ghosts and talismans, and that as you get older you learn to be more careful.

  • If it’s any consolation, you’re part of a long and honoured tradition of psychic debunkers. James “the Amazing” Randi, for example, fairly often gets accused of using his own massive psychic powers to overwhelm those of the psychics and mediums and such he tests, and make it look like nobody has any supernatural abilities. That way he never has to pay out the million dollar prize he offers for anybody who can prove such abilities, you see. I’m not sure why he wouldn’t just claim the prize himself, but y’know.

  • q.

    Un-trained people should never mess with spirits. Leave that sort of thing to the professionals. Ghostbusters.  Our courteous and efficient staff is on call 24 hours a day to serve all your supernatural elimination needs. We’re ready to believe you. 

  • Citizen Alan

    One of my favorite South Park episodes features a brutal attack on “psychic” John Edwards and, more generally, on credulous people who fall for him. Kyle drops out of school and leaves town in response to something Edwards claims that his grandmother said during a cold reading. Incensed, Stan researches cold readings and learns to do them himself. He then goes around to John Edwards’ fans and starts doing cold readings on them and explains as he goes how he is tricking them into thinking that he’s talking to spirits and the assembled crowd still chooses to believe that he’s a psychic on par with Edwards himself. 

  • GDwarf

    Ah, I’ve been beaten to the mention of the Amazing Randy. Still, there are a few ways to debunk Ouija boards:

    Blindfold everyone using it. You’ll get nothing but gibberish. The standard counter-answer is that the ghost either needs to use someone’s eyes or is influencing your subconscious to make you move to the right spot, so if your subconscious doesn’t know where that is it doesn’t work.

    So, on to test two: Ask a question that’s quick and easy to verify, but that no one there knows the answer to. The best form of this is to have someone write a number on a piece of paper and stand where they can’t be seen or see the board. Then ask the ghost what number they wrote down. This isn’t perfect, as there are certain number people tend to pick, but if you specify that it has to be 3 digits or more you’re probably good.

    At this point if they still believe it’s probably a lost cause.

  • Paul Durant

    But I am absolutely dead certain that you can not access the spirit realm using anything with a Parker Brothers logo on it. 


    Do you have any idea how much work it is to even FIND the heart on a little tin thimble, top hat, wheelbarrow and Scottie dog, much less ritually carve them out as an offering? I ruined, like, eight pairs of tweezers and a Dremel drill! And now you’re telling me it was all for nothing?

  • Anna

    Actually, my favorite highly rationalist relative found the deed to his house using the pendulum.  He had misplaced it somewhere in the house, could not remember where, but he assumed that subconsciously, he knew where he had left it.  So he used the pendulum to access his memory — if it circled right it meant ‘yes,’ if it circled left, it meant ‘no,’ and if it went back and forth it meant ‘I don’t know.’  And by going room by room and asking himself ‘yes’ or ‘no’ whether the deed was in there, he did indeed find it. 

    Maybe a Ouija board would have been quicker, though. 

  • Vass

    I’ve always thought that even if Ouija boards did work as advertised, it would be the occult equivalent of going onto an open instant messenger room (or  these days, ChatRoulette) and having a conversation with the first person who shows up, and expecting that conversation to be enlightening and helpful.

  • My friend had a Ouija board we played with once. My mom flipped out and said we were making contact with demons and giving them permission to be in our house.  The board gave fairly random answers that were words but not exactly pertinent to our questions. My friend got freaked out by my mom, I felt a bit embarrassed but neither scared or impressed with the thing.

    I use pendulums and I tell people it is more than anything else a way of seeing what your subconscious (or conscious) mind thinks.  If you feel muddled you might feel better getting some kind of answer and moving on.  I don’t know anyone who takes Ouija boards or pendulums particularly seriously and I’m a pagan :) -though I am sure there are many who do.

    When I got pregnant with my first kid, the first doctor I went to did a pendulum test over my wrist with a pencil on a string to tell me the gender of the baby.  Across the wrist meant girl, parallel with the arm meant boy.  I thought it was pretty cute (and god knows there are plenty of just as arbitrary “methods” in determining the gender early) and he told me as he did it that it is right about 50% of the time.    It happened to be true for me though.
    Wee probabilities! 

  • A: Well, they say that Ouiji boards just work by tapping into your subconscious knowledge, so I got a ouiji pen, and I figured i could use it to access my subconscious to access my suppressed childhood memories and find out where I hid that thing when I was a kid

    B: How’d it go?

    A: Not great. Just kept drawing breasts.

  •  Early in her pregnancy, my wife seemed to come down at least once a week with some bit of folk wisdom she’d found that had predicted the gender of our pending child.

    Basically every time, I’d respond by saying “Sounds reliable. I imagine it’s right almost exactly 50% of the time.”

  • Carstonio

    Fred’s entry could be an episode of Penn and Teller’s Bullshit.

  • Wednesday

    Well, even an ultrasound after sex-differentiation has started isn’t correct about _gender_ 100% of the time..

  • Ouija boards, probably just so much bs, but there’s always that little stubborn speck that keeps you wondering…
    When I was born again, (when I went to a Baptist high school, long story) I found a ouija board, no idea who got it, and burned the thing in the name of Jesus. After all, ouija boards are pure EE-VUL. Nothing happened, just as well, except when I told my mother some time later (of COURSE you tell your parents), I got a Lecture.
    Years go by, I go to college, realize the World is not so terrible, marry & have kids, listen to CoastToCoast, how ouija boards are more powerful than imagined, and again get scared of them, find one my daughters have and again destroy it. To deflect their interest, I tell them that ouija boards are good for one thing and One Thing Only: Teenage Girls Asking To Find Out Which Boy Likes Them (part of me STILL believes this). It may have worked, neither daughter nor my son gives a tin nickel about them.
    I still don’t like having a ouija board in my house.

  • Madhabmatics

    I get all my sorcerous power from a mass-producing Milton Bradley factory.

  • fanatictemplar

    My memory of using pendulum comes from a game where you were supposed to guess the symbol on a card by holding a pendulum over a list of the symbols and finding the one that rotated counterclockwise (or clockwise, I don’t quite recall). Anyway, I figured I was going to get random odds anyway, so I pretty much picked the first (and same) option every time.

    The other player realised that I was deliberately choosing which symbols I ‘predicted’ and asked me to take it seriously and not move the pendulum myself. I felt it was only honest to do so.

    That pendulum did not move a hair. She was completely amazed at this feat, though truth be told even I’m pretty amazed that I could be that stable.

  • Random_Lurker

    What happens to the pendulum when you tell them to close their eyes?

  • ako

     That’s exactly what happens whenever I used pendulums!  I dabbled with this stuff in adolescence, and learned that for pendulums and dowsing rods, if I consciously tell them to do a certain thing (not intentionally moving them, but, for instance, thinking “Circle”), they do what I’m thinking.  If I don’t consciously tell them, nothing happens. 

    With Ouija boards, nothing happened at all.  Whatever trick lets people subconsciously come up with an answer and move their fingers without realizing they thought of a specific response simply doesn’t work for me.  (Or I have secret ghost-repelling powers. ;-)

  • ako

    Arthur Conan Doyle came up with an elaborate theory that Harry Houdini’s work debunking mediums was faked by Houdini who was using his paranormal abilities to block those of the mediums he debunked.  (And also to escape from milk jugs.)  So it’s a very long tradition.

  • Not about OuiJa boards or debunking but this may be of interest:

  • Jenny Islander

    I’ve told people who were freaked out by Ouija boards that it’s all explained by the simple fact that no conscious human being is ever able to sit perfectly still. If we’re awake, we’re thinking, and if we’re thinking, our bodies are reacting to what we think, even if we don’t realize it.  Involuntary eye movements and worry-induced aches and pains are fairly well known, tiny involuntary hand movements not as much.  But we do it all the time . . . and that’s what drives the pointer.

    About half of them insist that there must be something else there.  In general, these people were told about the demonic power of Ouija boards by people they need to be able to trust.  If those people were credulous or careless or downright lying, then the person’s whole belief system may be in danger.

    This may be an appropriate place to repeat an experience related in Michael Stackpole’s Pulling Report: In order to alleviate concern about dice-assisted role playing games, a game designer holds a seminar for parents.  He invites a parent onstage to play a character.  Rolling some dice, he announces that the character has been injured by a spell.  Turning to the volunteer, he asks her to explain why she is uninjured.  Naturally he expects her to realize that it’s just a game.  But the parent proclaims, “Because I’m protected by the Holy Spirit!”

    Fred has showed us over and over that some people just plain want to live in a world full of demons that resemble the latest toy or pop music trend.  He’s connected this with spiritual laziness; it’s easier to pretend that rumor mongering and reciting Bible verses is spiritual warfare than it is to actually talk to strangers who don’t come preloaded with your favorite shibboleths, or research actual persecution of real live Christians who don’t look or talk like you.  I think that part of it is that these imaginary fears are taught by authorities who claim to hold the keys to Heaven.  If the authorities are not actually authoritative, then  Heaven itself is in doubt.

  • Ian

    Is Fred telekinetic or telepathic?  He could have been moving the cross by mental mojoing the guy holding it.  If both, is Fred Jean Grey?

  • Münchner Kindl

     The other trick to debunk the Ouija board (if you ever think you need it again) is to turn it upside down. The spirit should be able to still read it, but the subconscious can’t.

  • Münchner Kindl

    There’s been a lot of research using CAT and other scans on how people thinking about a movement can trigger small impulses in their muscles. This is being used to help patients with rehabilitative therapy – learning movements again after a stroke or brain injury, patients now first think doing it, then do it. (Mirror neurons also help.)

    How to debunk pendulums: in several of the more modern religion school books*, there are group exercises for pendulums. The class is divided into two groups. One gets a sheet that says the pendulum moves up-down for yes and right-left for no, and to test it by getting answers to questions.
    The other group gets the same questions sheet, but the instruction says the pendulum moves up-down for no and right-left for yes.

    Then both groups compare their findings – obviously to figure out that they’re doing it themselves.

  • Persia

    Eh, if the spirit realm is accessible, in theory you could access it with any tool; I don’t really believe the Secrets of the Universe only work for people with appropriately expensive tools.

    …having said that, I don’t believe anyone can access the spirit realm anyway, so.

  • Jim Roberts

    I don’t like having a Ouija board because it’s pointless, and, if discovered, would either lead me into the company of the credulous or make me appear to be so myself, neither of which I consider a good end.

  • Jim Roberts

    I don’t like having a Ouija board because it’s pointless, and, if discovered, would either lead me into the company of the credulous or make me appear to be so myself, neither of which I consider a good end.

  •  Well, he was mental-mojoing the guy holding it. He was just doing so through the use of language, is all.

  • BaseDeltaZero

    Yes, but you can’t exactly buy a quark detector at Wal-Mart, either…

  • I do actually have another of the stupid boards in my home, it belongs to my mother and she throws a fit whenever I suggest we get rid of it (another long story). But we don’t have the pointer and so it’s relatively useless.

    Everyone probably has a skeleton or two.

  • Quote from my dad:  “We had a Ouija board. It never weeged.”

  • Persia

    Apparently mothers are better than the odds would say at guessing a child’s gender, so maybe you were just tapping into your intuition!

  • Vermic

    Involuntary eye movements and worry-induced aches and pains are fairly well known, tiny involuntary hand movements not as much.  But we do it all the time . . . and that’s what drives the pointer.

    I think I’ll invoke that excuse the next time someone gets a peek at my browser history.

  • AnonymousSam

    “Spirits of the dead, commune with us, give us revelation from the beyond!”

    “lol ur dum rofl”

  • AnonymousSam

    I go through a Ouija board at least once a month. The cardboard soaks up so much moisture that it bends, warps and eventually falls apart. For the life of me, I’ll never understand why you’re supposed to use these to wipe your windows clean.

    Wait, what?

  •  * bows to AnonymousSam’s wordplay mojo *
    It was minutes later that I finally got this.

  • “Protected by the Holy Spirit” against dice attacks sounds like an elaborate “Missed me!”

  • I’d be tempted to make it say SEE YOU IN THE CHARTS (which my favorite songwriter allegedly got as a seance message from Buddy Holly) but nobody but me would know why that’s neat.

  • Isabel C.

    What I got told re: Ouija boards was that they’re risky, not because of spirits and things, but because the human subconscious can be a nasty place, and that language-based fortunetelling can access the nastier parts of it.  You wouldn’t get Pazuzu, but you might get any number of ugly messages that would freak you out on a dark night, and that would not be really helpful in the silly-evening-with-friends mood.

    I’ve never used one myself–not for that reason, but it’s just never come up. 

  • Oh gosh…back in my teen years I read a science-fictiony kinda horror story by Frank M. Robinson titled, “The Power”, about the hunt for someone within a group of scientists who had that power of mind over matter. The mysterious superhuman mutant with that power, born Adam Hart, lived a life of many disguises until one of the researchers conducting experiments as to whether such a power existed happened to read a psychological profile that outed Hart as someone in their midst.  But who? 

    The tale opens with the lead scientist, Jim Tanner, very skeptical of the other researcher’s claims about this mysterious Adam Hart, decides, okay, let’s see if he’s among us, and Tanner asks the entire group of them, one at a time, to concentrate on a piece of paper he sticks onto a pencil, between the pages of a book, and make it move. 

    Each one tries and the paper does not move. The researcher who is convinced Adam Hart is among them says Hart would not be so foolish as to reveal himself that way. Fine says Tanner, let’s all concentrate on the paper together.  They do, and ti everyone’s astonishment the paper moves.

    The [Major Spoiler] plot twist to the book was….

    Yes, Hart was among them, no he was not so foolish as to reveal himself even that way.  It was Tanner who moved the paper.  He had the power and didn’t know it.  Hart had secretly joined the group to see if there where any other humans who had the power, so he could eliminate them, and be the only one.

    (grin) Didn’t know it was in you did you Fred…

  • MikeJ

    Nothing like that ever happened when I went to Miskatonic  U.

  • vsm

    The best part is that Houdini and Conan Doyle were actually friends. There’s a letter from Conan Doyle to Houdini where he’s convinced he’s in on the secret, which greatly annoyed Houdini. Their friendship obviously suffered.

  • I think I’ve mentioned a Christopher Pike book in which a Ouija board is used, and at one point it’s revealed that a person was purposely manipulating it to hurt another character by making it appear that the dead people being asked about were “burning in Hell”.

    It strikes me that a malicious person could use the generally more suggestible state people tend to be in when they’re already a bit on edge from realizing the Oujia board seems to reveal a kind of truth (as people have pointed out, subsconscious reactions can often be unintentionally revealing) to relay wrong or hurtful information and appear to be totally innocent of spreading such rumors.

  • Ross Thompson


    I think I’ve mentioned a Christopher Pike book in which a Ouija board is used

    Kirk’s predecessor on the Enterprise? Or a different Christopher Pike?

  • arcseconds

    Dirk Gently is what springs to my mind at Fred’s story.