12/2 Flashback: Ideomotor

12/2 Flashback: Ideomotor December 2, 2022

From December 2, 2012, “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.

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 Lucy — she’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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