Sunday, June 29, 2014

Ouija Board, Ouija Board

Here's another little anecdote for your reading pleasure.  When I was in High School I became very interested in the occult.  I still have a handful of paperbacks I bought at that time.  Gavin and Yvonne Frost's The Magic Power of Witchcraft, Eden Grey's Mastering the Tarot, The Satanic Bible, Necronomicon, etc.  Lightweight shit but at the time I felt it was something dangerous to even have in the house.  I still occasionally read the Tarot cards I bought during this period (Rider-Waite, natch!).  But I didn't bring another relic of that time with me when I moved to France.  Somewhere back at my mom's house, packed in with a bunch of my old junk, is a Parker Brothers Ouija board.

Perhaps the most mysterious thing about the Ouija board (except why we pronounced it "wee-gee") is that Parker Brothers still makes this thing.  People are genuinely scared of these pieces of cardboard and plastic and I'm surprised Parker Brothers risks getting boycotted over something so widely reviled and feared.  My own experiences with them has been less than overwhelming.

Except once.

Would you work for me?

A friend and I, a budding Catholic occultist, decided to try and contact something one afternoon using the accursed board.  To help facilitate the process, we lit an incense cone and then four candles, one in each corner of my room, corresponding to the corners of the board.  We sat in the center of the room, placed our hands on the planchette and began asking it questions.  Eventually, the planchette began to move.

Is there a spirit present. Yes.

Are you in the room?  Yes.

Can you prove it?  Yes.

How?  No answer.

Can you put out one of the candles?  Yes.

Which one?  The candle moved towards my right, at the bottom of the board.

We waited.  Nothing happened.

Should we concentrate on the candle to help you?  Yes.

Still nothing.  After a few minutes, we gave up.

Just as we were lifting our hands from the planchette, we both nearly jumped to the ceiling as a candle sizzled and popped, one might say violently.  Our heads jerked in unison to look at the candle, which was kind of sparking and doing a jig, a good 6 or so feet from where we sat.  It was, of course, the candle to which the board had pointed.

Hearts pounding, we looked at each other, then back at the candle, which at this point had settled down.  I got up and walked towards it.  As I approached, I reached out my hand and the flame simply died, as if it had been sucked into the wick.  It didn't flicker as if it had been blown out and when the flame was gone, it didn't smoke.

Shaken, we packed up the Ouija board and left the room.

So at this point, you might expect me to be a believer.  Alas, I am not.

How can this be so? you might ask.  Wasn't this proof?

Occam's Razor

Nope.  Later, I recalled that the night before I had lit the candle, but had extinguished it not by blowing it out, but by spraying it with a spritzer I used to water plants.

It's clear to me now that what had happened is that a drop of water had cooled some of the wax and become trapped inside it, a ball of water encased at the bottom of the waxen pool which then cooled and hardened above it.  As the candle burned away this wax, the drop of water become hot until the point it boiled and exploded, thus the pop and spark.  The water then entered the wick, which only burned a few seconds more until this damp part of the wick extinguished the flame in such an strange-seeming manner.

So, for a moment, I was a bit frightened by something unexplainable, seeming physical proof that a spirit had done what it said it would, that is to say, put out the candle it indicated.  I soon remembered what I'd done and the mystery was explained.

For me, whenever I hear a convincing tale of ghosts, UFO's and ESP, things of this sort, I always think of this Ouija experience, that behind every unexplained event lies a perfectly rational explanation.  I keep an open mind nonetheless, but I am certainly not a believer.  Just because we cannot think of or find an explanation for paranormal phenomena, it doesn't mean there isn't one.  It doesn't mean there is one, either.  But the burden of proof is on those who believe.

Controlled experiments in dowsing, Zener cards and Ouija boards invariably show that the results are always statistically consistent with random guessing.  A veterinarian friend of mine once told me that a professor told her class about a pain relief experiment on humans using aspirin (or perhaps paracetamol, I'm not sure which), a placebo and acupuncture.  What researchers found was that the success rate for all three was statistically the same.  Which means that acupuncture works just as well as an aspirin.  Which indicates, to me anyway, that a person's expectation of success is a potent factor in pain relief.  If we believed rubbing a feather on our foreheads is an effective headache cure, it would least as well as an aspirin works.

Possessed in Mexico

I remembered this story while reading about three American kids who were hospitalized after playing with a Ouija board in Mexico. Minutes into the game one of them began growling and thrashing about, in a trance. The other two began hallucinating after experiencing blindness and deafness.

According to doctors

"They had involuntary movements and it was difficult to transfer them to the nearest hospital because they were so erratic.

It appeared as if they were in a trance-like state, apparently after playing with the Ouija board.

They spoke of feeling numbness, double vision, blindness, deafness, hallucinations, muscle spasm and difficulty swallowing."

He added that whether the trio were really possessed, or had simply convinced themselves that they were, was not for doctors to comment on.

So, they were either faking it or this is a case of collective hysteria. I also wonder if the trio had taken too many magic mushrooms. Their symptoms sound like sensations that can be produced during a strong psilocybin trip. Come to think of it, it also sounds a lot like what a friend told me about his experience with Datura and what other friends have told me regarding ketamine. Never having tried these latter two, I cannot say. Their symptoms could easily have been created by the drug and their minds' attempts to deal with what was happening to them, influenced by their own beliefs about the results of using a Ouija board: possession.

Dose, Set and Setting

Even experienced occultists sound dire warnings about messing with Ouija boards and the internet is rife with tales, real or invented, about weird things happening with their use.  A 2012 survey of American registered voters indicated 57% of those polled expressed a belief in demonic possession.  Even given that surveys are imperfect tools, we can still imagine a good many people believe in possession.  More educated people tend to vote more; so among the rest of the population, the non-voting part, we could expect a corresponding increase in less-educated people, and thus a probably even higher level of belief in possession.

Interestingly, even a study of the Bible reveals that "victims of demon-possession appear to be from the less well-educated and lower socio-economic ranges of Jewish and Gentile society".  This may explain why these polls show Republicans have significantly higher rate of belief in possession than Democrats, as Democratic states also tend to be more highly educated.  Which, as Business Insider points out, doesn't mean that education creates Democrats, but that liberal states tend to spend more on education and thus, have a more highly-educated citizenry.

So, the point of all this, is that these kids almost certainly weren't possessed, but their socio-economic status and their milieu helped create the conditions that led them to think they were.  Unless they were faking it, their expectations were strong determining factors in the outcome of their intoxicated experiment with the Ouija Board.  That and the fact they were tripping balls.  Timothy Leary said three things influence the result of any drug experience: set, setting and dose.  This would be a textbook-worthy case study to show how Leary's theory played out in actual subjects.

Penn and Teller do an interesting show on the Ouija Board as part of their Bullshit! series.  One thing they do is turn is 180° after participants are blindfolded.  As one would expect, the planchette continues to go where users expect "Yes" and "No" to be....


I told you so

OK, I feel vindicated now. Some enterprising journalist visited one of the possessed, a girl in the rural Mexican village where she, an orphan, resides with her guardians.  Apparently the area has a strong tradition of shamanism and her guardians advised her to use the shamanic drug and the board to contact her dead parents. The drug: Brugsmansia, aka Angel's Trumpet. In other words, Datura.  (Honest folks, I came to this conclusion before I read it in the article I cite in this paragraph). Hard to imagine a more ideal set of parameters that would lead a kid to believe they were being possessed. Dead parents and one would imagine a strong desire to contact them, an adult-sanctioned recommendation that drugs and Ouija boards could achieve this, community belief in shamanism and the spirit world....

One of the guardians is still worried the kid may still be possessed, for you see, despite the fact the kids had taken a drug known to produce the effects they experienced, the adults around them still believe they were in fact possessed by demons. Which is probably a greater threat to her mental health than any lingering effects of her very bad trip. Superstition and belief in the occult can be toxic and dangerous, as we have seen with the bad psychology surrounding Satanic Ritual Abuse and the whole idea of repressed and recovered memories. I indirectly addressed this in a recent article about The Satanic Temple. Seriously, these kids, orphans no less, are surrounded by people who made the bad decision to recommend using a drug even many experienced psychonauts won't mess about with and who continue to express their fear they still may be possessed; we're looking at a form of child endangerment. Just like belief in acupuncture can actually reduce pain, belief in demons can actually lead to "possession". It's no coincidence most Catholic exorcists are first trained psychologists and generally only use exorcism as a last resort, and even then probably as a form of therapeutic psychodrama than in any belief they're casting out actual demons.

In some cases, religion is just a more codified and socially acceptable expression of the basest superstition. I've personally seen people speaking in tongues and being slain in the Spirit, and it wasn't glorious, it was disturbing and a little frightening. It was if the people around me had been turned into thoughtless conduits of mass insanity. I remember once hearing about the apocalypse and the end of the world....I was camping with the Boy Scouts, quite young, looking into the fire, I can see it now and still recall how terrifying and traumatic it felt, almost certainly part of what makes me so pessimistic today. I'll say it: religion can be a form of child abuse...what is that expression? The sleep of reason produces monsters?

"....demented, corrupt, and ripe for ridicule."

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