Supernatural Skeptics Don’t Know What They’re Missing
I try contacting the spirit world before live audiences to keep an element of hope simmering on the back burner of my mind.
(originally published in the Washington Post’s On Faith section, 10/31/13).
I like Ouija boards. I’ve used them since I was a teenager. More recently I’ve messed around with electric spirit boxes, also known as Frank’s boxes after their inventor Frank Sumption. They’re radio receivers which allow you to listen to and record voices of the dead, also known as EVPs (Electronic Voice Phenomena) or Raudive voices, after one of their early discoverers. Over the past two years I have frequently used Ouija boards and spirit boxes in my performance art, attempting to conjure up the dead as my co-stars before a live audience. At one of the universities where I teach playwriting and screenwriting part-time I am also the faculty adviser for a student-led paranormal investigation club. Friends and fans assume I am a true believer but the truth is that I am not. I am a healthy skeptic. And that’s depressing for me because it means that on some level I feel certain there’s nothing out there. I try contacting the spirit world before live audiences to keep an element of hope simmering on the back burner of my mind.
Given the many millions of religious folks in the world (surveys tell us time and again that the vast majority of us believe in an afterlife) I am not alone in my desire for proof of a promise made long ago. I don’t want to be told it by a clergyman or a book or a website. I want to see it. Because of the world’s overwhelming belief in an afterlife I am always amazed at the number of people who are absolutely petrified of Ouija boards. Shouldn’t we be elated when the pointer, properly called a planchette, moves and spells out things? Shouldn’t we jump for joy when a spirit box calls out to us? Instead we flee in terror at the most innocuous of communications. I’m reminded of my good friend Steve who received a strict Catholic upbringing. Once as a teenager he played around with a Ouija board and it spelled out his dog’s name: HOBO. He ran shrieking from the room, convinced he’d made contact with the Devil himself. Several years later he became a teacher in a Catholic high school. He laughs now when recalling that he used his experience as a way of convincing his young charges not to dabble with the supernatural. “Mark my words, Ouija boards are evil. I once played with one and it spelled out my pet’s name.” Cue The Exorcist theme song.
Psychologists tell us that what makes the planchette move on a Ouija board isn’t a ghost, angel or demon. The movements are caused by subconscious ideomotor impulses. Let’s roll with that for a moment. If it’s true, I remain fascinated because it means the average human mind is far more perceptive and imaginative than we realize and perhaps even telepathic. When two strangers sit at a Ouija board and it spells out detailed facts about a third party standing in the room with them, or creates a character with a full name, birth date, death date, personality, home, family and street address, fluency in a foreign language, science starts to seem but one more belief system with as many holes as any spiritual sideshow.
Thanks to all the ghost hunting shows the big craze for true believers these days is spirit boxes. Imagine an AM/FM transistor radio stuck on permanent scan. Now imagine you can control the scan rate and that you set it to, say, 250 milliseconds, or 1/4 of a second. It automatically scans through the dial, stopping not just on radio stations but on every frequency on the band, for 1/4 of a second, before skipping to the next frequency. 88.1, 88.2, 88.3… Most of these are static. Every so often you get a blip of random audio as it scans past a broadcast. You turn on a video or audio recorder to document your session. You now ask a question into the air and await a response. Sometimes the responses are immediate and crystal clear. Others are difficult to understand beneath all the static and only come to light during amplified playback. Some responses have to be slowed down and have their volume boosted to improve clarity. In my experience, a five-minute recording might contain 20 or 30 audible “responses.” Only about 10 of these will be easily understandable to the average listener. So while the results are not as instantly gratifying or dramatic as using a Ouija board in front of an audience, the results after post-production can be quite stunning and difficult to explain away.
Skeptics will try, though. I chuckled when I first Googled “EVPs debunked” and read various naysayers’ biased conclusions. They generally start from their subjective presupposition that listening to the dead is impossible, then loop to their own self-gratifying conclusion that spirit boxes are indeed not receiving voices from the dead. They postulate that the voices are entirely composed of snippets from radio stations or bleed-through from neighbors’ cell phones, neither of which they seem to have bothered to verify firsthand, and neither of which explain how a single voice could complete an entire sentence over a stretch of several quarter-second frequencies, or how these voices call out names of people in the room at that moment.
Next they’ll tell you that gullible spirit box users are simply victims of a psychological phenomenon called pareidolia, a fancy word for seeing faces in clouds. In other words, with EVPs you’re only hearing what you want to hear. If I was hearing what I’d want I’d be hearing Granny saying, “Hi, Jeff, it’s me, Orelia, and I’m fine. My emphysema’s cured and feel great.” I’d hear Jesus Christ telling me that I’m blessed and definitely going to Heaven. I’d hear next week’s winning lottery numbers. I have never heard any of these things. In fact I have sometimes heard things I do not want to hear, like “go to hell” or “leave us alone.”
The naysayers also have a habit of ruthlessly ridiculing true believers; so much for objectivity. When your only way to combat an idea you don’t like is to resort to sarcasm then you haven’t got a leg to stand on. Many of them enjoy pointing out that if the dead really are able to speak to us they sure don’t have much wisdom to pass along to us if all they can do is call out names and random words. Again these skeptics are arrogantly, and I might add lazily, drawing self-serving conclusions. A little research would have pointed them to some pretty phenomenal ghost whisperers. Pulitzer Prize-winning poet James Merrill’s epic poem The Changing Light at Sandover was written over a period of many years via a homemade Ouija board that he used regularly with his partner David. Rosemary Brown, a British housewife in the 1960s, regularly took dictation from, and performed original musical compositions by, the ghosts of Mozart, Bach, Beethoven and other dead composers. Some of these original works were conducted by Leonard Bernstein for the BBC. Brown always insisted she was not the writer of these works but merely their transmitter. In the 19-teens a Ouija board spirit named Patience Worth dictated several novels and a number of poems to St. Louis neighbors Pearl Curran and Emily Hutchings. The ghostly Patience Worth’s works were published under her own name and well-reviewed in national publications. Apparently the dead have plenty to share with us. During my stage seances I usually make a point of asking spirits if they have any advice for us, the living. The most memorable answer I have gotten to date came from the spirit box calling out to the audience in crystal clear voice, “have courage.”
The Tibetan Book of the Dead explains that after death some spirits become terrified and confused by the choices presented to them, and rather than transmigrating into their next incarnation they wind up hiding in forgotten, swirling eddies along the river of time. They are lonely, frightened, sad, happy, sarcastic, sincere, faithful, and sometimes angry. This Tibetan view sits well with me. After years of contacting the dead (or subconscious ideomotor impulses depending on your beliefs) my own conclusion is that they — at least those who are in a place where they’re able to communicate with us — are pretty much like you and me. There are nice ones, mean ones, sociable ones, loners, even ones who seem suspicious of me at first rather than the other way around. Some know more than others but they are not omniscient. You do get the occasional sarcastic or even hostile (note that I did not say evil) presence but that only spices up the show. I have never felt a reason to fear them outright so let me say something loud and clear: fear the living. Ever been mugged by a ghost? Ever been shot at by a ghost? Ever been conned out of your money by a demon or seen a ghost driving drunk the wrong way down the interstate killing an entire family in a minivan in the oncoming lane? Right. Fear the living and give the ghosts a break.
Indeed my audiences and I have had far more positive and uplifting experiences with the so-called dead than we have had terrifying or negative events but I am not here to convince you of my beliefs. It’s Halloween time and I know why you’re reading this article. You want to be spooked, so rather than sharing one of my heartwarming Ouija accounts I leave you with the following recollection from my teens that I often recount during my shows. It’s autobiographical and happened in the presence of four other eyewitnesses. It’s the story of the New Year’s Eve when Jimi Hendrix’s ghost possessed a kitten and made it play a guitar, then set fire to a Christmas tree.
I was 19 and capping off my coming-of-age years in southwestern Virginia. It was the year before I moved to New York City to go to film school. I was at my friend Robin’s New Year’s Eve party with a bunch of people. We were stoned and drunk and sitting around her candle-lit kitchen table in the dark. The mood was right for the conversation to turn toward séances. Someone said, too bad we don’t have a Ouija board.
Somehow, instinctively, I knew what to do! I asked for a blank sheet of paper and Robin brought me one. On it I wrote the letters A through Z, YES and NO and the numbers 1 through 10. For a planchette we used–I had just the thing–a credit card. Turned face down the raised letters gave it a very small surface area. One corner of the card we designated as the pointer. My friends Adam, Mary Etta, and Scott sat around it and each of them put just one finger gently on it. I stood aside as the Questioner and said: ‘We come in a spirit of peace to make new friends. Is there anybody out there who’d like to speak with us tonight?’ The planchette moved purposefully back and forth from A to Z, A to Z, over and over. I am the Alpha and the Omega. The first and the last. ”Oh really?” I asked. “You’re Jesus Christ?” YES.
Now, I’ve been through this enough times to have learned a thing or two about spirits, or subconscious ideomotor impulses depending upon your beliefs. You throw open the door and they rush in like rioters raiding a dressing room, and they don whatever costumes they find there. Mark Twain. Jesus. Satan. You never know who you’re going to get when you open the Pandora’s Box that is your dreamworld. Do you think a Hindu gets Jesus and Satan and Mark Twain on the board? They don’t. I’ve checked. The next question to ask the spirit is, ‘Where are you now?’ Nine times out of ten the answer I get is ZION. And they’re not talking about Israel. They’re using an old Christian term for Heaven, borrowed of course from the Hebrew Bible.
We’re marching to Zion,
Beautiful, beautiful Zion;
Marching upward to Zion,
The beautiful city of God.
So anyway the board’s really cookin’ now. I’d point to Scott and ask, “How old is Scott?” and the board would get it right. “How old is Adam?” The board would get it right. Pretty soon we start getting bored with watching it guess ages so I up the ante and ask, “Are you in the room with us now?” It moves to YES and starts coyly circling the word.
“Can you see us?”
“Can you see our…underwear?”
“Alright. I’m wearing white boxer shorts. They have stripes. What color are the stripes?”
I nearly faint. I pull up the waistband of my underwear to show everyone that my stripes are indeed red. Everyone laughs. I point to Adam. “What color underwear is Adam wearing?”
Adam pulls up his waistband and sure enough he’s wearing your basic Fruit of the Looms. Everybody laughs again.
“What color underwear is Mary Etta wearing?”
She pulls up the waistband of her panties. Yep, they’re blue.
“What color is Scott’s underwear’?”
“Ugly?” Scott pulls up the waistband of his boxers and they’re black and orange plaid! Everybody howls with laughter. Our guards are down, we’re embracing the spirits. Inviting them inside…
Next Adam wants to talk to Jimi Hendrix. Adam’s a guitar virtuoso. In fact his acoustic guitar’s right there on the floor sitting in its open case. He’d been playing it earlier. He and I had sung Blue Christmas, me doing my best Elvis impression.
I’ll have a blue Christmas without you I’ll be so blue just thinking about you Decorations of red on a green Christmas tree–
I didn’t know then that that line was a macabre foreshadowing. You’ll see what I mean. Adam asks the spirits if they can put Jimi on, and the board says YES. We change places. I sit down and touch the planchette now, and Adam stands and asks the questions.
“Is that you, Jimi?”
He asks a few biographical questions. Sure enough the board gets them right. Adam is amazed. I mean obscure questions like what year Jimi was born, what year certain albums came out, who sat in on certain sessions. Jimi’s getting every question right. Then Adam drops the bomb. “Jimi, can you play my guitar?”
We all fall silent.
“All you have to do is pluck one of my guitar string, Jimi. Can you do that?”
And the credit card starts circling YES. I mean with such force that it flies off the paper sometimes and we have to put it back on and touch it again, and it shoots back to YES and starts circling it, faster and faster in tight little loops.
We’re all chanting, “Yes, yes, yes, yes!”
And then, out of nowhere, I kid you not, Robin’s little black kitten comes running in from the darkened living room and makes a beeline for that guitar and starts smacking at one of the strings. Everybody freaked. Mary Etta’s running around flipping on all the lights and blowing out the candles. Robin’s screaming at me going, “I hate you, Jeff Stanley. I was never scared of this house before and now you’ve made it haunted!”
And in the middle of that we smell something burning. And we’re like, sniff sniff, what is that? It smells like a fireplace. Only Robin ain’t got no fireplace. And we run and look in the living room and the freaking Christmas tree is on fire. They had this red scented candle that had somehow been knocked over, and all of this molten red wax was dripping in a steady stream off the table onto the Christmas tree and setting it aflame. Decorations of red on a green Christmas tree.
We got it out, but after that I marched into that kitchen, balled up that sheet of paper and chucked it in the trash, vowing vowing never to play with homemade Ouija boards again.
From them on, strictly store bought.