by David Metcalfe
“Warning: Please be aware that this is a real experiment using previously unexplored technology and as such we can give no guarantees regarding consequent results and aftermath. We have taken all necessary safety precautions but are legally obliged to make users aware that participation is purely at own risk.”
– from the intro page of The Ouija Experiment
The Ouija Board, a cheap little child’s toy that has inspired a century of urban folklore, evangelical uproar and even a Pulitzer prize winning poem. That’s what happens when you put necromantic tools into mass production.
With no legitimate antiquarian roots, the Victorian “talking board” has become a perfect picture of commercialized occult science. A party game for drunk college kids that has the potential to summon the dead, or break through the veil and allow contact with entities from beyond our daylight reality. The potential, if nothing else, to allow access to the areas of our psyches which usually remain clouded by our daily conditioning.
It’s beautifully utilitarian, a crappy piece of cardboard with the alphabet written on it, some numbers, perhaps a few well worn arcane symbols to draw attention away from the trademark and serial number stamped into it by the factory. Most importantly, though, it’s a focal point for intention, and as is often the case with any liminal phenomenon, it is the intention that gets results.
As such it is a vibrant tool for building personal myths that connect to deeper strains in the culture. The Ouija Board is workable by anyone willing to give it a go. Such ubiquity has given it a central role in the conversion of many frightened experimenters into the realms of Evangelical Christianity, fueling one of the core components of the fundamentalist Satanic Panic propaganda machine. Others have discovered a taste for the thrill of anomalous phenomenon and gone further into the darkened realms of the mind. The poet James Merrill, with a more sophisticated understanding, and use, of the mechanisms involved, used it to write a Pulitzer prize winning poem with his partner…
“In 1976, the American poet James Merrill published – and won the Pulitzer Prize for – an epic poem that recounted his experience, with his partner David Jackson, of using a Ouija board from 1955 to 1974. His work The Book of Ephraim was later combined with two other Ouija-inspired long poems and published in 1982 as The Changing Light at Sandover. “Many readers,” wrote critic Judith Moffett in her penetrating study entitled James Merrill, “may well feel they have been waiting for this trilogy all their lives.”
- From Occult America, by Mitch Horowitz
Such a liminal position, however, is not without its dangers. Whether the phenomenon itself has any reality outside of the mind it unquestionably opens up a door, and, as Sasha Chaitow, director of the Phoenix Rising Digital Academy, quipped while discussing the possibilities of an internet experiment with the Ouija Board, “when you open a door, you have no way of knowing who or what will come through it, and no way of closing it.”
That was what spurred me to think more about this little bit of well worn occult Americana. Some game developers have designed a sort of catch all experiment that combines most of the tropes of classic psychical science, from ether to EVP, with the social networking potential of Facebook, as sort of global séance for Halloween, 2011 called The Ouija Board Experiment.
It seems they are aiming to energize their Ouija session with the conscious intention of as many folks as they can. As the explain on their webpage, “this collective energy is what we need to harness, and why we need you to connect to Facebook.” Beyond a vaguely sketched diagram there isn’t much description of exactly what the methodology is behind their experiment. Passive participation is all they’re asking for, and the odd inclusion of participants keeping a mirror near them, and holding a penny in their left hand. They also request your mobile phone number, email address and their Facebook page links to an app of some sort.
Roger D. Nelson, formerly of the Princeton Engineering Anomaly Research lab, has a similar ongoing project, without the necromantic intent and with a more rigorous experimental design, called the Global Consciousness Project. The GCP monitors a series of random number generators, called EGGs, placed around the globe to see if there is any measurable effect that can be found from events that change the emotive atmosphere, both in terms of predictive results and immediate changes.
Success in the P.E.A.R. research has lead to another lab alumni, Robert Jahn, leading a startup called Psyleron which offers a couple of different devices to measure, monitor, utilize synchronicity.
While the Psyleron technology has a sort of weird Philip K. Dick feel to it, most of what has come out of the P.E.A.R. experiments has a feel good sense that doesn’t lend itself to hesitancy on the part of participants. The Ouija board, however, is one of those things that, despite seeming so innocuous, has a bad reputation even amongst the boldest experimenters in the weirder ways of mind play.
This particular experiment, in the wording of its intent, has a kind of vaguely vampiric quality to it. As Chaitow pointed out in discussing it, “who on earth wants so many people doing this simultaneously? If we take an entirely metaphysical, non-academic view of it all, then it appears that someone, or several "someones" are out to use peoples gullibility to create some kind of "psychic army"
The idea seems ludicrous to the rational mind, but it actually has precedence in the concept of “magical chains.”
“A chain is formed through “syntony” of the elements that compose it, when there is either identity or correspondence…members of these chains could operate either together or in different locations, and even be unaware of each other...
The entity of a chain that perpetuates itself for generations, through the members of a community or initiatic school, sums up in itself a tradition. The light and power of this tradition are not dissolved by any interruption that may occur in the transmission on the physical plane, but they enter a virtual state; thus, they may be recalled at any time and in any place by those who, possessing the right intention, resume the operation according to the rituals, by using the signs and symbols of this tradition.”
- Introduction to Magic: Rituals and Practical Techniques for the Magus, the collected writings of Julius Evola and the UR Group.
Now, that is not to say that this Ouija Board Experiment has any conspiratorial intent, or is any more than simply a kitschy way to bring our cultural fascination with Victorian séances into the 21st century. It does, however, raise interesting questions as to the potential of the internet to foster group behavior, and its ability to bring focus some of the stranger areas of consciousness studies.
It also brings to light how these experiments themselves can frame the way in which we view potentialities. The more serious the study, the more potential it has for actually bringing out some meaningful correspondences, whether or not it's underlying hypotheses are correct. When these phenomenon are played with like parlor games, silly seances and marketing schemes, they can actually serve to stupefy further inquiry.
We’ve seen the effect of mass media on social interaction, and are currently enmeshed in working out the consequences of mass communications and social media. Chaitow’s point recognizes that there are deeper streams at play in our lives than we generally realize. Most studies of social media don’t take the atmospheric aspects of consciousness into account, and perhaps it is time that we begin to look deeper into these streams we find ourselves so carelessly playing in.
In a recent conversation with Sandra Sabitini, the multi-media artist Joseph Matheny discusses his own experiments in web enabled synchronicity, and liminal communications, which he calls the Meta-Machine. Loosely based on a type writer device, called the "Metaphase Typewriter," designed by the physicist Nick Herbert to experiment with communicating beyond the veil, the Meta-Machine uses the decay of a radioactive isotope as the random factor, tapping in to the web to gather the communicative material in response to queries.
Although meaningful results have been recorded, true to the nature of scientific inquiry, neither Matheny nor Herbert make any claims as to what is communicating through these experiments, calling it simply the “Other”. In Matheny’s case he went a bit farther and would focus his queries by using the name “Emory” when posing questions.
One of the developments that Matheny encountered while testing the device was meeting a stranger who said his name was Emory, and who had the ability to continue conversations where the Meta-Machine left off. Similar to Jacques Vallee’s encounters with the name Melchizedik during his research, these kinds of synchronistic anomalies follow those who start to investigate deeper into the nature of reality, and have no rational explanation in the materialist worldview.
Another master of liminal analytics, John Keel, discovered that his investigation into local legends in Point Pleasant didn’t end when he left the area:
“…the phenomenon followed Keel around. After he returned to Manhattan, some 800 miles (1300 km) from Point Pleasant, the figures that continued to manifest appeared to be part of a linked group, and were intensely agitated by Keel’s investigations. It was almost as if his inquiries played a part in bringing them into being. The deeper he dug, the worse the situation became. And of course the telephone system – a classic icon of paranoia – starts talking to itself, selectively ringing and connecting parties in the investigational loop. The postal service becomes equally moody. Like the entities themselves, it is not so much threatening as appearing to undergo the mood changes of a small child.
As word of his investigations spread, Keel becomes a foco novo for UFO ‘contactees’. They lurch towards him in concert, like the zombies in Night of the Living Dead. They find him, wherever he is, and they contact him by all possible means. Most claim that they have a personal message from the UFO occupants for Keel himself. As a result, poor Keel finds himself mentally in the middle of a maze of smashed telephone junctions and early soap and science fiction plots. He does not meet any of the entities directly; the UFO contactees become his listening posts and they relay what the entities have said. Some hear the entities speaking in their minds, and the accuracy of the information given in this manner is often chilling.”
- from Invasion of the Doll People, by Colin Bennett
Telephony and oddly timed messages often play a large part in these encounters, and the web is an even more potent use of the informational ability that telecommunication represents. Mitch Horowitz discovered this in his own investigations of the Ouija Board for an article in his book Occult America:
“As I was preparing for this article, I began to revisit notes I had made months earlier. These presented me with several questions. Among them: Should I be practicing with the Ouija board myself, testing its occult powers in person? Just at this time, I received an email, impeccably and even mysteriously timed, warning me off Ouija boards. The sender, whom I didn’t know, told in sensitive and vivid tones of her family’s harrowing experiences with a board.
As my exchange with the sender continued, however, my relatively few lines of response elicited back pages and pages of material, each progressively more pedantic and judgmental in tone, reading – or projecting – multiple levels into what little I had written in reply (most of which was in appreciation). And so I wondered: In terms of the influences to which we open ourselves, how do we sort out the fine from the coarse, allowing in communications that are useful and generative, rather than those that become simply depleting?
Ouija is intriguing, interesting, even oddly magnetic – a survey of users in the 2001 International Journal of Parapsychology found that one half “felt a compulsion to use it.”
So what happens when we take the Ouija Board, which already has fueled a centuries worth of myth making and hook it up to the web? Something tells me that the diluted design of the current Halloween experiment marks a lack of proper intention on the part of it’s participants, but who's to say what some more focused explorer might find when they wire their board to the web, and set the planchette down.
David Metcalfe is an independent researcher and artist focusing on the interstices of art, culture, and consciousness. He is author of “Of Dice and Divinity – Some Thoughts on Gambling and the Western Tradition,” an essay in The Immanence of Myth.
Writing and scrawling regularly for The Eyeless Owl, his illustrations were brought to life in the animated collaborative grotesquery A Serious Enquiry Into the Vulgar Notion of Nature featured at select venues in downtown Chicago during the Spring and Fall of 2010. He contributes to Evolutionary Landscapes, Alarm Magazine, Reality Sandwich, The Revealer, and is currently co-hosting The Art of Transformations study group with support from the International Alchemy Guild.
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