Monday, June 19, 2006

Portrait of the Blogger as a Young Asshole, Vol. 2

It was September of sophomore year, and nobody had a driver's license.

Homecoming was on the way. On my parents' property, there was a big metal pole barn, large enough to fit a flatbed trailer and 30 fifteen year olds. For those of you who grew up in cities and suburbs, picture a free-standing metal garage in the middle of a field. It looked kind of like this picture I found on Google, only it was tan:

My parents are patient people. They were willing to allow the flatbed to be brought to their pole barn for the construction of a Homecoming float. Dozens of high school sophomores trekked out to our house on weekends and weeknights, and at first, my Mom and Dad were happy to put up with us.

Because we didn't have driver's licenses, there was no easy way to access the high school party spots. These generally were clearings in woods and fields several miles outside of town. Without access to parties, people hadn't yet turned into drunks, and if anyone was getting laid, it was an aberration and a source of confused bitterness. At fifteen, we had all the right impulses but no access to the vices.

We built the sophomore class Homecoming float that September, and for that month, my parents' property became the default hangout spot. People's parents dropped them off late in the morning, and many of them stayed well after midnight. It was an extremely broad cross-section of my high school class. We listened to Pearl Jam, Nirvana and the Rolling Stones while we worked, but plenty of people were happy to play basketball in the driveway or volleyball in the yard. It was a month-long, alcohol-free, sexually frustrated party.

I don't remember how the Ouija Board fad started. A group of us must have been hanging out in my parents' basement watching TV when someone saw it on the shelf. It was taken out, and suddenly, the floatbuilding process took an unexpected turn.

In telling this story to friends who grew up elsewhere, I've been told that Ouija Boards were the province of girls. That wasn't my experience. Faith in the Ouija Board was a unifying creed: jocks and nerds, ugly girls and girls who gave handjobs, and people who should have known better -- they all believed in Ouija.

We would go into my parents' basement, sit in a circle, and light candles. For those who aren't familiar, the Ouija Board is a Parker Brothers product. There is a fold-out board-game-style platform that lists the alphabet and the numbers 1-9. Two participants are supposed to lightly place their hands on a plastic pointer. After a minute or two, a spirt presence channels itself through the users' hands, guiding them to the letters and numbers that spell out whatever message the spirit elects to communicate. It looks like this:

There were Ouija veterans in the group. Someone told us that if you worked a Ouija Board alone there wasn't enough human power to counterbalance the spirit, and you'd become possessed. Another person said that a burning Ouija would scream.

Keep in mind that I did not grow up in a sophisticated place, and it was pretty religious to boot. Not in an evangelical way, but there were plenty of Methodist and Lutheran kids, much sterner stuff than I was taught before I became an atheist in third grade.

Some combination of factors apparently made Ouija irresistible. The ritual went something like this: the two participants would wait for the spirit to announce itself, generally by moving the users' hands to spell "Hello." There would be questions asking for the spirit's identity, and then the fun started. There were a lot of questions about tragedy and who in the group would be first to die. I remember that Ouija told an avid hunter in the group: "You will shoot a dead human." Girls screamed, and the hunter became upset. This was some prime material.

The routine went on night after night. Building the Homecoming float became an excuse for people to come to my parents' house and play Ouija Board -- candlelight, darkness, privacy and mixed company. In retrospect, there might have been a kind of sexiness to it, only that people were taking the Ouija Board seriously.

Very, very seriously.

Did I believe at the time that the Ouija was legitimate? I might have. I was reading a lot of Stephen King around then, so supernatural messages seemed sensible enough. I certainly was entertained by it, and as the activity became extremely popular, I was happy to participate. It was a bonding experience.

I was enjoying this.

I was enjoying it so much that it was time to push things further.

In the age of The Clapper, my parents had been gifted a kind of remote control device. It was a white box that plugged into an electrical outlet. This box itself had a socket for an electrical plug, and a remote control went with it. Plug the lamp of your choice into the white box and press a button on the remote control, and the lamp turned on and off.

I went about laying my trap, rigging a lamp into the remote control system, and testing out how easy it was to activate the remote control in my pocket.

That night, things started as usual. More than a dozen of us were in my basement, candles lit, and the Ouija ready for action. The remote control was hidden in my jeans pocket.

After the spirit arrived, I suggested a standard question:

"Ask Ouija for a sign," I said.

"Ouija," Laura said, "can you give us a sign of your presence?"

Usually a slight flicker of candlelight or the sound of my Springer Spaniel barking upstairs was enough to convince people of the spirit's authenticity.

Tonight would be different.

I allowed for a pregnant pause.

I pressed the remote control button in my jeans pocket.

A lamp came on.

And screams followed.


Real fucking screams. Carrie prom scene, endangered lives, we're-all-gonna-die screams.

People fled. Shrieking sophomores up the staircase. Shouted profanity and covered eyes, "Holy shit" repeated like a Buddhist mantra.

15 seconds later, I had the basement to myself. I worked fast, disposing the technological evidence behind some books. It happened quickly enough that when I ran outside, also screaming, there wasn't enough of a time gap to invite suspicion.

And there they were -- my friends and classmates, on my parents' back lawn, a couple of them collapsed and rolling around in the grass.

It was a moment of triumph.

Oh, they knew what they saw, and were logical about it: "It would be one thing if the light turned off," Andrea said, "because that could be from a lightbulb burning out. Nothing explains how the light could turn on."

My dad immediately knew what I'd done. He tried to explain my method, but no one believed him. When the scene of my ruse was revisited, there was no evidence.

This could not be explained away.

It was a spirit.

My parents became concerned about how this might affect our family's reputation. My dad told me that we couldn't do any more Ouija Board at our house. His hilarious and perceptive observation: "I don't want people to think that there's devil worship going on."

For the next year or so, Ouija Boards occasionally surfaced at parties. I remember a group of us going to one girl's lakehouse after a football game specifically to do Ouija.

But nothing could top that moment. Booze, cigarettes and sex came along, and the Ouija era ended.


You'd think that this episode would have become just one of those stories, and that people forgot about it or rationalized it.

You're wrong.

A few weeks later, my friends and I had a bonfire on my parents' property, and decided that it would be a good experiment to throw a full can of spraypaint into the fire. The can's label probably said something like, "WARNING: Keep away from fire and open flame. Highly combustible." That wasn't going to stop us.

We threw the can into our fire and stood back.

Five minutes later, the can exploded. Its boom sounded like a proper explosion -- like an actual bomb. A mushroom cloud flared and rose 10 feet into the air, looking like a small-scale nuclear test. Hot coals scattered all over the backyard.

For once, my parents were visibly pissed. My dad still brings it up. In retrospect, we were all lucky that no one got burned. What's even luckier is that the whole thing was captured on VHS.

The ultimate lesson for some was not, "Don't throw spraypaint cans into fires." Instead, it was, "This is proof that the spirit of Ouija has been unleashed and is out to get us." On videotape, various of my classmates -- mostly female -- testify the spirit of Ouija was responsible for that fire.

This wasn't the only proof. In the Homecoming parade a few days prior, Andrea's foot had been run over by the flatbed that carried our Peter Pan float. She fainted on Main Street, in the middle of the parade. The takeaway lesson for some of my classmates? "The spirit of Ouija has been unleashed and is out to get us."


For years, I'd been convinced that everyone who was there that night believed that a spirit was responsible for turning on the lamp.

One night when I was home from college, I told my friend Jeff what I'd done. Jeff is a very smart guy, a high school basketball star now doing a post-doc at Yale. We've always understood each other pretty well, and I like how he seems both entertained and mystified by my choices. He has good instincts and a lot of sense.

When I explained my steps, he clapped his hands and shouted, "I knew it!" Even so, his tone was more appropriate to hearing that Verbal Kint is Kaiser Soze than the shrugging, "Yeah, of course knew that," that I expected.

Like my dad, Jeff has since tried to tell other eyewitnesses that I was responsible for the light switching on. They didn't believe him, either.

It's been awhile since I've seen a lot of the people from that night. Most of the people I still hang out with from high school either weren't there, or gave up on the incident a long time ago.

Still, there was a conversation in the last three years when I was back for Christmas or Thanksgiving, and a woman from my graduating class mentioned it. She said that she still thinks about it, and that it was the most frightening moment in her life.

"I know," I said, shaking my head and raising my eyebrows into the expression I save for serious matters. "It's crazy, what happened. I'm kind of relieved my parents moved out of that house."


Crunk Raconteur said...

The best part is that there are still, to this day, somebody who doesn't know it was fake and tells people, with utmost seriousness, how a spirit was like, totally THERE one time when we had the Ouija board out.

This person probably gets angry and indignant when others scoff.

Oh MAN that's good stuff.

CrimeNotes said...

The story sums up my mid-teenage years pretty nicely: tricking people into looking like idiots, a fire, small-scale combustables, videotaping everything, my parents' basement, and lies.

Some of these people will later forbid their children from having a Ouija Board, and will tell a cautionary story about what happened to them when they were in high school. The kids will grow up thinking that their mother/father is a lying freak.

Wow, that was a good day for me.

winston said...

please publish your book. please.

CrimeNotes said...

If I do a Volume 3, it will be about my principal getting fired after prom.

But that story's so elaborate and personality-based, it would take several thousand words to explain.

I'm too busy blogging to finish the book!