The essays in Peter Counter’s Be Scared of Everything blend non-fiction, narrative memoir, and criticism about the horror genre, built on the premise that there is great personal value in the contemplation of entertainment and literature, especially the spooky stuff. We hope you come to find value in the macabre. In Peter’s words, this book is “not a morbid rumination, but a celebration of life, and I’m overjoyed you’ll be revelling with me.”
To help celebrate the publication of Be Scared of Everything, please enjoy the opening essay from the collection, “Interviews with My Family Ouija Board”.
Jackie placed a glass of tap water on the bookshelf, put a dark stone on the ledge, and I lit incense on the table behind us. Aside from the single naked light bulb above the old coffee table, the glow of a wood stove provided most of our light. The four elements, all in their right places—water in the north, fire in the south, air in the east, and earth in the west—were supposed to protect us from what came next. Jackie joined my brother, our mother, Emma, and me, surrounding the Ouija board.
“I’m sorry,” said Jackie, my brother’s partner. This was her first Christmas with us in the small, lonely house on the bay. “This is serious for me.”
We took turns pairing off and conducting the ritual: placing two fingers from each hand at the base of a teardrop- shaped planchette, we rotated the cursor three times and asked, “Is anybody there?”
That’s how we got the first communications. Initials and ages for Jackie’s dead relatives, something that called itself Frudmug, and an entity named Devur that told us about Devon who lives in Heaven and listens to you when “you syn.” When I paired with my mom after those initial summonings, kneeling next to each other, something changed. She asked the first question, usually answered with a hissing slide of the planchette to the top left corner of the board where “YES” is printed, but instead the pointer moved directly forward, encircling the game’s title.
“Do you have a message for someone in this room?” asked Mom.
Yes, said the board. Then it spelled her name.
“What is your message?”
I will see you.
“Where will I see you?”
Where you wish.
“Who is this message from?” I asked.
The words were agreeable. At least, that’s how Mom read them. After the family seance ended, we disassembled the protective circle, and Jackie had us take a moment to offer silent gratitude for the elements. I later found Mom standing in the kitchen alone.
“It makes sense the message was so strong and clear,” she said. “I think it remembered me. It used to be my board, back in the sixties.”
Fifty years before the board talked to her in Jackie’s circle of protection, only a half-hour drive from where our ritual took place, Mom was a preteen at the Central Wire Christmas party. Her dad, my opa, worked for Central Wire as a diamond die polisher, and every year the trades- men and their families celebrated the holidays at Farrell Hall, a community centre that was used for mass on Sundays. When Santa arrived at the party and passed out presents to the kids, he handed little Trudy Zegger, my future mother, a Ouija board.
Unwrapping her present and lifting the lid off the box, Trudy found a grey-brown particle board with a large sticker on its front to make it look wooden. The words “YES” and “NO” were printed in the top left and right corners, next to illustrations of the sun and moon that looked down on the alphabet, which was presented in two curved rows that arch above the numbers zero through nine. The bottom of the board said “GOOD BYE,” and at the very top was the name of the game—Ouija.
My family Ouija board was made in Canada, but the name and its distinct markings are trademarks of the Parker Brothers Game Company of Salem, Massachusetts. I love this detail because it creates such a wonderful contra- diction: an occult object used for divination linked by intellectual property law to a place synonymous with witchcraft, and industrially manufactured en masse by a company syn- onymous with the brazen commercialization of the 1960s board game industry. It’s not an ancient artifact, it’s a toy freckled with copyright and registered trademark symbols. The planchette is made of beige plastic, with little felt pads under its feet. But that just makes it all the creepier when it works.
Trudy’s initial attempts to use the board with her older sister failed to summon anything that knew how to spell. But eventually, the planchette started to answer yes or no questions.
“When I asked who it was, it spelled Rory,” she told me, decades later. “After that, I often thought of Rory out there in the spirit world.”
She played Ouija at pyjama parties, but as the late sixties became the mid-seventies, spiritualism gave way to plain old hanging out. Trudy loitered on Main Street, passing time in cars. She went to house parties and got really into skiing. By the time board games saw a popular resurgence in the eighties, she was in college, living on her own. Far away from the mystifying oracle stored at her parents’ place, she played Pictionary instead of talking to the dead.
I found the Ouija board in my grandmother’s attic a few months after she died from cancer. In life, she went by Corrie, short for Corinthia, but I knew her as Oma. Mom sat with her when she passed, in the TV room of her house deep in Ontario’s Lanark Highlands, where the human population is vastly outnumbered by gasoline-green hummingbirds and moths the size of your hand. On the phone, Mom described her own mother’s moment of death as a gift. A rare experience of receiving every last moment of company Oma had before suddenly being alone in a room, acutely aware of the unseen exits surrounding us. On a sweltering June afternoon, my family sorted through all the belongings that hadn’t been catalogued in her will. That’s what brought me into the crawl space.
A metal chain tapped against a lonely incandescent bulb dangling from the cramped room’s ceiling. I leafed through stacks of old newspapers and magazines, looking for anything with historical novelty, maybe a local newspaper re- porting on the Kennedy assassination, the moon landing, or the Cuban Missile Crisis. Lifting a stack of stale yellow editions of the Perth Courier, I uncovered the board, sitting face up in its lidless box. The room seemed to dim. I heard a buzzing in my ears. Worried it was the beginning of heatstroke, I grabbed the board and turned to leave, only to recoil from the light bulb, now covered in bloated flies, crawling over each other and falling to the wood floor with a gentle tap-tap-tap-tap.
I kept the board. For years, it moved with me from apartment to apartment, never leaving the blue Rubbermaid container I transported it in, until one day, when I felt fully grieved over Oma, I unpacked it and hung the beautiful game board on the wall in my apartment.
“Why are you doing this?” asked Mikaela.
“I’m not moving it,” I said. “I wouldn’t do that to you.”
Still, the planchette slid, hissing as it finished spelling the name of her long-time crush. The line of questioning was classic Ouija. After introducing itself as Oculus, the entity offered information about who Mikaela was going to marry. I met the guy once and knew it was complicated. I’m not a monster.
“Look,” I said. “The easy answer is you’re moving it but you don’t know it.”
“It’s your subconscious,” said Emma, who prefers transcribing spiritual communications, since partaking in them causes her to become light-headed and nauseous.
The secular explanation to Ouija is ideomotor response. Essentially, it’s a type of automatic writing powered by a feedback loop between your eyes, your subconscious mind, and the board. You ask a question with the expectation of having the answer spelled out and, as it is revealed letter by letter, your brain starts puzzle-solving and providing the subsequent characters. The effect is uncanny, and sometimes it feels like the board is reading your mind as the planchette drags your hands around the alphabet. At its best, the experience spurs self-reflection and an examination of the narratives we trace for ourselves. Self- improvement, contemplation, and contentment are the rewards of rationalist approaches to divination. Of course, many people believe it is a conduit to the afterlife—an instant messenger for spooks, spectres, and ghosts that you can buy for twenty bucks at a toy store, appropriate for ages eight and up.
Three years later, Mikaela once again asked the oracle about the person she’d marry. The entity we contacted claimed to be older than names, and said within twelve months of the current Ouija session she would meet a man named Henry in a pet store and marry him. Looking at the seance transcripts side by side, the only consistent through line is the ongoing marriage story Mikaela brings to each encounter. She asks the same questions, gets different answers, and finds a personal truth by carrying the original narrative forward. Now, free of her previous fate of a complicated marriage to a complicated crush, she’s taking a second glance at every pet store she passes, hoping to meet Henry.
Regardless of your spiritual paradigm, Ouija is powerful. Playing the game can uncover forgotten truths. Some studies even show that the boards improve test scores when consulted on world geography assessments. Beseeching entities from beyond can imbue your life with meaning, change your behaviour, channel your obsession, and spur you to action. Ouija, therefore, can be dangerous.
The protective circle Jackie assembles during our winter sessions near the wood stove might seem excessive to non- spiritualists. I never took such precautions and haven’t been possessed by the demon Pazuzu or victimized by a poltergeist. But that’s not the kind of thing she’s worried about. “What if it pretends to be someone you know for the purposes of manipulation?” she asks.
I look to Nick. We’re both thinking about the first and only time he and I queried the board together. Writing an article for a popular technology website about online Ouija boards, I had invited my brother to use the real one I found in Oma’s attic as a control. The idea was to figure out how real Ouija felt. Emma was there, as always, to transcribe.
First, we conducted the seance with our eyes closed, to see if it could spell things without our help. The planchette moved on its own, sliding from letter to letter with forceful intention, but inevitably spelling out gibberish. Our second attempt, with eyes open, was more successful.
We circled the cursor three times and asked, “Is anybody there?”
“What is your name?”
Before the planchette got to the e, tears filled my eyes. A knot in my throat stifled my follow-up question. I glanced at Nick and saw him crying too. Our oma’s name, spelled out on the Ouija board from her attic. Once the shock subsided, we continued to question it, whether to prove to ourselves it was just our subconscious or to confirm her identity, I don’t know.
“Are you with Opa?”
“Is Opa in Heaven?”
“Is Heaven real?”
“Is Opa in Hell?”
Corrie communicated clearly and quickly, outlining a dark story of love failing to transcend life. But the cruelty of being told our grandfather was suffering put us on the defensive. We began to interrogate the entity.
“Oma, when were you born?”
“Where were you from on Earth?”
Those answers didn’t line up. That birthdate would make her too old, and she was definitely not from Denmark, no matter how liberally you interpreted the question. We said goodbye to the thing with Oma’s name and chalked up the unsettling interactions to our lingering remorse that we never really knew her as well as we should have.
Recounting the story to Jackie, the believer, gives it a new and sinister weight. What if, using the board irresponsibly, we summoned an adversary that used our narratives to warp what connection remained between us and our dead relatives, severing us from our intergenerational sense of identity? And in the end, is that demonic intervention better or worse than the alternate explanation that we tortured ourselves with guilt and regret? Within us or without us, our narrative seeped through the empty space between the characters on the Ouija board, forcing us to square with that deepest human vulnerability: questioning. Raw with renewed grief, we were ready to believe anything, so we followed the hissing plastic planchette as it reanimated our dead grandmother one letter at a time.