Conversations with the Other Side

Let me start this post with a huge disclaimer: although today's piece is about something that's ostensibly a game, it doesn't involve role playing games.

This tale comes from a period I call my Inter-RPG-num, a few years during which I had set aside role playing games in favor of hanging out with friends, getting into trouble (or narrowly avoiding it while my friends got into it, to be accurate), getting drunk, etc. The memories I mentioned in yesterday's post got me thinking about my friend, Walter, and this period of my life, and I just figured I'd share it.

Feel free to skip this post unless you've a passion for weirdness and the supernatural.

Although I wasn't playing RPGs or creating content for them after the middle of the 1980s had passed, my imagination hadn't in any way abated, nor had my love of horror. My horror fandom was in full swing in this period, and I have fond recollections from the period between late-'85 and mid-'89 when I wasn't playing games, but my imagination was as active as ever.

The group of friends I hung out with at that time would have been the freaks if my life were an episode of Freaks & Geeks. They were all younger than me be a couple of years, but I have always felt more at home with younger people than I have with those my own age. I don't even recall how I came to be friends with them, but our common interests had certainly been a factor that drew us together. The main thing that bound us to each other was our love for punk music and culture, which had finally reached our sleepy town in the middle of nowhere.

But we all also had a love for the horror genre - although I'm sure mine ran more deeply than did the others'. We went to horror movies together, discovered and explored the local cemeteries (always in the dead of night), and were even planning on shooting a horror film using my parents' VHS camera. (The latter, alas, never came to fruition.)

Then, in the late spring of 1987, something happened to me that would take everything to the next level.

The origins of the event(s) I'm about to relate stem from that period of my youth during which I was both attracted to and repulsed by all things supernatural and scary. As I've said before, I was afflicted with terrible nightmares almost every night, and the horror and dread I experienced in my sleep colored my day-to-day life.

I grew up in a 100-year-old farmhouse in the country, surrounded by hills, fields, and deep forests. The ancient, stone-walled cellar was off limits to me, as was the giant attic (which I believe had once been a master bedroom consisting of two rooms and adjoining servants' quarters that had been converted into a bath before the whole area was abandoned and became "the attic").

So, of course, I frequented these locations whenever I was left unattended.

The attic was a font of bizarre relics. I had six older brothers and sisters, the youngest of whom was ten years my senior. The attic was where everything they'd left behind when they moved away went to live. It was densely packed with clothes, books, toys, games, etc. I would often go digging for treasure and sneaking promising toys or games into my room. (And I was just as often caught and punished for having gone into the attic. Not that that ever deterred me.) There was one "game," however, that I frequently ran across but never, ever considered bringing out of that dark, dusty attic.

That game was called "Ouija."

Image courtesy of Maison de l'Alchimiste via Flickr

The image above could very well have been of the very box I tried hard not to look at in my regular forays into the attic. It's the same box, in the same or similar condition, as the one I recall so vividly from the 1970s. I didn't know what the box contained, but nothing that looked like that could be a good thing.

On a trip into the attic with my sister (it was okay for me to go, as long as I was accompanying one of my parents or siblings when they went looking for something) in '74 or '75 I pointed out the box lurking in the corner and asked what that word was.

"That's a 'weejie' board," she said. She opened the box and showed me its strange contents: a board with letters, numbers, and the words "Yes," "No," and "Good Bye" on it, and a vaguely heart-shaped piece of yellowed plastic with three legs with felt feet and an open hole at its center. "You use it to talk to dead people. It spells out words."

I was aghast. My suspicions had been on the money - nothing good lurked within that battered old box.

"You mean ghosts?" I asked.

She nodded. "But I don't think it works anymore. There used to be a little window here, but it's missing."

She stuck her finger through the open hole in the center of the plastic piece. I was thankful it was broken - the last thing I wanted was to be in the same house as something that would let dead people talk to me. She laughed, probably because she knew the missing plastic window had nothing to do with the board's ability to function. My siblings loved messing with me like that. Probably because I was naive and gullible.

For years I would continue to avoid that box containing the broken hotline-to-the-dead.

For some reason, though, it continued to intrigue me. (The same way everything that scared me also held a strange attraction for me.) I would find myself drawn to it as the years passed, and avoiding looking at it gradually became examining the box. Avoiding touching it gradually became picking it up. And avoiding opening the box gradually became inspecting its contents closely.

I found myself examining the plastic piece and its open hole. (I didn't yet know that it was called a "planchette.") I looked closely at the hole, at the three tabs spaced evenly around the circle, obviously where the plastic window would snap into place. I wondered how a missing piece of clear plastic could cause the game to be broken. Perhaps the center of that window - which clearly showed a dot in the instructions on the back of the game box - held a small magnet? And the board, beneath the veneer holding the letters, numbers, and words, similarly had small magnets in it? How else could this game spell out words, and how else could the missing plastic window affect the game's ability to communicate with the dead?

The next step was the logical one: attempt to prove that the board was indeed broken. As my fear of the game waned, I found myself brave enough to set it on my lap, place my hands on the planchette (or the "message indicator," as I knew it by at the time, because that's what the instructions called it), and wait for the dead to speak.

They never did.

I was vaguely disappointed - perhaps the board was indeed broken, as my sister had said. I would try this experiment several more times as the '70s became the '80s. At first alone, then with my nephew. But the dead never spoke. Eventually, I gave up trying to coax the broken game to life. I more or less forgot it.

As the '80s progressed and my once-begrudged, denied love of horror blossomed, I found myself seeking outlets for my passion. Fortuitously, a new technology had also blossomed: video cassettes. With this came the advent of movies on VHS, and video rental stores. I would find myself regularly visiting the local video monger, going straight to the horror section to see what new gems I could find there that might sate my desire for creeps and gore.

It was on one such trip in early 1987 that I discovered a movie that had premiered the previous year: Witchboard.

Talk about a no-brainer - I watched the movie twice that night, accompanied by my nephew for at least one of the viewings. Unlike most video tapes, which I had to watch on the 13" TV in my bedroom, I was able to view Witchboard on the large TV in the living room. My parents were away for the week, taking an unprecedented vacation by themselves. I had the house to myself.

After the final viewing of the movie, which I loved at the time (even though "Patch" died - sorry if that's a spoiler for you) I looked at my nephew:

"Wanna get the 'wee-ja' [the movie taught us well] from the attic?" I asked.

Moments later, we were sitting in my room, the game board on our laps as it had been dozens of times before. As so many times before, we hoped and feared that the dead would speak to us.

They did.

I didn't push the planchette. After a couple of vehemently denied accusations, I trusted that he wasn't pushing it, either. So we spent the next two hours communicating with the dead, mostly in the form of one of our ancestors who went by the moniker "Zed." (I know, right?)

I don't know what Zed was. I don't know if he was our subconscious minds speaking to us, the dead ancestor he claimed to be, or something else. But Zed had a lot to say about the board (it ceased being a game the moment it started "working"), about the spirits (or whatever they were we would speak) to (he called them the "Voices"), and other things. Zed warned us that nothing the Voices had to say to us should be taken at face value and that we should take care and treat the board and the Voices with both respect and disbelief.

I don't recall what else Zed had to say, or what any of the other Voices we talked to that night said. I had a small notebook that I kept notes of those conversations in, but unfortunately I lost it several years ago in a move. But we spoke at length to Zed and others that night, and the next.

Of course, since I was alone in the old house - the Ouija board slept in the wood shed. (Better safe than sorry. I'd seen enough horror movies by that point to know not to take unnecessary risks.)

By the third night, we'd involved my circle of friends in the Ouija sessions. We took turns using the board, marveling at the words from the aether. We were all enthralled by it, so much so that shortly thereafter I bought a new one (with an undamaged, complete planchette - yay!) which I took to carrying in my car. It fit perfectly under the passenger seat. We would break it out at each others' houses, at parties, even once at the decrepit, overgrown, century-and-a-half old graveyard we liked to visit in the middle of the night. (Only once because it wouldn't work there. And after an unnerving and bizarre experience we had at the place a few weeks later, we were reluctant to go there again - much less use a Quija board within the borders of its fallen iron gates.)

But back to Walter, and the memory that was sparked by yesterday's post.

Walter and I used that board everywhere that summer. It was an amusement, nothing more. It was fun because it was such an oddity - and a little creepy. We used it so often I've forgotten most of our sessions with it.

But one stands out clearly.

As I said, we were all into the punk rock scene. But in rural New York in the mid-to-late-'80s, it was hard to find that scene. The major record stores carried a limited selection of the music, and aside from us, no one we knew was into it. But someone introduced one of Walter's other friends (a total sociopath I tried to avoid as best I could) to a guy in the nearby "City" to someone named Ron, who was "a real hardcore punk." Walter got invited to a party at Ron's house, and I drove.

We arrived late afternoon, and gathered in the backyard of Ron's mother's house. We mingled with the people that straggled in, a diverse group of late teens and twenty-somethings. We talked music, mostly, but a bit about who we were and what we were into, our likes and dislikes.

Of course, the topic turned to the supernatural.

At the mention of it, people started sharing ghost stories. (To this day, I love swapping ghost stories with people - I just don't get to do it very much.) Two of the people were Ron's longtime friends.

"Ron's house is haunted," one of them said, thumbing over his shoulder at the boring Cape Cod behind him.

"Really?" I said.

"Oh yeah," the other friend said in a serious tone.

People started to crowd around as they went on to relate how a few years earlier they came over one day looking for Ron. They knocked on his front door, but there was no answer. The friends said they went around to the back door, where the inner door was open but the outer screen door was locked. They called loudly for Ron - and a strange woman neither had ever seen appeared at the door and screamed at them to get off her property. Ron later confirmed their story, and said he and his mom were out shopping at the time. There was no one else in the house.

It was a cool, creepy tale, and I tucked it away with the rest of my collection of ghostly anecdotes.

Walter then brought up our Ouija board sessions, and the engaged crowd grew larger. Almost everyone at the party was involved in the conversation now, and as the backyard grew dark and we all moved indoors, everyone was expressing interest in our tales. Ron sat in a leather chair in his living room, listening as the party goers began to share their own Ouija experiences. He'd gone inside some time earlier, before the talk of supernatural experiences had begun.

"Bullshit," he said. "Those things are fake."

Ron was a fairly tall guy, maybe not muscular, but tall enough to be threatening when he wanted to be. He had a hard edge, and a slightly intimidating presence, even when he wasn't trying. And he seemed almost personally insulted by people talking about their experiences as if they were real.

We tried to explain the validity we felt in our own experiences, but he maintained his position.


That's when I told him I had a board out in my car - we could prove it to him, if he wanted. We could try to contact whatever was in his house. He accepted with a snort of derision. Within a few minutes, Walter and I were seated on his living room floor, the Ouija board on our knees. We called out to the spirits as Ron sat nearby, ridiculing the proceedings. He continued to do so, even as the planchette began to move. He at first proclaimed us to be fakes, moving the panchette intentionally, but eventually let us relay what the board was saying.

As it spun a tale of previous residents of the house, allegedly from the "mouth" of the husband of the couple that had once lived there, Ron only became more enraged. He stopped mocking Walter and I and began arguing with the Voice controlling the board. The plancehtte swept angrily over the letters, faster and faster as he threw insults at whatever it was spewing what he repeatedly decried as lies. Walter and I struggled just to keep our fingers on the thing. It began throwing insults back, and ultimately - to no one's surprise - it declared that Ron would die soon.

Ron scoffed. "And how am I going to die?"

"Suicide," the letters spelled out.

Ron burst out laughing. "No way!" he said. "No way I'd ever commit suicide!"

"Angela," the board said.

Ron's threatening stance faltered. His arms went limp at his sides. His face dropped, and I could swear he went pale. He turned - without a word - and walked to the bathroom off the kitchen, went in, and closed the door.

The girl who had been sitting quietly on the couch near Ron's leather chair - painting a Dead Kennedys logo on his black leather jacket - got up and rushed to the door. We all watched - the whole room - as she tried the door handle but found it locked. She knocked frantically on the door.

"Ron? Ron, are you okay?"

"Go away," was the distant response.

"Ron, let me in - I just want to talk."

She stood pressed against the door for several tense moments. Finally, we all heard the faint sound of the lock turning. She slipped in and closed the door behind her. We heard them talking, but their voices were too low to make out.  We all sat and wondered at what was going on. The rest of Ron's friends and acquaintances were as baffled as Walter and I.

Safely assuming our Ouija session was over, Walter and I got up and returned the board to its resting place under the seat of my car. We walked back up to the front porch of Ron's house, but I told Walter I couldn't go back inside but instead needed to sit on the porch for a bit. I was exhausted, and totally overheated - I'd felt like I was ready to pass out as Ron's argument with the Voice reached its crescendo. I didn't mention this to Walter, but he said it was a good idea.

"I'm so freaking hot," he said.

We were discussing our mutual state of fatigue when Ron's friend - the girl - came outside.

"It's okay," she told us in a solemn, hushed voice. "He came out of the bathroom. I think he'll be okay."

"What was wrong with him?" I said.

She looked back through the open front door, as if to make sure no one within could hear what she was about to say. Then she turned back to the two of us and leaned in. "You can't tell anyone what I'm about to tell you."

We nodded.

"Angela was a girl Ron was seeing last year. He really loved her, and she broke up with him. Afterward he called me - and I had to talk him out of killing himself."

I will never know what spoke through Walter and me that night, or what did so through me and my friends all the other nights from that summer until I stopped using the Ouija board (in 1993, after the birth of my first son). But this was certainly the weirdest, most memorable experience we had with that "game."

(I'd like to say it was the weirdest, most memorable experience Walter and I ever shared, but that's not true. I'll save that tale for another time, however.)

Image courtesy