Right before the New Year during my sophomore year of high school, my best friend and I got out her old Ouija board. As she smoothed away the dust with the palm of her hand and placed the board on the floor in front of us, she recounted to me with great emphasis a series rules I was supposed to follow, like saying “break” before you take your hands off the planchette. There would be something real going on here, she insisted, and so it was important to approach this activity with respect.
I prided myself on being a pure atheist materialist — I never knocked on wood, avoided opening umbrellas in houses, threw salt over my shoulder, or engaged in any other superstitious activities “just in case” — and so this was an opportunity for me to demonstrate my strict adherence to my belief system. No warnings about malevolent spirits could scare me! Confident that this would secure my place as the most rational 16-year-old in the universe, I demonstrated my amazing non-superstitiousness making a big joke out of the whole thing. To my friend’s great concern, I taunted the supposed spirits, denounced the entire activity as dumb, and went out of my way not to observe the little formalities like saying “break” before we stopped.
When we first placed our hands on the planchette, I was startled when it moved without any effort on my part. I quickly shrugged it off, assuming its slide across the board was due either to the actions of my friend, or our collective subconscious desires to have something interesting happen.
Late into the night, probably about half an hour after midnight, more strange things were occurring which my friend attributed to contact with spirits. I started to make a sneering comment toward this supposed otherworldly being, but I was interrupted when the silence of the house was shattered by the loud ringing of the phone in the next room. We both jumped, and my heart beat so rapidly I immediately felt dizzy. Who on earth would be calling at this hour?
We dashed into the other room, a seldom-used home office, and my friend picked up the phone. She stopped one syllable into the word “hello,” paused, and hung up. It was just a dial tone. I picked up the phone and turned it around to switch off the ringer. I almost dropped it back down on the desk when I saw that the ringer was already turned off.
A few weeks later, we decided to try the thing out again, so my friend brought it over to my house. We never got around to playing with it, and I assumed that she took it back to her place. Then, one night around three o’clock in the morning, I awoke from a deep sleep to hear a violent thrashing sound to the right of my bed. I figured it was the cat “fighting” with one of my stuffed animals, and was annoyed since it sounded like he was completely destroying it. I clicked on a lamp and threw myself across the bed to shoo him away…but saw only a motionless pile of stuffed animals and decorative pillows on the floor. My skin prickled with cold sweat when I caught sight of something out of the corner of my eye: my cat, sound asleep on the foot of my bed. With my hand shaking, I slowly tossed each item in the pile by my bed out of the way.
On the floor underneath it lay the Ouija board.
The rest of that year was awful. I was involved in multiple car accidents and some other bad stuff, but the worst of it was that I was mired in a strange type of depression. I’d experienced bouts of depression before and since then, but this one was different. It was an inability to be fully happy, yes, but there was something darker. It was a constant sense of doom, a fear that infected me at a molecular level — though fear of what, I didn’t know. It also came with a virulent hateful streak, one that left me hissing out the nastiest responses (in my mind, if not always spoken) in response to the oddest, most insignificant provocations. It wasn’t as if I was an unhappy version of myself; it was as if my self had been tied up and locked in a basement somewhere, and my body was an abandoned haunted house.
For years I doggedly maintained that there was nothing to the whole Ouija board thing. Even when I first came to believe in God, I still rolled my eyes at the idea that there could be anything dangerous about playing with a cardboard toy that my friend’s mom bought at Target. But then I actually started reading the Bible, and I saw how frequently even the New Testament talks about evil spirits and their powers. I looked at world history and began to see the work of an intelligent evil force, its presence so strong that I wondered how I could have ever overlooked it. I learned more about the reality of good and bad supernatural forces, and the importance of knowing how to distinguish one from the other. And when I thought back on my experience with the Ouija board, I saw that though the “tools” we’d used may have come in the form of a $20 board game, I had participated in an event whose aim was to summon spirits indiscriminately — it didn’t matter whether they were good or evil (or, in my mind at the time, whether they existed at all); the goal was our own amusement. And when I looked back on my experiences in the months following those Ouija board games, I realized that they had all the signs of severe spiritual attack.
In his book Jesus-Shock, Dr. Peter Kreeft talks about how we are “self-centered experience addicts.” When discussing the issue of spiritual dry spells or lack of emotional experiences during prayer, he writes:
We are so addicted to our own positive experiences of joy and happiness that if we experienced Christ more joyfully than we do, we would almost inevitably come to love our experience of Christ more than Christ Himself. We would come to worship our experience, that is, ourselves.
Here he is talking about the dangers of worshiping positive sensations that come from contact with God instead of God himself, but I think the flipside is true also: we can end up accidentally cooperating with evil when we approach the spiritual realm with our own experiences as our first priorities.
I think that the reason that dabbling in the occult has had an increased appeal in recent decades is simply because people are bored, and yearn for interesting distractions. The Holy Spirit speaks in a still, small voice, and God doesn’t make cool stuff happen on command like a parlor magician. You can probably gather more thrill-a-minute stories while dabbling in the occult than you could while carrying your cross behind Christ. As we say in our baptismal promises, evil has a certain hollow “glamor” to it that a life faithful to God does not.
Lately I’ve been in yet another of my many spiritual dry spells, and I sometimes find it frustrating that I haven’t had any amazing experiences during prayer like I have in the past. But remembering my experience from high school serves as a warning not to fixate so much on whether I am personally entertained in my prayer life. Not that I’d go all the way to breaking out a Ouija board and channeling spirits if my reading of the Gospels continues to be dry, but I am reminded that the quest for spiritual glamor always leads down a dangerous path.