Not long after 23-year-old Emily moved for quarantine from her bedsit in East London to her family’s terraced house in northeast England, she and her younger brothers unearthed a Ouija board in a pile of old, dusty board games. Her brothers, of course, didn’t take it particularly seriously, and so, when attempting to communicate with the spirit world, the words they “conjured up” were correspondingly dull and generic. Emily considers herself a skeptic, too, but she admits that she was definitely sincere when she asked for “any spirits nearby to connect with her.”
The next thing she knew, her hands were suddenly spelling the word “Petal” — the nickname her recently deceased grandmother gave her.
Given her dalliance with the dead, Emily is now a member of the Facebook group “Ouija Boards & All That Is Paranormal,” among the dozens of such groups that have seen their follower count shoot up since the beginning of the global lockdown. In fact, Carol Baker, an administrator of the Ouija Boards & Paranormal Experiences group, tells me that she’s currently receiving dozens of questions each week from people who either want to find out if their houses are haunted, or if there are ways to communicate with deceased family members while in lockdown. And while some of these people have believed in the paranormal and occult from the get-go, Baker notes that there are plenty of new converts in there, too. (To that end, Ouija boards are among the most popular items being bought on eBay and are quickly selling out on Amazon.)
“Sometimes they’ll join the group after they have a Ouija board experience,” Baker says. “Most of the time it’s when they notice something strange, or if objects keep moving around. It’s definitely because most people are in their houses for longer now, so they’re more likely to notice.”
Similarly, Hayley Stevens, an independent investigator and researcher of paranormal claims in the U.K., says that inquiries about house hauntings have more than doubled since the beginning of the lockdown — particularly from young people. “I think it’s down to the fact that our routines have been greatly disrupted, and we’re all having to face our mortality, which naturally makes us start thinking about the bigger picture,” Stevens tells me. Plus, she adds, “Many young people no longer identify with religions, and so, they’re looking for other ways to find their spiritual identities.”
Because of the mass commercialization of the Ouija board, occult communities are often divided about its legitimacy and effectiveness. Indeed, even among devout believers, Ouija boards are considered a “children’s toy” that mainly exploit the “ideomotor effect,” i.e., how a body can move unconsciously and instinctively. In some cases, that might be sudden jerks while sleeping, but as a 2016 Vox explainer on Ouija boards explains, “Your brain may [also] unconsciously create images and memories when you ask the board questions. Your body responds to your brain without you consciously ‘telling’ it to do so, causing the muscles in your hands and arms to move the pointer to the answers that you — again, unconsciously — may want to receive.”
For her part, Emily hasn’t tried to contact her grandmother again since the Ouija board incident. And she’s still pretty skeptical of the whole thing, believing that “it’s probably the result of me thinking about her a lot since I came back home.” That said, she has been spending a lot more time on occult Facebook groups and watching YouTube tutorials about communicating with spirits that employ more advanced techniques like witchcraft.
Again, she insists, it’s just her falling down an internet wormhole while having nothing better to do. She does add, though, “I have heard some weird noises from my nana’s room this week.”