Stories For Ghosts

Horror for the Discerning Fan

Category: Childhood (page 1 of 2)

November 2017 Horror – Serial Killers, Revenge Plots, and Office Mayhem

Halloween has come and gone, leaving horror movies in its wake like so many crumpled candy wrappers on my coffee table. Just as we kind of ignore Thanksgiving and skip from Halloween to Christmas, November’s horror release calendar makes me long for December when The Shape of Water will grace theaters.

And yet, even though it’s a slow time of year for horror movies, all is not lost. Yes, there are some real stinkers on November’s slate, but look at the bright side! I’ve found a few promising movies here, like My Friend Dahmer, The Killing of a Sacred Deer, and Mayhem, all of which have toured the festivals and gained critical acclaim as examples of innovative and striking horror filmmaking. Sometimes it’s the most unassuming horror movies that make the biggest impact, right?

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How the Ouija Board Went from Family Pastime to Demonic Threat

For my childhood, “occult” games were a staple. During recess, we used origami fortune tellers and other strange little rituals to divine our futures. My friends and I loved to play light as a feather, stiff as a board at sleepovers and camp. And we played with Ouija boards, asking the spirits to tell us our futures and answer all the inane questions a preteen girl might ask. We had even learned how to make Ouija boards out of construction paper and markers, just in case an actual board wasn’t available.

Most of us didn’t believe that Ouija boards worked and certainly didn’t believe that a spirit could lash out from the board. We accused each other of manipulating the planchette. We also had great fun scaring each other with scary stories. It wasn’t real, but that didn’t stop us from always observing proper Ouija board etiquette. Never use the board alone. Delegate one person to ask questions so as not to confuse the spirit. Be polite. Always be sure to say hello and goodbye to properly “close” the board. And if shit gets weird, throw salt on the board (or rip it up, should you be using a paper board).

It was a fun trick to feel like we’d gotten deliciously close to something mysterious and supernatural, like telling ghost stories and shivering by the campfire. Nothing more.

Thus, I’m always surprised when I hear that someone is genuinely wary of Ouija boards. It doesn’t seem to make sense that otherwise rational people would vehemently insist that Ouija boards are evil and dangerous. “Why would you mess with that?” they ask? “You’re just asking for trouble.”

I always disagree, explaining that it’s just a game. A really good example of how the ideometer effect works. It’s just a silly, thrilling way to probe the darkness of our obscured subconscious but in a way that’s easy for children to grasp. If God wanted me to become possessed, I would insist, it would happen regardless of any Ouija board.

Still, the Ouija board’s drastic and unwieldy power looms large in the minds of many. It has a uniquely America history. It’s a mainstay of the American obsession with the occult. We love a spectacle, especially if it’s a little scary, bringing us close enough to see a faint glimmer of what we’ve long suspected to be true. A part of us wants to touch the other side and another part of us wants to be convinced that it’s just a game. But America also loves to shake its fingers at things it doesn’t understand, as many conservative Christians swear that Ouija boards should be avoided as un-Christian.

How did we get here? How did a game become regarded as a beacon for the demon world?

In case you didn’t know, a Ouija board is a wooden board inscribed with the alphabet, numbers, “Yes,” “No,” and “Goodbye.” It comes with a heart-shaped planchette that the spirits use to “communicate” by moving over the board and resting on letters and numbers. It’s a variation of the talking board and automatic writing, which have been used by human beings for centuries.

While talking boards and automatic writing are nothing new, the Ouija board is an American invention. The Ouija board rose in popularity due to the American Spiritualism movement, which exploded onto the scene in 1848. The meteoric rise of the Fox Sisters launched the movement as the first celebrity mediums. They claimed to have communicated with spirits through a series of knocks and rappings in their parents’ farmhouse. They took their unique talents on the road, touring America and Europe and holding impressive séances in front of paying audiences. Soon, Spiritualism had gripped the country. In an era where the average lifespan was less than 50 years (if you survived childhood, disease, childbirth, and war), the opportunity to commune with deceased loved ones was irresistible. People of all walks of life engaged in these practices and spent vast amounts of money. Even First Lady Mary Todd Lincoln held séances in the White House in an effort to contact her son, who had died at the age of eleven.

After the Civil War, during which mediums and spiritualists experienced a boom in business, mediums made an effort to streamline the séance. The ritual could drag on for hours and get boring as mediums deciphered the rappings and spirit writings. Talking boards were easier, less complicated, and they could be used by almost anyone.

America’s industrious businessmen saw an opportunity, recognizing that talking boards could be packaged and marketed in such a way that grieving Americans could cut out the middleman and literally circumvent mediums. In 1890, Charles Kennard, a Baltimore businessman, founded the Kennard Novelty Company and set about to become the exclusive mass-producer of talking boards for the American public. Armed with an eerie name and an aura of mystique, Kennard secured a patent from the US Patent Office for his Ouija boards. Legend has it that Kennard was able to “prove” the board worked by correctly answering personal questions about the patent officer working at the time, which scared the patent office and secured the patent. Whether or not you believe that story, the point is that Kennard was able to scare the hell out of the poor patent officer, paving the way for the Kennard Novelty Company to make a fortune selling Ouija boards.

 

After that, the Kennard Novelty Company marketed the Ouija board as an otherworldly oracle, capable of allowing the user to divine the secrets of the spirit world. But they also marketed it as a wholesome family fun, because who wouldn’t want to have a delightful time together trying to summon Grandma? Notably, the Ouija board was most popular during hard times, when war, disease, and cultural upheaval dominated headlines. Historian Robert Murch explained, in an interview with Smithsonian Museum, that many people used the board to affirm their deepest wishes for an afterlife. “People want to believe,” he said. “The need to believe that something else is out there is powerful. [The Ouija board] is one of those things that allows them to express that belief.”

And so, the Ouija board became culturally ubiquitous. Writers boasted about using Ouija boards to “dictate” whole novels written by spirits. It was featured in episodes of I Love Lucy and Bewitched as well as in films like The Uninvited and 13 Ghosts. Norman Rockwell used it in one of his iconic pictures for the Saturday Evening Post. In 1967, the board outsold monopoly. While some sensational news stories linked the board to depraved murders and tales of insanity, the vast majority of people did not feel threatened by Ouija boards. At the very most, it was a tool. At the very least, it was a game.

Until The Exorcist came along.

In a pivotal scene in the film, Regan MacNeil shows her mother how she uses an Ouija board to communicate with a spirit named Captain Howdy. Things seem innocent at first, and while the film never explicitly links her use of the Ouija board to her demonic possession, the implications are clear that a demon took advantage of the board to lie to Regan, gain her trust, and ultimately possess her.

Audiences flipped. Not only was the movie terrifying as a whole, but the Ouija board scene proved especially controversial. Religious groups were quick to denounce Ouija boards as a dangerous tool of the devil. (Interestingly, the Catholic Church supported the film and provided consulting behind the scenes.)

“It’s kind of like Psycho,” explained Murch. “No one was afraid of showers until that scene… It’s a clear line.”

After The Exorcist, Ouija boards were transformed from a radio for the dead to a portal through which Satan could drag children into torment and damnation. Numerous religious authorities and publications warned against using Ouija boards (along with fortune telling and horoscopes), claiming that Ouija boards were an affront to God. Religious leaders like Billy Graham warned that Ouija boards would not only lead the faithful away from God but into entanglements with Satan.  Pat Roberts said that “Demons can control a Ouija board, and you begin to deal with the occult, that’s who you’re dealing with. You’re not dealing with Jesus, you’re not dealing with God, you’re dealing with demonic.”

While it’s weird to me that Pat Roberts gets his knowledge of demonic possession from horror movies, it’s not surprising. After The Exorcist, horror writers and directors everywhere started using the Ouija board as a convenient plot device. It became a nationally recognized symbol for a reckless tool that even the best mediums could not control. Movies like the Witchboard series, The Craft, What Lies Beneath, The Exorcism of Emily Rose, the Paranormal Activity series, The Conjuring 2, and the Ouija series all feature Ouija boards, adding to the status of the board as a dangerous device vulnerable to demonic interference.

ouija

Presently, the Ouija board is used more for the thrill of the unknown than for spiritual purposes. It is still very popular, experiencing a bump in sales from the release of Ouija. And the board still has its detractors, with numerous religious groups speaking out against it. In 2001, a New Mexico church burned Ouija boards alongside Harry Potter books.

Real or not, Ouija boards are here to stay. Personally, I think the enduring draw of the Ouija board is significant and natural. The board is some of the most concrete evidence we have showing how we create our own scary stories. We invent the monsters. We summon the ghosts. We find our fears spelled out underneath the planchette’s window. We have become so distanced from death that we fear it now, and Ouija boards reflect that. This game, this spooky little ritual, allows us to find answers hidden deep within our psyches. Even if you have never used a Ouija board, your conception of the board says a lot about you without you having to ever ask the board a question.

Just because we don’t like the answers doesn’t mean we should stop asking questions.

 

List of sources:

1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7

 

 

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12 Scary Banned or Challenged Books You Loved as a Kid

The 35th annual Banned Books Week is winding down, and this year, countless readers have enjoyed the myriad of books that have faced challenges and suffered bans in the United States. Founded in 1982 by the Banned Books Week Coalition, Banned Books week aims to document and raise awareness of book censorship in America. The Coalition also wants to start and sustain a dialogue within communities, between concerned parents, libraries, and publishers to address book censorship.

After revisiting my favorite challenged children’s series , I wanted to document the scary books that have touched children’s lives and garnered challenges in the U.S. I’m a firm believer that scary, age-appropriate stories do a lot of good for young children by making their fears and anxieties manageable and recognizable. I also believe that it’s a “tragic mistake to deprive a child of a book that will allow them to face and discuss the things that make them afraid. Repressing those fears only makes them more afraid.”

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It (2017) Review – A Good Effort, But Not a Home Run

*Mild Spoilers for It**

I’ve known about It for as long as I can remember. It was that massive brick of book that sat on the shelf at the public library, daring me to secretly check it out and sneak it home, where I could read it under the covers at night. It was also that early 90s TV movie starring Tim Curry that my parents wouldn’t let me see, and that I didn’t see until I watched it during a slumber party.  Growing up, It was the epitome of horror, not only because of the scary clown, but because children were the target of his evil, and It was not afraid to depict child murder.

It really went there, and many 90s kids won’t forget it. Many of us flocked to movie theaters last weekend and forked over cash to see the latest adaptation of It. I, for one, was almost giddy with excitement. I wanted to be scared sh*tless. I wanted to recapture some of the terror I felt reading the novel. I’ve grown up, but I still remember the exquisite and sickening pain of growing up, of realizing the evil in the world.

But this adaptation didn’t make me feel that.

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New September 2017 Horror Releases!

Did you know It, the long-anticipated major studio adaptation of Stephen King’s most messed up novel, is being released this month? Of course you did, because those freaky trailers have been everywhere!

Did you know that Darren Aronofsky’s mother! is also being released and marks the director’s return to exquisite psychological horror? You sure do if you follow this blog, because I won’t shut up about it.

With those two films only, September 2017 is a good month for new horror movies. The same garden-variety, lamesauce horror films crop up (Temple, The Sound), but we’ve also got a few Netflix and indie horror movies that are worth a closer look (The Limehouse Golem, FlatlinersDon’t Sleep).

Enjoy!

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Relive High School with These Back-to-School Horror Movies

One of my guiltiest pleasures is the high school horror movie. I can’t get enough of the cheesy teenaged angst, bad acting, and messy murders on school property. Masked maniacs, fleeing cheerleaders, shady teachers, and terrible secrets are all hallmarks of this horror subgenre that just won’t seem to die. It seems that, despite how boring we thought high school was, the high school horror movie strikes a chord over and over again.

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The Opulent, Violent Beauty of Suspiria: An Appreciation Post

1977 was a damn good year for cinema with the release of modern film classics like Star Wars, Saturday Night Fever, Annie Hall, and Close Encounters of the Third Kind. It was also an inspired year for horror, with The Hills Have Eyes, Eraserhead, Rabid, and, of course, Dario Argento’s masterpiece, Suspiria. One of the most iconic horror films ever, Suspiria enjoyed the 40th anniversary of its world premiere a few months ago. Just a few days ago, it enjoyed the 40th anniversary of its American release.

Suspiria is one of my favorite horror movies. Full stop. Not only is it violent and horrifying, it’s freakin’ gorgeous. Gory and unsettling, its visuals are beautiful and opulent. Suspiria is a true experience, more than a straightforward movie-watching experience. Like the giallo movies from which Suspiria is descended, the film explores the stunning effect of horrific violence rendered cinematic. Of all the giallo films, Suspiria achieves a rare kind of horror movie sublimity, slipping into your subconscious like a long, thin blade. Continue reading

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Call Your Mother, Then Watch These Horror Movies for Mother’s Day

One of the most popular horror movie trope is the Bad, Scary Mother. It’s not just horror movies that love to trot out a fearsome mother figure. Norma Bates wasn’t the first controlling, abusive mother to terrify her children, and she won’t be the last. Medea, Cinderella’s evil stepmother, Cersai Lannister—human culture and literature has countless examples of maternal figures that are selfish, manipulative, and downright evil. These figures are powerful because they fly in the face of our ideal image of what a mother should be.

And what should a mother be? This Mother’s Day, like all others, we will celebrate our mothers for their nurturing natures, for how loving and supportive and selfless and kind they’ve been to us. We will post cute vintage pictures of our mothers, young and bright-eyed, holding colorful little bundles of joy on their laps. We will send them flowers, buy them nice gifts, bring them chocolates, and wait on them hand and foot. They have given so much to us, we will say. They’ve sacrificed so much for us. They’ve been good mothers.

Does a bad mother fail to do all of that? Is that how easy it is to tell who is a good mommy and who is a bad mommy?

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La Catrina – Icon of Death, Beauty, and Dia de Los Muertos

Today is All Saint’s Day! Or as we celebrate it in Texas, El Dia de Los Muertos, a Mexican holiday. For the uninitiated, El Die de Los Muertos is a vibrant, introspective holiday devoted to remembering the dead. Those who celebrate the holiday will tend to the graves of their deceased loved ones, cleaning the tombstones, arranging flowers and altars, and leaving food and small offerings. They do this to invite the spirits to visit so that the departed will hear the prayers of their living relatives.

While this sounds like it could be morbid and depressing, El Dia de Los Muertos is actually cheerful and uplifting. People are encouraged to remember the dead fondly by recounting happy and funny stories about them. This attitude carries over into the festival itself, which is often whimsically macabre and very enjoyable.

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Marfa, Train Tracks, and Haunted Hotels: The Best Texas Ghost Stories

October is slowly coming to a close, and Halloween is almost here. Since I’ve been doing my Halloween Blogging Blitz, I’ve reflected a great deal on scary stories. Why do we tell them? Why do we listen to them?

I hope that, if you’ve been following any of my posts, that you’ve learned that so many horror films and books are art. And as art, they help us reflect upon reality: our prejudices, our fears, our secret desires. The right ghost story has much to teach us.

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