There’s a lot in life to laugh about, and that’s what makes being here on earth pretty damn great. But, there are select facets that shouldn’t be mocked. While the more somber aspects of this world certainly serve as an important reminder of our own mortality and set off a chain of contemplation that excites human curiosity, they’re not exactly the best stress relievers. So, if you’re looking for a more lighthearted read, I suggest you check out last week’s parody of hokey haunted attractions. But, if you’re looking for a story of a true haunt, and aren’t afraid of some earnest emotion, I encourage you to read on.
After a weekend of unseasonably warm weather, tides started to turn as my sister and I walked out of dinner Sunday night. It had started to rain and the temperature must have dropped about twenty degrees. Completely unprepared in muscle tanks and no umbrellas, we made a mad dash to the car, reaching directly for the heat. As the clouds moved in, darkness began to quickly fall and visibility became piss poor. Nearly missing our turn into the shopping center, I felt like our quest for a Ouija board in time for Halloween was going to be an uphill battle. We carefully circled the strip until we found our first stop of potential carriers, Toys-R-Us. After all, it’s just a game, right?
The rain had become torrential, but after a good while of sitting parked, there seemed to be no end in sight. So we made a run for it.
Despite our mild distraction of the nostalgia around us—the glowing pink of the Barbie section, the deep baskets of discounted art supplies—we got directly down to business in the board game isle. I looked closely at the center that seemed to house all of the old classics. Scrabble, Monopoly, and so on. Nothing. We ventured further downward towards the fantasy role-play games. I held out hope that maybe we were getting warmer, but still, nothing. Frustrated and unwilling to admit to a defeat that would lead to our having to trudge through the elements to give another store a shot, we decided to make a last ditch effort in the Halloween section. While the inventory was mostly limited to miniature batman and witch costumes, we did stumble upon a teenage employee — a young lad in Chucks and thick-rimmed glasses who I felt like I could utter the word “Ouija” to without him recoiling.
“Do you need help finding anything?” he asked, smiling innocently.
Julie and I glanced at each other.
“Y’all got Ouija Boards?” I asked.
The lad stopped scanning his spooky castle Lego set.
“Yeah,” he laughed. “But they’re kind of lame. I got mine at Spencer’s and it’s pretty rad. But ours are battery operated,” he explained as we followed his lead back to the board game isle.
“Seems a little bit like cheating to me,” I said, mentally cursing the fact that the mall closes early on Sunday.
He stopped again in the center, opposite to where I had intently scanned the classics. There was a hole in the otherwise packed display.
“Huh, that’s weird,” he said. “We must be sold out. Oh wait, what’s this?”
He pivoted to the front of his Chucks, reaching for a brown box perched almost out of sight at the very top of the shelf.
Ouija, the cover read.
The lad examined the find closely.
“Well, I guess we do carry ones without batteries. Just your luck!”
He placed it in my hands and all three of us stood in a triangle for a good silent moment. In retrospect there was an air of astonishment that we clearly weren’t quite comfortable articulating.
“Well, thanks so much…” I said, finally breaking the circle.
We left to find the rain had stopped.
They say it’s something you’re called to, and I have certainly kept it no secret that it’s one to which I’ve been receptive. Still, contrary to what you may expect given my usual sloppy behavior, I’ve never really spent Halloween night partying. Even when I was young and went trick-or-treating, there was something remarkably ritualistic about it. After following my trusted route from door to door, I would return home to empty my treat bag on my living room floor, going through piece by piece and sorting into different categories while reveling in AMC Fear Fest. Sure, with holidays comes tradition, but as I’ve grown older, I’ve come to understand Halloween as something deeper as I’ve been compelled to put the hypnotic state to good use. Well, maybe not good, but to use nonetheless.
Something snapped in me Sunday, like a splintering twig or a tightening knot. I needed to get that board. Taking it home from the store that night, I felt relief that it had been procured. As soon as I had it in my apartment, I laid it out on the hardwood of my living room floor, carefully unwrapping it and removing the lid. To my surprise, the planchette was some assembly required. I tried to move the body around on the box lid, but it was almost immobile without its feet. One by one, I screwed in the black bumpers into the bottom of its legs. 1, 2, 3. It was so stupidly simple I wondered why it couldn’t have just been done during manufacturing. I began the second of the two steps, applying the convex eye into the body’s center.
It let out a decisive snap, like a splintered twig, like a tightened knot, affirming its place.
I had just answered my own question.
I was sure to store the instructions page in between the board and the planchette, as they are forbidden to touch unattended, and placed the lot back in the box, allowing it to lay hallowed in the center of the room.
It was ready.
My Halloween day was surprisingly pleasant. Despite it being Monday, work came and went without much issue. I came home and sat down with my dinner in front of The Amityville Horror. It was all so ordinary, but playing the board, the last activity I had planned for the day, didn’t leave the back of my mind. It was not out of dread, but not out of excitement either. It was a matter of fact, meant to be in the greater world order; my will as a replica god within the larger god that is the universe.
As the movie credits began to roll, I left to pick up my sister from work. Despite living only a block over from about ten bars, the streets were quiet and tired, as were we. As we returned home, I sat on the floor next to the board, my sister hovering over in an attempt to decide whether she wanted to say goodnight or join in the game. Quite frankly, I was having the same inner debate, even though it was just surface-level; deep down I knew that this was a box that I was unwilling to leave unchecked, and deep down, my sister being my big sister wasn’t about to allow me to check it alone.
By the light of a single candle, we placed our index fingers on the planchette, spinning it circularly twice across the alphabet.
“Is anyone there?” I called out, my voice echoing across the uninsulated floor until it hit the plaster walls.
The planchette sat still. I mentally braced myself for a half-hour of feeling like a fool.
“Is anyone there?” I called out again, this time a bit more intelligibly.
Slowly but deliberately, it began to move.
“I’m scared. Let’s close it,” my sister said in a single breath.
“No, it’s okay,” I whispered as reassuringly as I could.
The eye landed precisely over YES.
I thanked it for choosing to communicate with us, and asked for its name. The planchette shifted downwards and a bit towards the right, landing on “D.” My heart sank a bit, praying that the next letter wasn’t going to be “E” for devil or demon. Thankfully, it didn’t, traveling instead to R-E-S-E.
“Drese,” I said with some hesitancy, unsure about the proper pronunciation. “Is that correct?”
Drese confirmed by leading us back to YES.
I could hear my sister breathing heavily out of fear. I knew she wasn’t moving it. Despite being siblings, pranking isn’t the sense of humor we share together.
“Did you used to live in this house?” I asked.
Our apartment is in one of Baltimore’s signature crumbling row homes that’s seen a day or two, and I had felt a presence the day we moved in. But, to my relief, and probably to Julie’s too, the planchette shifted towards the dead center of the board and up to the right over NO.
“So where are you from?”
There was movement directly downwards over the M before puttering around briefly around the L, only to move back towards M.
“Are you from Maryland?”
I had a fleeting theory that maybe it was trying to spell out the name of my state, but didn’t have the strength to do so fully. But I was wrong. Drese led us directly back to NO. I thought perhaps I was missing the point; maybe Drese wasn’t as interested as sharing its biographical details of the past as much as those of its present state.
I let silence hang for a minute.
“Do you know how you passed away?”
Drese moved us downwards again, and then back towards NO.
As I realized that we might be dealing with a confused soul, my fingers began to tremble so badly that the tips of my acrylics made tiny shuttering taps against the plastic of the planchette. As kindly as I could, I asked the question that I knew needed to be addressed in order to gauge its intent.
“Are you happy where you are?”
The prior action repeated. NO.
Overcome with sadness, I let out a gentle “I’m sorry.”
Julie hung her head. It seemed as though her fear had manifested into shear exhaustion. I felt a bit guilty for dragging her into my own selfish curiosity. As enchanted as I was, it was about time to tie the bow.
“Is there anything else you want to say? Anything else you want the world to know?”
The planchette moved towards the bottom right of the board, one of its feet veering off slightly. I asked my question several more times, but as our energy faded, Drese seemed to stall out.
“I think we lost contact,” I finally acknowledged.
“Maybe we should just close it,” Julie said, calmness restored to her voice.
And so, we said goodbye
Many contend that there’s an explanation for everything, and often, there is. The morning after our encounter, I was riding the elevator of my work building with the company of only a man who I had never seen in my life. When the bell of the 13th floor dinged, he began to walk out, but not without turning his head and uttering “have a great day, Jenna.” My heart sank all the way to mezzanine when I remembered the Starbucks cup in my hand that had my name on prominent display in black Sharpie.
Feeling a little silly, the inner skeptic that I didn’t know I had stormed my office in search of as simple of an explanation for the previous night’s events. I yanked one of the miniature cassettes from the dictation machine and placed it on my desk, my two index fingers on either side of it. The incessant trembling that comes with my having generalized anxiety had to have been the culprit for moving the planchette. The tape did gyrate a few centimeters back and forth, but there was no decisive moment in a single direction. My hands retreated into my lap and my eyes onto the wall.
I felt different, but not in a conclusively good or bad way. Rather, it was a heightened awareness of the world around me that arose. Perhaps there is an explanation for everything, but it rests in an order of the universe that is not yet understood in its complete image.