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This Science Editor Has a Real Ghost Story and It's Still Freaking Him Out

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A Ouija board featuring the alphabet, numbers zero through nine, yes, no, and goodbye. It sits on a blue wooden deck, with the white planchette placed on the board over the letter M.
Jon Brooks' Ouija board, which sat unused in its box for 27 years until recently. In 1995, the board was used to contact the spirit of a friend's great-grandmother ... maybe. (Courtesy of Jon Brooks)

Read a transcript of this episode here

Pretend for a moment you’re a journalist. A former science editor. Someone who drove reporters to distraction with constant requests to double- and triple-check their interpretations of facts and data.

Now pretend you’re harboring a secret. Not that you participated in an intensely odd and unexplainable event many years ago — but that you still don’t know what to make of it and are mulling whether it might be indicative of something most rational people reject: life after death.

Last year my mother died, right in front of me, in a horrific accidental death. But because of something that occurred almost 30 years ago, I could not shake this strange sense that it wasn’t the end of our relationship. And now I want to test this unlikely possibility out.

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Which brings me to the fact that I have a ghost story.

I mean, a real one.

The Ouija board

In the 1990s I was living in a small, one-bedroom apartment in San Francisco. Among my possessions was something I had picked up on a whim at a flea market — a Ouija board.

You may have come across one of these things, either as a kid or in horror movies like “The Exorcist.”

The board displays all the letters of the alphabet plus the numbers one through nine, and it comes with a heart-shaped piece of plastic with a translucent window, called a planchette, which two people are supposed to lightly touch in hopes a spirit will move it across the board so individual letters are displayed through the window. If enough of the right letters in a row come up, you’ve got yourself a message from a dead person.

While I didn’t believe in ghosts or other entities who might hang around and surreptitiously steal a peek at me in my underwear, I wouldn’t say I was unmovable on the issue. I’d been wanting to try the board out, but my friends weren’t much interested, mostly because they thought it was, you know, stupid. The board’s patent was then owned by Parker Brothers, which also made the games Monopoly and Clue. I mean, who did I think I was going to contact, Colonel Mustard? Even the box the board came in made no claims of being a conduit to the dead: “Explore the mysteries of mental telepathy and the subconscious with this time tested favorite,” it advised.

Still, when my friend Mark and his girlfriend, whom I will call Kim, came for a visit, I thought I might have snared a couple of live ones. They’d shown up with big news: Mark had just proposed, and they were now engaged. High spirits ensued. When I suggested we give the board a go, they were game.

So there we are, in my living room, with Kim and I sitting on the floor across the board from each other. We both close our eyes and tilt our heads toward the ceiling. Mark’s on the couch, watching. I start calling out to any spirits in the vicinity. “Hello? Anybody out there?” — that kind of thing.

At some point, I feel the planchette start to move under my fingers. I’m not aware I’m applying pressure to it; it just feels like my fingers really know where they want to go. Move, stop, repeat. And while this is happening, Mark starts to talk, intermittently interjecting comments: “Uh-huh.” “OK.” “Got it.” It’s like he’s on the phone and I can only hear his side of the conversation.

After maybe 20 minutes, we end the session, and I open my eyes.

And there is Mark. In tears. He is, like, really rattled. He collapses into Kim’s arms and, still crying, says with a shaky voice, “I think I just talked to a dead relative.”

To which Kim and I are all, “Wha?” You know, because our eyes had been closed.

‘Say hello to Raymond’

Since this event, Mark has never wavered from his account of what occurred. Here’s what he said.

When Kim’s and my fingers were darting around the board, we spelled out, three times in a row, M-O-I-S-H-E.

Moishe is the Yiddish name Mark was called at his bar mitzvah.

So he responded with, “What do you want to say?”

The letters “W-E-D R-E-B-B-E” followed. Rebbe means rabbi in Yiddish. Mark interpreted that as an instruction to use a rabbi for his upcoming nuptials.

Next on the board’s mind was a warning about his brother’s driving, notoriously substandard: “Danger car brother,” it spelled. Followed by — all of this letter for letter, mind you — “Watch over him always.”

Then Kim and I spelled out the thing that sent Mark over the edge: “Say hello to Raymond.”

Raymond is Mark’s father.

Now truly freaked, he tried to end the session. “OK, goodbye,” he said. To which we and/or it spelled out: “W-H-Y.” So Mark answered — and I’ll never forget, with my eyes closed, hearing this — “Because I’m scared.” And to that the board replied, “Friend.”

So Mark asked, “Who is this?”

R-A-C-H-E-L.

Rachel was Mark’s great-grandmother.

I know, it sounds unlikely, to understate the obvious. Go ahead, make fun. But I can tell you, you couldn’t be in that room without feeling a sense of eerie awe.

The event had a profound effect on Mark.

“I was a real skeptic,” he told me recently. “Like, you die and you just shut off like a f—ing machine. But after, it changed everything for me permanently.”

The incident prompted Mark and Kim to name their daughter Rachel. And when Mark would get into an argument with his brother, Kim would say, “Remember, watch over him always.”

“I used to just say, ‘No, that’s all bullshit,’” Mark said. “And now I feel strongly … there’s nothing to explain it other than there’s something to it.”

An aged photograph of a young woman with dark wavy hair in a dark green shirt. She stands sideways with a hand on one hip, looking at the camera. There are plants around her and a lyre on the wall.
Alice Burton, mother of Jon Brooks, who died in 2021 at the age of 80. (Courtesy of Jon Brooks)

Subjugated by grief

The Ouija board incident has been one of my go-to stories at bars and parties ever since, and from time to time, I liked to mull over alternatives to the dead-great-grandmother explanation.

But after my mother died, I couldn’t stop thinking about it.

After many decades obsessing over worst-case scenarios, my anxiety finally came to fruition last year. A mere two feet from me, my mother fell to the floor in a restaurant, clinically dead. Her heart was restarted by paramedics, but she never regained consciousness.

Eighty and increasingly frail, she had suffocated to death on a piece of steak. My mom had Parkinson’s, a known risk factor for choking. We tried the Heimlich, naturally, but to no avail.

When you’re practically subjugated by grief, you find yourself entertaining some strange ideas. I kept returning to my experience with the Ouija board.

Can we actually communicate with dead people?

Calling in a ghostbuster

I knew Mark as a grounded person. A cynical Brooklynite, he was professionally successful, irreligious and decidedly unspiritual. Could he have been lying all these years? Not a chance; those tears were real. Was he grossly mistaken? Possibly. Had Kim been secretly guiding our fingers to form particularly relevant messages? Perhaps.

If a reporter came to me with this account, claiming it was proof of something paranormal, I’d ask them for the video and a release form from the deceased. I mean, it would not fly.

When you have a paranormal story like this, who you gonna call? A ghostbuster like Michael Shermer, founding publisher of Skeptic magazine, who teaches a course called “Skepticism 101: How to Think Like a Scientist” at Chapman University.

“So here we’re kind of faced with a ‘What’s more likely?’ question. I call it Hume’s challenge,” Shermer said. “What’s more likely: the miracle happened, or the person misremembered or exaggerated what they think happened?”

He quickly cited the most well-documented explanation for mysterious incidents involving the Ouija board. Discovered in the 1850s, the ideomotor effect is routinely responsible for people affecting the movement of objects without realizing it.

“You can swear up and down you’re not intentionally moving anything,” Shermer said, “but subconsciously you may be.”

This common explanation for Ouija board messages would hold that Kim and I, unaware of our own agency, were unwittingly moving the planchette to letters that formed cogent messages dictated by our subconscious.

As Shermer acknowledged, this only pertains to participants who can see the board; research has shown it doesn’t apply when they can’t. This National Geographic program demonstrated how Ouija board users can produce coherent answers to specific questions when the letters are in plain sight, but not when they are blindfolded:

This common explanation doesn’t faze Mark. He said he was on the lookout for the ideomotor effect, even if he didn’t know to call it by that name. He reaffirmed for me his belief in the reality of what occurred.

“This absolutely happened,” he said. “It’s not even questionable. It’s 100%. There was no peeking your head. You and Kim weren’t even facing forward. You were facing the ceiling the whole time. Your eyes were shut tight. I was monitoring you guys as much as I was looking at the board.”

He added: “It spoke to me. Silently.”

All right. Then what about this:

“How far away was he from the board?” asked Shermer. “You’d have to be pretty close to be sure you are on the letter A and not the letter B, for example, or if you’re in between those.”

Nope, said Mark.

“Because I was actually keeping up with the letters … It was fluidly writing. It wasn’t floating. It wasn’t near the W in the air. It was like swish, swish, swish, swish, swish. Like air hockey. I mean, its movements and what I saw — it was magical.”

I know I couldn’t see the letters. But what about Kim? Maybe she’d been pulling our leg? (They are now divorced, and I was unable to speak with her.)

No chance, Mark said, because she would not have produced those specific messages

“She doesn’t know Yiddish from a hole in the wall,” he said. He asserts Kim has always been “absolutely certain” the experience was genuine, and that she couldn’t see the letters.

Mark hasn’t gone anywhere near a Ouija board since.

“I have a fear of Ouija boards,” he said. “Because I believe that they do what they’re expected to do.”

Spirit communication devices

You can buy a Ouija board at a toy store or online for about $15. Not bad if you can manage to hook up with a dead person.

The board is now marketed as a game for children, but its pedigree actually harkens back to the last half of the 19th century, when people were seeking out ghosts in the confines of their own homes like we watch Netflix. As I learned from Brandon Hodge, an expert on the history of what’s known in the trade as spirit communication devices, the board was invented by two Maryland businessmen and patented in 1891 as part of a long evolution of contraptions growing out of the spiritualism movement, which holds that demonstrable communication with the dead is possible.

Black and white illustration demonstrating the use of a Ouija board
The patent for the original Ouija board.

“It’s hard to really overstate how incredibly popular and how big of a fad these devices, sort of in turn, were,” Hodge said. Initially, ghost seekers used automatic writing planchettes, heart-shaped wooden planks sitting atop two wheels, with a pencil sticking up through an aperture so spirits could write messages through an operator. Eventually alphabetic-based means like the Ouija board supplanted these.

The spiritualism bubble began to deflate after the legendary escape artist Harry Houdini started exposing psychics and mediums as frauds in the 1920s.

“Many of them tended to fall on the con artist side of things,” Hodge said. “And so it’s not a good look when you have a religion that’s largely based on taking advantage of people.”

Despite — or because of — his study of spiritualism, Hodge doesn’t believe there’s anything paranormal going on with the Ouija board. He thinks stories like mine can be explained by the ideomotor response interacting with the subconscious.

OK. But what about Mark’s testimony? “Say hello to Raymond”?

“That account just rings so familiar to so many of the accounts that I have studied historically over the years,” Hodge said.

He has sat through some odd sessions with the board himself.

“It wasn’t until my own personal experience that I began to take these sorts of experiences and these stories and these anecdotes at closer to face value,” he said.

But he stops short of believing in forces at work outside of the participants.

“I don’t underestimate what the human mind and body is capable of and capable of doing when we’re not even aware of those actions and those thoughts,” he said.

His theory of the Rachel encounter is that Mark, Kim and I were unconsciously collaborating on the narrative of Mark’s kindly, Jewish great-grandmother.

“Your friend was caught up in a paranormal moment, and you were in there facilitating that,” he said.

Looking at the research

Personally, if there’s life after death, I hope it’s optional. But I wanted very much to know: Is there any evidence we continue on long after we have completed our last Wordle?

Leslie Kean thinks so. She’s the journalist who is arguably most responsible for making UFOs a legitimate topic for the media, not to mention the United States government.

Her most recent book, “Surviving Death: A Journalist Investigates Evidence for an Afterlife,” spawned a Netflix series.

“I know the scientific position, the materialist position, that none of these extraordinary events happen, ever, because they can’t happen,” she told me. “I know that that’s not true because I’ve witnessed them myself.”

She said “volumes of research” validating paranormal phenomena have been conducted. Some of these reports, 100 years or more old, were produced by such luminaries as William James, a major American philosopher and psychologist, and William Crookes, an eminent British chemist and physicist.

That such research constitutes proof is a minority opinion.

“I know all that literature, and I know what scientists think, and they’re skeptical for a good reason,” said Michael Shermer. “The evidence doesn’t … rise to the level of the extraordinariness of the claim.”

Still, even a professional skeptic like Shermer says you can’t rule anything out. He’s even got his own story that shook his entrenched skepticism.

“It’s always good to keep an open mind,” he said, surprising me a little. “We’re not omniscient. We don’t know for sure that these things aren’t true.”

Trying to contact my mom

“We don’t know for sure that these things aren’t true.”

A thin reed to cling to if you’re trying to prove something entirely irrational, but a veritable lifeline if you are in the throes of grief.

I decided to go back to my old apartment building, where Mark, Kim and I had Ouija-ed back in 1995. My idea was to try it again in the same place. I slipped a note hinting at what I wanted to do under the door of the present occupant, but when I rang him from outside the building, he hung up. Inviting a stranger into his home to contact a dead woman during a pandemic was not on his bucket list, apparently.

But I did have a plan B: do it at my place, with my own handpicked team of Let’s-Discredit-Public-Media ghost hunters. One nifty idea I had was to rope in my pal Kevin Stark, senior editor of KQED Science, to work the board with me. If something unexplainable happened, what better participant than the guy who must soberly preside over Bay Area climate change coverage? Also in attendance: Olivia Allen-Price, senior editor of Bay Curious, and my old friend Julie-Anne.

To rule out the ideomotor effect, the people on the board were going to be saddled with blindfolds (sleep masks, actually). Leslie Kean had suggested I meditate before the event and ask my mom to “come through,” so before people arrived I spent a half hour looking at old photos, lapsing into tears, naturally.

In my back room, I present to the team that same Ouija board on which great-grandma Rachel made such a splash decades ago. Unused since then, it looks decidedly unspooky.

An aged box with the words 'Ouija: Mystifying Oracle' on it, with an image of hands on a planchette. A black and white cat is gingerly sniffing the side of the box.
The box containing Jon Brooks’ Ouija board, which sat unused for 27 years until recently. In 1995, the board was used to contact the spirit of a friend’s great-grandmother … maybe. (Also pictured: Jon Brooks’ cat, Zoey.) (Courtesy of Jon Brooks)

Kevin and I start on the board, blindfolds in place. Julie-Anne is watching; Olivia is recording for our podcast.

“Anyone who’s out there, who’s passed away, who wants to speak with us?” I begin, with a punctuating chuckle. This is, after all, kind of embarrassing. “Anyone from the dead population?”

I can tell I’m not fully committed. And yet, beneath my fingers, the planchette starts to move. I ask Julie-Anne if we’re spelling anything that makes sense. Nothing that’s forming words, she says.

Kevin, at least, is impressed by one thing.

“There’s some kind of sensation where it starts pulling you in one direction or another,” he says. “I would think, like, ‘OK, now stop.’ But it wouldn’t stop.”

We transfer callout duties to Julie-Anne, who has met my mom.

“Is there anyone out there that wants to speak to us?” she says. “We’re open to hear from you.”

And there goes the planchette again. Its light scratching against the board at least sounds like it’s trying to say something.

“Just give us a sign. Anything,” says Julie-Anne, after the planchette has slid around the board a few times. “We need a few vowels … that might help.”

Nothing. It’s time to bring in the big guns. Olivia’s voice has reached hundreds of thousands if not millions of people, so why not a few more who are dead?

“Spirits come join us, we want to speak with you,” she says. “Come into this room. It’s a friendly room. With people who have open minds and hearts.”

The planchette again coaxes my fingers this way and that.

“That’s a letter,” says Olivia. ”We can work with that.”

And up comes another one.

“Good. We’re listening. We’re listening really closely. You can do it. You can give us another letter.”

The planchette shuffles along the board’s surface.

Mom?

But after a couple of minutes…

“We’re not getting much, guys,” Olivia reports.

Reluctantly, she gives up the ghost.

We have failed to make contact. Nothing left to do but the postmortem, so to speak. I make a little speech to my ghost crew: We gave it a fair shot but didn’t get back anything even close to what Mark reported seeing. It doesn’t prove that experience wasn’t real, just that we couldn’t replicate it.

“We can only say that we were unable to come up with a result that was anything other than what the skeptics would say we would come up with, which is, basically, nothing,” I say.

Listening to the tape, I can hear the desolation of that last word, the rolling tumbleweeds and whistling wind of all our futures — just as I can hear in our vain attempts to conjure up a miracle how much we wanted to witness something transcendent, something remarkable — something, like Mark said, magical.

“We’ll make the scientists happy in the audience,” I glumly summarize. “We’ll make everyone else sad.”

Why did we fail? Well, maybe the departed didn’t want to talk to our particular group. Maybe the house wasn’t right. Maybe such manifestations occur only at times of great emotion, like on the day two people have decided to get married.

Or, maybe, just maybe, we did not contact my mom … because she is dead. She is gone. Shut off like a f—ing machine, in Mark’s words. Maybe my mother will never know how sorry I am about her last moments, because she can’t know anything anymore.

I envy Mark’s certainty about messages from a dead relative that night so long ago. I would never begrudge them to him. I just wish I’d seen them, too.

I am going to have to come to terms with my mother’s death without her help. I wish I had been able to save her life. I wish our last, silent exchange had been one filled with love and not the panic of imminent death. But wishes are only those.

The author Umberto Eco once wrote something about the futility of mourning a happy time as something lost, and not celebrating it as something once possessed.

This is helpful.

Mom, if you can hear me, and even if you can’t, I love you.

That is not paranormal. That is as real as it gets.

An aged color photograph of a woman with wavy brown hair. She is holding a grey and white striped cat. They are both looking at the camera.
Alice Burton, mother of Jon Brooks, who died in 2021 at the age of 80. (Courtesy of Jon Brooks)

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