This is all true.
The first thing I remember buying with my own money as a kid was a Ouija board. It was a Milton Bradley board in a non-descript box on a shelf among a hundred other board games. Clue, Risk, Life, Monopoly: I could have bought any of them, but instead I grabbed a box with a single word on the front that I didn’t even know how to pronounce (I spent my entire childhood calling it a Wee-Gee), doled out my hard-saved cash, and took it home.
Back then, my parents and I lived in a double-wide trailer in a trailer park at the end of a road that didn’t have much of anything near it. There was a huge irrigation ditch across the street that I’d walk along with a friend who lived down the road, and we’d bear a hundred degrees and beyond as we walked the two miles it took to get to the Sonic Drive-In. Once there, we’d sit beneath the portico, sucking down cherry limeaids, bitching about how stupid we were to walk all that way; because once we got there, we still had to walk all the way back. Things changed when I got the Ouija. There was less walking to Sonic and more closing the bedroom door.
The more I think about it, the more I come to realize that, as a kid, I led a double life. There was the girl my mom thought I was, or perhaps hoped I was, with the antique white furniture and the canopy bed; and then there was the girl who watched horror movies when nobody was home and tried to talk to ghosts in broad daylight. Regardless of whether or not I genuinely made contact, that summer changed my life.
We didn’t have much money when I was growing up. My parents worked all the time. I had a lot of alone-time as a kid, which was fine by me. I’ve always been okay with being by myself, though, that summer most of my time was spent either at my girlfriend’s house or with her staying over at mine. When I brought out the Ouija board for the first time, we both stared at it like it had come from outer space. In retrospect, it should have been the most boring thing to a kid—a board with a cream-colored plastic planchette. I can’t remember if there were instructions on how to use it or not, but we eventually figured it out. We sat on my bedroom floor with our legs crossed Indian-style, balanced the board between our knees, and asked that ever-predictable question: is there anyone here?
For a minute there, I was pretty sure I had wasted my money. And then the thing started moving.
Of course, we accused each other of moving the planchette. We laughed and rolled our eyes and asked stupid questions, like whether or not we could talk to Elvis (for some reason Elvis was the only dead person we could think of). We eventually grew tired of the whole thing and I shoved the board beneath my bed. It sat there for weeks while we did other things, like watch Nickelodeon and took that hellish round-trip walk for cherry limeaids when there wasn’t anything better to do.
I don’t know what we were doing, or why we were doing it, or how we got on the topic, or how we came to research this stuff, but that was the summer I learned about the Ku Klux Klan. Maybe I saw a photograph of a creepy group of men wearing white hoods standing behind a burning cross. Maybe I saw something about them on TV. Regardless of how the whole thing started, it was one of the first times I utilized our uncracked set of Encyclopedia Britannicas. That’s where I read all about the KKK, what they stood for, and the terrible things they had done.
Naturally, I was fascinated. Because this is me we’re talking about, and terrible, screwed-up things are my forte.
Fast-forward a few weeks. Bored again and not in the mood to fight the heat, I pull out the Ouija board and we start screwing around again. Is anybody there? The reply: Yes. NBF.
NBF stood for Nathaniel Bedford Forrest, and if you know anything about the KKK, you know he was the guy who started the whole thing. After hours of reading encyclopedia articles, I knew that too. Except this time, as my friend and I sat in my room with the board between us, the vibe was different. There was something heavy there, something that kept us at the board for hours, sounding out answers letter by letter, watching the planchette slide across the board with a soft hiss on its small felt feet. One day turned into two, and that turned into a week. Suddenly, we were sitting with the board between us every day for hours on end. We started lighting candles. We started closing the blinds and hanging sheets over the windows. We started playing at night.
I asked NBF to blow out a candle if he was really there. There was only one in the room, and it sat on a chest of drawers a good six feet away and two feet above our heads. My friend glanced to the candle, tipped her head back, and exhaled through her nose. The candle went out. She was as stunned as I was.
And then, just as suddenly as it all started, it stopped.
It was a bright afternoon—nobody home but me, my friend, and NBF. I was thirsty, told her I’d bring back a soda from the kitchen and left her in my room alone, the door wide open. Standing in front of an open fridge, I heard her yell—it was a weird yell, like she was afraid of something. I was back in my room within seconds, and I’ll never forget what I saw when my shoulder crashed into the doorframe. She was sitting where I left her, the board half-off her knees, her hands shaking as though in an epileptic fit, her fingers twisted in a way I’d never seen before in my life, as though her hands had turned into claws. And in those shaking, twisted fingers, she gingerly held the planchette above her head, the tip pointed skyward like a tiny white pointed hat. Her eyes were wide. She was on the verge of tears. She let out a little yelp and the planchette dropped to the carpet. It would be dramatic to say that she bolted out of my house like a girl on fire, but I don’t recall that she did. What I can tell you is that she stopped coming over as often, and she refused to touch the Ouija board from that day forward.
So I started to play by myself.
Some say that certain people are more open to the “other side”, that they can sense things better than others because they have one foot in this realm and one foot in the other. I like to pretend that I don’t buy into that, but what happened that summer makes it somewhat hard to deny. If you’ve read almost any interview I’ve done, or any of the personal posts on this blog, or even read my bio on my website or at the end of my books, you know that I frequented a cemetery as a young child. Alone. You know that I’ve always been inexplicably drawn to the strange, the creepy, the dark and unexplained. Why did I buy a Ouija board when I had no idea what it was? And why was I compelled to use it on my own after what I had seen, after my friend refused to touch the thing ever again? Simply put: I have no idea. All I can tell you is what happened, and these are the events that occurred.
I began to play alone. A lot. And things started to happen. Whether those things were mental or actually happening, I can’t say. Regardless of what it was—real or imagined—it affected me for years. Suddenly, I couldn’t sleep unless I left the light on. My mother, who was more than likely trying to steer her daughter from weirdness and toward “normal” little girl things, started buying me porcelain dolls that stood propped upright on stands. These dolls terrified me. At first I convinced myself I was just being stupid, but eventually I started to line them up and memorize their positions only to swear they had moved during the night. Afraid to hurt my mother’s feelings, I moved half of these dolls out of my room and placed them on top of a piano we had. The others I’d hide in the closet before I’d go to bed—a closet which, for some reason, had a lock on the outside… and I locked every night, just in case. The Ouija board went into a steamer trunk I had at the foot of my bed. When I started hearing knocks and scratches in the dead of night, I started sleeping with the TV on. My radio began to malfunction. Things would move from my desk to other parts of my room. The closet door, which I would always keep closed, would be open after I’d come back into my room from the kitchen or living room.
Imagination is my strong suit. I know how to freak myself out like a champ, even today. That’s probably all it was—nothing paranormal, just a girl who was too weird for her own good having watched one too many movies. But that doesn’t change the fact that up until we moved out of that house I hated being alone in my room. The air felt heavy with something. And when we finally did move and I opened that steamer trunk, that damn board was gone.
My childhood furniture, as well as that trunk, ended up in the mountain cabin that ended up inspiring The Shuddering. My mom placed the set in a guestroom at the end of the upstairs hall, steamer trunk and all—a room that was always cold and had a funny smell and gave me the absolute creeps any time I’d step inside it. I was in my mid-twenties but avoided that room at all costs. There was something wrong with that space. How do you get a room with bad energy in a freshly built house? Put objects with bad energy inside it. Maybe it hadn’t been my imagination after all…
That cabin burned to the ground in a massive wildfire, and while all facts point to outward sources, every time I think about that house burning down, I picture that room… the antique-white furniture of my childhood going up in flames.
Maybe I had made it all up in my head, but it always seemed like the appropriate way for that particular piece of my childhood to go.
And I never did find that Ouija board. Never found it, and never touched another one since.