Like an AskJeeves for ghosts, WebOuija is the only internet ouija board that legitimately creeps me out.
Image: Patrick Emerson/Flickr
Is Mike Hall alive? I type this into a text field and click a button labeled "Ask." I have been trying to contact Hall for days.
The closest I've gotten to a response is a message from Google saying one of his email addresses is no longer active. This is my last resort: asking the very web application I want to discuss with him, which he developed in the late 1990s, whether or not he's alive. With my question asked I take part in the ritual, placing my middle and index fingers on my computer mouse, and allowing a virtual planchette to slowly cross the image of a Ouija board, inevitably pointing me to its answer.
"No," it says.
I double down, asking if Mike Hall is dead, and the haunted script confirms:
WebOuija is one of many haunted relics of the old Internet that claims to allow for human-to-spirit communication. Modelled after the Parker Brothers board game that inspired countless kids to grow up into horror nerds and pop-mystics, Mike Hall's cyber spirit hotline is the best example of Internet Ouija. Its contemporaries (which can be perused at the online Museum of Talking Boards) range from the baffling Witchboard to the mind-bendingly campy Studio Why Halloween Card, but WebOuija is the only one that legitimately creeps me out.
Unlike a traditional Ouija board where questions are spoken aloud, WebOuija instead makes users type in their questions, like an Ask Jeeves for ghosts. When I submit my query, rather than simply printing out the answer, the app's virtual cursor just starts quivering. It has heard me, and now it's asking if I want to listen.
I need to work with WebOuija to get my answer. I need to agree to play its game, and acknowledge that I'm not alone in my empty room.
Moving my mouse along with an animated planchette bridges the gap between virtual and physical realities, mirroring the spiritual connection evoked by its board game inspiration. It's a small gesture, but it feels powerful and scary, even if it is just digital theatrics. It's remarkable that a piece of code can conjure a fear so similar to the legendary Ouija board.
But not everyone believes a bit of spooky HTML can appropriately mirror the traditional Ouija ritual.
"Using an online board is a completely different experience—there's nothing physically being moved, no contact, no channeling," said Carol, the developer of two modern Internet Ouija apps (one made in Flash and a newer HTML5 version for those who prefer to talk to ghosts on their phones) which are listed under the tools section of her website, Hidden Influences.
She believes that, if a spirit is going to communicate through one of her boards, "they're doing it from the server room where the script is running—nowhere near the person visiting the website," Carol explained. Her boards, unlike WebOuija, don't require human cooperation.
People ask fearful questions with the hope that they will be answered, and they shape what they're given to fit their narrative
Carol (who asked that I only use her first name) has never used a physical Ouija board herself, having been turned off of the practice when she was younger by a foreboding experience related to her by her brother. She is obligated to tell me that, despite her Ouija apps being labeled as tools, her Internet divination board is for entertainment purposes only.
"I can tell you that, [the] way the script behind it was developed, its output shouldn't ever really make sense (as in, it should be just random words and letters)," Carol explained. "Yet there are lots and lots of accounts of it not only making sense, but responding with something that's actually relevant to the question that was asked. Make of that what you will."
Reading through the comments on the Hidden Influences Online Ouija Board, I can see evidence for both cases, but most of the positive experiences hinge on context. Carol's app is a random word generator that doesn't actually receive queries; users are asked to speak their questions aloud instead. People ask fearful questions with the hope that they will be answered, and they shape what they're given to fit their narrative, picking from an endless stream of unrelated words.
When I use the Hidden Influence boards and other oracular apps that simply spell out their responses, I find they lack the presence of WebOuija. If there is a ghost in Carol's machine, it doesn't need me—not like Mike Hall's board, which requires my fingertips to speak.
If I ask a question and leave Carol's board open in my browser while I sleep, it will continue to spell out random words on its own until I wake up and tell it to stop. But, if I pursue my line of inquiry regarding the late Mike Hall by typing a question into WebOuija, nothing will happen until I'm ready to listen, too. If I walk away it will wait for me, twitching in anticipation.
There is potential in the unheard answer from WebOuija, and that potential makes my skin crawl.
Mike Hall is probably not dead. I have to tell myself this. When I ask WebOuija how he died though, initiating those unholy virtual spasms, I suspect it knows I'm doubting its answers. I touch the mouse, agreeing to be possessed as it slowly spells out a sassy "Maybe later," and we leave it at that. I click goodbye and choose to be haunted by software.
All in Your Head is a series that takes a scientific look at all things spooky and scary. Follow along here.