6 Scary Tricks That Amazed Us as Kids (Explained by Science)

For many of us, gathering with a group of unsupervised peers and scaring the shit out of ourselves was a rite of passage. At slumber parties we watched horror movies, told ghost stories and strapped ourselves to railroad tracks while high on cough syrup.

Scariest of all were the games that everyone seemed to know, even without the benefit of YouTube tutorials -- tricks that supposedly unlocked magical powers or malicious spirits. And the funny thing is, these games have been going on for generations because on some level, they work.

It wasn't demonology behind our scariest party pastimes, but science.

#6. Bloody Mary

For the holy grail of pants-shittingly horrifying party tricks, look no further than Bloody Mary. The game goes like this: You stand in front of a mirror, alone, in the dark, and say "BLOODY MARY BLOODY MARY BLOODY MARY!" And then (allegedly) a woman appears in the mirror. Then she scratches your face off.

If it's real, it really shouldn't be legal.

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"You'll be hearing from my lawyer, Mary."

But after weeks of searching through archived newspapers and microfiche, we haven't actually found anyone who summoned a psychotic person via mirror. Still, at this very moment, somewhere there's a 12-year-old kid standing in a bathroom whispering "Bloody Mary" loud enough for her giggly slumber party guests to hear her. Do you know why?

Because she's going to see something in the mirror.

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Even if it's just the realization that all her best years are behind her.

The Science:

If you stare at a mirror long enough, you're going to see some freaky shit.

One psychologist set up an experiment where he had 50 people gaze at a dimly lit mirror for 10 minutes. Afterward, participants wrote down what they saw, if anything. Before we share the results, bear in mind that this was not a slumber party and no one was told they'd see anything horrific beforehand.

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Except maybe a reflection of that bitch Mandy snogging that guy you like.

Sixty-six percent of participants reported massive deformations of their own face. Eighteen percent saw one of their parents with a few traits altered; 10 percent of those parents were already dead. Twenty-eight percent saw a stranger's face, like a child or an old woman. Most revealing of all, perhaps, was that almost half of the participants saw "fantastical and monstrous beings."

Why? Well, for one thing, if you stare at anything long enough -- and we mean just stare at it, not look at it while doing something else, like shaving -- your vision starts to distort it. One reason is the Troxler effect. Stare at the target below for 20 seconds or so:

Wikipedia
Combine with liquor for free vertigo!

Did the dots start to disappear after a while? If not, you did it wrong. The idea is that our brains are wired to stop taking in the same thing over and over again, just for our own sanity. Imagine always being aware of your limbs, of sitting in a chair, of every breath and every blink. Life would suck. So, as a neat trick, our neurons cancel out information that's constant.

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Like that damn baby your girlfriend dumped on you.

What does this have to do with Bloody Mary? Because our faces don't have a central point, like that target above, it's the whole face that starts to blur, or distort, as our brain starts to cancel parts of it out. The result is some kind of horrific monster face, staring back from the mirror. And of course, "Bloody Mary" can't actually attack her victim as per the legend, since said victim quickly runs squealing out of the bathroom before she gets the chance.

#5. Light as a Feather, Stiff as a Board

For kids who have no problem putting their fingers on their friends' butts, this game is a slumber party staple. A volunteer lays down on the floor, usually with the arms crossed over his or (who are we kidding?) her chest. Another four sit around her and attempt to lift her body using nothing but their index and middle fingers. At first, the attempt fails because the lifters aren't tapping into the magic power yet -- it only proves that under normal circumstances, a person is too heavy to lift this way.

But then begins the chant: "Light as a feather, stiff as a board. Light as a feather, stiff as a board." A countdown follows: "1, 2, 3 and LIFT."

This time, up the body goes, with only finger power lifting it.

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Oh, and this guy. Don't mind him.

The Science:

There are a number of things going on here, and none of them require the devil's interference, fortunately.

It begins with that first attempt, the one that fails. You may be shocked to know that it isn't a lack of faith or witchcraft holding everybody back, but the fact that the group isn't really coordinating their lifting. Frequently, participants are told to just try hefting little Madison off the floor without any kind of initiation or plan, causing the kind of completely disjointed and bullshit effort you get from a bunch of teenage girls.

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"I am not scraping Becky's remains from the walls. It's Jen's turn."

But synchronize the four lifters' eight index and middle fingers together, like, oh, maybe with a chant, and suddenly you have more than enough lifting power to heft a schoolgirl. And note that limiting the lifters to two fingers isn't much of a disadvantage -- the index and the middle fingers are the strong ones (if you don't believe us, take note of how you carry your groceries next time). Louis Cyr, an old-timey strong man, could lift over 550 pounds with just his middle digit. We were going to add another joke here, but then we saw this picture ...

sandowplus

... and decided there was nothing else to say about Louis Cyr.

Anyway, thanks to perfectly synchronized fingers, the volunteer ascends easily and really, really high, too, right? Well no, not actually. The other thing about this game is the magic of exaggerated memories.

Chad Riley
"Yeah, and he totally shot out of the window and did three laps of the block before we even finished our beers."

No one will accurately remember just how high they were able to lift Kaitlyn last night at the sleepover. Dr. Karl S. Kruszelnicki of ABC Science says he has yet to see one game of light as a feather, stiff as a board turn out like the urban legend describes. A more accurate account of "We lifted her way off the ground and held her there for like a minute" would be "We got her up a couple inches and dropped her after a few seconds and then we ate some more candy and called some boys and hung up on them."

#4. Ouija Boards

ryan

The oldest one in the book.

You get your friends together and decide to sit down in a dark room and try to contact spirits. You get out the Ouija board, and everyone simply places their hands on an indicator, called a planchette, that moves around a board and points to letters in order to spell out words or phrases. Before you know it, your long-dead grandma's back in touch and you're having to explain your masturbation habits to her.

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"It's kind of an up-down stroking motion, really. Why are you even asking me this?"

The Science:

What's awesome about Ouija boards is that the real reason it works is almost as spooky as the ghost explanation: You're actually communicating, not with the dead, but with the subconscious part of your brain.

Nathaniel_U
"M...I...L...K...B...R...E...A...D... guys, I think my subconscious is really fucking boring."

Your hands move the piece across the Ouija board due to involuntary movements in your muscles, which are called the ideomotor effect. Basically, your brain can and will move your muscles without your express permission because, for the most part, your body kinda operates on autopilot anyway. It's just usually not brought to your attention (you'll notice it the next time a light stops working in a room, but you unconsciously keep flipping the switch every time you walk in anyway).

So with the Ouija board, you subconsciously think of a response to the question and your brain subtly moves the planchette where it wants it. Maybe not enough for it to work if you were using the board alone (though it is for some people -- it's likely how water dowsing works), but when you get a few people together and they're all subconsciously pulling, it creates the distinct sensation that the planchette is moving on its own accord.

emily mucha
"The Cosmic Vibrations demand that you go down on me."

It's so weird that the explanation itself sounds like bullshit. But if you want further proof that it's us humans doing all the soothsaying, just check out this experiment, where magicians Penn & Teller blindfolded some random people, flipped the Ouija board 180 degrees and had them try to contact the spirit of the guy who played Fred Mertz on I Love Lucy. The results are less than startling.

In theory, ghosts should be able to direct their hands no matter the orientation of the board, right? Turns out, without being able to see the board, they just kinda move their hands to where they think the letters are.

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