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.
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.
"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.
Even if it's just the realization that all her best years are behind her.
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.
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:
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.
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.
Related: Mary Shelley, the Original Goth Girl
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.
Oh, and this guy. Don't mind him.
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.
"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 ...
... 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.
"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."
Related: Urban Legends Older Than You'd Think
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.
"It's kind of an up-down stroking motion, really. Why are you even asking me this?"
What's awesome about Ouija boards is that the real reason they work is almost as spooky as the ghost explanation: You're actually communicating, not with the dead, but with the subconscious part of your brain.
"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.
"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.
The Psi Wheel
This trick begins with someone, probably a douche, claiming he can move stuff "with my mind, baby." If this person doesn't put his hand on your knee next, then he's likely going to pull out three things: some kind of base, usually an eraser; a pin, which he sticks in the eraser; and a small piece of paper or tinfoil folded into a sort of umbrella-looking shape.
Pictured: Tiny people relaxing at Eraser Beach.
The would-be mystic puts his hands around the contraption and focuses really hard. Lo and behold, the paper umbrella begins to spin without anyone touching it. He really does have magical powers! He puts his hand on your knee.
Check out this kickass demonstration:
Simple convection is what is "psychically" moving the wheel. Simple convection and hubris, but mostly convection. And convection, in case you didn't retain any science class at all, is that thing where heat moves molecules in a gas or a liquid. It's why water gets bubbly when it boils and how hot air balloons rise and why you've really got to be careful when handling a hot crack pipe. Here's what convection looks like:
So in the case of a psi wheel, the mystic cups his hands around the base of the gadget and heat coming off his hands rises, which draws in cool air, creating a current that turns the paper. The same effect can be achieved by placing hot cups of any liquid around the setup: The heat rises around the paper, cool air rushes into the gaps between the cups and magic time begins.
Or these cups are just full of magic.
Believe it or not, one guy made something of a living out of convincing audiences he could move tiny objects with his mind. James Hydrick didn't even bother with the convection thing, either. He just blew on shit. Here's the national appearance that killed his career. Would it shock you to know that a guy dressed like this is now a convicted sex offender? Didn't think so.
Step away from the phone book, Hydrick.
The Orange Kangaroo Game
If you didn't do this at parties, or weren't invited to any parties, then you've probably seen this one in an email:
Pick a number between one and 10.
Multiply it by nine.
Add the two digits of the resulting number together.
Now subtract five from that.
Take your number and match it up with a letter of the alphabet (so 1 would be A, 2 would be B, etc.).
Pick a country that begins with that letter.
Pick an animal whose name begins with the last letter of the country name.
Pick a fruit that begins with the last letter of the animal's name.
You got Denmark, kangaroo and orange, right?
Hey, it's a nice change from the racist tirades your Dad usually sends.
No matter what number you pick, they all end up as four. So you get four every time, and four gives you D. Turns out, there are only four countries in the world that start with D.
Most people go with Denmark. The last letter of Denmark is K, and since there are few animals that start with K, most choose kangaroo. From there you get O, and thus, orange. Essentially, you're more forced into the answers than you think.
If someone gets Djibouti, impala and amber, you're free to hit them in their smug faces.
But wait! Answer these questions for us:
What day is Christmas?
What number comes between 10 and 12?
What kind of meat is hamburger?
Which side of the road do you drive on in England?
Now QUICK! Think of a color and a tool!
Did you think of a red hammer?
If so, you need to acknowledge your party host is psychic or forward our email to amaze your friends!
Forward to 10 people and your life will be better. Forward to your boss and you'll get a pink slip.
What's the amazing science behind that one? When asked to pick a color, most people say red. When asked to name a tool, most say hammer. That's it. If you don't give people time to think, they're not very original in their answers. They'll go for the easy one. So if we scream "GIVE ME A FOUR-LETTER MAN'S NAME! RIGHT NOW!" you're more likely to say "John" than "Omar." So you could make your own "psychic" game based around that.
If you're suddenly thinking of crocodiles, then stop it. This is an alligator, dumbass.
Also, when you ask somebody to pick a number between one and three, most say three. Try it!
The Pinocchio Effect (And Other Freaky Body Distortion Games)
There are several versions of this:
Sit behind your friend, close your eyes, then reach around and grab his nose. (Note: Make sure you have friends that won't put their dick at nose level once your eyes are closed). Rub your friend's nose with one hand and your own with another. Eventually, your nose will feel incredibly long.
And really girthy.
Or, you can also hold the backs of your hands firmly against a door frame for a minute, then walk away and marvel as your arms rise on their own.
Or, you might have a friend hold your feet up for a few minutes and then lower them slowly and be amazed as your feet feel like they're sinking below the ground.
And finally you can hide your hand in a box and place a rubber hand in plain sight while a friend gently touches both, then smashes the fake hand with a hammer. (Note: Make sure you have friends that won't smash your real hand with a hammer.)
Or they'll soon have that weird sensation that their nose is spread all over their face.
In each case, your body will behave in ways you know are completely irrational. What's going on? It's magic this time, right?
Have you heard of phantom limb pain, where amputees swear they can feel sensation in their nonexistent limb? Basically, the part of the brain that keeps track of your limbs is easily fooled. That sense is called proprioception, and we've talked about it a bit before. The cerebellum is the part of your brain you're fooling, and it's responsible for stuff like motor control. When it gets feedback it doesn't expect (like when you make it think your friend's nose is your nose), it tries to correct itself. But, much like a smartphone's autocorrect, it often does so in hilarious ways.
Grab a broom handle, close your eyes and put your hand down your pants. You can thank us later.
So for example, when you press your hands against a door frame your arm muscles tense up. Step out from the frame and your brain tells your muscles it's still tension time and -- whoopsy daisy -- up go the arms. Even the smallest changes to your proprioception throws the whole thing off.
It's not just us humans, either. The same thing has been shown to happen to monkeys when they undergo the fake rubber hand trick mentioned above. Then again, monkeys always freak out around hammers due to what scientists refer to as the "Donkey Kong flashback effect."
For more terrifying science experiments, check out 5 Deadly Sci-Fi Gadgets You Can Build At Home and 9 Inventions that Prove Leonardo da Vinci Was a Supervillain.
And be sure to check out Cracked's Page of Horror for hilariously horrifying articles like 6 Signs You're About to be Attacked by Zombies and Dealing With The Guy Who's Clearly Hiding a Zombie Bite.
And stop by LinkSTORM to see what happens when Brockway and Bucholz experiment on each other.
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