In the video, two girls sit cross-legged in front of a piece of paper on the floor. They’d crossed two pencils on top of the paper and written “yes” and “no” in the four squares between them.
“Charlie, Charlie, can we play?” they asked.
“Charlie, Charlie, can we play?” they asked again, one of the girls tapping the rhythm of the chant on the floor.
Many of us also grew up with a God who is more concerned about what we can and cannot do, more concerned with the correct answer than with communicating with us, Pari said. We’ve made God out to be the boogeyman.Then the pencil began to move.
That video, posted Sunday on Instagram and then shared on Twitter by a user with the handle @__kluh, was the first to use the hashtag #charliecharliechallenge, according to Topsy search results. She’d seen other people doing it on Facebook, she tweeted me. But the alliterative hashtag was all it took to propel the challenge from spooky slumber party game to social media craze.
Over Memorial Day weekend, the hashtag trended on both Twitter and Facebook. Mostly, it was attached to Vine or Instagram videos showing teenagers trying to summon a supposedly demonic Mexican sage named Charlie (invariably followed by screaming). By the end of the week, it had been tweeted more than two million times.
Was it boredom over the long weekend, or is there another reason the Charlie Charlie challenge took off?
“Something like this, I think, is very akin to the ‘Bloody Mary’ thing back when we were kids,” said Dustin Pari, a paranormal investigator featured on popular reality TV shows Ghost Hunters and Ghost Hunters International. “It would take a while for that to go from place to place because you have to have a kid from one neighborhood tell a kid from another neighborhood. Now things are instantaneous. They can go global because of the way social media works and how everybody is so connected.”
I hadn’t heard of the Charlie Charlie challenge before it blew up this past weekend on social media. I checked with Pari and Deonna Kelli Sayed, author of Paranormal Obsession: America’s Fascination with Ghosts and Hauntings, Spooks and Spirits, and they hadn’t either. If the Internet is to be believed, it’s an “old Mexican game, a traditional spiritual performed to contact a ghost”—or demon, depending who you ask—named Charlie.
But it’s not unlike a Ouija board or even Bloody Mary, games that have been popular with teenagers for decades. If the top pencil spins to “yes” after participants ask, “Can we play?” it means that Charlie is willing to answer some questions, Magic-8-Ball-style, by continuing to toggle the writing utensil between the words.
And various “pencil games” have haunted Internet message boards and the Spanish-language Internet for years. Know Your Meme turned up a video of one game titled “Jugando Charly Charlie,” uploaded to YouTube last year. This version is played with three pencils held awkwardly in a “U” shape in the participants’ hands—more like divining rods, another tool in the old-school paranormal investigator’s toolbox. Charlie reportedly will move the pencils up and down or left and right in response to questions.
What’s harder to explain than its origins is what has possessed so many teenagers to take the challenge.
Even though it’s probably just gravity moving all those pencils, Sayed emailed me saying that she doesn’t understand why anybody would want to play a game that involves asking a demon questions. For one, demons give lousy advice, one Facebook commenter responded to a link I posted about the challenge. Some commenters told harrowing stories of demonic encounters after playing similar games or warned you “never know what your [sic] letting in the door.” One friend, a paranormal investigator, was less worried: there are more dangerous ways people invite evil every day, she said.
Part of the answer may be we’ve made talking about the “spirit world” taboo, Pari told me. That only makes it more attractive.
Part of it also may be what Sayed calls the “postmodern sacred.” There’s a ritual aspect in the challenge’s incantations and supposed ancient origins. There’s the shared experience of playing the game with friends and posting video on social media. There’s a sense of magic and awe that can feel lost in the dos and don’ts, the apologetics and arguments over politics in the church.
“In my opinion, interest in the paranormal such as ghosts and such is an attempt to touch the mystical side of the Divine,” she said.
Why, she wondered, do we want to believe so badly there is something else out there we’d risk tangling with evil just to touch it?
The much-discussed Pew Research Center report on America’s Changing Religious Landscape released earlier this month suggested while the number of Americans who do not identify with any organized religion has grown significantly, many (44 percent) still say religion is “very” or “somewhat” important to them.
“That’s not the pattern of a Godless nation; it’s the pattern of people finding God on their own terms,” Emma Green wrote in The Atlantic. It’s a pattern of people looking not to the church, but to perhaps unexpected places for answers, like the Chicago Ghost Conference I attended in 2013 with another friend who is a paranormal investigator. It’s the pattern of people taking their questions to social media followers and precariously balanced pencils.
At the conference, I heard stories from one paranormal investigator who described backs turning on him in his neighborhood and Catholic parish: “Nobody wants to talk about it.” I listened, a little slack-jawed, as conference-goers begged John Zaffis of Haunted Collector during his question-and-answer session, “What Happens after We Die?”
Apologetics prepared those of us who grew up in the church to answer that question. At least in my case, nobody ever actually has asked.
Many of us also grew up with a God who is more concerned about what we can and cannot do, more concerned with the correct answer than with communicating with us, Pari said. We’ve made God out to be the boogeyman.
“I think that’s what’s missing,” he said. “Even with something as silly as pencils turning left or right, they feel like they have some kind of communication.”
Many people are intrigued by darkness and willing to dabble in things like the Charlie Charlie challenge in their searches for answers, he noted. Few, though, are willing to pray.
But the existence of the dark points to the reality of the light, he said. And that’s “a heck of a lot more interesting than balancing some pencils on each other,” he said. That’s where we should be looking for answers.
He may ask questions of spirits while investigating the paranormal, he admitted. But Pari, who is a Christian, said he simply is looking for proof of the unseen things all around us—he’s not asking them for guidance. That guidance comes from prayer, from his relationship with Christ and the way he sees the Holy Spirit, not pencils, moving in his life.
Questions are good, he said. We should keep asking them, and as the church, we shouldn’t be afraid of them.
“We should be asking God to interact with us in our lives and not for some possible Mexican demon,” he said.
Image from Christian Today via YouTube.