Some people are given flowers, chocolates or socks as birthday gifts. Instead, I received a Ghost Writer Automatic Writing Kit...
I tested a "Spirit Writer" years ago and concluded that the practitioner's pages of "channeled" scrawl were a stream-of-consciousness style of writing that was about as paranormal as James Joyce's Finnegans Wake.
I should explain that there are two types of "spirit writing". One kind is where an uninvited spirit supposedly leaves a message on your wall, a threat written in lipstick on your mirror, or a rude word on your post-it notes. A classic claim is the infamous story of Borley Rectory the original "Most Haunted Home in England", as researched by the early paranormal investigator Harry Price. In this case, ‘victim' Marianne Foyster was supposedly haunted by ghosts and poltergeists, and received spirit writing pleas for "light mass prayers" and "please get help". It's now believed that Mrs Reverend Foyster faked the phenomena to divert attention away from her extra-marital affairs.
In contrast, spirit writing (also known as automatic writing or trance writing) is where a subject allegedly channels a spirit, becoming an intermediary for the spirit that controls a writing implement and writes ‘though' the subject. It's a form of mediumship, but the communication is written rather than verbal. Infamous automatic writers include the "spirit" Patience Worth who allegedly wrote poetry and novels through her host Pearl Lenore Curran; and Rosemary Brown, who claimed that Bach, Beethoven, Chopin and other famous (not to mention deceased) composers dictated new works to her.
Now you too can "Become your own psychic medium!" gushes the blurb on the box. You might recall repressed memories, compose music or even contact someone famous. For $17.95 the kit includes the requisite "tools" for automatic writing. "All you need to contact the subtle vibrations of the spirit world" is their guidebook, a planchette, and...er...um... a pen.
I thought it was weird that the kit included a planchette (I know, I know, the whole thing is weird). A planchette makes automatic writing more like the ouija board game. I now suspected the ideomotor effect would come into play. However, without the words, letters and numbers of the ouija board, and the planchette restricting the movement of the hand and the control of the pen, I doubted that anyone could achieve more than an illegible scrawl with this kit.
Following the instructions carefully, I sat at a table with a piece of paper and the pen placed in the planchette. Then I was to "center" myself by performing "Protection Meditation". This ritual involved closing my eyes, breathing deeply, and visualizing:
...being at one with All There Is, or however you prefer to conceptualize the highest and most powerful force for good in the universe. Concentrate on this, the source of all light and love, for it is from this higher place that you will receive your information.
Upon opening my eyes I was instructed to utter:
The love I have for you is undiminished by time and distance. I know you love me, too, and I feel your protection around me. I invite you to share with me your loving guidance by using my hand to communicate your message for my highest good and greatest joy.
I closed my eyes again. To kickstart the session and "mentally let go" I begin moving the pen in a figure 8 motion, the "symbol of eternity". I then requested to speak to my spirit guide. I didn't know which one to ask for; every time a psychic has told me who my spirit guide is I've been given a different name...
Following the handbook, I asked a few questions; "Is there a spirit guide here?" As suggested in the book, I asked the spirits to adopt a Yes = Y or 1, No = N or 2 code to answer my questions. I also asked, "What is your name?" and "Please write a message for me." Asking questions of thin air reminded me of the practices of those who go hunting for "spirit voices" known as electronic voice phenomena.
I spent about 5 minutes attempting to channel a spirit, the time frame prescribed by the book for first time spirit writers. When I opened my eyes all I saw was a string of figure 8 shapes, in ever-widening circles. (See photo.) No messages, no words or symbols, other than the one I'd been instructed to draw.
The process was a little hypnotic, much like any kind of meditation, but there's nothing paranormal about that. Some actually use ‘automatic' writing as a device to stimulate creativity, but there's nothing paranormal about that either.
According to the handbook, there are lots of limitations, caveats, and excuses, should the process fail: Avoid automatic writing when you are tired, stressed, distracted or skeptical. Even scribbles are supposedly meaningful in retrospect (that is, you will ascribe them meaning). But my favorite disclaimer is that if the resultant handwriting is unintelligible, the spirit had bad handwriting when he or she was alive. Perhaps this is when you've channeled a doctor!
After the test, I inspected the planchette. It's a flimsy pad made of thick foam, and if sufficient pressure is placed on the front section the pen could fall out of its holder easily. I made a careful attempt to sign my name using the planchette, but my signature looked like I'd tried to sign after I'd been in a fist-fight. (See photo.) Accordingly, even if one could summon spirits they'd have a hard time trying to write anything comprehensible.
In the end, I think the authors inadvertently stumbled across the explanation, should the process actually work: "The messages are supposed to come either from your subconscious mind or from a spirit entity." Barring the second bit, that is.
In this form, automatic writing is likely to be resultant of subtle motor movement. (See Ray Hyman's article explaining Ideomotor Action.) In effect, the automatic writer shouldn't expect to predict anything he or she doesn't already know. As the handbook says, don't attempt to channel the next winning lotto numbers because "spirit guides are notoriously useless when it comes to gambling." Why? Well, if you don't know the numbers, they don't either, because "they" are "you"...
Now for my caveat: this isn't intended to be a rigorous experiment. However, I followed the instructions closely, and this kit is intended to replicate a result for all users, i.e., the production of a message from a "spirit". I received a result that adhered to my initial hypothesis; I produced the figure 8, as instructed to do so by the book. I didn't even invoke the ideomotor effect.
During the mini experiment I didn't recall any repressed memories. Unlike Led Zeppelin, I didn't receive a satanic symbol that would bring me fame and fortune; and I didn't channel any poetry, artworks or music. I only created the kind of absent-minded doodle you'd draw when on the phone. I didn't contact Houdini, Carl Sagan or my deceased grandmother.
At least my fears of channeling the Fat Elvis were completely unfounded.
Karen Stollznow is a linguist, researcher and writer. Karen is the Naked Skeptic columnist for Skeptical Inquirer, and a regular contributor to Swift and Skepchick. A version of this article first appeared at Skepchick.