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"Charlie, Charlie, are you there?" Why teens are summoning demons, explained.

A Charlie Charlie game, waiting to terrify you.
A Charlie Charlie game, waiting to terrify you.
Estelle Caswell/Vox
Phil Edwards is a senior producer for the Vox video team.

"Charlie, Charlie, are you there?"

This incantation is sweeping the nation: teens everywhere are stacking pencils, calling to a demon named Charlie, and entrusting their fates to the predictive powers of leftover loose-leaf paper and graphite.

But where did this trend come from, and what does it say about superstition? To find the answers, I consulted experts on the psychology of superstition and the Ouija board. What they revealed will not frighten you and shake you to the very core, but it will help you understand the origins and appeal of this newly popular game.

What is Charlie Charlie?

Charlie Charlie is a new teenage craze that's somewhere between a Ouija board and cootie catcher. It's gone viral with the hashtag-friendly name #CharlieCharlieChallenge.

It's played by dividing a piece of paper into four quadrants, each labeled with either a "yes" or "no." If you like, you can also switch out the "yes" or "no" for your favorite member of One Direction, or some other interesting subject.

Then you place one pencil on one line and balance another perpendicularly on top of it. Say, "Charlie, Charlie, are you there?" If Charlie "responds" by rotating the upper pencil towards one of the answers, sort of like a compass, you can proceed to ask more questions. Examples include "Charlie, will I get an A?" or "Charlie, will I get married to my homecoming date?"

A typical reaction looks like this:

Where did this game come from?

There are two levels to why kids are playing Charlie Charlie: what they think it means, and where it actually comes from.

The competing legends are that Charlie is a Mexican child who died, a Mexican demon or pagan god that is in cahoots with Christian Satan, or the victim of some kind of violent crime. None of these can be confirmed. Regardless, the belief is that a ghost or spirit is being conjured from the depths of hell to answer questions about whether your crush likes you.

For her article about the phenomenon, Washington Post reporter Caitlin Dewey did some great research, and the story ultimately reveals that we don't really know why teens are suddenly playing Charlie Charlie. It may be related to an old game from Spain called "Juego de la Lapicera," but we don't know how or when the crossover happened. There is another game called Charlie Charlie that's been played for a while, but it's different and involves pencils held together instead of being placed on a paper grid. At some point, the two games became the phenomenon we know today.

Lately, there have even been murmurs that Charlie Charlie is part of a viral marketing campaign for the movie The Gallows because of a teaser trailer that includes the game:

However, Snopes convincingly debunks that theory, showing that the game was a viral phenomenon long before the movie released the trailer.

What is making the pencils move?!?

The movement of the pencils is eerie, to be sure. But as Elizabeth Palermo at LiveScience explains, it's really just an unstable structure that's bound to move.

The pencils balanced on each other are very precarious, so the slightest wind or movement can cause one or both of the pencils to sway one way or another. It's easy to imagine that a subtle draft or the breath of a superstitious teenager could send the top pencil moving in different directions.

There might also be some of the ideomotor effect involved — that's a psychological phenomenon in which someone's mental focus can cause her to move her body subconsciously or reflexively. The ideomotor effect is behind a lot of Ouija board games, too. Though the players aren't touching the pencils, they could upset the paper, the table, or other things nearby.

Why do teens fall for stuff like this? Is it worth worrying about?

Charlie Charlie prompts a bigger question: in an age of smartphones and easily accessible information, why do teens still fall for obviously fake stuff like Charlie Charlie? While the proliferation of the meme online is a new phenomenon, believing in the superstition is timeless.

"This is by definition a social thing," Stuart Vyse says. He's a psychology professor at Connecticut College and wrote about these beliefs in Believing in Magic: The Psychology of Superstition.

"People don't summon Charlie Charlie alone, so this age group is a prime demographic." The same way that teens like to see paranormal movies together, they like to play Charlie Charlie together. "There's a real social bonding aspect to this whole phenomenon," Vyse says.

Donald Saucier, a psychology professor at Kansas State University, agrees that the social element of Charlie Charlie is key to its appeal. "Superstitions are socially transmitted. You learn their value from other people. For teens, it's a period where social influence is very strong, and I think they're probably more prone to social influence. It stands to reason they'd be more prone to superstition."

Of course, beyond that specific teenage desire, there's a deeper appeal to superstitions like Charlie Charlie. "It's comforting," Saucier says. "Some people might feel less pressure if a superstition is influencing their lives." Vyse notes that rather than being a source of real fear, there's something electrifying about playing the game. "It has the thrill of newness with it, as well as the thrill of fear," he says. "It's almost a developmental passage for some kids, to deal with things that are scary."

So is Charlie Charlie the downfall of teenagers and Western civilization? "Superstitions get a bad rap," Saucier says. "If they're doing it to affiliate and have fun, it's not a problem." Superstitions can be harmful if people rely on them to the point of obsession — but they can also be a fun way to pass a few idle moments in class.

How long have people believed in stuff like Charlie Charlie?

A depiction of a seance, circa 1860. (Ullstein Bild/Getty Images)

A depiction of a séance, circa 1860. (Ullstein Bild/Getty Images)

The social media fizz around Charlie Charlie makes it seem like a modern phenomenon, but it's timeless.

Robert Murch is chairman of the Talking Board Historical Society, which uncovers and celebrates the many ways people have tried to contact the spirit world, from Ouija to other talking boards few people have ever heard of.

He says that decades before the 1880s, and long before people bought games like Ouija, homemade devices like Charlie Charlie were common. "Something so simple as putting two pencils together is too simple not to try," he says, "and like the early talking boards, before Ouija got its name, you can make this yourself."

Many teens who try Charlie Charlie probably realize it isn't real. But it's so easy that it's worth trying.

After all, don't you want to see if you have any pencils around? Charlie is waiting.

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