When Demons Go Viral

At play practice one night when I was a high schooler in the late ’80s, some friends broke out a Ouija board. Though I’d grown up in a Bible church and had professed faith in Christ as a child, I definitely wasn’t walking with God at the time. If anything, I was running the other way.


Still, I found myself unnerved by the game. It wasn’t that I necessarily believed there was anything supernatural going on, per se. But the thought of contacting spirits—even as a joke, even if it wasn’t real—in the same way we might break out a Monopoly board or a deck of UNO cards made me uneasy. “You shouldn’t mess with the supernatural,” I said to my friends, half joking, half not. I decided not to participate.


I find myself having a similarly unnerved reaction reading about the latest trend to sweep through social media: the so-called “Charlie Charlie Challenge.”


The “game” isn’t far removed from the Ouija experience, really. It’s simpler, though. Participants place one pencil on top of another over a grid with two yeses and two nos. After summoning the supposed Mexican demon (and filming the whole thing to upload to Twitter, Facebook and all the other popular online destinations), participants begin asking questions. Not so shockingly, the top pencil balancing on the bottom one often moves, an outcome Isaac Newton would likely have a not-so-spiritual gravitational explanation for.


So what are we to make of such occult-dabbling shenanigans? Are they harmless? Dangerous? Somewhere in between? Something else entirely?


The Charlie Charlie Challenge, which has been retweeted more than 2 million times in just the last couple of days, has deservedly earned mockery in skeptical secular quarters. Writing for The Daily Beast, for example, Amy Zimmerman sarcastically skewered the trend:


Playing-on-smartphone-blog-top“The script is simple: Cross two pencils over a piece of paper decorated with ‘yes’ and ‘no’ boxes (there’s also a more complicated six-pencil alternative for especially eager heathens). Make sure your eyeliner is on fleek while your BFF/fellow demon worshipper checks the lighting and frames the shot. Next, summon your local suburban spirits with the invocation ‘Charlie, Charlie, are you here?’ If Charlie is down to party, the pencils will point towards ‘yes,’ and you can proceed to ask him any yes/no question. After thoroughly freaking yourself out and/or FINALLY figuring out which One Direction member you’re going to marry, proceed to upload your voodoo vid to Twitter/Instagram/Vine/any other social media site your parents have definitely never heard of it. Now you’re a minor Internet celebrity riding the wave of an extremely stupid Twitter trend. Take a celebratory Snapchat/refresh your page views/retweet your friends’ Charlie Charlie Challenges/eat a snack.”


Others have made the observation that the moniker Charlie doesn’t have a particularly Hispanic ring to it. Reporting for BBC Mundo, Maria Elena Navez says, “There’s no demon called ‘Charlie’ in Mexico. Mexican legends often come from ancient Aztec and Maya history, or from the many beliefs that began circulating during the Spanish conquest. In Mexican mythology you can find gods with names like ‘Tlaltecuhtli’ or ‘Tezcatlipoca’ in the Nahuatl language. But if this legend began after the Spanish conquest, I’m sure it would’ve been called ‘Carlitos’ (Charlie in Spanish). Mexican demons are usually American inventions.”


American inventions and skeptical sarcasm notwithstanding, though, others are taking the Charlie Charlie Challenge more seriously. One of those is Spanish exorcist Jose Antonio Fortea, who said in an interview with ACI Prensa that summoning spirits isn’t a joke … even if participants might think it is. He warned, “Some spirits who are at the root of that practice will harass some of those who play the game.” He also believes that playing the game “will result in other spirits beginning to enter into even more frequent communication. … And so then the person really can suffer much worse consequences from the demon.”


Father Fortea’s perspective is at least partially informed by passages in the New Testament indicating that demonic activity is no mere spooky superstition, but a reality to beware of. Jesus repeatedly cast out demonic spirits from individuals who had been tormented by them. And the apostles Peter and Paul dealt with them as well.


Writing in Ephesians, Paul instructs, “Finally, be strong in the Lord and in the strength of his might. Put on the whole armor of God, that you may be able to stand against the schemes of the devil. For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places. Therefore take up the whole armor of God, that you may be able to withstand in the evil day, and having done all, to stand firm” (Ephesians 6:10-13).


Peter adds, “Be sober-minded; be watchful. Your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour” (1 Peter 5:8).


I like that phrase: “Be sober-minded.” A sober approach to the Charlie Charlie Challenge from a Christian perspective means we don’t run in hysteria and suggest that everyone who participates is going to be possessed. On the other hand, it does mean acknowledging that there’s a hostile spiritual reality in our world, and that it’s no joke to trifle with it.

A deep dive into the details of spiritual warfare is beyond the scope of what I can accomplish in this blog. But it seems like a theological no-brainer to believe that flirting with demons, even when you think it’s a game—perhaps especially when you think it’s a game—is potentially more problematic than many unsuspecting teens realize.

A postscript: Apart from the potential spiritual peril here, it seems to me that this trend also reveals a deep spiritual hunger. Sure, yeah, I know many of the teens participating aren’t earnestly, honestly seeking spiritual truth. And yet, I think the wildfire way that the Charlie Charlie Challenge has spread indicates a hunger for meaning and purpose and answers in a world long on information but often woefully short on truth. And in the context of that spiritual hunger and vacuum, something like the Charlie Charlie challenge can be surprisingly alluring.

The counterfeit manner through which teens might be attempting to fill that internal spiritual void might seem silly. But there’s nothing frivolous about the deeper spiritual hunger that fuels a phenomenon like this one.