As the author of a book about demons and exorcism, I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised when, over Memorial Day weekend, I received a number of emails asking me to comment on the “Charlie Charlie Challenge." During the last week or so, this alleged means of contacting a “Mexican spirit" has spread through social media and surged in popularity among teens.
The “challenge" goes like this: Two intersecting lines are drawn on a piece of paper; the word yes is written in two opposite squares and no is written in the other two. Then a pencil is laid down on the horizontal line, and another is laid across it vertically. The player then says, “Charlie, Charlie, can we play?" and watches to see if “Charlie the Mexican demon" moves one or both pencils toward a yes or no square. Players continue asking yes or no questions and laying the pencils one on top of the other to see the answers. The internet is full of spooky videos showing the “demon" moving the pencils.
Not having pencils handy, I went into the secretary’s office to get some, and tried it, without—of course—the accompanying paper and invocation to the demon. Sometimes neither pencil moved, sometimes one moved, and sometimes both moved. It depended on where on the desk I placed them, and the amount of friction keeping the one on top of the other. Later I talked to my goddaughter—a grade-school teacher—and she said her students have played this game, and one girl confessed to moving the pencils by exhaling through her nose.
I think we can conclude that the movement of the pencils does not necessarily signify a demonic presence. Although it is possible that the devil could express himself in even the most mundane ways, I think the vast majority of those playing this game are not communicating with demons. Catholics should not blame the devil every time a pencil rolls across a desk.
But does that mean this is an acceptable game for Christians to play, just for fun? Definitely not.
The only spiritual beings we call upon are God, his angels, and his saints; and certainly none of them are going to give us secret information through a pencil trick. Silly as it is, if one’s intention were to contact spirits, playing this game would be at least a venial sin. We should teach children and teens to distinguish between the scary and the sacrilegious. If young people want to have fun in spooky ways, I don’t see anything inherently sinful: with scary fictional stories (Irish folklore is full of these), make-believe “haunted houses" at Halloween, and movies with monsters such as vampires and werewolves (provided they are not gory). Attempts to contact spirits or see the future, on the other hand, whether through Ouija boards, psychics, horoscopes, or even the “Charlie Charlie Challenge," are putting faith in things other than God and—rare though it actually happens—inviting the possibility of true demonic influence.
What should Catholic parents do if their children ask about it or have played it? My advice is not to overdramatize the demonic aspect of it, since it is doubtful (though not impossible) that they would contact a demon. Instead, I advise reminding them that one of the reasons God became man was to free us from the oppression of the devil (Acts 1:38). Our Lord subjected himself to the horrible suffering of the Crucifixion, therefore it would be greatly offensive to him if we attempted a playful conversation with his enemy. If they have played it, have them pray a rosary with you tonight, in reparation for sins and for protection against any demonic presence. And then quit worrying about it.
If children and teens show an interest in things with spiritual power, have them carry a small crucifix in their pocket, and keep holy water handy in their bedrooms. Be sure to explain the difference between magic/superstition and sacramentals: the former are human attempts to control things in the spirit world, the latter are acknowledgements of God’s control over the spirit world.
A good counterbalance to young peoples’ attraction to the spooky is to introduce them to the numinous. In his book The Problem of Pain, C.S. Lewis describes the difference between fear and what he calls the experience of the numinous. If you were told there is a tiger in the next room, you would likely feel fear. If you were told there is a ghost in the next room, and you believed it, you would feel fear of a different kind; less fear of what it might do to you and more of the fact of its presence. But if you believed a great spirit were present in the next room, your feeling would be that of the numinous: “A sense of inadequacy to cope with such a visitant and of prostration before it."
To experience this, take your teens into the church to pray when no one else is present (you might need to arrange in advance with the pastor). Take them to a cemetery at night, and pray for the souls in purgatory. Drive out to the country on a clear night and look at the stars. Feeling awful is a good thing, if it is the creator of the universe before whom we feel full of awe.