Yes, readers, this is what I have been reduced to. September will soon become October, and it’s still hot as balls outside. I am unwilling to give up on the idea of the possibility of a more temperate autumn, though! So this week I went all the way–from cute magical anime to B-grade horror flicks.
After watching the 2014 Ouija movie, I basically lost all hope of there being a good horror movie concerning Ouija boards ever. (Not that I was expecting that movie to be great, it was just so, so much worse than I could have ever anticipated.) And on starting the 2013 indie film The Ouija Experiment, I didn’t expect anything amazing either. In fact, I almost didn’t watch it until I realized that, shockingly, most of the main cast wasn’t white. While the diversity was enough to initially draw me in, and the movie’s determination to not immediately fall into the typical tropes of Ouija bullshit kept pulling me along, in the end The Ouija Experiment’s casting did very little to save it. In fact, the diverse casting seemed to only exist so the writer, Tony Snearly, had an excuse to whip out a bunch of racist jokes.
Spoilers below the cut.
The Ouija Experiment takes strong inspiration from its predecessor Paranormal Activity, in narrative beats though not character or location. Brandon, one of the main five protagonists, has dreams of becoming a big paranormal YouTuber, so it seems only natural for him to tote his camcorder around (in 2013? Really?) and record his friends using the Ouija board for the first time. Though reluctant to allow this to happen, eventually another friend, Michael, gives up on telling Brandon to chill and instead focuses on telling the three other participants–his best friend Calvin, Calvin’s sister La’Nette, and Calvin’s girlfriend Shay–how to safely use the Ouija board. Their first session is rather uneventful: they do manage to contact two spirits named Gracie and Lisa, but they’re friendly enough and all goes fine despite the interpersonal drama brewing between the five living characters.
Found footage video switches off between all members of the group, getting further into Michael’s pettiness, La’Nette’s frustrations with a growing amount of supernatural encounters in her life, and Calvin’s and Shay’s relationship drama. The more the group uses the Ouija board, the more they seem to forget the rules, distracted by the growing tensions between them, eventually leading them to being unable to move the planchette to “goodbye”. In the world of horror movies, this means that everyone is now haunted, and they are. Gracie, the little girl spirit, follows them wanting to play; Lisa, her mother, is hanging around for what seems like unexplained reasons; and everyone is praying that Joseph, the spirit of the man who is said to have killed Gracie, leaves them well enough alone.
Through some amazingly convenient happenstance, Michael and La’Nette solve the mystery seemingly literally haunting the Ouija board when they realize that Lisa had actually murdered Gracie herself before committing suicide, and they manage to burn the board. Doing so not only stops the hauntings, but puts the spirits of Gracie and Joseph to rest—Joseph having been an easy scapegoat for Lisa due to his mental disability. However, Michael is horrified to discover that though everything is back to normal, he died in the process of burning the Ouija board—the movie tried to imply that Lisa pushed a bookcase on him in the process of tossing the board in the fireplace, but it happened so fast that I’m still not really sure. Fade to black.
This movie is a hot mess, but not nearly as messy as I feared, so let’s talk about what I liked first. One of the largest complaints I’ve seen about this movie is that the acting is terrible. Sure, the acting isn’t Hollywood great, but it’s certainly not as bad as a lot of people claim it is. All of the characters’ emotions were pretty realistic–the actors and actresses did the best they could with what they were given. The other thing that legitimately impressed me was how much the movie tried to destigmatize the Oujia board… at first. Some people are always going to find Oujia boards creepy or “evil”, and that’s fine, but they’re not supposed to be like that. The way the film went over the rules of using the board (don’t use the board alone, make sure to move the planchette to “goodbye” when you’re done, and so forth) ended up creating an environment where I actually felt like at least a couple of them knew what they were doing. Furthermore, after the first Ouija session, Brandon, Michael, and La’Nette actually spoke to someone more well-versed in the paranormal than them. To my surprise, their conversation wasn’t full of unhelpful warnings that “ooooooh, the Ouija is full of demons and now you’re cursed”, but instead, it was a very level-headed discussion about how not all spirits are bad, and if you’re not being a totally irresponsible dickwad, you should be fine using the board. Unfortunately, though, the movie did still end up making all the spirits they got into contact with seemingly evil and malevolent, thus reinforcing that the board is full of demons and you’re going to die if you use it. Even once.
Where this movie fully falls apart, though, is in its terrible, racist writing. Like I said at the beginning, I was drawn into this film originally because three of the main five were not white–La’Nette and her brother Calvin are Black, and Shay, Calvin’s girlfriend, is Asian-American (all we’re told for sure is that she isn’t Chinese). Unfortunately the stereotyping behind the writing becomes apparent almost immediately. While La’Nette and Shay manage to avoid the typical stereotypes at first, Calvin takes a head-first plunge that’s only exacerbated as the movie goes on. Calvin is unfaithful to his girlfriend, is a liar, and is aggressive to people when they don’t agree with him. He also tries to manipulate Shay into having sex on tape even while they’re fighting about his infidelity. Even more frustrating, his speaking patterns sound like a white guy writing how he thinks a Black man should sound–in an early example, when Shay suggests speaking to the spirits in another language, Calvin immediately goes “yo, yo, yo.” While AAVE is without a doubt its own vernacular, when put in conjunction with the rest of Calvin’s stereotyped character, this feels less like a Black man joking around that the spirit may be Black and may be more comfortable conversing in AAVE, and more like the way a white person would assume Calvin would respond. It’s a way of further subtly othering Black people within the context of the American setting–I don’t think AAVE would be the first thing to come to anyone’s mind when American friends who live in America mention a “foreign language”.
While Shay and La’Nette don’t end up being quite so terribly stereotyped, La’Nette does end up really spotlighting some of the other shitty racist stuff in the script. At one point Shay stays over at La’Nette’s place and gets spooked, thinking she’s hearing things move and speak in the darkness of La’Nette’s apartment. La’Nette seems worried too, but tells Shay that if a spirit’s there to attack them, she better pull out some “Jackie Chan shit”. When Shay confusedly explains that she’s not Chinese, La’Nette continues, saying that “you Asians know all the same karate.” Putting aside that Jackie Chan didn’t even specialize in karate, I suppose we can only count ourselves lucky that Shay didn’t actually end up knowing some form of martial arts reinforcing this stupid, stupid line. La’Nette also seems to be aware that she’s in a horror movie, as she consistently points out that doing any of the stuff they’re doing–talking to ghosts, being left alone with a possessed Ouija board–is how the “Black girl ends up dying.” She’s not wrong, but having her repeat this over and over only emphasizes the racism behind Calvin, the one Black man, dying first. Again. Just like in every horror movie ever. Movie, if you’re aware of the shitty tropes in your genre and make a point to bring it up, you have to subvert them or you’re doubly as shitty. You can’t have your cake and eat it too.
As far as horror plots go, I’ve seen a lot worse than The Ouija Experiment–even as far as found footage style movies go, too. Yet even then, bad acting or a bad plot doesn’t necessarily make for a bad movie. What makes The Oujia Experiment a bad movie is how it makes all of its characters unlikable through racist writing; furthermore, all of them end up unsympathetic characters who never acknowledge that they’re the ones who fucked everything up, both with the Ouija board and in their personal lives. If you’re looking for a horror movie that’s not actually scary and that you can find for free on YouTube, look no further than this, but I can’t say that it’s worth your time. On the plus side, at least, I think the temperature dropped five degrees today–maybe I just need to watch a couple more bad horror movies to be freed from summer’s hellish grip…