The Surprisingly Sensible History Of "Light As A Feather, Stiff As A Board"

In the same night that you scared the daylights out of your friends (and yourself) playing Bloody Mary, you probably tried your hand at another slumber party game with a supernatural slant: "Light As A Feather, Stiff As A Board." This inexplicable party trick, wherein a bunch of preteens seemingly make each other levitate, was about as close to magic as you could get without leaving your BFF's basement.

As it turns out, this spooky trick may have a scientific explanation — and its roots date back way before The Craft made it cool.

If you escaped adolescence without learning the exact rules, here's a quick run-down: One person (the liftee) lays down and crosses their arms over their chest. Everyone else kneels in a circle around the liftee. The person seated near the liftee's head takes the lead and directs the kneelers to tuck their index and middle fingers under the liftee's body. Then, the leader tells a story about how the liftee "died" and starts a chant that's meant to summon the liftee's spirit back into their body.

As you might already know, that chant goes, "Light as a feather, stiff as a board." While the group chants, they begin to raise their hands underneath the liftee and, miraculously, send the liftee's body floating into the air. (Or at least, players often think they do.)

The first written account of anyone playing "Light As A Feather, Stiff As A Board" reportedly comes from the diary of a 17th century Englishman named Samuel Pepys. In his entry from July 31, 1665, Pepys mentions a story that his friend, Mr. Brisband, told him about a group of girls reciting the following chant over a boy who was laying down:

Voici un corps mort Raide comme un bâton,
Froid comme le marbre
Léger comme un esprit,
Lève-toi au nom de Jésus-Christ!

Roughly translated, that chant means:

Behold, a dead body,
Still as a stone,
Cold as marble,
Light as a spirit,
We lift you in the name of Jesus Christ.
While they chanted, the girls allegedly raised the boy into the air using only their fingers. Mr. Brisband added that they were able to replicate the trick with someone else: "The cook of the house, a very lusty fellow...who is very big, and they did raise him in just the same manner."

This was around the time that the plague was hitting Europe in waves, so it's pretty understandable that children would not only be aware of death, but they'd make games out of it to boot. Of course, that doesn't explain what actually goes on when the liftee supposedly levitates — which has been deemed a work of witchcraft, black magic, and even Satan since the game's inception. Luckily, Science has a pretty even-handed (pun intended) explanation.

Watch enough attempts at "Light As A Feather, Stiff As A Board," and you'll notice that no one nails it on the first try. It all comes down to timing, according to ABC Science. When all of the kneelers raise their fingers at the same time, chanting and witchcraft have nothing to do with it — it's just easier to lift something if several people do it together. And, as ABC Science notes, we tend to underestimate the strength of our fingers.

Beyond that, it stands to reason that this party trick has lived as long as it has thanks to our biased memories. A 2007 paper found that if we don't completely remember an event, we'll unconsciously recreate it in the way we think it should have gone. In other words, if pop culture has led us to believe that "Light As A Feather, Stiff As A Board" is this fantastical phenomenon, we may end up recalling that time we played it as a truly magical experience, when we really just barely lifted a friend off the ground.

This is also why most slumber parties experience less stunning results than the teen witches of The Craft. Perfect timing and prepubescent finger strength can only hold out for so long. But don't let that ruin the illusion. It's never a bad thing to let a group of kids believe they're supernaturally strong.
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