WASHINGTON — Fascination with the occult went viral over the Memorial Day weekend. While exorcists warn that the #CharlieCharlieChallenge and any similar game — on social media or not — is dangerous, Catholic social-media experts say the challenge is to form social-media witnesses who will share the power of the Gospel on platforms such as Vine and Instagram.
The #CharlieCharlieChallenge is a social-media teen craze involving a game of pencils that invokes a “Mexican demon” — or group of demons, depending on the version of Internet folklore — called “Charlie.” Over Memorial Day weekend, it popped up all over platforms like YouTube, Vine and Instagram. Middle-school and high-school youth posted thousands of videos of themselves summoning “Charlie” to answer their questions — such as “Which member of One Direction should I marry?,” whether Lady Gaga will release a new hit single or the answer to their homework questions — and then getting spooked when the top pencil moves.
The phenomenon behind the social-media fad looks eerie, but has a simple explanation: Physical vibrations, such as the movement of air from slapping one’s hand on the table, move the top pencil due to the lack of friction.
According to Catholic social-media expert Ryan Scheel, founder and editor of uCatholic.com, this occult Internet sensation is not particularly new. It follows a tradition of “parlor games,” such as the Ouija board and “Bloody Mary,” where individuals try to make contact with the spirit world — a violation of the First Commandment.
“This one is a little bit different, in that it’s able to spread so fast [through social media], where in the past these things would develop over generations, regionally, with their own twists,” Scheel said. “This is something that can propagate in a matter of weeks.”
Since it is a social-media fad, Scheel said, “most of these things have a short shelf life, and in two weeks everyone will have more or less forgotten about it.”
Hunger for the Supernatural
However, the #CharlieCharlieChallenge is symptomatic of a much larger problem the Church has with teens and tweens: a hunger for the supernatural that the secular world is filling with superstition.
“Kids are out of touch with the supernatural in today’s modern world,” Scheel said.
“The Church hasn’t done a good job of promoting the mystical side of the faith, and I think, to today’s kids, it’s much more important seeking that in whatever form they can get,” he continued. “Because it’s an ingrained thing in a person to seek the supernatural.”
Part of the problem stems from a lack of catechesis, according to Pauline Sister Helena Burns, a Catholic with an apostolate of constructive engagement with modern media.
“Obviously, people don’t realize that the devil is real, or they think that if he is real, he can’t hurt them,” she said.
“I’ve asked them [those who think the occult is okay], ‘Were you never told that it is wrong to go to palm readers, fortune tellers, getting your horoscope or having your cards read?’ And they’ve said, ‘No, nobody ever told me,’” she said. “So again, it’s a lack in catechesis.”
“If your intention is to conjure up the devil, your intention now is to summon evil,” she said. “We’re not even allowed to summon our beloved dead because Satan will impersonate our beloved dead.”
The very issue was highlighted by Father Stephen McCarthy, the chaplain of Sts. John Neumann and Maria Goretti Catholic High School in Philadelphia, who told the Register that he found it amazing that a May 25 email he sent warning students against “playing with demons” became newsworthy.
“Did it take me to say this? Was this unknown to Catholics?" he said.
With the ubiquity of Internet access, thanks to smartphones, Father McCarthy said parents have to be engaged in teaching their children about good and evil, and Catholic catechists and pastors have to help them.
“The call for the New Evangelization is to get out there and embrace this world and catechize it,” he added. “I hope good Catholics on social media are seeing what is going on and are motivated to do just that: to go into this sphere and claim it for Christ and the Church.”
Ignorance of the devil is a dangerous situation. Father Vincent Lampert, the designated exorcist for the Archdiocese of Indianapolis, told the Register he has dealt with cases firsthand in which social media and the Internet became the gateway for possession and obsession.
“They may think that it is all fun and entertainment, but they’re going to be dabbling with evil, and perhaps directly or indirectly, making a connection with an evil spirit in their lives,” he said.
Father Lampert said the modern world overall has a dangerous fascination with the occult and paranormal activity. Youth, particularly preteens, are vulnerable to this fascination, which is why the response has to be to form authentic disciples who have a firm love for Jesus. “It almost seems that as people are becoming bored with God, they’re becoming more fascinated with evil and evil practices.”
On the May 29 episode of Register Radio, Father Mike Driscoll of the Diocese of Peoria, Ill., and the author of Demons, Deliverance and Discernment, addressed the #CharlieCharlieChallenge in terms of its offense to Jesus.
“My main question with this is: How do parents deal with it? I would focus on Jesus Christ. I would say, ‘Okay, let’s think about this now: Jesus died, suffering horribly on the cross. ... Here’s the devil [in this social-media craze], who was involved in the horrible sufferings of Christ, and we’re going to talk to him like it’s some fun kind of game? No, that’s offensive to Jesus. Don’t do that.” I would try to take that kind of approach. Focus on Jesus: Say, ‘You don’t really want to be doing that.’ Make them think about what they’re doing there, rather than just some goofy thing with pencils. Think: ‘We’re not even going to pretend like we’re talking friendly with the devil, who is the enemy of Jesus Christ.”
Changing the Equation
Sister Burns said the Church has great opportunities to “capture the sense of the imagination” by being active on social media in a positive, faith-affirming way.
“So how can we do something that goes viral? I think it is going to come from young people themselves,” she said, adding that many young Catholics on Vine, Instagram and Twitter are sharing their faith and love for Jesus Christ in an authentic way, just as they share the parts of their lives that have to do with shopping or their favorite sports teams.
“We have to give them the courage to say, ‘Yeah, I’m in all this stuff, too,’” she said.
The key, however, is training young people in how to use media well — not trying to prevent youth from using it at all, she said, or just giving them an iPad and smartphone without engaging them in how to use them properly. Instead, parents need to help their children learn how to use these tools, just as they help them learn how to drive a car safely and respect its power.
“Chances are, your child is going to agree with you and your values if you give him a little room to make it on his own, to make the choice his own,” she said.
Scheel added that Catholics have opportunities to be inventive and connect their lived faith with social media. He said there is no reason, for example, why Catholics cannot use social-media platforms to promote a “Eucharistic adoration challenge” or “Eucharistic-procession flash mobs,” adding that this would require the “cooperation of the clergy.”
“You take those images, put them back on social media, and it creates a circular current that grows and morphs everything,” he said.
Scheel said there is a vacuum in the supernatural, and, right now, the secular world is filling that hunger. He said the secular world comes up with “meatless Mondays” it regards as novel, when meatless Fridays were a widely recognized Catholic practice 50 years ago.
“We need to reclaim these things that are really the Church’s and Western culture’s birthright.”
Peter Jesserer Smith is the Register’s Washington correspondent.