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Has 'light as a feather, stiff as a board' ever worked?

The "light as a feather, stiff as a board" phenomenon can work, but not the way you think. Its success is rooted in actual science.
The "light as a feather, stiff as a board" phenomenon can work, but not the way you think. Its success is rooted in actual science.

It's the unofficial chant of every slumber party. A bunch of girls in their pajamas gather around another girl lying on the floor, her arms crossed over her chest, eyes tightly shut. Her friends start chanting. They place their fingers under her body from head to foot. "Light as a feather, stiff as a board...light as a feather, stiff as a board ... light as a feather, stiff as a board ... one, two, THREE!" And if everything works just right, suddenly they lift their friend off the floor, as if she were made of nothing but air. The girls drop her, scream and giggle, and swear they just summoned the devil himself.

What in the world just happened here? Did you ever try it? Did it work? Is it a true ghostly phenomenon? Every kid, and many adults, will swear it works, and the only explanation is witchcraft. Others believe it has to do with magnetic zones. Well, not quite.

"Light as a feather, stiff as a board" actually canwork, but not the way you may be thinking. Your subject can be lying on the floor, in a chair or on a table. If you and your friends use two fingers apiece to try and lift the subject, it won't work. Then use "the spell." Depending on which piece of folklore you learned, you can chant, count, whisper or sing. Sometimes you may all first place your hands on the subject's head as if to "heal" her. The most important thing here is that you're all doing it together, concentrating as one mind. Once you all hit a certain number or beat, you attempt to lift at the same time, and your subject "magically" levitates.

Here's what's really going on: good timing, weight distribution and fallible memory.

  • Timing: In the first attempt to lift your subject, everyone is lifting their fingers at different times, so you're all trying to lift your subject's entire weight by yourself at each moment. In the second attempt, because of the timed chanting and ritual, you all lift at the exact same time.
  • Weight distribution: When you and your friends all lift as one, you're lifting only about 20 to 40 pounds apiece. Think about when you're trying to carry super-heavy plastic grocery bags and don't want to make a second trip from the car. Your fingers are pretty strong! Take four or five people doing this at the exact same moment, and it's not that hard to lift someone with your fingers, especially if the subject is holding her body "stiff as a board."
  • Fallible memory: So many of us did this as children, our memories start to play tricks on us. The levitation gets higher, the subject feels lighter and the whole ordeal feels spookier.

So, yes, technically, "light as a feather, stiff as a board" can work. But it has nothing to do with ghosts, witchcraft or the occult. However, it's a great trick and slumber party tradition for the ages. Don't ruin the "magic" for your kids!

Don't Be Dumb: Light as a Feather, Stiff as a Board