Not all games you play at slumber parties have dark histories, but Light as a Feather, Stiff as a Board has always been a little darker than most. Light as a Feather, Stiff as a Board history goes all the way back to at least the 17th Century, marking it as having a long history among children, especially young girls. Brought to even greater prominence by The Craft, the game has become a staple of adolescence, as kids perform the ritual to get their friends to levitate.
Like Bloody Mary and other sleepover games, Light as a Feather, Stiff as a Board has some connection to historical events. Bridging the fear of death with play, the game is a popular choice for kids who want to be both scared and amazed. While it might be just a touch freaky, the game has some interesting history and science behind it.
The ritual behind Light as a Feather, Stiff as a Board has remained mostly the same since it was first written about in 1665. The game requires at least three participants, though more are preferable. One person, the liftee, lays down while the others sit around them with their index and middle fingers under the liftee's body. Some variations include a chosen person telling a story about how the liftee died, or everyone may participate in an ongoing chant, such as "I think she's dying, I think she's dead, I know she's dead," or similar. After the chant is completed, the participants may switch to chanting "light as a feather, stiff as a board," before all joining together to lift the body at the same time. The body feels much lighter than expected, leading some to believe there's magic involved.
Though Light as a Feather, Stiff as a Board is a staple of modern-day sleepovers, its origins go back to at least 1665. In a diary entry, naval administrator Samuel Pepys recorded a story told to him by a friend. According to that entry, the friend witnessed several girls chanting over a boy, including a story in which the boy died, before lifting him into the air. They tried it again on an adult cook, known for being a particularly large man, and the ritual worked again. Though the words used today are a bit different, the concept of levitating a person as a group by telling a story in which they die is the same. And the words to the ritual even echo some similar language:
"Behold, a dead body,
Still as a stone,
Cold as marble,
Light as a spirit,
We lift you in the name of Jesus Christ."
Children's games are often associated with morbid histories, but, in the case of Light as a Feather, Stiff as a Board, it might actually be true. In 1665, the first recorded instance of children playing the game, the Black Plague swept through Europe, killing 15% of London's population. Bodies were sometimes thrown into consecrated rivers as a form of Christian burial, meaning everyone, including children, saw death on a regular basis. That it factored into their games is less of a surprise when considering how close they were to death in their daily lives.
What makes the game so appealing is that it's a bit creepy and feels a whole lot like magic. But there's a science behind it, too, and the truth is no less interesting than if it were actually magic. While some blame witchcraft, there are actually a few theories about how it really works. The game often involves the participants trying to lift the person before the ritual is performed, which doesn't work, but chanting and focus help the group concentrate their efforts and successfully lift the person. Spreading the weight out over several people also helps, as does the focus on being stiff. All these elements combine to make lifting the body easier than before the ritual is performed, leading many to believe it's magic, not focus, that makes it work.