In the classic book Psychology of Superstition, Gustav Jahoda writes that beliefs are not just in our heads, they affect our behavior, and that self-fulfilling prophecy is not uncommon in human affairs (p. 8). Many events seem trivial and unspectacular, but when placed into a paranormal context, they take on a new and enhanced meaning. We want explanations for the bad things that happen to us and we retroactively look to assign blame to anything but ourselves. There is satisfaction in seeking and establishing patterns that later seem obvious, even though they are concocted and baseless. This is my opinion of what happens when people think they have summoned bad spirits from an Ouija board. Superstition is at the core of this book, The Zozo Phenomenon by Darren Evans and Rosemary Ellen Guiley.
Everyone has their strange unexplained spooky stories. Paranormal stories are often not like Hollywood horror but they can creep people out. Darren Evans begins this book with a story of an unusual ouija board that unexpectedly came into his possession. He says that it had been discovered along with four glass jars containing dead blackbirds. Was this the result of a ritual from previous owners who considered the board special in some way? Perhaps. One side of the board had the word ZOZO inscribed. Zozo is the Basque word for ‘blackbird’.
Evans has woven a paranormal narrative based on this Zozo board into a website, media appearances, paranormal research effort, and this book. He tells many stories connecting several horrific events in his life and that of his friends and family to an evil force that came from the board and followed him like a curse. Things got “Hollywood” real fast. There are scads of good reasons to be doubtful of the accuracy and conclusions made in this book. My aim here is to point them out for the reader to consider if belief in Ouija board supernaturality is on your agenda.
I learned about the Zozo phenomenon when I heard Guiley speak at the Fringe New Jersey event in October 2016. It was a new concept to me so I picked up the book.
The volume is broken into two parts. The first is Darren’s narrative of the strangeness that happened to him since he started using Ouija boards, especially this particular Zozo board that he found under his girlfriend’s house (crawl space) in 1982 when he was just a teen. The second part has a Rosemary flavor. It discusses the possible historical and cultural aspect of Zozo and Ouija use. The book was produced under Rosemary’s publishing label so it is, in a way, a self-published book. While it contains a handful of egregious typographic errors, it is a readable book and above the level of most self-published vanity books.
As regular readers know, I currently do not accept that the evidence of the paranormal indicates anything groundbreaking, that would overturn natural understanding as we know it. Based on the evidence and current understanding of nature, I can not conclude that there are entities from beyond life, from other dimensions, or with supernatural abilities. One book is not going to change my mind, but it doesn’t mean I can’t find some value in it if done well. And, if well-documented and reasoned, it could lead me to conclude that there is something odd going on that needs explanation. But, this book fell far from the mark to be able to take this concept seriously.
Darren Evans’ life stories
I have no reason to doubt that Evans has had several legitimate scares and outright tragedies in his life. The ominous first story he relates is about the finding and using of the Zozo Ouija board with his girlfriend, Jamie, and friend, Randy, and Randy’s death 20 years later. Context is critical in evaluating any claims made in this book. While I can’t know if everything is accurate or if all the factors playing into the claims are expressed, I can point out some issues that are revealed in the story. For example, Jamie’s mother is described as a follower of Wicca and they acknowledge a ghost in the house named Leonard. So, the scene is set for a narrative that plays into those beliefs. During the Ouija sessions, they claim to hear loud bangs. Randy arrives (by making loud bangs on the door) with beer, marijuana and a heavy metal attitude. The messages that come through the Zozo spirit board disturb them including the reveal that Randy will die in a car wreck. In his later years, Randy is described as depressed and on medication when he drinks too much vodka and dies in a car collision with a tree. Is there any good reason to think that Randy’s death should be connected to the “prediction”? No. People in a condition such as Randy’s are troubled and a danger to themselves. We might consider that Randy engineered a self-fulfilling prophecy by drinking and driving if he still harbored the memory of board message. But, ultimately, we can’t confirm these details at all. There isn’t even a photo of the original Zozo board. It’s just a story and I can’t accept that as solid evidence that an evil force was at play.
A similar situation plays out in another chain of events Evans describes related to the board. He admits that he has become “obsessed” by it (p. 10). This admission, as in the last story, suggests that there is a strong preconception of belief in the paranormal and supernatural that will lead people to attribute observations to their preferred cause. While in another Ouija session, the board related there was someone in the window. They discover someone looking in on them who turns out to be an escapee from a local medical facility. It’s not clear if they blame the board for attracting the person or just revealing his presence. No details or even timeline are given to be able to confirm this story as valid. At this point, Evans says he attempted to burn the board at midnight outside. With gasoline. Church bells eerily ring in the night as Darren and his friend Michael douse the board and set it alight. The flame travels quickly back to the gas can which explodes and burns Michael. The “spirit board was unscathed”. A few months later, Darren and Michael receive a message from the board that Michael will die of “murder”. Years later, Michael dies at his home of an unknown cause and we are left with Evans’ suggestion that it was deliberate poisoning. Again, if this story is accurate, there is no need to connect the board prediction to an unsolved death. The lack of burning of the board is not unusual – if it was made of hard or pressed wood such material will not readily combust in a quick fire. It clearly appears they botched the burning attempt anyway. Carelessness or error is a far more plausible explanation here.
Evans’ stories continue as he chaotically jumps between years and people with which he uses the supposedly “cursed” board that channels the Zozo entity. A pet dog becomes possessed by Zozo after the board announces it would do so. The dog acts abnormal, just like in the movies, vomits something gross, growls, runs away, howling evilly in the night, and is later found dead. This leads to Evans to find a campsite in the woods where he (oddly) hides the board in an abandoned car. Later when he tries to retrieve the board, it’s covered in a multitude of rats. He kept using this board and others to channel Zozo.
Zozo is also described as a billet reader, knowing what folded papers say. Zozo reveals itself in the glowing eyes of a skull necklace reflected in a mirror. And so on… Ok. By now, I’m thinking that this stuff is so Hollywood horror cliche. None of these entertaining but implausible stories have been confirmed in the least. Of course, many people find stories to be enough and they function to reinforce their existing worldview. I am aware of how memory and storytelling work so I don’t find personal accounts to be convincing.
While Darren continues pouring out his Zozo-haunted narrative, there are times when he lays off the board work. He admits he suffered from anxiety attacks. And, revealingly, he became storm chaser at one point, indicating his thrill-seeker tendencies. Along with the observation we can make that his belief in demons is supported and possibly encouraged by his friends and family, we can see that Darren could be creating his own fiction that feels real to him.
Family is affected
A particularly disturbing element emerges when Darren speaks of incidents with his several children. He reveals through his mention of various relationships and several children by different women that he has not established a long-term stable home life. He tells a harrowing account about his 2-year old daughter, that Zozo has indicated will have “iron tongue”, who nearly drowns in a bathtub. She is rescued but then gets ill. At the hospital, they discover she is carrying a tick. She contracts MRSA and her face swells up. This swollen condition, he says, as her tongue protrudes, is the Zozo prophecy come true.
There is an entire section describing a terrible house he rented with narrow stairs. He and his daughter live in the basement and one night they get locked in there. His son and girlfriend were using an Ouija board upstairs during this time and the girl suffers a fit of what I interpret as hysterical blindness. The kids have been drawn into his spirit board ideas. They blame Zozo for this incident as well as a wound on the pet kitten. Evans sees a diabolical hand in the swaying of a portrait of Jesus in the house. Marginally mentioned is the fact that the window was open with the wind blowing mightily during a thunderstorm. In dramatic fashion, he reports an incoherent incident of the young daughter being picked up by unseen hands and carried away. In the same house, he says he hears noises and found a venomous snake in the kitchen. Later, the son and girlfriend are in a car crash and Evans says the last residents believed the house was haunted. What I take from the stories is that these people are living in uncomfortable and potentially unsafe conditions. And, I can’t help but question the quality of child care and supervision. I know that sounds harsh, but the descriptions are straight from the book. There are many reasons to wonder if these children were in an unsafe environment. His story of this house and the events in it attract the attention of the TV show Ghost Adventures.
Kathleen, his second wife, now estranged, participated with him in the show which was filmed in his haunted Oklahoma house. It is not described what role Kathleen played in the house since he does not mention that she lived there with him. Regarding Kathleen (or Katie), he admits she was “vulnerable to behavior changes brought on by stress.” Zozo convenient appears via the board for the camera crew. Kathleen’s behavior nearly overshadows the Ouija board session for the cameras. The episode, he says, generated an avalanche of mail to him. People reported strange events associated with the airing and several viewers reportedly fell ill. All this reeks of suggestion. Zozo was now part of the paranormal culture. A short time after this episode, Kathleen attacked Darren with a knife, an act Zozo was said to have predicted. According to his gruesome account, it nearly cost him his life. According to the Ghost Adventures Aftershocks show, Kathleen eventually ended up in jail for assaulting an officer. Demons? Metaphorical ones, I suspect.
I watched the Ghost Adventures episode with Evans’ appearance. It begins with Zak Bagans, who outrageously thinks of himself a credible “investigator”, expressively emphasizing that this is the story of a real demon that has plagued various cultures in some form for a long time (an entirely unverified statement). Ghost Adventures typically uses enhanced horror graphics and quick cuts. It’s heavily edited, misrepresenting mundane events and turning them into scary, sensational productions meant to enhance belief. Bagans ridiculously plays it up for the audience. In this episode, the cast repeatedly mentions feeling air moving but say there is no source for the air. The outside shot of the dilapidated house, however, shows plastic-covered windows which makes me think the glass is missing. This is no investigation – it’s a farce for ratings. I see this as a bunch of people affected not by a demonic force but by their own fear and psychological factors that made them feel dizzy, possessed, or charged with electricity. Or, they are playing for the cameras. No demon-invoking necessary.
On location near Seattle, for the filming of the I Am Zozo movie based on Evans’ experiences, Evans says he encountered a ghost in the building, a haunted bathroom, and supernatural blackbirds. This paragraph, in particular, captures the exaggerated style and questionable claims made throughout the book:
Suddenly the grounds were literally alive with murders of ravens. In Oklahoma we have crows, but not these ravens with their amazing intellect and magical auras. The one perched in the tree was still looking at me, laughing away. I slowly walked toward the tree and took out my cell phone. I wanted to capture this raucous noise and behavior. I pressed record and stood there filming. The bird quit laughing and took its eyes off of me and looked away. It dove downward and then the most amazing thing happened right before the camera’s eye. It vanished into thin air! (p 54)
The bird video is short and unclear. It could be a crow, nothing unique, but there is not much to see. I can make no conclusion about what it shows. (Also of importance, if pedantic to some: blackbirds, crows, and ravens are all different birds. Evans uses them nearly interchangeably and sloppily in his narrative.) The film clip was submitted to the TV show Fact or Faked that could not find that it was “faked” but that show was particularly pathetic in their efforts to investigate mysteries so whatever conclusion they came up with is useless. They have no credibility.
Throughout the book, I wondered… if Evans is so frightened of the power of Zozo and its influence over people, why does he continue, repeatedly, to invoke it? The answer appears to be that he has developed and taken ownership of this entity he calls Zozo to whom he attributes so much of his ill luck and misfortune. It’s gaining him money and notoriety as well as resulting in him being treated specially. This is a common outcome I’ve seen from self-styled paranormalists. The money and attention entice, the claims become more elaborate and sensational to maintain the audience interest. The Paranormal Scholar blog has a good post that traces the dubious history of Zozo online that always leads back to Evans. This source concludes that Evans’ stories have changed over time and that the history of Zozo and connections Evans makes to it are porous.
Let’s move to these historical claims made in the book and claims of those who have shared their stories with Evans. Evans relishes the social and media attention he received on the subject. He started a blog in 2008 and calls himself a “zozologist”. He now has several websites that promote the Zozo phenomenon. As with his encounters, the volunteered stories he shares are expected to be accepted at face value. There is no critique of them or criteria used to judge veridicality. The writers make statements imbued with meaning but not justified or supported. Evans has styled himself as an expert on the basis of his experiences and his research which includes collecting these unverified accounts from witnesses as evidence of Zozo’s reality.
Evans is articulate and probably truly believes the narrative he’s woven. However, his research is amateurish, not of high caliber; it’s shallow, without references and lacking context, and ultimately, completely unconvincing to show there is anything behind the Zozo phenomenon except manufactured hype, confirmation bias, anomaly hunting, and social contagion to which he has given a name and set into motion.
Evans refers to some sources which mention “Zozo” or “Zo” or “Ma”. No historical context or explanation is provided. This is cherry picking at it’s most obvious – looking for anything remotely related but without building a coherent history. We are asked to assume that demons are real that accept that modern demonology scholars are people like John Zaffis (from the show Haunted Collector) whom Evans calls a “leading expert in demonology” but who is really a pop culture pseudo-expert riding the reputation of his relatives, Ed and Lorraine Warren. The second part of the book is supposed to establish historical evidence for the entity. It utterly fails at this goal.
The “Infernal Dictionary” contains a tiny entry for Zozo. Evans makes much of this but in context, it’s not good evidence for his version of Zozo.
The authors refer to “Z-entities” because, to make a more effective and frightening scenario, they have grouped every possible combination of Z-vowel sounds together as “alter-egos” of Zozo. That is, if the board responds with Zaza, Ozzo, Zuzu, or even just the letter ‘Z’, it is regarded to be an aspect of the entity. In addition, the authors unjustifiably reach to include the names Mama and Lily (short for Lilith). Any name remotely similar is looped in and we are asked to accept that Zozo, the ultimate trickster, manipulates the sitter with alter egos that appear benign. The vague and overreaching connections reminded me of the process of numerology, where you can justify a connection with absurd stretches of reasoning. Later, I found a post about Zozo and numerology on Evans’ webpage. (Don’t forget the handiness of ZO looking like the number 20 as emphasized by Zak Bagans.)
They place a magical veneer around the letter Z and even suggest that the letter came from aliens! (p 174) They consider Z-names to be rare and exotic, filling people with dread and curiosity, connecting the buzzing sound to electricity and reported audio of transdimensional shifts. Oddly enough, in reaching for any similar cultural connection, they do not mention the famous Pazuzu of The Exorcist fame (though it is mentioned on Darren’s blog and in the Ghost Adventures show). The zzzz sound does sound rare and exotic but that actually better supports the idea that Z names were deliberately created to invoke that character and not that demons utilize it because of those qualities. There are only 26 letters in the alphabet, so a repeated syllabic sound like zo-zo, za-za, or ma-ma will naturally show up in language. But the “z” sound, being more advanced to make, is not something used in baby-talk such as the more obvious ba-ba, da-da, and gu-gu. The authors are entirely out of their element in attempting to put this entity into a historical context, lacking scholarly background and experience.
Demon is not the only explanation for Zozo the authors put forward. They consider other options including the ideomotor effect to account for the board movement that spells out messages. However, they discard this for three reasons: the messages can be received blindfolded; the planchette sometimes moves far too fast to follow; and, it does not account for the prevalence of the Z-names. I already discussed the non-mystery of Z-names, but controlled tests with planchettes where people actually are effectively blind show that messages are NOT spelled out. I dispute the claim made that sensical messages can be produced when the sitter really can’t see the board configuration. If there is additional evidence for this, I’d like to see it because I have not found it. There are alternative scientific explanations for the movement other than paranormal perception, despite the fact that people don’t like to accept those explanations. The fast moving planchette is easily explainable in the same way that some people can type much faster than others: Practice improves speed. Other explanations proposed for Zozo include the super psi effect, thoughtform/tulpa, an ancient god/spirit, djinn, interdimensional being, or a collective of entities (“Legion” of the Bible). No evidence exists for any of these except the ideomotor effect for which voluminous evidence exists.
The authors make several other claims that they conclude are valid or affirm to such a degree that we are not expected to question it. Here are three themes that have alternate, non-paranormal explanations that logic dictates we consider before resorting to an extraordinary one.
Z-entities have anomalous cognition
While around the board, participants are said to receive accurate personal information that the other sitters do not know or predictions that eventually come one. In once instance, a witness writes that the board revealed a pregnancy. The authors assert:
Based on the number of cases we have in which the Z-entities have given accurate personal information, we expect the pregnancy info was correct.
Yes, you read that right. They never followed up to check the information even though informant said they were going to the doctor “today”. Why didn’t they? Even if this prediction turned out to be true, it would not be paranormal. Friends around the board will know or suspect secrets and the ideomotor effect can influence the spelling out. Or, more obviously, the participants deliberately manipulate the planchette to embarrass the other sitters or test their suspicions about them. If you don’t agree that this can certainly happen at least sometimes, you are hopelessly naive.
Some people have “greater than average sensitivity to the spirit world”
The authors claim that there are those with “heightened psychic sensitivity” and, along with those having health issues and mental illness, are more vulnerable to spirit effects. This is a dramatic way of saying some people are more “fantasy prone” and imaginative than others and open to falling into step with the drama built by atmospheric sittings around the spirit board. Suggestion and prior belief is mentioned in the book but seriously underplayed as a cause for why some individuals come to believe that Zozo follows them and their lives are cursed. Alan Murdie in the April 2017 edition of Fortean Times (p 16-17) describes how this belief that personalities attract spirits and that this can myth of attachment can cause physical illness. It’s well-documented that some people are more apt to interpret their lives reflective of their beliefs and subsequently have their personal well-being suffer under the influence of belief. The book is unclear (p 152-3) if the psychiatric condition leading to “demons” is to be taken literally or figuratively. Zozo is characterized as the projection of the darkness in the human soul. I expect this ambiguity was intentional. But those who subscribe to the belief in demons will take it literally and assume that an evil spirit is actually generated and fed by human emotions.
Assumptions of paranormality
Not only are we expected to presume there are supernatural entities and that they are at the root of these events, but we are asked to accept that humans know how the entities behave and why. They cause poor health and drain your life spirit. If you are mentally weak, such as having a psychiatric condition or worry, you will be targeted. Real “magick” spells and purification rituals can protect you from them. Speaking its name gives it power; collective focus gives it energy. Rosemary, the book states, has affirmed the entities communicate via “ghost box” which is referred to as an “electronic Ouija board”. Ghost boxes are radios that scan the AM spectrum giving snippets of sound that people misconstrue as meaningful messages. It’s the epitome of pareidolia and is gibberish our brains try mightily to make into discernable verbal sounds.
As I’m writing up this piece, a pair of dogs across the street are trying to bite each other faces off and a flies are landing on me. It’s ZOZO! Well, that’s their claim: “Zozo has demonstrated time and time again its formidable power and ability to disrupt and even destroy”. Any anomaly can be attributed to it. The net to capture the hand of Zozo is spread so wide that any suggestion of havoc is attributed to it. In such a case, you can’t lose. The claim is unfalsifiable, endlessly justifiable, and convincing to those who are drawn to it. Ironically, Evans – who says he still suffers from severe anxiety and panic attacks but is looking to make another movie about his experiences – explains what I think is a key takeaway of this book. However, he fails to see that it aptly describes HIM and his entrance into the dark world of Zozo, not other people:
Many secretly hope for a dramatic experience comparable to the movies. Those who are most vulnerable are young, immature, easily scared and want to copy Hollywood. (p 67)
Yep. I agree with this because it’s rather readily demonstrated. It’s also exhibited in the many examples in the book from kids who think they will be impregnated by a demon or have been temporarily possessed by it. They ask him, the guy who runs a blog with a troubled past spouting unsubstantiated claims and famous for being in the media, to give them advice on what to do about it.
It’s disheartening. But not surprising.
Evans continues to conduct his paranormal research and link any possible cultural component to Zozo to promote it. He creates art pieces and is active on social media. His goal is to continues to insert Zozo into the paranormal community, a possible legend in the making created entirely from whole cloth, not unlike Slenderman, the Bye Bye Man, or the Chupacabra.
I found The Zozo Phenomenon to be a sad life story of a troubled guy and an annoying display of unverified and unbelievable claims that no one should accept uncritically. Yet they will. Demons are great drama. And complete fiction… at least Zozo is.