Light as a feather, stiff as a board
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Light as a feather, stiff as a board, sometimes known as pig in a blanket, stiff as a board, is a game played by children at slumber parties. The phrase has also become established in popular culture as a reference to a levitation trick, and has been referred to in various media accounts.
One participant lies flat on the floor, and then the others space themselves around him or her, each placing one or two fingertips underneath the participant's body. The person closest to the head commonly begins by saying "She's looking ill," which the others repeat; then "she's looking worse" is spoken and repeated back. The general direction of the call-and-repeat describes how the prone person is looking worse and worse, followed by saying "she is dying," and, finally, "she is dead."
Variations of the spoken part of the game occur, with a common modern version the person being lifted is told a story about their death and asked to imagine it happening to him or her. It serves the dual purpose of "freaking out" the participants and convinces the participants that it will be easier to lift this person. All versions end with the phrase "light as a feather, stiff as a board" chanted by the entire group (save for the prone person, who pretends to be dead) as they attempt to lift their companion's body using only their fingertips. Some versions omit the story entirely and only the "light as a feather..." chant is used. Allegedly, after these repetitions, the person being lifted will seem lighter or even entirely weightless.
Another variation of the game takes place with one person seated in a chair. Four volunteers agree to stand around the sitter, two on the sitter's left side and the other two on his/her right. Each of the four places two fingers under each corner of the chair's seat and the four together will attempt to lift the chair and sitter, which generally fails. The volunteers will then perform some small ritual, usually involving rubbing their hands together or circling the chair in various direction (counter-clockwise, walking backwards, etc.) After this ritual, the volunteers hold their hands over the sitter's head to "transfer" energy into the sitter which will presumably make him/her weightless. The lifters then retry lifting the sitter the same way as before. Also it can be that the lifters lift the person sitting in the chair; doing the rest of the ritual as so but holding at the four main points of the body (Under the knees on each side and under the shoulders.)
Explanations of the Trick
In many versions, each of the (in the example) five people sitting around the other person uses only one or two of his or her fingers on each hand to do the lifting. It is particularly easy to lift a heavy weight when it is evenly distributed amongst a group of four people. The phenomenon of the weight seeming less on the second try around or after some sort of ritual is due to increased focus and the "lifters" being more in sync with one another.
One of the best rational explanations for such reports is that the participants are tricking their minds, by way of the chanting, into believing that the person being lifted is "light as a feather." The body still reacts to the command from the brain, but the mind perceives it differently. Simply put, five (example) people can easily lift one person, especially when those five people are tricking their minds into thinking that the person is light in weight.[dubious ]
Another reason for the apparent success of the levitation is the "self-fulfilling prophecy" concept. The lifters "know" a human being is too heavy to lift with a fingertip, so subconsciously, they may not exert enough effort on the first attempt. After the "ritual," the participants may believe that the body is now supposed to move, or that the ritual itself has given them power, and therefore they exert enough effort to raise the participant off the ground.
The game could be seen played in 17th century London during the plague outbreak. Samuel Pepys, a naval administrator noted this being performed as a sort of ward against the disease. In his conversation with his friend Mr. Brisband on July 31, 1665, Pepys reported, "He saw four little girles, very young ones, all kneeling, each of them, upon one knee; and one begun the first line, whispering in the ear of the next, and the second to the third, and the third to the fourth, and she to the first. Then the first begun the second line, and so round quite through, and putting each one finger only to a boy that lay flat upon his back on the ground, as if he was dead; at the end of the words, they did with their four fingers raise this boy high as they could reach, and he [Mr. Brisband] being there, and wondering at it, as also being afeared to see it, for they would have had him to have bore a part in saying the words, in the roome of one of the little girles that was so young that they could hardly make her learn to repeat the words, did, for feare there might be some sleight used in it by the boy, or that the boy might be light, call the cook of the house, a very lusty fellow, as Sir G. Carteret's cook, who is very big, and they did raise him in just the same manner." Pepys also spoke of the chant that accompanied this performance.
Voici un corps mort Raide comme un bâton, Froid comme le marbre Léger comme un esprit, Lève-toi au nom de Jésus-Christ! (Here is a dead body Stiff as a stick, Cold as marble Light as a spirit, Lift yourself, in the name of Jesus Christ!)
The phenomenon has been observed into modern times, often being decried as a form of spiritualism or seance and considered anathema by some religious groups. It is widely considered a simple spooky party game along the lines of Bloody Mary and the telling of ghost stories.
- While not scientifically valid, and giving unproven explanations of the event, various pages are mentioned to demonstrate that the game itself is known, and citation here does not imply that the sources are reliable to demonstrate anything beyond the fact that some people play this game.
- Party Levitation from Conversation for Exploration: A Talk Show hosted by Laura Lee
- Description of the trick at Castle of Spirits
- Jerry W. Decker (01/08/98). Gestalts and the Production of Anomalous Phenomena. KeelyNet.
- "Lift that finger". ABC Science. 27 May 2008.
- Pepys, Samuel, Le Gallienne, Richard ed., The Diary of Samuel Pepys New York, The Modern Library, 2003.
- In depth explanation of levitation including tricks from Answers.com
- Halloween is good clean fun October 30, 1998 Weekender Lexington Herald-Leader (KY) article for purchase link
- Pajama game: Despite dramatic changes in culture and technology, girls' sleepovers have remained basically the same for generations by MaryEllen Fillo Hartford Courant Aug. 30, 2005 article for purchase link
- Samuel Pepys' diary highlights the experience during the London plague of 1665 as well as the Great Fire in 1666