In the social media age, we’ve all had to figure out how to deal with weird, unwanted messages.
We can block the sender on Twitter, delete them from Facebook, or just chalk it up to experience and never “swipe right” on someone with a Bill Cosby tattoo ever again. But what if the messages you’re receiving aren’t from some random troll or probable catfish, but a malevolent presence straight from the ninth circle of Hell? If you’re planning to contact the dead, then the Ouija Board is probably your best option. But these things don’t tend to come preinstalled with a convenient ‘block’ button in case you fail to get through to your recently deceased great uncle Albert and instead find yourself on a private line with Abraxas, Great Archon and demonic princeps of the 365 spheres.
Instead, each Ouija Board is marked with the letters of the alphabet, numbers from one to nine, and sometimes the words “Yes”, “No”, “Hello” and “Goodbye” … presumably as a courtesy to any antisocial demons or introverted spirits who simply aren’t in a talkative mood. The players – or flesh and blood instruments of evil, if you prefer – place their fingers on a wooden or plastic pointer in the centre of the board called a “planchette”, which then moves around as if with a will of its own, hopefully spelling out messages from the other side in the process.
The name ‘Ouija Board’ is actually a trademark of the toy company hasbro, which seems like kind of a strange fit – bright and breezy toys aren’t obvious shelf-mates for mysterious occult objects after all. But Ouija Boards haven’t always had their present day kinda-controversial reputation. ‘Spirit boards’ or ‘talking boards’ have been around since the Victorian era. And the trend of effectively saying ‘DM me, babe’ to the dead is even older than that.
One of the first mentions of this kind of “automatic writing” as it would later be known comes from China as far back as eleven hundred AD, and historians have uncovered similar practices in India, Greece, Rome, and medieval Europe. It’s in nineteenth century America, however, that the story of the modern-day Ouija Board really begins.
Spiritualism had been a big deal in Europe for years by then, but it was in 1848 in upstate New York, that the New World suddenly started to take notice. This was in large part due to the Fox Sisters”, who claimed they were being haunted by a spirit called “Mr Splitfoot”, who would communicate with them via mysterious raps and knocks.
The Fox sisters’ story captivated the public, and they became the first spiritualists to perform for a paying audience. They would demonstrate something called “table turning”, where gullible folks would place their hands on a small table, only for it to start moving beneath them seemingly of it’s own volition, as well as automatic writing exhibitions, spelling out messages from the spirit world.
The act was wildly popular, and the sisters even went on tour. It was basically Beatlemania, but with a lot more ectoplasm. Stories about spiritualism were all over the newspapers, and in 1886 the Associated Press reported on a “talking board” which was all the rage at spiritualist gatherings across Ohio at the time. The article went viral – or whatever the Victorian version of “viral” was — and one man who read it, Charles Kennard, of Baltimore, Maryland, recognised an opportunity to capitalise on the buzz.
In 1890, he formed the Kennard Novelty Company along with local patent attorney and inventor Elijah Bond, and soon enough they were developing the board for commercial use. Fun fact, if you visit Elijah Bond’s gravestone you’ll notice it has a Ouija board on its rear. But what could they call this bizarre new product? It’s commonly believed the name “Ouija” comes from the French and German words for “Yes” — “Oui” and “Ja”. Elijah Bond, however, gives us a much creepier explanation.
Hissister-in-law, Helen Peters, was a shareholder in the fledgling company, but she also happened to be a medium. And as far as she was concerned, if anyone could come up with a good name for the board, it was the board itself. So they set up a cosy little seance and asked the ‘talking board’ what it wanted to be called, to which it replied“Ouija”. The name is almost iconic today, but at the time Elijah and Helen weren’t so sure. That’s a lot of vowels for one little word, after all. Confused, they asked the board what it meant, and, kind of ominously, it simply replied ‘good luck’. Still, the name had clearly come from the other side, and who were they to doubt the wisdom of the spirits… Or had it? It turns out Helen Peters was wearing a locket at the time containing a photograph of a woman called “Ouija” or possibly ‘Ouida’ , but that was obviously just a coincidence.
Whatever the origin of its name, Helen clearly believed in the board’s power. When some civil war heirlooms went missing from her home she asked the board to identify the culprit, and it singled out one of her relatives immediately. Her subsequent accusation effectively tore the family apart, forcing Peters to sell all of her stock in the company. Until her dying day, when asked about the Ouija Board she would mutter: “Don’t play the Ouija Board. It lies!”.
Not exactly the best slogan for marketing purposes, but hey. Family arguments aside, the mysterious ‘talking board’ now had a name, but when Elijah Bond tried to obtain a patent in order to protect his investment, the chief patent officer demanded a demonstration, asking the ouija board to spell out his name. To his horror and amazement, it did exactly that. The patent officer was shaken. This was clearly the kind of arcane knowledge only the dead could obtain. Well, unless Bond already knew the patent officer’s name I guess.
Which he probably did, being a patent attorney and all … but let’s not split hairs. The patent was granted on the tenth of February 1891, and that same month the first few advertisements started appearing in newspapers: “Ouija, the Wonderful Talking Board!”one advert proclaimed, promising customers “a link between the known and the unknown”. And all for just one-dollar-fifty … which is a bargain for a bit of light necromancy if you ask me. Plenty of people agreed, and the Kennard Company sold Ouija Boards by the truckload. By 1892, Kennard had opened a second factory in Baltimore, two in New York, two in Chicago, and one in London … But as effective as the adverts were, one thing drove Ouija Board sales like nothing else could: pure, unadulterated misery.
In the years following the horrors of World War One, sales went through the roof and Ouija Board use became so normalised that Norman Rockwell’s illustration of a young couple using one graced the front cover of the Saturday Evening Post. It was a similar story a decade or so later during the Great Depression. While most businesses were having a tough time of it, Ouija Boards, under the new ownership of the Fuld Company, were selling like hotcakes.
This conveyor belt of tragedy continued into World War Two, and over a single five month period in 1944, one New York department store sold 50,000 Ouija Boards. In 1966, Parker Brothers bought the rights to the board, and in 1967 — as ever more American troops headed to join the war in Vietnam and race riots spread across the country – over two million boards were sold,even more than Monopoly.
People were clearly taking solace in the spirit world at a time when the real world was turning into a big pile of shit. But in 1973, something changed. “The Exorcist” was released, which scared people so much they’d pass out in theatres, run out screaming, or simply throw up into their date’s popcorn. It was a worldwide phenomenon, and almost overnight the Ouija Board became the “go to” method of opening the gates of Hell and joining the dark lord Satan for a cup of tea and a chat. The Exorcist is about a twelve-year-old girl called Reagan who’s possessed by the demon “Pazuzu” after using a Ouija Board. But the story itself was actually inspired by a thirteen-year-old boy known only by the pseudonym Roland Doe , who in 1949, was believed to have been possessed by evil spirits. OK, so Roland wasn’t able to rotate his head 360 degrees and didn’t projectile-vomit pea soup everywhere, but red scratches did appear on his skin and he spent a lot of time swearing at passing priests in a loud, guttural voice.
According to the story, Roland Doe was just a normal little boy until he was shown how to use a Ouija Board by his aunt. The success of The Exorcist actually started a couple of years before the movie with William Peter Blatty’s bestselling novel. Blatty had read the unofficial diaries kept by Roland Doe’s priests and, during the writing process, became convinced that demonic possession was real. According to Blatty himself, he became obsessed with the Ouija Board over a period of ten days … and then weird things started to happen. His telephone suddenly jumped off the hook when it rang, and his electric typewriter wrote a line of gibberish – things Blatty thought might be “poltergeist activity”.
Slowly but surely, the Ouija Board’s reputation as something not just inexplicable but dangerous, began to grow. Soon after the release of The Exorcist, religious groups began denouncing it as Satan’s preferred method of communication. Catholics in particular had beef with it, and over the decades many bishops have called for it to be banned. And the Catholics aren’t the only ones. To this day, the Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod expressly forbids the use of Ouija Boards, considering it a violation of the Ten Commandments. Now, it’s a while since I went to Sunday School … but I don’t remember God telling Moses: “Thou shalt not play with Hasbro board games”. And if he did, I’m going to hell.
Some churches aren’t content with simply forbidding their congregations from having a dabble, either. 2001 saw a mass burning of Ouija Boards in Alamogordo, New Mexico, by various fundamentalist groups, who considered the children’s toys to be“symbols of witchcraft”. Mind you, they did also burn Harry Potter books while they were at it, so it’s possible they were just nutters. I mean, if you think Ron Weasley is the epitome of evil then imagine how you’re going to feel if you ever find yourself face to face with the devil himself. In a classic case of kicking a harmless board game while it’s down, even the spiritualists have come out to condemn the Ouija Board these days, despite its origins.
Although, let’s be honest, that might have more to do with job security than anything else. After all, if you can pick up a cheap Ouija Board on Amazon the next time you need to speak to the dead, why would you give your hard-earned cash to “Madame Beryl the Mystic”? The most recent public condemnation of the Ouija Board came from another unexpected source. In October 2020, paranormal investigator Paul Marsters took Poundland to task in several UK newspapers, expressing his concern that they were selling Ouija Boards … for a pound. I mean, the clue is kind of in the name Paul. Some investigator you must be. Marsters warned that Ouija Boards should only be used by those with proper training, and that all Hell would break loose – literally – if any old mug was allowed to have a go with one. It isn’t clear where one would go to get “proper training” in the use of a Ouija Board, but on my last check none of the major British universities were offering anything relevant, so it seems we may have uncovered a major blind spot in the education system there. As you might expect, the scientific community has been calling “bullshit” on all of this stuff for years.
According to those demon-denying party poopers, the Ouija Board phenomenon is simply the result of the “Ideomotor Effect”, where the planchette is simply guided by the unconscious muscular movements of participants. The effect was first described by William Carpenter back in 1852 while investigating the popular spiritualist fads like table turning, and more recent experiments have supported his findings. In 2003, Professor Terence Hines showed that muscular exertions guiding a planchette were enough to create an extremely powerful illusion that spirits were truly at work.
His experiments also suggested that the “messages” received were related to whatever was going through the subject’s mind at the time … so if you ever receive a message saying “Subscribe to Thoughty2” … or “Buy this book! Now available on Amazon!” … then it’s best to just give in to what your unconscious really wants. The ideomotor effect has also been used to explain “dowsing” – the process of finding groundwater by walking around a field brandishing a Y-shaped stick … or an L-shaped rod, if you’re one of those “modern” dowser types. You won’t be surprised to hear there’s no actual evidence to support this pseudoscience, and that all scientific experiments into the subject have shown that walking around with a dowsing rod looking like a prat gives you no better chance of finding groundwater than anyone else.
What’s really bizarre about dowsing, however, is that as recently as 2017, many UK water companies were reportedly using “dowsers” to find burst pipes. At least according to science writer Sally Le Page, although the companies in question soon denied it … probably because they’d still like to be viewed as trusted national utility providers, and not as a coven of witches ready to be burnt at the stake. PR departments hate it when that kind of thing happens. So, yes, scientists are generally sceptical about the Ouija Board as a means of contacting the dead – or anyone else, for that matter, but that doesn’t make the fact it will reliably spell out messages when used any less fascinating. Researchers at the University of British Columbia have used Ouija boards to examine how the mind processes information and have even conducted experiments with a Ouija-playing robot.
The results suggest the unconscious mind is a lot smarter than anyone knew. But while scientists are only now beginning to understand the various ways the Ouija Board might tap into the subconscious, creative types have been taking advantage of the phenomenon for years. Pulitzer Prize winner James Merrill used a Ouija board to write his epic poem “The Changing Light at Sandover”; G.K Chesterton — author of the “Father Brown” mysteries — used a Ouija Board for inspiration in his teenage years, and some of Yeats’s later poetry was inspired by Ouija messages his wife received. One of the most well-known examples of Ouija writing came in 1917, when Emily Grant Hutchings claimed her book “Jap Herron” was written by the one and only Mark Twain.
Despite the factTwain had already been dead for seven years at the time, Hutchings was convinced the two of them had had many long and fascinating conversations via the Ouija Board. Until Twain’s daughter Olivia sued her, that is, at which point she changed her mind pretty quickly. Funny that. And then there’s Vincent Furnier – who you probably know as Alice Cooper — who, according to some at least, took his unusual stage name from a Ouija Board after it told him he was the reincarnation of a seventeenth century witch. These days, the Ouija Board pops up most frequently as a plot device in a whole bunch of horror movies. There’s “What Lies Beneath”, “The Conjuring 2”, “Paranormal Activity 1 and 2” and, of course, 2014’s “Ouija” and its prequel “Origin of Evil”. Hasbro — who bought the rights from Parker Brothers in 1991 — partially funded the movie, so there must have been quite a lot of backslapping when sales of the board went up 300 percent in the aftermath.
You never know, perhaps even a few prayers of thanks were offered up… or more likely down. To this day, there’s still no sign of our fascination with the Ouija Board slowing down. And whether you’re a believer or a sceptic, it’s hard to deny there’s a hint of danger about it; that by using a Ouija Board you’re dipping your toe into the murky waters of the unknown. There are even a variety of Ouija apps you can download if you prefer your demon-summoning to be a bit more “twenty-first century” … although, word of advice, you shouldn’t respond to their messages with gifs, emojis, or the phrase “U OK Hun?” They absolutely hate that.
Randall C. Schneider is the founder and owner of ANTOCAT. he is been freelancing for many years and now focusses on WordPress development and blog design for small businesses and online publishers