All About “Ouija”

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With Halloween just around the corner, it’s time yet again to get freaky with the Ouija.

Often dismissed as a seasonal party trick and sleepover staple that usually induces giggles and at least two upset pre-teen girls instead of a substantial conversation with the great beyond, the Ouija board has a long and compelling history. A mass-market evolution of so-called “talking boards” that were a staple of Victorian-era séances, Ouija has enjoyed wild popularity over the years despite its spooky — and at times downright demonic — reputation.

You’re probably already familiar with the basic setup. The center of the board displays the full alphabet in two arched rows, a straight row of numbers — zero through nine — and, beneath that, the word “goodbye” spelled out in all caps. In the upper corners of the board are the prompts “yes” and “no.” There are no firm rules or scoring. Just place two fingers lightly on the teardrop-shaped pointing device set atop the board and ask a question. Within time, the board will respond by spelling out an answer. If there’s no response, wait and try again.

Beyond that, the inner workings of Ouija are shrouded in mystery.

To make sense of it all, we’ve unearthed everything you ever wanted to know about the Ouija board from its esoteric beginnings in the spiritualist movement to its runaway success as an early 20th century parlor game to its massive impact on popular culture and on how — and what — we choose to believe.

It’s been around forever

The Ouija board — a trademarked name both referring to the “classic spirit-world game” sold by Hasbro or, generically, any similar type of talking or spirit board — has roots in the spiritualism, a religious movement that was fashionable amongst the upwardly mobile classes in both the United States and Europe during the mid to late 19th century through the 1920s. In many aspects, spiritualism wasn’t all that different from mainstream Protestant Christianity. Spiritualists went to church on Sunday and sang hymns like everyone else. But it’s what spiritualists did on evenings during the rest of the week that set them apart.

One of the core beliefs of spiritualism is that spirits of the deceased can — and are very much eager to — communicate with the living. Aided by tools like talking boards, dialogues between the living and the dead were facilitated by mediums at organized spirit chitchat sessions — the seance. For years, seances were ubiquitous and had little social stigma attached. This was particularly true following the Civil War when devastated families were desperate to establish closure with lost loved ones. According to popular legend, even Mary Todd Lincoln, who didn’t identify as a spiritualist but was friendly with well-known mediums, hosted seances at the White House in an attempt to contact a son who had died from typhoid fever at the age of 12.

“Communicating with the dead was common, it wasn’t seen as bizarre or weird,” Ouija collector and historian Robert Murch told the Smithsonian in an excellent 2013 history of the board. It’s hard to imagine that now, we look at that and think, ‘Why are you opening the gates of hell?'”

An original 1891 Ouija board
An original 1891 Ouija board. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

Baltimore-born

Considering the ubiquity of talking boards within the faddish 19th century spiritualist movement, it was inevitable that someone would commercialize one.

It was Baltimore investor Elijah Bond who filed the patent for the modern-day Ouija on behalf of the Kennard Novelty Company in 1891. Bond envisioned his mass-produced spirit board as an enigmatic parlor game featuring a standard lettered talking board and pointing device. Consumers not familiar with seances or spiritualism had only a vague idea of what the Ouija did or how to use it. The cryptic instructions written by Kennard employee William Fuld didn’t help: “The Ouija is a great mystery, and we do not claim to give exact directions for its management, neither do we claim that at all times and under all circumstances it will work equally well. But we do claim and guarantee that with reasonable patience and judgment it will more than satisfy your greatest expectation.”

But none of this mattered — the boards were selling like hotcakes. “Ultimately, it was a money-maker. They didn’t care why people thought it worked,” Murch explains of the Kennard Novelty Company.

In 1901, Fuld took over production of the board and marketed it in a way that pulled it away further from spiritualism while touting its supernatural — but totally safe-to-use — mystique. The Fuld Company’s Ouija was immensely popular from the 1910s through the 1930s when times were a-changin’ and, as Murch points out, people from all walks of life were grasping for something, anything to believe in. Although Fuld died in 1927 (as legend has it, he fell off the roof of a new factory that a board instructed him to build), his estate maintained control of Ouija until 1966.

Ouija box, 1970s, Parker Brothers
The iconic ’70s-era Ouija box from Parker Brothers. (Photo: felinebird/flickr)

Yes, yes? Well, no

Despite decades of popularity, one of the most enduring mysteries of the Ouija was the origin of its name. Most believe it to be a compound, in French and German, of a single word — an answer, in this case — found on the upper left-hand corner of the board itself: “yes.” Oui and ja – yes and yes.

Based on his own research, Murch has his own theory on where “Ouija” comes from — and it’s far more dish-y. In 2012, Murch discovered a 1919 article published by the Baltimore American in which Charles Kennard of the Kennard Novelty Company was asked about how Ouija got its name. Per the story relayed by Kennard, in 1890, one year before the Ouija was patented, he found himself holed up with investor Elijah Bond and Bond’s sister-in-law, a socialite medium named Helen Peters, trying to think of a winning moniker for their talking board-based parlor game. They were stumped so, naturally, they asked the board for suggestions. They placed their fingers on the pointing device and it spelled out O-U-I-J-A. They then asked the board what the word meant. It spelled out “good luck.”

According to Kennard’s recollections, Peters then revealed that she was wearing a locket containing a photograph of a woman with the name “Ouija” inscribed under it. However, Murch is convinced that Kennard misread the inscription and that the photograph of colorful British adventure novelist Maria Louise Ramée who published work under the nom de plume Ouida.

Murch theorizes to Atlas Obscura that it’s plausible Peters would wear a locket as a wearable tribute to Ouida: “In 1890, Ouida’s books were very important. It makes sense that Helen [Peters] would wear a locket with her name on it, because she was so educated and articulate,” explained Murch. “For 20 years I researched the fathers of the Ouija board. Turns out, it had a mother.”

From the company that brought you Monopoly and My Little Pony

After enjoying massive success under the Fuld Company, the 1966 acquisition of the Ouija board by powerhouse Parker Brothers lead to even greater success. In 1967, 2 million units of Ouija were sold, topping the sales that year of longtime Parker Brothers favorite Monopoly. Despite a fair number of religious holdouts (more on that in a bit), everyone seemingly had both a Ouija board and a puffed-up tale to tell about using said Ouija board. Advertised as a “mystifying oracle” it was a harmless party game — a bit spooky, a bit silly and a departure from strategy, trivia and fake paper money. Most folks didn’t even know about the board’s roots in the spiritualist movement — they just owned one because so-and-so told them that it was good for a little post-dinner party fun.

Vintage Ouija board ad, Parker BrothersAnd then, in 1973, “The Exorcist” — a film based on a novel that was loosely inspired by true events – happened. And from then on, sales dipped and the Ouija board took on a more sinister reputation. Almost overnight, the Ouija-obsessed became the Ouija-wary. “It’s kind of like Psycho — no one was afraid of showers until that scene… It’s a clear line,” Robert Murch tells the Smithsonian.

Still, the Ouija — thanks in part to legions of fearless teenagers and horror writers — endured, even more so solidified in the pop culture psyche thanks to its new associations with demonic possession. In 1991, all Parker Brothers products and trademarks were acquired by toy behemoth Hasbro, which had also previously acquired another beloved board game stalwart, the Milton Bradley Company.

A vintage Ouija Board produced by the Fuld Company.
A vintage Ouija Board manufactured by the Baltimore-based Fuld Company. (Photo: Jonas Forth/flickr)

It’s called a planchette

So, about that paddle-shaped pointer-thing with the tiny magnifying glass in the middle: While the folks at Hasbro refer to it as a “message indicator,” it’s formally known as a planchette — from the French for “little plank” — and it actually predates the Oujia board by some years.

Along with smelling salts and spirit trumpets, planchettes were a staple of the Victorian seance craze. Every enlightened household had one — the bigger and more ornate the better. Unlike the smaller, mass-produced planchettes that come with Ouija boards and are primarily used for pointing out letters, early planchettes were caster-supported, heart-shaped wooden devices outfitted with pencils and used for automatic writing — also known as psychography, it’s writing without use of the conscious mind, basically — in lieu of otherworldly dictating.

Following the mass-market introduction of planchette-assisted talking board “toys” in 1890, automatic writing planchettes fell out of favor and ultimately disappeared altogether despite a small handful of revivals in the early 20th century. (We do, however, appear to be in the midst of an Etsy-fueled modern day revival.) Although planchette purists may beg to differ, Ouija boards simplify the whole communicating-with-the-other-side routine by taking pencils, papers and oft-indiscernible spirit handwriting out of the equation.

A medium uses the Ouija in the 1950s
A seance is held using a DIY wine glass talking board in the 1950s. (Photo: Orlando/Three Lions/Getty Images)

The Catholic Church isn’t a fan

Despite enjoying mainstream popularity over the decades (save for that touchy period following the release of “The Exorcist”), Ouija boards have long been considered taboo by religious groups. During the height of their popularity in the freewheeling 1960s, talking boards were akin to dirty magazines and Elvis Presley records in strict and devout households. That is, they were shameful, uncouth and potentially dangerous objects to be hidden under the bed or stashed inside that seldom-used Chutes and Ladders box lest one’s Bible-thumping mother confiscate it.

The Roman Catholic Church has been particularly critical of the Ouija, dating back to 1919 when Pope Pius X warned the faithful to stay away from parlor games associated with the occult. The website Catholic Answers refers to the “far from harmless” use of Ouija boards as a form of divination or “seeking information from supernatural sources.” It’s likely that there are more than few well-adjusted adults out there who were ratted out as kids for dabbling with the Ouija at slumber parties hosted by more permissive parents. While probably no fun at the time, there’s no denying that divination is a rad excuse for getting grounded for a month.

A sequel-generating sensation

Movies based on or revolving around real-life classic tabletop games are somewhat of a rare breed save for the delightful “Clue” (1985) and 2012’s spectacularly dumb “Battleship.” (Don’t hold your breath for the film version of Hungry Hungry Hippos.)

The Ouija, however, is a notable exception. One of the game’s earliest big screen appearances was in the 1944 haunted house romance picture, “The Uninvited.” But it wasn’t until 1973 — when sales were still riding high after the Parker Brothers acquisition — that the game played a central role in a movie that truly traumatized people. Although a board only appears onscreen briefly in the Academy Award-winning film adaptation of William Peter Blatty’s “The Exorcist,” it was more than enough to get people to take a second look at the “mystifying oracle” collecting dust on a bookshelf. After all, the board did serve as a conduit for an unknown entity/imaginary friend named Captain Howdy to make contact with 12-year-old Regan MacNeil. “I ask the questions and he gives the answers!” she explains to her mother. Just weeks later, Regan is pushing babysitters out of windows, projectile vomiting on priests and saying things that would make even the saltiest sailor blush.

Other Ouija-featuring movies — like “The Exorcist,” most concern demonic possession and things that go bump in the night — include “13 Ghosts” (1960), “What Lies Beneath,” (2000), “Paranormal Activity” (2007), “The Conjuring 2” (2016) and “Ouija: Origin of Evil” a better-than-you’d-expect 2016 prequel to the first “Ouija” film released two years prior. It was “Witchboard,” a sequel-spawning cult horror flick from 1986 that inspired Robert Murch, chairman of the Board at the Talking Board Historical Society, to commence his years-long obsession with the Ouija.

Prolific ghostwriters

In addition to numerous movies of varying quality, the Ouija board has inspired various works of literature. Or to be more precise, Ouija boards have produced — letter by painstakingly letter — various works of literature.

Perhaps the most infamous Ouija-generated book is “Jap Herron: A Novel Written From the Ouija Board.” Published in 1917, the novel’s author is Mark Twain — or, rather, the ghost of Mark Twain. Transcribed by medium Emily Grant Hutchings, the novel was published seven years after Twain’s death and was a modest success thanks to the vast popularity of Ouija boards at the time. It reportedly took two years of Ouija-ing with Twain’s spirit for Hutchings, along with fellow medium Lola Hays, to complete the novel. Twain’s daughter, Clara Clemens, later sued Hutchings.

More prolific than the ghost of Twain was a spirit named Patience Worth who, through a Ouija board-using medium named Pearl Lenore Curran, generated several novels and books of poetry. (Curran, go figure, happened to be a friend of Hutchings).

In 1982, the late Pulitzer Prize-winning poet James Merrill published a 560-page epic poem titled “The Changing Light at Sandover.” The work, which received the National Book Critics Circle Award in 1983, was written over a 20-year span and is largely composed of messages dictated from a Ouija board during seances hosted by Merrill.

vintage advert for Ouija board
What a deal: a vintage advert for a pre-Parker Brothers Ouija board. (Photo: The Public Domain Review/flickr)

There are do’s …

According to an amusingly illustrated WikiHow article on Ouija safety that should be taken with a disproportionately large grain of salt, there are steps to be taken to ensure that you commune with the dead successfully and “not attract demonic entities.” They include lighting white candles around the board (they attract good vibes) and cleaning the board before each use (a bundle of sage, not Windex). It’s also important, obviously, to keep a close eye on the planchette and always move the planchette to “goodbye” when you’ve had enough and it comes time to pretend that you need to take a phone call in the other room. Without properly “closing the door,” the spirit will linger. It’s also just plain rude. In terms of timing, a fall or winter evening — the closer to midnight the better — is optimum for a chat with the other side.

And there are dont’s

According to the same WikiHow tutorial, some of the top Ouija no-nos are using the board in your home (where are you supposed to use it? A friend’s house? The nearest Starbucks?) or in a graveyard (duh), using a board while fatigued, using a board while under the influence and using the board alone. It’s also crucial to avoid asking annoying questions or spelling out curse words when in conversation. Be polite! And whatever you do, don’t trust a spirit. It would be easier to detect a lie via body language but, alas, it’s also a bad idea to ask a spirit to show itself even if they pinky-swear that they look like Patrick Swayze in “Ghost” or Daryl Hannah in “High Spirits.”

People using the Ouija by candlelight
A Ouija-facilitated convo with the other side is best aided with candlelight. (Photo: ℳadeline/flickr)

OK, so what’s really happening is …

Here’s the thing: Ouija boards don’t work. Well, they don’t work like that. Or maybe they do for some people. We’re not here to dispute your own uncanny encounters.

So, what then, is responsible for the movement of the planchette across the board? Sometimes, it’s teenage hormones. Other times, if might be a prankster friend. And who knows … the ghosts of the dead twins that live in the crawlspace might have something to do with it. But per the scientific community, talking boards are powered by a psychological phenomenon known as the ideomotor effect. (“Ideo” comes from idea or cognitive representation and “motor” relates to the movement of muscles.)

Calling the phenomenon a “way for your body to talk to itself,” an in-depth explainer published by Vox details how reflexive movements propel a Ouija session.

In the case of a Ouija board, your brain may unconsciously create images and memories when you ask the board questions. Your body responds to your brain without you consciously “telling” it to do so, causing the muscles in your hands and arms to move the pointer to the answers that you — again, unconsciously — may want to receive.

And here’s where things get truly interesting:

Over the years, research has determined that the ideomotor effect is closely tied to subconscious awareness — and that its effect is maximized when the subject believes he has no control of his movements. Paradoxically, the less control you think you have, the more control your subconscious mind is actually exerting.

This is where the Ouija board’s triangular pointer comes in. The planchette makes it easier to subconsciously control your muscle movements, because it focuses and directs them even while you believe you aren’t in control of them. It’s also why the planchette seems to move even more effectively when multiple people are using the planchette at once: It frees everyone’s minds to subconsciously generate creepy Ouija board answers together.

No doubt the subconscious mind is a power thing. But when it comes to Ouija boards, sight is also paramount. Over the years, numerous scientific studies on the matter have been conducted. In many of them, participants are blindfolded. When not blindfolded, responses from the great beyond come in clear as day. As evidenced in the below video, it’s a completely different story when the participants are robbed of sight and unable to manipulate the planchette to their liking. If it really is a spirit talking, why would it matter if participants can see or not?

Vox goes on to note that beyond Ouija boards, the ideomotor effect is a driving force behind other occurrences deemed as being paranormal in nature: automatic writing, demonic possession, dowsing and the like. That being said, the ideomotor effect has also been the basis of various hoaxes, frauds and scams over the years, some more nefarious than others.

So, at the end of the day, is the Ouija all just one giant hoax — an antiquated bit of parlor game chicanery dating back to the 19th century?

Hey, don’t ask us. The board has the best answers.

Vintage Ouija ad: solidaritat/flickr

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