I remember I was about six when my 16-year- old sister had several of her girlfriends at our home for a slumber party. I was not interested in girls yet so the night was extremely uneventful for me. At least most of the night was uneventful. The only interesting part of that night came late in the evening when I heard loud screaming coming from inside her bedroom. Then her bedroom door flew open with such force that it sucked the air out of the hallway where I was....
I saw my sister run out of her darkened room and then accost my mother as she was watching television in the living room. I do not remember what she said, but I remember she was hysterical. All I remember next was our mother, wearing her irritated face, came into the hallway, charged my sister’s room, turned on the lights, and told all the girls that she was taking the “Wee Gee Board” and that everyone had to go to bed. None of the girls protested; they actually looked relieved. This was the moment when my fascination with the Ouija Board began. Just the look on my sister’s face convinced me that there were magical powers in that board. What six-year-old little brother would not want to somehow wield the power of a board that could terrify his annoying older sister almost to the point of tears.
My memory of this incident is vague with the passage of years. As I grew older I began to realize that there is far more to this enigmatic board game than just a tool to terrorize a sibling. I learned that some people thought that it was a communication device with the spirit world. I learned that some people believed it was a dangerous tool that, when used, might inadvertently summon a demon, or worse. The mystical and antiquated box the board came in was enough to convince me of its magical powers. Years later I began to notice that the thing was sold at “Toys R Us” and that “Parker Brothers” was stamped on the side of the box. As an adult I eventually became a paranormal investigator. Once I started studying the occult, I learned that this portal to the other side might actually be nothing more than a misunderstood parlor trick. So what is the Ouija Board?
Communication with spirits, in its many forms, has a nebulous history that prevents us from knowing the “who” and “when” of its invention. Attempts by mortals to communicate with the dead date back thousands of years. There are many methods of divination that claim to allow communication with spirits and beings that have knowledge of this world beyond that of mere mortals. Among them are scrying, crystal balls, séances, drug induced trances, animal and human sacrifice, Herkimers, dactylomancy, automatic writing, tarot cards, and automatism. However, an important distinction needs to be made between Ouija Boards and these other methods: Ouija does not overtly claim to require use by a spiritualist or priest specifically trained to carry out the ritual (Martinelli, 2009, p. 49). Most of these other methods were typically executed by shamans, priests, or priestesses. Many involve elaborate rituals. The Ouija, on the other hand, will allegedly work even when operated by teenaged girls wearing pajamas at a slumber party.
While most of the more ancient divination methods have an unknown origin, the origin of the Ouija Board is much more recent and relatively well known. The origin of the predecessor to the Ouija Board, known as a “Talking Board,” is not well known but can be generally dated to around the 1860s (Martinelli, 2009, p. 49). The first patented “Talking Board” can be dated to February 10, 1891. It was patented by Elijah Jefferson Bond in Baltimore, Maryland (Hunt, 1985, p. 5). The board patented by Bond evolved slightly and eventually became the Ouija Board we know today. However, other manufacturers continued to make their own versions, which commonly retained the name “Talking Board.” Bond sold the rights to the Ouija Board to William Fuld the following year, and Fuld made a fortune off the board (Hunt, 1985, p. 5). The board generally sold better during bad times in America than it did during good times. Some of the best-selling years of the Ouija Board were during World War I, the Depression, World War II,and the 1960s (Hunt, 1985, p. 5). In 1966 Parker Brother’s, a popular board game manufacturer, purchased the rights to the board and moved the production factory to none other than Salem, Massachusetts (Hunt, 1985, p. 5). Another board game company, Hasbro, purchased Parker Brothers in 1991 and currently produces various Ouija Boards, including one that glows in the dark.
Allegedly, the name “Ouija” comes from a synthesis of the French word “Oui” and the German word “Ja,” both of which translate to the English “Yes” (Online Etymology Dictionary). Some, however, claim that the word “Ouija” means “good luck” in ancient Egyptian. There currently is no conclusive evidence to substantiate this latter claim, though early advertisements for the board carried the subtitle “The Good Luck Board.” One tradition states that the name comes from the Hindi word “Ojha” which purportedly means “the ones who deal with spirits” (Wikipedia, 2010). There is no evidence to indicate that the term was used to describe a Talking Board prior to the time when it was being commercialized by Bond and Charles Kennard, who also participated in the early development of the board.
The board has a history both rooted in ancient necromancy as well as late 19th century commercialism. However, the appeal of the board has always remained tied to the belief that the board is ultimately paranormal in nature.
There are many theories and stories that claim to document the supernatural nature of the Ouija board. J. Edward Cornelius (2005) notes the following:
It is the general belief that if you dispose of the board improperly that the spirits you’ve summoned will come back to haunt you. Many sources claim that you should break the board into seven pieces and put the remnants into a deep hole, then you must say a prayer over it and sprinkle it with Holy Water before burying the board. I have also read that if you burn the board it might scream, and those who have heard the Ouija scream have died within 36 hours. (p. 6)
Cornelius also cites a common idea that the story behind William Peter Blatty’s, The Exorcist, is based on true events that were set in motion when a young girl was playing with a Ouija Board (p. 7). As such, a common fear is that using Ouija boards can lead to demonic possessions.
Many ideas exist that claim to interpret the board’s unnatural actions. Cornelius points out that some people believe that if the planchette is moved, presumably by a spirit, to each of the four corners of the board that this indicates you have contacted an evil spirit. If the planchette falls off the board, at any time, this indicates the spirit has been released (p. 7).
Some individuals claim to have received inspiration from spirits that have communicated to them through the board. Bill Wilson, the co-founder of Alcoholics Anonymous (AA), claimed to have received messages from the spirit world via Ouija Board that inspired the creation of the 12 step program used by AA today (Cheever, 2004, p. 157, 204-205).
The Ouija and Psychology
The Ouija Board presents an interesting existential paradox. Is it a game? This theory is supported by the fact that it is produced by board game manufacturers, such as Parker Brothers and Hasbro. Is it a spirit communication device? This theory is supported by popular urban legends, as mentioned by Cornelius and Cheever. Or is it something different? A third theory posits that the board is neither a game nor a demonic portal. This third theory argues that the board represents the manifestation of psychological and physiological influences.
In 1852, prior to the patent of the Ouija Board we know today, physiologist William Benjamin Carpenter conducted a series of experiments testing what he would later describe as the “Ideo-motor principal of action” (Carpenter, 1852, p. 4). The experiments he conducted used a common type of divination method used in his day, which involved tying a pendulum to an individual’s finger. The individual would then hold their hand over something similar to a talking board. The experiments Carpenter conducted involved having a person hold a pendulum (tied to their finger) over a set of random objects set about randomly on a table. The movement of the pendulum over letters, or toward certain objects, was believed to reflect responses from spirits to questions posed by participants. Carpenter sought to explain this phenomenon scientifically and he did so by developing an idea that would become known as the “Ideomotor Effect."
This theory states that humans can, and do, move their muscles using “automatic or reflex movements” in response to their own impressions, sensations, ideas, and emotions. According to Carpenter, such movements would occur before we have engaged our intellection thought processes, or at least without such thought processes being aware of our movements. Carpenter’s theory has been used to argue that it is possible that we sometimes move our hands without fully realizing it. It has thus been argued that the movement of the planchette on a Ouija Board is representative of this. It is essentially the idea that our muscles are moving, without our fully being aware, in response to our thoughts and predispositions. He states the following at the conclusion of his 1852 article:
… the movements of the ‘divining rod,’ and the vibration of bodies suspended from the finger, both of which have been clearly proved to depend on the state of expectant attention on the part of the performer, his will being temporarily withdrawn from control of his muscles by the state of abstraction to which his mind is given up, and the anticipation of a given result being the stimulus which directly and involuntarily prompts the muscular movements that produce it (Carpenter, 1852, p. 5).
This article has answered the question “What is a Ouija Board” not with a single answer but with a list of possibilities. The board could be a game. It could be a spiritual texting device. It could be all in our head, literally. The Ouija Board could be all of these or something entirely different. The board continues to spark our imagination and inspire our thoughts. The fact that no definite answer can ever be made with regard to the nature of the board is a reflection of the fact that there is much yet we do not understand about the human mind and the metaphysical world. Whether the Ouija Board will answer those questions remains to be seen. Research may need to gather data from slumber parties as well as laboratories to obtain an understanding of this enigmatic board: an understanding that encompasses the many facets of the Ouija Board.
Carpenter, W. B. (2003). On the Influence of Suggestion in Modifying and Directing Muscular Movement, Independent of Volition. Retrieved from http://www.sgipt.org/medppp/psymot/carp1952.htm
Cheever, S (2004). My Name is Bill. New York, NY: Washington Square Press.
Cornelius, J. E. (2005). Aleister Crowley and the Ouija Board. Port Towsend, WA: Feral House.
Hunt, S. (1985). Ouija: The Most Dangerous Game. New York, NY: Harper & Row.
Martinelli, P. A. (2009, November). "Beware the Talking Board!" Antiques and Collecting Magazine 114 (9), 48-53.
Online Etymology Dictionary (2010). "Ouija." Retrieved from http://www.etymonline.com/index.php?term=Ouija