There are essentially three things required to contact the dead; a dead person; a living person to whom they are acquainted (or would like to be); a very open mind. Of course, over the years tools have been introduced to facilitate this, allowing both highly-tuned mediums and amateur inquisitors to speak to those in the realm beyond. Perhaps the most famous of these, despite being one of the most basic, is the Ouija board.
The ouija (/ˈwiːdʒə/ WEE-jə), also known as a spirit board or talking board, is a flat board marked with the letters of the alphabet, the numbers 0–9, the words “yes”, “no”, “hello” (occasionally), and “goodbye”, along with various symbols and graphics. It uses a planchette (a small heart-shaped piece of wood or plastic) as a movable indicator to facilitate the communication of the spirit’s message by spelling it out on the board during a séance. Participants place their fingers on the planchette, and it is moved about the board to spell out words, seemingly by a force other than the participants. “Ouija” has become a trademark that is often used generically to refer to any talking board.
Following its commercial introduction by businessman Elijah Bond on July 1, 1890, the Ouija board was regarded as an innocent parlour game unrelated to the occult until American Spiritualist Pearl Curran popularised its use as a divining tool during World War I.
Paranormal and supernatural beliefs associated with Ouija have been harshly criticised by the scientific community, since they are characterised as pseudoscience. The action of the board can be parsimoniously explained by unconscious movements of those controlling the pointer, a psychophysiological phenomenon known as the ‘ideomotor effect’.
Some mainstream Christian denominations have “warned against using Ouija boards”, holding that they can lead to demonic possession. Occultists, on the other hand, are divided on the issue, with some saying that it can be a positive transformation; others rehash the warnings of many Christians and caution “inexperienced users” against it.
Early references to the automatic writing method used in the Ouija board is found in China around 1100 AD, in historical documents of the Song Dynasty. The method was known as fuji (扶乩), “planchette writing”. The use of planchette writing as an ostensible means of contacting the dead and the spirit-world continued, and, albeit under special rituals and supervisions, was a central practice of the Quanzhen School, until it was forbidden by the Qing Dynasty. Several entire scriptures of the Daozang are supposedly works of automatic planchette writing. Similar methods of mediumistic spirit writing have been practiced in ancient India, Greece, Rome, and medieval Europe.
During the late 19th century, planchettes were widely sold as a novelty. Businessman Elijah Bond had the idea to patent a planchette sold with a board on which the alphabet was printed. The patentees filed on May 28, 1890 for patent protection and thus is credited with the invention of the Ouija board. Bond was an attorney and was an inventor of other objects in addition to this device, including a steam boiler (not to be used for contacting the dead). Bond’s self-produced board was named “nirvana” and featured a swastika as a logo, well before the Nazis appropriated the symbol.
An employee of Elijah Bond, William Fuld took over the talking board production and in 1901, he started production of his own boards under the name “Ouija”. Charles Kennard (founder of Kennard Novelty Company which manufactured Fuld’s talking boards and where Fuld had worked as a varnisher) claimed he learned the name “Ouija” from using the board and that it was an ancient Egyptian word meaning “good luck.” When Fuld took over production of the boards, he popularised the more widely accepted etymology: that the name came from a combination of the French and German words for “yes”.
The Fuld name would become synonymous with the Ouija board, as Fuld reinvented its history, claiming that he himself had invented it. The strange talk about the boards from Fuld’s competitors flooded the market, and all these boards enjoyed a heyday from the 1920s through the 1960s. Fuld sued many companies over the “Ouija” name and concept right up until his death in 1927. In 1966, Fuld’s estate sold the entire business to Parker Brothers, which was sold to Hasbro in 1991, and which continues to hold all trademarks and patents. About ten brands of talking boards are sold today under various names.
Various studies have been produced, recreating the effects of the Ouija board in the lab and showing that, under laboratory conditions, the subjects were moving the planchette involuntarily. Sceptics have described Ouija board users as ‘operators’. Some critics noted that the messages ostensibly spelled out by spirits were similar to whatever was going through the minds of the subjects. According to Professor of neurology Terence Hines in his book Pseudoscience and the Paranormal (2003):
“The planchette is guided by unconscious muscular exertions like those responsible for table movement. Nonetheless, in both cases, the illusion that the object (table or planchette) is moving under its own control is often extremely powerful and sufficient to convince many people that spirits are truly at work… The unconscious muscle movements responsible for the moving tables and Ouija board phenomena seen at seances are examples of a class of phenomena due to what psychologists call a dissociative state. A dissociative state is one in which consciousness is somehow divided or cut off from some aspects of the individual’s normal cognitive, motor, or sensory functions”.
In the 1970s Ouija board users were also described as “cult members” by sociologists, though this was severely scrutinised in the field. The renowned sceptic, The Amazing James Randi, conducted an experiment in which he blindfolded the operators in order to prove that any ‘actual’ messages were only the result of ideomotor effect or the subconscious. The results showed that not one understandable word was produced, nor any dates nor even a “yes” or “no”.
Most religious criticism of the Ouija board has come from Christians, primarily Roman Catholics and evangelicals in the United States. Catholic Answers, a Christian apologetics organisation, states that “The Ouija board is far from harmless, as it is a form of divination (seeking information from supernatural sources). The fact of the matter is, the Ouija board really does work, and the only “spirits” that will be contacted through it are evil ones.”
In 2001, Ouija boards were burned in Alamogordo, New Mexico by fundamentalist groups alongside Harry Potter books (!) as “symbols of witchcraft.” Religious criticism has also expressed beliefs that the Ouija board reveals information which should only be in God’s hands, and thus it is a tool of Satan. A spokesperson for Human Life International described the boards as a portal to talk to spirits and called for Hasbro to be prohibited from marketing them. Bishops in Micronesia called for the boards to be banned and warned congregations that they were talking to demons and devils when using the boards.
In popular culture:
Ouija boards have been the source of inspiration for literary works, used as guidance in writing or as a form of channeling literary works. As a result of Ouija boards’ becoming popular in the early 20th century, by the 1920s many “psychic” books were written of varying quality often initiated by Ouija board use:
Emily Grant Hutchings claimed that her novel Jap Herron: A Novel Written from the Ouija Board (1917) was dictated by Mark Twain’s spirit through the use of a Ouija board after his death.
Patience Worth was allegedly a spirit contacted by Pearl Lenore Curran (February 15, 1883 – December 4, 1937) for over 20 years. This symbiotic relationship produced several novels, and works of poetry and prose, which Pearl Curran claimed were delivered to her through channelling Worth’s spirit during sessions with a Ouija board, and which works Curran then transcribed.
In late 1963, Jane Roberts and her husband Robert Butts started experimenting with a Ouija board as part of Roberts’ research for the book. According to Roberts and Butts, on December 2, 1963 they began to receive coherent messages from a male personality who eventually identified himself as Seth, culminating in a series of books dictated by “Seth”.
In 1982, James Merrill released an apocalyptic 560-page epic poem entitled The Changing Light at Sandover, which documented two decades of messages dictated from the Ouija board during séances.
Spirit Boards in the News
The writer, G. K. Chesterton used a Ouija board in his teenage years. Around 1893 he had gone through a crisis of scepticism and depression, and during this period Chesterton experimented with the Ouija board and grew fascinated with the occult.
Early press releases stated that Vincent Furnier’s stage and band name “Alice Cooper” was agreed upon after a session with a Ouija board, during which it was revealed that Furnier was the reincarnation of a 17th-century witch with that name. Alice Cooper later revealed that he just thought of the first name that came to his head while discussing a new band name with his band.
Sylvia Plath wrote Dialogue Over a Ouija Board, the results of a session divining with spirits in 1957.
Former Italian Prime Minister Romano Prodi claimed under oath that, in a séance held in 1978 with other professors at the University of Bologna, the “ghost” of Giorgio La Pira used a Ouija to spell the name of the street where Aldo Moro was being held by the Red Brigades.
According to Peter Popham of The Independent: “Everybody here has long believed that Prodi’s Ouija board tale was no more than an ill-advised and bizarre way to conceal the identity of his true source, probably a person from Bologna’s seething far-left underground whom he was pledged to protect.”
The Mars Volta wrote their album Bedlam in Goliath (2008) based on their alleged experiences with a Ouija board. According to their story, Omar Rodriguez Lopez purchased one while traveling in Jerusalem. At first the board provided a story which became the theme for the album. Strange events allegedly related to this activity occurred during the recording of the album: the studio flooded, one of the album’s main engineers had a nervous breakdown, equipment began to malfunction, and Cedric Bixler-Zavala’s foot was injured. Following these bad experiences the band allegedly buried the Ouija board.
Morrissey’s song, “Ouija Board, Ouija Board” was the first of the ex-Smith’s singer’s solo singles not to reach the top ten in the UK. It was criticised by the music press for being lacklustre and the press for promoting the dark arts. The accompanying promo video featured Carry On actress, Joan Sims.
Much of William Butler Yeats’s later poetry was inspired, among other facets of occultism, by the Ouija board. Yeats himself did not use it, but his wife did.
Aleister Crowley had great admiration for the use of the ouija board and it played a passing role in his magical workings. Jane Wolfe, who lived with Crowley at his infamous Abbey of Thelema, also used the Ouija board, crediting some of her greatest spiritual communications to use of this implement. Crowley also discussed the Ouija board with another of his students, and the most ardent of them, Frater Achad (Charles Stansfeld Jones): it is frequently mentioned in their unpublished letters.
In 1917 Achad experimented with the board as a means of summoning Angels, as opposed to Elementals. In one letter Crowley told Jones: “Your Ouija board experiment is rather fun. You see how very satisfactory it is, but I believe things improve greatly with practice. I think you should keep to one angel, and make the magical preparations more elaborate.”
In his book, Possessed, author Thomas B. Allen discusses the exorcism of Robbie Mannheim, in which the aunt of Mannheim introduces him to a Ouija board. The story of the possession and exorcism formed the basis for the film The Exorcist discussed below.
The Uninvited (1944): Ray Milland stars in the played-straight creepy tale.
The Exorcist (1973): A Ouija board figures prominently in the film, twelve year-old Regan (played by Linda Blair) becoming possessed by a demon she calls “Captain Howdy”. The 1949 case of the ‘true’ possession of a young boy by a demon, which partly inspired William Peter Blatty’s book, was said to be the result of the boy using a Ouija board.
Witchboard (1986-1995) The Witchboard trilogy, beginning with a gathering of friends using a Ouija board to channel an evil entity impersonating the spirit of a little boy.
At certain cinemas, Paragon Arts International distributed complimentary Witchboards to those who watched the first film on opening night.
Prison of the Dead (2000). A group of ex-college buddies bring three executioners back from the dead when they play with an Ouija board in an old witches’ prison.
Ouija (2014). Chaos ensues when a group of teens unwittingly unleash the forces of darkness.
Grave Encounters 2 (2012). Used as a convenient device to eke out yet more coins from the found footage genre.
I Am ZoZo (2012). Bargain basement devil-bothering via talking board.
The Pact (2012): A Ouija board is used to try to unravel the mysterious events in the film.
Séance: The Summoning (2011). In a bid to prove a local medium isn’t a fake, the spelling out of letters causes more problems than it solves. ‘Dare to play’, indeed.
The Unleashed (2011). Supernatural chaos escalates when a troubled woman with a dark past dabbles with the infamous Ouija board.
Necromentia (2009). What happens when you tattoo a Ouija board on your body? Nothing good.
Paranormal Activity and its sequel both feature a Ouija board.
The Power (1984). During a full moon, college kids venture into a basement with an ouija board. What could go wrong?
Satanic aka Demon Board (2002). Shocker starring Jeffrey Combs and Angus Scrimm.
Is Anybody There? (2009). Directed by Israel Luna, who seems to have something of a fetish for low-budget films featuring Ouija boards.
Long Time Dead (2002).
Spookies (1986). A Ouija board is used to summon a variety of monsters to dispatch some mansion-intruding teenagers.
Sorority House Massacre 2 (1992). The title says it all. College girls use an ouija board to summon up a mass-murderer, as you do…
Repossessed (1990). Leslie Nielsen had a gas bill to pay, clearly.
What Lies Beneath (2000). Robert Zemeckis’ big hit mainstream psychological thriller starring Harrison Ford and Michelle Pfeiffer.
Amityville 3-D (1983). Brief usage of a Ouija board in this rotten sequel.
Satan’s Blood (1978). Spanish erotic horror film, eventually released by on DVD by Mondo Macabro.
Tales From the Crypt (1972). Poor old Grimsdyke speaks to the late Mrs Grimsdyke via the ghostly telephone.
13 Ghosts (1960). William Castle’s typically gimmick-laden creepy classic.
Amnesiac (UK, 2013): In the wake of losing her baby, lonely Kate Faulkner has become dangerously obsessed with the occult, much to the horror of her only sister, Bec. One night, through the use of a Ouija board, they make contact with a mysterious spirit who offers to help Kate in her mission to find her dead son…
You Will Kill aka Ouija: The Devil’s Game (2015): Sara lived a seemingly normal life before she had a Ouija board experience that unleashed a dark spirit. The spirit wants Sara to relive its tortured past, and compels her to commit murder towards one of her family members or loved ones. Sara resists these threats and tries to stand against the power but she’s forced to either watch her loved ones die one after the other, or obey the spirit and kill only one of them herself, as the spirit had done to her own son, long before. Sara must kill only one, and face the regret and pain of committing murder, or watch everyone around her die.
Exorcist: House of Evil (2016) – This lacklustre film manages to combine a historical exorcism and an ouija board to little effect.
Nocturne (2016) – Jo (Clare Niederpruem) has something to hide from her past. Her unsuspecting friends perform a late night uija ritual that opens a gateway to Hell. Dirty secrets are revealed and an uninvited guest joins the party. Now, Jo is forced to confront her mistakes as her friends try to escape a supernatural spirit…
Curse of the Nun (2018) – A damaged young woman is looking forward to moving to a beautiful new home, but the spirit of a deranged nun wants her to stay right where she is.
Daz Lawrence, HORRORPEDIA – with additional information by Adrian J Smith