Sunday, August 28, 2011

Ouija--child's game or devil's playground?

Heavenly wine and roses
Seem to whisper to me, when you smile
--Sweet Jane, The Velvet Underground
It was a dark and stormy night. 
Ok, not really, but I like to embellish.  I was in seventh grade, one of the fortunate few who was invited to Stacy Smith’s** birthday party.  It was a night of many firsts for me and my burgeoning adolescence.  I experienced my first kiss, a Lady and the Tramp moment thanks to Truth or Dare, the class boy slut, and the vegetable plate Stacy’s mom provided as party food.  As an unfortunate result, “celery” was my nickname well into junior high.  

**names have been changed to protect the innocent
However, the most eventful part of the night was not Frenching with Veggies 101, but playing with a Ouija board for the very first time.  I still remember that musty smell as it slipped out of the cardboard box--like a crypt had been broken open.  Some of the girls were scared to even touch the thing; the guys were fighting over who got to ask it when they would get laid for the first time.  I don’t remember what else we asked it; I’m assuming maybe deep existential questions like why was New Coke necessary or other stuff that was important in 1985.  But before we could get into the nitty gritty of our futures, Stacy freaked out, too panicked to continue.  Mr. Ouija is probably still locked in the hallway closet of the Smith home, waiting to be the gateway board game into harder things, like Dungeons and Dragons.

Although there are some accounts of spirit boards being used as early at 600 B.C.,  the Ouija board in America found its beginnings during the modern Spiritualism movement in the mid-1800s.  Spiritualism, quite simply, is the belief that the living can communicate with the dead.  During its heyday, seances to contact the deceased became a form of entertainment and many mediums enjoyed celebrity status.  Two of the most famous mediums were the Fox sisters from Hydesville, New York.  They devised a method of “rapping” in which they would question the dead and the spirit would answer via a code of knocks and pops.  Later, one of the sisters admitted that the entire thing was a hoax--the sounds were the controlled popping of their toe joints.
During this time, a French spiritualist named Planchette invented a device that looked like a heart shaped table with a hole for a pencil.  He quite cleverly called it . . . a planchette.  By placing his fingertips on the little table, he used it to channel the spiritual connection into written word--a sort of aided automatic writing.  He then collaborated with a friend who was a coffin maker to develop a wooden board preprinted with letters, numbers and yes/no to make the channeling even simpler, even for a novice.   They sold this idea to an attorney named Elijah Bond and his associate, Charles Kennard, who then patented “the talking board” as a parlor game in 1890.
The “talking board” got its official name from Kennard, who claimed the board named itself during a seance.  “Ouija” was supposedly an ancient Egyptian word for “good luck.”  According to Egyptian scholars, that’s not the case, but it made no difference as sales of the board flourished at $1 a pop.  By 1892, Kennard had been ousted from the company.  William Fuld took over marketing, reinventing the story of Ouija, claiming the name was a combo of Oui and Ja, the French and German words for “yes”.

After years of battling patent infringements, Fuld fell to his death in 1927 when a support beam he was leaning against gave way while working on a flagpole at the company.  His death only added to the forbidden aura of the Ouija board, which had gained popularity as a true divination tool for occultists.  His family sold the board in 1966 to Parker Brothers, who continue to market it as a game for ages 10 and up.


The first Ouija boards were made of coffin wood, and the planchette used a coffin nail as a pointer.  In 2010 a hot pink version and a glow-in-the-dark version were sold at Toys ‘R’ Us, much to the chagrin of those who see the Ouija as a tool of the Devil.  Ouija opponents cite scripture in which God condemns those who commune with the dead.  Old Testament Law supposedly supports the execution of anyone who is a medium or channeler, which spells bad news for Jennifer Love Hewitt.  In 2005, Christ Community Church in New Mexico burned Harry Potter books with Ouija boards as “symbols of the occult”.  Certainly there have been instances where people have cited spirits from the Ouija board telling them to kill or harm others.  These claims are difficult to substantiate, given those involved are often considered clinically insane at baseline.
Even in seventh grade, I remember making everyone around the Ouija table pinky swear they wouldn’t purposely move the pointer.  And that first time the planchette moved “by itself”, I certainly thought the spirits were with us.  So what really fuels the mystique of the Ouija?


For some, that’s an easy answer--the messages are from beyond the grave, spelled out by a spirit drawn to a piece of mass-production cardboard.
But if you are of the skeptical ilk, the automatism theory is for you.  It relies on a concept described by William Carpenter in 1892 called ideomotor action.  This theory states that unconscious motor behavior is the basis for the seemingly involuntary movements of popular divination materials, i.e. dowsing rods, pendulums, and of course, the Ouija board.  Carpenter believed that muscular movement could be initiated subconsciously--thus the user of the board is responsible for the board movements but is not aware of it.  He cited as examples of other ideomotor based actions:  automatic painting, automatic writing, and sleepwalking.  Proponents of this theory believe that when the Ouija user concentrates, they enter a mild state of hypnosis, opening a conduit into the subconscious.  This is the basis of modern day hypnotherapy.
The area of psychic phenomena was examined in the laboratory setting at Duke University by an American scientist named J.B. Rhine.  He later established The Journal of Parapsychology, which still is in print.  Rhine’s research refuted the idea that demons produced the movements associated with popular tools of the occult.  He popularized concepts like the ideomotor effect, facilitated communication, and self delusion to explain the seemingly unexplainable.  Rhine’s wife, Louisa, in the newsletter of the American Society of Psychical Research said this:
“In several ways the very nature of automatic writing and the Ouija board makes them particularly open to misunderstanding. For one thing, because [such communications] are unconscious, the person does not get the feeling of his own involvement. Instead, it seems to him that some personality outside of himself is responsible. In addition, and possibly because of this, the material is usually cast in a form as if originating from another intelligence.”
In the late 60s and early 70s, many self proclaimed Ouija channelers were discredited with simple blindfolds and letter rearrangement during psychic testing.  But despite those who call the board simply a romanticized tool of hoaxery (Penn and Teller have a fairly colorful offering on their video Bulls**t), you’re not alone if you still believe in the mystical power of Ouija.  Writers seem to have a certain affection for the less tangible explanation--the most famous being Arthur Conan Doyle who supported the belief of Spiritualism.  Pearl Curran channeled a spirit she called Patience Worth through the Ouija for twenty years.  Their collaboration led to several poems, novels and short stories in the early 1900s.  Pulitzer Prize winning poet James Merrill wrote The Changing Light at Sandover, an epic narrative of his communications with angels and spirits via the Ouija board.

Cinema also highlights the less Candyland side of Ouija.  The Exorcist is loosely based on the story of a boy in Maryland who experienced unusual symptoms (i.e. possession by evil spirits) after playing with a Ouija board in an attempt to contact his dead aunt.  In the movie, Regan refers to the spirit she contacted via the Ouija board as Captain Howdy--aka Pazuzu the demon of pestilence.  One of my favorite Robin Williams’ flicks, Awakenings, starts with the discovery that Robert de Niro’s character is thinking on a subconscious level and can communicate via a game of Ouija.  And last, but certainly not least if you love cheesy horror flicks was Witchboard, in which a young woman becomes obsessed with talking to a malevolent spirit via her Ouija board.  Not long on plot, but all the dudes in my high school gave it a thumbs up for showing Tawny Kitaen (of Whitesnake hood ornament fame) naked.

The Ouija board has a checkered past, but whether you believe it is just a parlor trick of self-deception or truly a portal to the spirit world depends a lot on your own beliefs about the afterlife.  But just in case you are considering a trip to Toys ‘R’ Us later, keep in mind some of the rules of Ouija:
  1.  Don’t play alone or if you are ill--you’re spiritually susceptible to possession
  2.  Don’t play in places where death has occurred or risk possession (i.e. no graveyards)
  3.  Do not let the board go thru the whole alphabet or numbers in order--it’s an attempt for the spirits to escape
  4.  If the planchette goes to all four corners or in a figure 8, you are in the presence of an evil spirit.  If you want to   prevent this from happening, place a silver coin on the board to stop the evil spirits from coming through
  5.  In order to destroy the board, one must break the board into 7 pieces and sprinkle with holy water, then bury it


  1. This was really interesting - although, for some reason, I find the idea of a hot pink Ouija board faintly disturbing - but did you HAVE to put that picture at the end? She still freaks me out!

    I once went to see a medium who actually gave me my money back because there were no spirits who wanted to contact me. That was pretty depressing - but at least she was honest :-)

  2. Fascinating, first time I've heard the history of the ouija board. The thing still scares me silly, though, not sure why. I actually believe in the spirit world and I believe most of them are good and peacesful, but I've never touched an ouija board

  3. Didja have to put that nasty pic at the bottom?

    Seriously, I read most of this post with relish and am now trying to sift through my many reactions for the purpose of crafting an intelligible comment. So. In no particular order--

    It makes more sense to me that name of the game comes from two variations of yes. The manner of Fuld's death is a bit freaky. I love that you opened this post with your own memories of adolescent slumber parties-- I am such a sucker for reading about stuff like that. I am also a sucker for reading histories of parlor games.

    Now, the thing that arguably caught my interest most was the theory of automatism. Having read a few weeks ago, 'The Holographic Universe,' this is a subject that is heavily treated, to the point where the author consistently refers to psychokinesis as PK (a practical consideration.) In the book, he references a number of instances in which the ability to influence the movement of matter using the power of one's subconscious--and conscious-- thoughts and got me wondering if the conscious waking state actually most closely resembles hypnosis, which my husband informed me is basically a intensely-focused state (video games, twitter and moviegoing, anyone?)

    The author himself had, for most of his life, a number of fairly eerie experiences which prompted the writing of most of his books in the first place, 'THU' being the most acclaimed. (The others, including a number of novels, didn't meet with as much ready reception.)

    Awesome post, Jules.

  4. I'm always thrilled when I see you've posted something new. I have a long and storied history with Ouija boards but won't get into them here, I'd end up writing all day.

    But, the thought of some portal to hell being opened up by a board game is too rich to go untapped in fiction. I mean, I want to write a story about it after reading your post today. If I were a game maker, I would strongly encourage people to purchase and burn my products as well, I only wish I could produce something that folks would have to keep buying... so they can burn it.

    Reminds me of a news story I read a year or so ago about a church that purchased the entire stock of pornography from a local store to burn publicly. The store owner was so excited, he happily sold them the porn and used the small fortune they gave him to purchase more to fill his empty shelves, all while making a tidy profit.

    Awesome. Anyway, I don't think Harry Potter was published yet in '95.

    Thanks again

  5. Sarah--no spirits for you! Sounds like a Seinfeld episode. Although it would probably be annoying to have a bunch of spirits waiting around to talk to you all the time--like an entourage, but without the perks.

    Claire--I think there is something to be said for a healthy respect of the unknown power in our minds and around us

    Suze--I knew you would like this one. I sat for at least 45 minutes trying to tap into my subconscious to move things last night. Of course, since I recall trying to do it, I guess that's why I wasn't succeeding. I completely believe that in moments of intense concentration there is a different level of activity our brains reach--and therefore perhaps even different experiences we can have. If it is truly communing with spirits--or communing with the Hologram--remains to be seen.

    Rusty--what is that saying?--even negative publicity is still publicity? What was really amazing for me during writing this was to read about personal accounts with the board. People truly believed they talked to spirits, or were haunted or cursed afterwards. The mind and its obsessions are fascinating, it's no wonder people can die from fright or heartbreak via a neuro-cardiovascular circuit.
    And you're right--the burning was in 2005. That's what I get for staying up late with numbers.

  6. Argh...I am terrified of the paranormal. It was probably due to growing up around ghost stories, which is why I write 'em now. But that exorcist pic will give me nightmares. Needless to say, I've never touched a ouija board.

  7. Hey Julie - I guess I was saying that well meaning folks burning books/toys/games means that there is a constant revenue stream for the company producing the product. I had a friend in high school who was convinced that his favorite band was demonic and burned his CD's (well, cassettes). Then went and repurchased them a few months later, then shattered them with a hammer, then purchased them a third time. Also destroyed later. I feel bad for him, but now every time I hear of folks burning stuff I can't help but think of my friend and how much money he spent buying the same stuff over an over. And how the company made so much extra by having a single consumer purchasing their goods over and over.

    I live in the south where almost everyone around me thinks these things are real conduits to the spirit world - and evil. It's surreal to have conversations with people who have all these stories about facing demons and near death experiences using the things. I've tried to really talk about what they think happened, but showing a hint of skepticism generally translates into them thinking I'm calling them a liar. It generally does downhill from there.

  8. Fascinating post. I didn't know anything about the history.

    Like you my first (and only) experience was during a slumber party and I've never made a ruling on the experience. The friend who hosted that party went on to have a number of unexplained events in connection with the Ouija board...some raised the hair on the back of my neck. And I'm pretty open-minded, LOL

  9. Wow, very interesting! I remember playing with a ouija board in high school with a group of friends. The guys refused to have anything to do with it but the girls all gathered around and had a turn. Nothing much happened but I always wanted to try it again.

    I just watched an old episode of Unsolved Mysteries recently on Lifetime and they discussed the Pearl Curran/Patience Worth story.

  10. One of my students asked me what a Ouija board is on Friday. Too weird that you blogged about it! Did you ever play "Light as a Feather, Stiff as a Board"?

  11. Ok, it's bad enough that I read this before bed, but really, Alleged, did you have to bring up THAT game?? :)

    I have played with a ouija board and will not do it again, and won't allow it into my house. It was during my Sylvia Plath phase (she was a big fan, and wrote some early poems about it.)

    I was in college, and had a friend at the time named Stella. I can't remember the question I asked the board, but it answered (and I swear I was not moving it!!) "Ask the one you call "Star". I just got chills remembering that. I don't know what it is, and am sure there is some logical explanation, but....oooh....

  12. Fascinating stuff. Thanks for doing the research!

  13. E.--For all of my attempts to rationalize, I have a healthy appreciation for things I can't explain. Sometimes you just have to believe.

    Rusty--I can only say, what band? If they inspired that degree of emotional turmoil in your friend, I must know. Is he still hammering CDs? Because I think Justin Bieber may be the Devil. Although I don't want to fuel his money making machine by buying and destroying his stuff over and over. I'm torn. I lived in the South for a few years, too. Certainly makes for interesting writing ;)

    Raelyn--I think people say "it's all in your mind" so quickly--but the fascinating thing to me is if that's the case, what an amazing mind we must have to be able to create such a believable farce.

    Sprinkles--Cool! I'll have to catch that program. I never had any bizarre experiences with the Ouija, either. I might need to try it again.

    Alleged--HELL YEAH! Loved that game. I actually had a paragraph about it in this post but cut it since I have this tendency to be quite's a similar phenomena--the belief that the body is light and the unified actions of all of the lifters. Sort of like people who do amazing things when tranced--i.e. lifting a car off someone or walking on coals. You make me want to have a paranormal party.

    Maggie--It's all about how much you believe. That being said, I think you have to have a healthy appreciation for the unknown, no matter how plausible the explanation.

    MorningAJ--thanks for stopping by! These are fun posts for me to do--learn a lot I never knew before.

  14. So cool that you posted this when I know of someone who is researching this topic right now.

  15. Excellent post. I love all things paranormal, and I was raised in a society where we saw some pretty freaky things...hence my openmindedness about the spirit world. I never studied the ouija to see what made it tick, but I've yet to allow that game board in my house. Safety first, I alway say. :) I'd hate to wind up spitting out splitpea soup.

  16. Ideomotor effect? Tell that to Carl Jung! What a fabulous post. I love all the research you did and there are so many fascinating tidbits in here it's impossible to comment on all of them. Coffin wood and and a coffin nail to guide the planchette. Now THAT's creepy!

  17. Hey Jules, I love that you spent 45 minutes trying to 'move stuff.'

    I have been trying to fix my leaking fridge with PK since getting it professionally worked on, turning off and unhooking the icemaker and turning off the water line have not worked.

    So far PK is a miserable failure, as well. Will keep you posted as events warrant. ;)

  18. I have never Ouija-ed. I'm such a horror-wimp. Can't handle what the spirits have to say to me. Probably something horrifically true, like "YOU ARE BECOMING MIDDLE-AGED"

  19. Hi all - does anyone play with Ouija boards anymore? Are they still sold at stores? I haven't been able to find one. Thanks for the cool post!

  20. Ouija boards and me don't mix. I totally hear you about the smell. That's what I remember the first time I used it in Sleepaway Camp. I'm almost positive it moved!

  21. What a fascinating and well-researched post. My BFF and I used to play with the Quija board when we were tweens, but it had to live at my house. I had forgotten until I read it here that Mom always made us put a quarter on the board. I don't think she ever said why unless it was like 'for good luck' or something. My friend and I both had friends who were not allowed to play. Neither of us was ever spooked about anything, but we never asked anything of psychic importance either. And maybe the quarter did work :)

  22. K. Turley--I never knew one little board game had such a past. It would make a cool story.

    Laila--I've always been worried about doing that spider backbridge maneuver she does. It's part of the reason I refuse to do yoga.

    Linda--Definitely a smart move by the designer to use coffin wood--probably wouldn't have had the creep factor if they used outhouse wood and a paper clip.

    Suze--I've been using PK to heal your fridge, but I think all I did was melt the ice. Hee.

    Lydia--true, in movies, spirits always tell you something fascinating. What if really all they say is stuff like "that color looks hideous on you" or "you should buy milk, we're out"

    Kimmy--Supposedly Toys 'R' Us has them, and Amazon. There's a website where you can make one or have one made to order, too.

    Copyboy--the smell also may have had something to do with Stacy's mom's obsession with bad potpourri. I don't remember now.

    Carol--Your mom was thinking about your safety, blocking all those evil spirits! That's such a great story!

  23. Would it not be cool to do this kind of research for a job? Fun times!

    Creepy pictures... Nice post! hehe

  24. First of all, I love this entry. Never read up on all this history! I had an very scary Ouiji experience when I was in the seventh grade -- one that I cannot explain to this day. That picture at the end came as a surprise and totally freaked me out!

  25. I tried using a Ouiji board to contact Bea Arthur but I got Jack Lemmon instead. Weird.

  26. Wow amzing job with the research! The Ouiji board has always freaked me out, but now I have reason seeing they would make them from coffin wood. Totally creepy! Lol, to pinky swearing before using it. Must be an unwritten rule.

  27. Yeah, so this stuff freaks. Me. OUT. I don't futz around with it myself. That being said, it's fun to read and write about it, LOL!

  28. Julie,
    I loved this post. Whether self induced or guided by spirits, the Ouiji has made me cack my pants on several ocassions during adolescence. Strangely, I have fond memories of these experiences, even though the Ouiji predicted my death "IN A". I don't know what, aeroplane, April, angst! I didn't wait to find out and threw the board before it got beyond "A".

    Great research which leaves you to make you own mind up.

    Keep it up Julie, you cover such great subjects.

  29. Trisha--I would love to have a job and just look up folklore and myth all day long. I'm obsessed with trivia.

    Liz--maybe you had the experience I should have had as a seventh grader! Mine was far too tame.

    Powdered Toast--whoa, what if they were one and the same?

    Kerri-the pinky swear is just as good as a written contract, IMO.

    lbd--I agree! This sort of thing just makes so many ideas fly around in my head.

    YONKS--OMG!! You asked when you would die? That is so brave and scary. Hopefully it was going to spell out "In a state of bliss"

  30. Hi Julie,
    I'm a fellow campaigner and remember playing with ouija boards at sleepovers. They never really made me believe that spirits were around us but a lot of my friends could only handle it in small doses.

  31. I'm not gonna lie. It freaks me out!

  32. I'm with Angie. I had a creepy experience that I'll never forget when I once dared to try one. Will never do it again.

  33. This is so interesting, but I must admit that the Ouija board creeps me out, even now that I know more about it. : ) My friends and I messed with one a few times and that was enough for me.

  34. oh ouija boards. It's funny, we used to play with them as kids all the time and they never bothered me. But now, as an adult, i'm totally creeped out by them. weird.

  35. This was really interesting. The Ouija board is eerie, but the theory related to subconscious movement makes sense. Besides, I don't like to think Jennifer Love Hewitt is in trouble. She's been through a string of break-ups and looks a bit foolish nowadays, especially since she texted a recently rejected guy from The Bachelor to "except" her final rose. He did but blew her off shortly thereafter. (Excuse my digression). =)

  36. wow - this is an amazing history. brings back memories of playing with the ouija board in our basement when i was a kid.

    thanks for commenting and following over at travels with persephone! i've enjoyed my first tour around gypsy in my soul and look forward to return visits!

  37. Nice pic of Regan there at the end.

    Tawny Kitaen looks terrible now. Her hard lifestyle really did her in.

    The Exorcist is probably the scariest movie of the 20th century.

  38. This is really cool. I've never even played with a Ouija board. What does that make me, deprived?

  39. bridget--it's totally about the mindset, I think. You see what you believe you see.

    Angie--hey, at least you're honest!

    E.R.--tempting fate is not something to take lightly, cardboard game or no.

    Cynthia--that seems to be the general consensus--interesting from afar

    Falen--sometimes I miss that balls-to-the-wall craziness and stupid courage of being a kid

    RawkynRobyn--I think it was the John Mayer connection. It seems he has a poison touch. She needs to find her Party of 5 self

    Amanda--Thanks for coming by! I've got a bit of a crush on your blog.

    Michael--The Exorcist is up there with The Shining as my all time favorite scary movies.

    Angela--probably wise :)

  40. That last picture really creeped me out, to the point that I can't write down in the basement at night, by myself. Eeeghh. Scary.

    I can read scary stuff but scary movies...I'm not brave enough. It's the visuals that get me cowering under my blanket.

    When I was in high school, I was living in a dorm. At one point, ouija became really popular among the girls in my dormitory. I never participated because I didn't believe in such "nonsense". One night I was up late trying to finish a school project. Most of the kids were already asleep except for a few girls who were still giggling doing who know what. A couple of them shrieked and started running back to their rooms. They were younger, so me and my friend got really irritated (Stupid noisy freshmen...sheesh!) We told them to keep it down. They said they saw something outside, an apparition. They've been doing ouija before that. We turned in for the night--it was 2 a.m.

    The next day, this girl got possessed. At first I thought she was sick or something. She was making faces while we were in the bathroom getting ready. School started but by mid-morning, there was a strange hush everywhere, and then the screaming started. Several students went into wild frenzies--they cried, gnashed their teeth, kicked, and rolled on the floor. The staff made us come out of our rooms and go into the assembly hall. Classes were halted. It turned out 2 of the girls from the night before actually got possessed and somehow spread the discord among their fellow classmates. And then it just spread to the other classes. There were a few students in my class who got "affected" and had to be taken to the nurse's station. The school let us go home. I saw the possessed girl (the original one; the other girl was not as bad) in a room surrounded by some of the teachers who looked totally helpless. She was muttering gibberish, kept making strange faces, and was spitting on the floor. At one point she looked at me when I came in looking for one of the teachers, and I tell you, that look in her wasn't her at all. Very, very creepy. I had nightmares for a long time.

    So you see, strange things do happen. It's just not something to mess with.

  41. cherie--that is a chilling story. Almost reminiscent of The Crucible. I think it is completely about what you believe--I'm always amazed at the people--like pain artists--who can hang from their skin or walk on hot coals and not be bothered because they are in such a state of belief that pain truly is a different experience for them than you or me. For some, the belief that they saw something could be enough to become ill, I think. Then again, I also have to have a healthy appreciation for things I can't explain. Very creepy. Contacting spirits is not something to take lightly.


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