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The Weird and Mysterious History of the Ouija Board

Of all of the ways of supposedly contacting the dead and the world beyond what we see, by far the most widely available and easy-to-use is the Ouija board. It has variously been called a party game or a potent window to another realm, and has been the basis for numerous movies, books, and TV shows. Is there anything to the stories of supernatural forces reaching out through them or is this just tricks of the mind? Here we will take a look at the very odd history and mysterious legacy of one of the most bizarre board games you can buy.

The infamous Ouija board is in and of itself rather innocuous, basically just a flat board upon which are written the numbers 0 to 9, the words “Yes,” “No,” “Hello,” and “Goodbye,” and the letters of the alphabet, all flanked by various symbols and designs. Sitting upon it is a heart-shaped wooden or plastic planchette, with a small circular glass portion in its center. That’s essentially it, and it seems like a rather harmless object, all things considered. Two or more players sit around and lightly place their fingers on the planchette, which seems to move about on its own volition to answer questions directed at it by placing itself over the words or letters upon it. This simple premise has gone on to spawn all manner of weird stories, and taken its place as a fixture of the paranormal world. Depending on who you ask this simple board is just a parlor trick and trick of the mind or a powerful portal through which spirits come bursting forth into our world, but how did this all begin and how is it that the Ouija board has become so notorious? Well, the history of this little game is almost as strange as any phenomena attributed to it.

The first Ouija board as it mostly appears today was marketed in the days after the Civil War in 1891, by businessmen Elijah Bond and Charles Kennard, in Baltimore, Maryland and their company the Kennard Novelty Company, although the patent for the board was actually filed in 1890. The actual patent process is an interesting story in and of itself. Allegedly, the patent office demanded that a demonstration be carried out in order to prove that the board worked as advertised before a patent would be granted. The test was supposedly that the patent officer had Bond and an associate sit at the board and asked them to have the board spell out his name. Unbelievably, the board did it, and this was enough to convince the officer to allow a patent on the product, labelled a “toy or game,” although it could very well be that somehow the clever business man Bond had found out the officer’s name through other means. Interestingly, this original patent for the board offers no explanation at all for how the thing actually worked, other than that it was “the involuntary muscular motion of the hands of the players, or through some other agency,” which just served to deepen its mystique.

It would go on to be marketed as “the wonderful talking board.” At the time is was designed mostly as a parlor game, similar to other so-called “talking boards,” which relied on a type of automatic writing popularized in the Song Dynasty of China way back in the 1,100 AD, in which a planchette was used to spell out answers to questions. However, what would eventually be called the Ouija board, like other talking boards, became popular among the spiritualist movement that was taking the country by storm in the 1800s, who believed that such boards offered a relatively simple and easy to carry out way to speak with the dead, and soon Bond’s product was the go-to choice for all manner of mediums across the United States and beyond. Indeed, the owners of the Kennard Novelty Company were not really spiritualists at all, but rather had created the board as mostly an effort to capitalize on this fad, and business was good. The allure of the board’s mysterious history and its odd marketing, which fell somewhere between tool for mystics and family game, generated intense public interest and they flew off the shelves, reaching out beyond spiritualists to families and the just plain curious.

It was not actually called specifically the Ouija board until 1901, when a William Fuld took over production. He claimed that the board had spelled out the name Ouija when asked what it wanted to be called, that is was an ancient Egyptian word for “good luck,” and the name stuck. Fuld would go on to be given full credit for inventing the board and it was his name that would inevitably be most associated with it. This was still an era when spiritualism was very much en vogue, and seances and trying to communicate with the dead weren’t seen as particularly strange or bad, and considering the Ouija board’s popularity the market was flooded with numerous other such boards from Fuld’s competitors, yet the Ouija was king of them all, partly due to its ease of use and its innovative letters, words, and planchette design. From the 1920s on in particular saw the Ouija board reach soaring heights of popularity, to the point that by the 1940s the company producing them had to build new factories to keep up with the insatiable demand.

Through these years the Ouija board maintained its air of spiritualist mystery, and it was even sometimes allegedly used by law enforcement to get clues and tips for solving crimes, but there were just as many scary stories odd encounters with evil spirits and even people claiming to have been told to kill by the boards. The Ouija board gathered about itself a sense of paranormal intrigue and even danger. Bizarrely, in a bit of spooky history it is even said that Fuld’s eventual death by falling in 1927 was heralded by a Ouija board, when he went about the construction of a building the board specifically told him not to build.

Whatever the case may be, and despite the eerie tales, the Ouija board maintained its insane popularity right on through the 20s, 30s, and 40s, with the game eventually being sold to the company Parker Brothers in 1967, where it continued to do booming business. Even with all of the stories of strange paranormal phenomena surrounding it, the Ouija board would not be considered particularly evil or Satanic until the release of the horror film The Exorcist in 1973 and its tale of demon possession, in which a Ouija board makes a prominent appearance. As a result of the movie, the “game” went from curiosity to the work of the Devil practically overnight, and various Christian groups began decrying it as a tool of Satan and portal of evil. At the same time they became a fixture of horror films, and before long the Ouija board’s reputation had changed from party game and gimmick to one of insidious spiritual and demonic malevolence.

The game went on to be sold to the toy company Hasbro, and has enjoyed a sort of resurgence in popularity in recent years thanks to several hit films Paranormal Activity 1 and 2 and Ouija: Origin of Evil, as well as various TV shows and paranormal investigation programs. To this day there are plenty of people who claim that these boards do indeed have the power to channel spirits or even demons through them and are not to be taken lightly, and this will probably leave you wondering any of this is true and how exactly Ouija boards work. That really depends a lot on who you ask.

The official scientific explanation is that the boards work through a subconscious process known as the “ideomotor effect.” This essentially means that our muscles are automatically and unconsciously moving in response to outside cues, and since this movement is carried out without the awareness of the ones doing it, the whole thing seems very anomalous and bizarre, the whim of some outside force. Automatic writing and dowsing rods are other examples of phenomena thought to be caused by the ideomotor effect, and it is all molded and shaped by expectations. According to this theory it is not the work of outside supernatural agencies, but rather the power of the subconscious human mind, which could pose its own mysterious phenomena in itself but which is not paranormal in the end. It is tied to a concept called a “dissociative state,” in which the subconscious mind is working independently of the conscious thoughts and motor functions. Simple experiments wherein the participants are blindfolded have shown that the ability to spell out any meaningful words goes out the window, which should not really be the case if spirits were truly controlling the planchette.

Yet, then there are those who say that the Ouija board is everything it is said to be, a powerful tool through which the spirit world can be contacted. In this view this is beyond just a simple piece of board with letters on it, but rather a vessel through which spirits both benevolent and malicious can reach out to talk to us or lash out at us. In this idea, it is these supernatural agents that are taking control of our motor functions rather than any unconscious thoughts, and countless stories of the strange and unexplained have gravitated towards the Ouija Board. So which is it? Is this a parlor trick and illusion or something more? Is this unassuming piece of board and plastic just inanimate objects infused with meaning by us or do they serve as a doorway through which otherworldly forces channel into our reality? The answers to these questions remain elusive, and the discussion continues on, but it is interesting to think that something so seemingly harmless could still carry about it such a sinister air of mystery.