It’s a scenario those of us that have dabbled with an Ouija board will recognize. The room is darkened, lit perhaps only by a candle or two. After a deep breath, you join with your companions in placing your fingers upon the small marker, or planchette, which rests on the Ouija board.
One of you asks a question, and then, without you quite knowing just how the planchette begins to dart across the board from letter to letter until a word is formed as if in answer to the question. You look at your companions and wonder, can it be true? Did a being from the spirit world come into the room and answer your query through what seems like little more than a children’s board game?
Of all the things available in your local toy store, indeed, few are as strange as the Ouija board. For those who’ve never before experienced one, an Ouija board is a device that facilitates what is known among occultists as automatic writing.
Automatic writing, a phenomenon few have witnessed
Automatic writing is a process by which a message is communicated without the associated writer or writers, in this case, being in control. Often associated with trance states, but in the Ouija board’s case, the message is transmitted by several active participants in unison. Each is touching a single planchette, a plectrum-shaped piece of wood or plastic on castors and with either a pointed end or a small viewing hole.
The Ouija board is adorned with the letters of the alphabet, the numbers one to ten, and the words “yes” and “no” for those more straightforward questions. Often the participants seek an answer from a known spirit such as a dead loved one or a historical personage.
It’s typical for Ouija board participants to ask a question to make contact with an unknown spirit. With several hands touching the planchette, it’s difficult for any single participant to know if others are leading the proceedings. Of course, this lack of certainty is one of the aspects of an Ouija board session that proves so compelling to many.
The invention of the Ouija board
The Ouija board was invented in the 1890s by Elijah Bond, an American businessman. He combined two distinct features of automatic writing — a lettered board and a planchette — into a single marketable product. Just after the turn of the century William Fuld, who had previously worked for Bond, came up with the nonsense name “Ouija” and took overproduction. However, the Ouija board didn’t take off until the First World War and the following decade in which spiritualism swept the Western world.
During the 1920s, in particular, the Ouija board became a hit both as a faddish parlor game and as a tool for practitioners of the esoteric arts, such as the infamous British occultist Aleister Crowley. The boards have remained popular ever since, and in the mid-1960s, the brand was bought by game manufacturers Parker Brothers, who, in turn, were taken over in 1991 by Hasbro.
A modern-day door to demonic possession
Today, the Ouija board is still marketed as a toy and can be found alongside similarly packaged board games in the aisles of children’s toy stores. Over the years, numerous groups have voiced their disapproval of this state of affairs. Religious groups associated with Christian fundamentalists and the Catholic Church have warned of the Ouija board’s dangerous powers. They complain that it introduces vulnerable young people to the “dark arts” of fortune-telling and potentially opens the door to demonic possession.
Hollywood’s use of the Ouija board
The sinister reputation that such groups have bestowed upon the product has naturally enhanced the boards’ spooky reputation. Since the 1960s, the Ouija board has enjoyed a role in numerous horror films and novels, usually providing these narratives with a suitably sinister plot device. Less menacingly, the boards have been used by a number of writers and poets as a creative tool. During the 1970s, for example, the American poet James Merrill claimed to have used the board in the composition of some of his award-winning collections.
Ouija skeptics are nothing new.
Naturally, there have always been skeptics when it comes to Ouija boards. This group has even included some spiritualists, who see the boards as nothing more than a joke.
Meanwhile, psychologists have posited that the messages transmitted through an Ouija board are an example of the ideomotor reflex. In which a person in a dissociative state can communicate their subconscious thoughts. In offering such a rational explanation for such an irrational pursuit, they may have robbed the Ouija board of much of its mystique. However, over a hundred years after its introduction, the Ouija board remains a source of fascination and a well-known tool amongst professionals in the paranormal world.