Ouija boards hold a particularly sinister reputation, even among people who might otherwise consider themselves rational or scientific.
They’ll happily use an EMF meter, or bust out the cameras and voice recorders, on a ghost hunt.
But show them a Ouija board and you can’t see them for dust.
If you believe horror movies, the boards are portals to another world, and leave users open to demonic possession.
But are Ouija boards really that dangerous, or is it all a lot of hype over nothing?
Let’s find out…
Wasn’t it a kid’s toy back in the day?
Not quite. The boards originally grew out of Spiritualism, the 19th century fad for communicating with spirits. Spiritualism actually became an official religious denomination in 1893!
It gets a bad rap quite often, and some of their ideas might be called quaint. But according to The Conversation, Spiritualists even supported abolition, suffrage and temperance.
Communicated with the dead poses its own challenges. An early method was “alphabet calling”. A Spiritualist recited the alphabet, with spirits rapping at specific letters.
As you can imagine, the method took a long time to uncover any messages.
Later, Spiritualists developed a new method. The participants of a seance pushed a pencil through an upside-down basket. Everyone placed their fingers on the basket, and the spirit guided it across the paper to spell words out.
You can see where this is going.
In 1886, a pointer and an alphabet board replaced the paper, pencil and basket.
5 years later, the Kennard Novelty Company patented the familiar design we know today. Adverts for Ouija, the Wonderful Talking Board appeared in a Pittsburgh toy shop in 1891.
Some believe the name is a combination of the French and German words for yes, ‘oui’ and ‘ja’. In fact, a sister-in-law of a company founder actually asked the board its name. It replied ‘Ouija’. Apparently, when they asked what it meant, the board answered ‘Good luck’. Hmm.
But fraudsters tarnished the reputation of Spiritualism. Many began to believe that talking to the dead was impossible. Ouija boards became a silly parlour game.
So why did Ouija boards become associated with the occult?
Simple. The Catholic Church.
In 1919, Pope Pius V asked a psychic investigator, J. Godfrey Raupert, to write a book about the Ouija board. The New Black Magic and the Truth About the Ouija Board included dire warnings and urged Christian households not to tolerate the board.
For a long time, everyone ignored Raupert. In the 1960s, a combination of the growing counterculture and a general interest in the occult saw the Ouija board outsell Monopoly.
So far, so good. But let’s move forward to 1971.
William Peter Blatty released his novel, The Exorcist. Two years later, the film adaptation hit cinemas. The public seized on its depiction of Ouija boards as conduits for evil spirits.
How do you use Ouija boards?
You need three or more people. Everyone sits around the board, and places their fingertips on the planchette. It’s better to use the middle finger as it’s harder to push the planchette without the effort being obvious.
Next, you have to ‘open’ the board. Whenever I’ve used one, I’ve always begun by welcoming any spirits that might be present, and asked if they have any messages to pass on.
It’s a bit like connecting to the Internet through dial-up.
In theory, any spirits that are present can use the energy of the people around the board to push the planchette, indicating letters to spell out words.
Whenever you’re finished, you should ‘close’ the board. Announce it’s closed, telling spirits they can no longer use it to pass on messages.
It might sound strange, but the Smithsonian make the point that the board received a patent at the Patent Office. So at some point, someone demonstrated that Ouija boards “worked”.
Can you fake using a Ouija board?
Of course you can. Some people insist on saying the entire word before it’s finished being spelled. I always thought that was ‘leading’ the conversation.
Plus you’d never do that to the living. So why finish the dead’s sentences for them?
You can also have one person pushing the planchette. When I did ghost hunts, I never saw anyone push the planchette to pass negative messages, though you could easily scare someone that way.
Instead, a more common occurrence was for people to draw attention to themselves. They spell out messages intended for them, sometimes as a means of working through something. Other times they did it for the drama.
Nerdist point out that humans really don’t like unanswered questions. They’re also susceptible to the ideomotor effect. Both are powerful forces when it comes to Ouija boards.
In a nutshell, people can move things (or themselves) without being aware of it. So a person can move a planchette without knowing that they’re applying force to it.
So you might ask the board a question and the planchette doesn’t move. It’s possible one of the participants might move it, just to give an answer.
Noted chemist and physicist Michael Faraday disproved table-turning in 1853. The ideometor effect, not spiritual activity, was responsible for the movements of the table.
In his excellent book, Paranormality, Richard Wiseman offers another possibility. You’re not talking to the dead through a Ouija board. You’re just talking to your own unconscious. It communicates by moving the planchette, but your conscious mind isn’t aware what’s happening.
If you were to use a board blindfolded and it still spelled out something legible, perhaps you’d be onto something. Otherwise, you can’t rule out human bias.
What about weird experiences?
Plenty of shocking tales surround the boards. In 1921, a Chicago woman insisted she wasn’t suffering from mania. Instead, she maintained that the spirits told her to leave her mother’s corpse in the living room for over a fortnight. Apparently they also told her to bury the body in the backyard.
In 1930, two women in Buffalo murdered a third woman after apparently being encouraged to do so after using a Ouija board.
In 1958, a woman in Connecticut tried to leave $1,000 to two former servants, and $152,000 to a spirit she’d met through her Ouija board.
I’ve certainly had some strange experiences too! During one investigation at Souter Lighthouse, a ‘spirit’ informed the people using the board that I was evil. Whatever, I’ve been called worse.
On another ghost hunt, four women from Lancashire were using the Ouija board in the Queen’s Chamber inside Newcastle’s Castle Keep. They ended up chatting to a 12th century chap named Peter who claimed he’d been imprisoned in the Keep for arson. His act actually killed people, though he seemed contrite enough through the board.
I didn’t tell them that the local garrison imprisoned would-be invading Scots in a neighbouring tower, before pouring in boiling oil and setting it alight…
That’s not the weirdest one though…
No. The strangest occurrence happened on a ghost hunt at Kielder Castle in Northumberland. It was in early 2011, a few months before The Guns of Retribution came out. I and the team leader sat observing a group of four using the board. None of them had met either of us before that night.
One of the women had a conversation with someone. When it ended, the planchette shot to ‘Hello’. Fair enough, it’s nice to get the polite ones. We asked if the spirit had a message for anyone.
It spelled out my real first name.
Bear in mind that no one using the planchette even knew my first name. They even asked who that person was.
Fair enough. I asked who it was. It spelled out ‘G-R-E-Y’.
For those of you who haven’t read The Guns of Retribution, that’s the name of my protagonist bounty hunter.
I asked him what his message was. For all I knew, he might have an idea for a follow-up! Instead, he spelled out ‘Thank you’.
Starting to feel slightly freaked out, I asked what he was thanking me for.
Well knock me down with a feather and call me Jiminy.
I told him he was welcome, the planchette shot to ‘Goodbye’, and the atmosphere totally changed.
But are the boards actually evil?
The jury is still out on that one. Personally? I don’t think so. I’m still undecided as to whether you’re speaking to the dead, or just yourself.
After all, none of the women on the Ouija board knew about the 12th-century arson while they were talking to an apparent perpetrator.
And no one using the board in Kielder Castle knew who Grey was – and they didn’t know my real name, either.
That said, I’ve seen enough gibberish ‘come through’ on a board. Either the people using it are confusing things by pushing the planchette themselves…or the spirits like to have fun at our expense.
Besides, people have committed evil acts and carried atrocious deeds well before Ouija boards told them to do so.
I really don’t believe they’re doorways to hell. I’ve never figured out why pushing a piece of plastic, or a glass, around a slice of cardboard could somehow leave you open to demonic possession.
I also think it’s egocentric to assume a passing spirit has nothing better to do than follow you around until the end of your days!
So it’s safe then?
It makes a useful plot device in films and novels. Even Stranger Things sees Winona Ryder assemble a makeshift Ouija board on her living room wall. But whether you choose to use one depends on your own feelings about them.
After all, if you expect something negative to happen, you’re more likely to believe anything bad that happens afterwards is related to the Ouija board.
I’m by no means recommending that you rush out and buy one. All I ask is that you consider the psychological explanations.
And remember that it took The Exorcist, a work of fiction, to smear its reputation…
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