Ouija Boards: Spirit Portal or Simple Child’s Play

It’s that time of year again where everything takes on an allure of spooky.  Month of Ghosts, Goblins, Witches, and much more. To celebrate, and in response to watching the Haunted Salem Live 4 hour ghost hunt on Friday night, here’s an article I wrote for Paranormal Rag (an online magazine that has since ceased operations) about Ouija Boards and why even seasoned ghost hunters should think twice before breaking out the board.

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Who hasn’t been at a sleepover and had someone whisk out an Ouija board? It’s fun. It’s spooky? It’s thrilling? But is it just a game or is it something much more sinister?

A Ouija board, also known as a spirit board, is a flat board with letters of the alphabet written across in big arches, numbers 0 through 9 listed on a straight line underneath the letters, two words in the top corners of the board (“Yes” in the upper left; “No” in the upper right), and the words “Good Bye” centered at the bottom (sometimes the board also has “Hello”). A small triangle, sometimes heart-shaped piece of wood or plastic, called a planchette allows the participants to place the tips of their fingers on it and it guides them to spell out the answers to their questions. Currently, Hasbro, Inc. (a large toy manufacturer) owns the trademark for the game. Seems innocuous enough. Right?

Use of Ouija boards has been documented back to around 1100 AD in China where planchette writing was a well-known means of necromancy and communicating with the spirit world. During and after the Civil War in the United States, spiritualists claimed to talk with the dead using the board as the telecommunications medium. Even First Lady, Mary Todd Lincoln, used the board during a séance to speak with her dead son. It’s even documented that I well-renown spiritualist of the time warned Mrs. Lincoln of the impending death of her husband.

It became more popular when the Kennard Novelty Company commercialized the board in 1890. The United States Patent Office tested the board and insisted it be proven to work exactly as described before they signed off on the patent. The patent officer demanded that the board spell out his name (supposedly unknown to anyone present at the time of the exhibition). When it did spell his name correctly, he awarded Elijah Bond (a co-founder of Kennard Novelty Company and attorney) the patent.

Where did the Ouija get its name? That is subject of much disagreement. One story tells that an employee of Bond’s, William Fuld, took over production of the talking board in 1901 and changed its name to “Ouija”. He claimed that he asked the board what its name was and the board responded “Ouija”, an Egyptian word meaning “good luck.” Fuld even went so far as to claim he invented the board. After much public arguing over who invented the board, the majority shareholder in Kennard Novelty Company sold Fuld his remaining interest in the Ouija for $1.

Another story insisted the name was a mashup of the French (oui) and German (ja) words for “yes”.

However, Ouija historian Robert Murch, contended that Elijah Bond’s sister-in-law (a reported medium, Helen Peters) named the board after asking it what it wanted to be called. Ms. Peters was also wearing a locket with a portrait of famed women’s rights activist Ouida. Murch believes she was the true basis for the game’s name.

In the early years of the board’s commercialization, it was considered to be simply a parlor game, nothing sinister or paranormal. But all that changed during World War I when a famous spiritualist, Pearl Curran, utilized the board as a divining tool – a method of gaining knowledge by an occultic process or ritual whereby answers are derived by spirits or other supernatural entities.

Christian denominations, particularly the Catholic Church, adamantly warn against the use of these boards as they invite in unknown entities, including demons. They have gone so far as to ban the boards. As recently as 2001, Ouija boards were burned in New Mexico, along with copies of the Harry Potter books, as “symbols of witchcraft.”

Others claim the Ouija boards can be used carefully for good means. Emily Grant Hutchings maintained that the spirit of Mark Twain dictated a novel, Jap Herron: A Novel Written from the Ouija Board, to her through an Ouija board in 1917. William Butler Yeat’s wife used a talking board to help him with his poetry. Two prisoners of the Turks during World War I used a board to convince their captors to free them.

But even pro-Ouija enthusiasts warn that inexperienced users should refrain from their use because “you may get more than you bargained for.”

Skeptics claim the spiritual reasons provided for the movement of the planchette to answer questions are pseudoscience and have no basis in reality. They conclude, and numerous scientific experiments have been conducted to prove this, that the planchette moves by unconscious movements of the persons with their fingers on the device. It’s called the ideomotor effect.

But what if the Ouija isn’t simply an innocent game? It’s been marketed as both an oracle into the unknown as well as family-friendly entertainment. Certainly no one would mass market dangerous telecommunication devices with spirits to children and families?

Anyone remember “The Exorcist”? 1973, the perception of the innocent family game pivoted sharply and our collective interest in the Ouija board took on a more sinister outlook. In the movie, an innocent twelve-year old girl played with the board and ended up spewing pea soup everywhere and her head spinning all the way around her neck because the board brought over a demon to possess her body. To top it off, the story was claimed to be based on a true story.

But what is more chilling is all the horrific tales from the cast and crew of the movie itself. They were plagued with all sorts of scary and paranormal activity during the film shooting. Many say the movie itself was cursed by a demon. The set of the house burned down, all except the bedroom for the character of the possessed girl, Reagan. The director claimed he saw a winged creature with talons, but it was reported that a pigeon got into one of the circuit boxes that started the fire. The actress playing the mother was seriously injured during a take where the demon-possessed little girl throws her across the room. Nine deaths are associated with the film. Crew witnessed objects moving of their own accord, including the phone used to communicate between the set and the production house. So many unexplained and terrifying instances occurred that the cast and crew requested the movie’s religious advisor, Thomas Bermingham, to exorcise the set. Initially, he refused. The next day the entire set burned to the ground leading Bermingham to relent and perform the ritual. The poor lead actress, Linda Blair, experienced such horrific issues during and after filming it is reported she underwent several exorcisms herself.

All that from an innocent, family-friendly game? Perhaps it wasn’t the Ouija, but maybe…just maybe…

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