For my childhood, “occult” games were a staple. During recess, we used origami fortune tellers and other strange little rituals to divine our futures. My friends and I loved to play light as a feather, stiff as a board at sleepovers and camp. And we played with Ouija boards, asking the spirits to tell us our futures and answer all the inane questions a preteen girl might ask. We had even learned how to make Ouija boards out of construction paper and markers, just in case an actual board wasn’t available.
Most of us didn’t believe that Ouija boards worked and certainly didn’t believe that a spirit could lash out from the board. We accused each other of manipulating the planchette. We also had great fun scaring each other with scary stories. It wasn’t real, but that didn’t stop us from always observing proper Ouija board etiquette. Never use the board alone. Delegate one person to ask questions so as not to confuse the spirit. Be polite. Always be sure to say hello and goodbye to properly “close” the board. And if shit gets weird, throw salt on the board (or rip it up, should you be using a paper board).
It was a fun trick to feel like we’d gotten deliciously close to something mysterious and supernatural, like telling ghost stories and shivering by the campfire. Nothing more.
Thus, I’m always surprised when I hear that someone is genuinely wary of Ouija boards. It doesn’t seem to make sense that otherwise rational people would vehemently insist that Ouija boards are evil and dangerous. “Why would you mess with that?” they ask? “You’re just asking for trouble.”
I always disagree, explaining that it’s just a game. A really good example of how the ideometer effect works. It’s just a silly, thrilling way to probe the darkness of our obscured subconscious but in a way that’s easy for children to grasp. If God wanted me to become possessed, I would insist, it would happen regardless of any Ouija board.
Still, the Ouija board’s drastic and unwieldy power looms large in the minds of many. It has a uniquely America history. It’s a mainstay of the American obsession with the occult. We love a spectacle, especially if it’s a little scary, bringing us close enough to see a faint glimmer of what we’ve long suspected to be true. A part of us wants to touch the other side and another part of us wants to be convinced that it’s just a game. But America also loves to shake its fingers at things it doesn’t understand, as many conservative Christians swear that Ouija boards should be avoided as un-Christian.
How did we get here? How did a game become regarded as a beacon for the demon world?
In case you didn’t know, a Ouija board is a wooden board inscribed with the alphabet, numbers, “Yes,” “No,” and “Goodbye.” It comes with a heart-shaped planchette that the spirits use to “communicate” by moving over the board and resting on letters and numbers. It’s a variation of the talking board and automatic writing, which have been used by human beings for centuries.
While talking boards and automatic writing are nothing new, the Ouija board is an American invention. The Ouija board rose in popularity due to the American Spiritualism movement, which exploded onto the scene in 1848. The meteoric rise of the Fox Sisters launched the movement as the first celebrity mediums. They claimed to have communicated with spirits through a series of knocks and rappings in their parents’ farmhouse. They took their unique talents on the road, touring America and Europe and holding impressive séances in front of paying audiences. Soon, Spiritualism had gripped the country. In an era where the average lifespan was less than 50 years (if you survived childhood, disease, childbirth, and war), the opportunity to commune with deceased loved ones was irresistible. People of all walks of life engaged in these practices and spent vast amounts of money. Even First Lady Mary Todd Lincoln held séances in the White House in an effort to contact her son, who had died at the age of eleven.
After the Civil War, during which mediums and spiritualists experienced a boom in business, mediums made an effort to streamline the séance. The ritual could drag on for hours and get boring as mediums deciphered the rappings and spirit writings. Talking boards were easier, less complicated, and they could be used by almost anyone.
America’s industrious businessmen saw an opportunity, recognizing that talking boards could be packaged and marketed in such a way that grieving Americans could cut out the middleman and literally circumvent mediums. In 1890, Charles Kennard, a Baltimore businessman, founded the Kennard Novelty Company and set about to become the exclusive mass-producer of talking boards for the American public. Armed with an eerie name and an aura of mystique, Kennard secured a patent from the US Patent Office for his Ouija boards. Legend has it that Kennard was able to “prove” the board worked by correctly answering personal questions about the patent officer working at the time, which scared the patent office and secured the patent. Whether or not you believe that story, the point is that Kennard was able to scare the hell out of the poor patent officer, paving the way for the Kennard Novelty Company to make a fortune selling Ouija boards.
After that, the Kennard Novelty Company marketed the Ouija board as an otherworldly oracle, capable of allowing the user to divine the secrets of the spirit world. But they also marketed it as a wholesome family fun, because who wouldn’t want to have a delightful time together trying to summon Grandma? Notably, the Ouija board was most popular during hard times, when war, disease, and cultural upheaval dominated headlines. Historian Robert Murch explained, in an interview with Smithsonian Museum, that many people used the board to affirm their deepest wishes for an afterlife. “People want to believe,” he said. “The need to believe that something else is out there is powerful. [The Ouija board] is one of those things that allows them to express that belief.”
And so, the Ouija board became culturally ubiquitous. Writers boasted about using Ouija boards to “dictate” whole novels written by spirits. It was featured in episodes of I Love Lucy and Bewitched as well as in films like The Uninvited and 13 Ghosts. Norman Rockwell used it in one of his iconic pictures for the Saturday Evening Post. In 1967, the board outsold monopoly. While some sensational news stories linked the board to depraved murders and tales of insanity, the vast majority of people did not feel threatened by Ouija boards. At the very most, it was a tool. At the very least, it was a game.
Until The Exorcist came along.
In a pivotal scene in the film, Regan MacNeil shows her mother how she uses an Ouija board to communicate with a spirit named Captain Howdy. Things seem innocent at first, and while the film never explicitly links her use of the Ouija board to her demonic possession, the implications are clear that a demon took advantage of the board to lie to Regan, gain her trust, and ultimately possess her.
Audiences flipped. Not only was the movie terrifying as a whole, but the Ouija board scene proved especially controversial. Religious groups were quick to denounce Ouija boards as a dangerous tool of the devil. (Interestingly, the Catholic Church supported the film and provided consulting behind the scenes.)
“It’s kind of like Psycho,” explained Murch. “No one was afraid of showers until that scene… It’s a clear line.”
After The Exorcist, Ouija boards were transformed from a radio for the dead to a portal through which Satan could drag children into torment and damnation. Numerous religious authorities and publications warned against using Ouija boards (along with fortune telling and horoscopes), claiming that Ouija boards were an affront to God. Religious leaders like Billy Graham warned that Ouija boards would not only lead the faithful away from God but into entanglements with Satan. Pat Roberts said that “Demons can control a Ouija board, and you begin to deal with the occult, that’s who you’re dealing with. You’re not dealing with Jesus, you’re not dealing with God, you’re dealing with demonic.”
While it’s weird to me that Pat Roberts gets his knowledge of demonic possession from horror movies, it’s not surprising. After The Exorcist, horror writers and directors everywhere started using the Ouija board as a convenient plot device. It became a nationally recognized symbol for a reckless tool that even the best mediums could not control. Movies like the Witchboard series, The Craft, What Lies Beneath, The Exorcism of Emily Rose, the Paranormal Activity series, The Conjuring 2, and the Ouija series all feature Ouija boards, adding to the status of the board as a dangerous device vulnerable to demonic interference.
Presently, the Ouija board is used more for the thrill of the unknown than for spiritual purposes. It is still very popular, experiencing a bump in sales from the release of Ouija. And the board still has its detractors, with numerous religious groups speaking out against it. In 2001, a New Mexico church burned Ouija boards alongside Harry Potter books.
Real or not, Ouija boards are here to stay. Personally, I think the enduring draw of the Ouija board is significant and natural. The board is some of the most concrete evidence we have showing how we create our own scary stories. We invent the monsters. We summon the ghosts. We find our fears spelled out underneath the planchette’s window. We have become so distanced from death that we fear it now, and Ouija boards reflect that. This game, this spooky little ritual, allows us to find answers hidden deep within our psyches. Even if you have never used a Ouija board, your conception of the board says a lot about you without you having to ever ask the board a question.
Just because we don’t like the answers doesn’t mean we should stop asking questions.
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