Toy and novelty shops in Pittsburgh advertised a magical device called “Ouija, the Wonderful Talking Board,” which answered questions “about the past, present, and future with marvelous accuracy,” and promised
“never-failing amusement and recreation for all classes,” a link between “the known and unknown, the material and immaterial.” The first ads appeared in newspapers in February of 1891. In a New York newspaper ad, the product was described as “strange and intriguing” and “tested at the Patent Office before it was permitted.” “The cost is $1.50,”
To put it another way, this mystery talking board was very similar to what you’d see in a store today: “Yes,” “No,” “Goodbye,” and “Yes” and “No” are written in upper-left and upper-right corners of the board, respectively.
A teardrop-shaped gadget, generally with a small window in the body, is used to move around the board. With the planchette as the focus, a group of individuals may gather around and use their fingers to move it from one letter to another, seemingly at random,
spelling out answers to questions they had asked. The board is currently commonly made of cardboard, rather than wood, and the planchette is made of polyethylene.
“Interesting and mysterious” was a good word to describe the Ouija board, which had been “proved” to work at the Patent Office before its patent could be granted; nowadays, even psychologists feel that it may offer a link between the known and unknown.
There’s as much mystery about the Ouija board’s origins as there is about how it works. The origins of the Ouija board puzzled historian Robert Murch when he began his investigation in 1992. “For such an iconic artifact that strikes both dread and fascination in American society, how can no one know where it came from?” he wondered.
Spiritualism, the concept that the dead can speak with the living, was the root of the American 19th-century infatuation with the Ouija board. American spiritualism took off in 1848 when the Fox sisters of upstate New York suddenly rose to fame; the Foxes claimed to get messages from spirits who answered queries by rapping on the walls; they recreated this feat of channeling in parlors across the state.
Second-half 19th-century spiritualism reached its pinnacle as a result of stories of celebrity sisters and other spiritualists published in the national press. People could hold a séance on Saturday night and feel perfectly comfortable going to church the next day since spiritualism was accepted in the United States because it was compatible with Christian doctrine.
Table turning parties, in which players would place their hands on a small table and watch it shake and rattle, while they all stated that they weren’t moving it, were considered normal and even wholesome activities. In a time when the average lifetime was less than 50 years,
the movement provided a sense of comfort. Women died in childbirth; children died of sickness, and men perished in the conflict. It wasn’t uncommon for the first lady’s wife, Mary Todd, to hold séances in the White House after the death of their 11-year-old son from influenza in 1862.
During the American Civil War, many people turned to spiritualism to communicate with loved ones who had been killed in battle but had not yet returned.
There were no stigmas attached to communicating with the dead, says Murch. For those of us who haven’t experienced it, “It’s hard to fathom that now, we look at that and wonder: ‘Why are you unlocking the gates of hell?'”
When the Kennard Novelty Company, the first manufacturer of the Ouija board, was founded, no one was thinking about opening the gates of hell; rather, they were hoping to open the wallets of Americans.
According to Brandon Hodge, a historian of spiritualism, there was a growing sense of impatience with the length of time it took to get a meaningful word from the spirits as spiritualism grew in American culture.
Calling out the alphabet and waiting for someone to knock on the correct letter, for example, was incredibly tedious. Because the telegraph had been established for decades, fast communication with living individuals at a distance was conceivable.
Why couldn’t spirits be reached in the same way? Several entrepreneurs saw that people were clamoring for faster methods of communication, but the Kennard Novelty Company was the one to get it right.
1886 saw the beginning of a new trend at spiritualist camps in Ohio: the talking board, an Ouija board with letters and numbers, and a planchette-like mechanism to point to them.
The Associated Press first reported on the phenomenon in 1886. Charles Kennard of Baltimore, Maryland, was the only person to take action after reading the article.
In 1890, he formed the Kennard Novelty Company with four other partners, including a local solicitor and a surveyor, to produce and market these revolutionary talking boards. They weren’t all spiritualists, but they all had a business acumen and a gap to fill.
Kennard had a talking board that didn’t have a name, but they didn’t have the Ouija board yet Contrary to common misconception, “Ouija” does not come from the French word for “yes,” oui, and the German word for “yes,” JA.
Helen Peters (whom Bond described as a “powerful medium”) provided the now instantly recognizable handle, according to Murch’s research. “Ouija” came up when everyone was gathered around the table and asked for suggestions; when they enquired as to what it meant, the board simply said, “Good luck.”
However, Peters admitted that she was wearing an “Ouija” locket with an image of an unidentified woman and the name “Ouija” above her head. “Ouija” may have just been a misinterpretation of “Ouida,” a novelist and prominent women’s rights advocate Peters had respected, according to the letters the Ouija founders wrote to one other.
Ouija’s original patent application, which Murch has seen as well as interviews with Ouija’s founders’ heirs, supports the board’s patent request tale.
Knowing that if they couldn’t verify that the board functioned, they wouldn’t acquire their patent, Bond brought the essential Peters to the patent office in Washington with him when he filed his application. As soon as Bond and Peters couldn’t spell his name correctly,
he demanded a demonstration—if the board could correctly spell his name, the patent application could proceed. In the spirit world, they sat down and the planchette spelled out the name of their patent officer in full.
Murch says it’s unclear whether Bond knew the man’s name because he was a patent attorney or whether it was due to magical spirits. Bond’s novel “toy or game” was granted a patent on February 10, 1891, by a patent officer who was visibly agitated and had a white face.
To begin with, the gadget is simply stated to work in the first patent. Creating a sense of mystery and intrigue through the use of ambiguity was a deliberate marketing strategy.
The less the Kennard firm stated about how the board worked, the more mysterious it seemed—and the more people wanted to buy it, says Murch. “These were extremely clever businessmen,” says Murch. In the end, it was a profitable venture. Regardless of why it worked, they didn’t give a shit about it.”
In addition, it was profitable. There were four factories in Baltimore, two in New York, two in Chicago, and one in London for the Kennard Novelty Company by 1892. Due to internal pressures and the adage that “money changes everything,” Kennard and Bond were forced to resign in 1893.
William Fuld, who’d joined the corporation as an employee and shareholder early on, was in charge at this point. The board was not invented by Fuld, despite his obituary in The New York Times declaring him to be the creator; Fuld died in 1927 in a freak accident after falling from the top of his new factory,
which he said was directed by the Ouija board; In 1898, he licensed the sole rights to make the board with the consent of Col. Bowie, the majority shareholder and one of just two remaining original
investors. Fuld’s success and the irritation of some of the guys who had been involved in the Ouija board from the beginning led to a period of public fighting over who had invented it in the Baltimore Sun. It was for a dollar in 1919 that Bowie sold the last of his shares in Ouija Company to Fuld, a protégé of his.
The board had found a niche in American culture that had remained untapped for more than two centuries. If you’re looking for family entertainment with an aspect of the supernatural, you’ll find it here.
Ouija boards weren’t merely purchased by spiritualists; in fact, spirit mediums were the ones who detested the board most because they had suddenly lost their role as a spiritual middleman. The Ouija board appealed to a wide range of ages, occupations, and educational backgrounds—mostly, Murch believes because the Ouija board gave a pleasurable method for people to believe in something.
What do people want? To believe? There is a strong desire to believe that there is something else out there,” he argues. There are many ways to communicate that belief, and this one is one of them.
Because of this, it only seems sensible that the board would be most popular during times of uncertainty, when people are more inclined to believe and seek out answers from all kinds of sources, including cheap, DIY oracles.
When World War I and the Jazz Age and Prohibition were in full swing, Ouija became increasingly popular. When Norman Rockwell pictured a man and a woman, Ouija board on their knees, communicating with the afterlife on the cover of the Saturday Evening Post in May 1920, it seemed so regular. Due to high demand for the boards during the Great Depression, the Fuld Company built more plants, and a single New York department store sold 50,000 of them in five months.
2 million boards were sold in 1967, the year after Parker Brothers purchased the game from the Fuld Company; the same year saw more American troops in Vietnam, San Francisco’s counter-culture Summer of Love, and race riots in Detroit, Minneapolis, and Milwaukee.
Ouija-related stories also appeared frequently in American publications. National wire agencies reported in 1920 that a New York City gambler, Joseph Burton Elwell, had been mysteriously murdered, much to the annoyance of the police.
When a Chicago lady was admitted to a mental hospital in 1921, The New York Times reported that she was attempting to explain to doctors that she was not insane, but that she had been advised by Ouija spirits that she should bury her mother’s body in the backyard after she had been dead for 15 days.
New Yorkers were enthralled by the stories of two women who allegedly murdered another woman in Buffalo on the advice of Ouija board messages in the 1930s. One 23-year-old New Jersey Gas Station Attendant who served in World War II in 1941 told the New York Times,
“It’s what the Ouija board said.” Helen Dow Peck’s “Ouija board will” was rejected by a Connecticut court in 1958, leaving only $1,000 to two former slaves and an outrageous $152,000 to Mr. John Gale Forbes—a lucky, but the bodiless spirit who’d contacted her over the Ouija board.
As a result, Ouija boards have also served as a literary source. Pearl Curran made news in 1916 when she began penning poetry and stories that she said were dictated by the soul of a 17th-century Englishwoman named Patience Worth, through an Ouija board, at the time.
Emily Grant Hutchings, a friend of Curran’s, said that the late Samuel Clemens, better known as Mark Twain,
talked with her through the Ouija board the year after. However, neither Curran nor Hutchings was able to reach the heights that Pulitzer Prize-winning poet James Merrill was able to achieve: In 1982, he earned the National Book Critics Circle Award for The Changing Light at Sandover, an epic Ouija-inspired and dictated poem. If Merrill is to be believed,
the Ouija board served more like a magnifier for his lyrical thoughts than a lifeline to the dead. In 1979, with the publication of his second Ouija creation, Mirabelle: Books of Number, he told The New York Review of Books, “If the spirits aren’t exterior, how astonishing the mediums become!”)
The occult phenomenon known as Ouija lingered on the fringes of popular culture in the United States, where it was always popular, mysterious, intriguing, and, save for a few reported murders allegedly inspired by the Ouija Board, mostly non-threatening. Until 1973, that is.
As a result of The Exorcist’s pea soup and head-spinning plot, which was allegedly based on a true event, and the suggestion that 12-year-old Regan was possessed after playing with an Ouija board alone, the public’s perception of the board was forever altered. After the shower scene in Psycho, no one was
terrified of showers.” According to Murch, portrayals of Ouija boards in films and television before The Exorcist were mainly slapstick or silly—”I Love Lucy” had an episode in 1951 in which Lucy and Ethel hosted an Ouija board session. For the next ten years, it’s not a joke… Pop culture was forever impacted by [The Exorcist].”
In a matter of days, the Ouija board was transformed into a devil’s instrument and, as a result, a favorite of horror writers and filmmakers. It began appearing in films, usually as a gateway for malevolent spirits bent on terrorizing young women.
In the years that followed, religious groups blasted the Ouija board as Satan’s favored form of contact; in 2001, copies of Harry Potter and Disney’s Snow White were burned on bonfires in Alamogordo, New Mexico. Catholic.com deems the Ouija board “far from harmless,” and in 2011, 700 Club presenter Pat Robertson warned that devils can approach us through the board. Christian religious groups are still wary of the board,
citing scripture forbidding connection with spirits through mediums. Ouija boards had a bad rap even within the paranormal field; Murch recalls being ordered to leave his antique boards at home when he first began speaking at paranormal conventions because they scared people away.
While Ouija boards were still being sold in large numbers by Parker Brothers and Hasbro when they acquired Parker Brothers in 1991, their appeal had shifted from being spiritual to being frightening, with a tinge of danger.
Because of the current state of the economy and the board’s utility as a narrative device, the Ouija board has recently become popular once again. In addition to appearing in Paranormal Activity 1 and 2, “Breaking Bad,” “Castle,” “Rizzoli & Isles,” and a slew of other paranormal TV shows, an Ouija board is available for purchase at Hot Topic, a mall favorite of gothic teens, and there are dozens of apps available for those who wish to communicate with the spirit world on-the-go.
Hasbro replaced the old glow-in-the-dark version with a more “mystical” version this year; for purists, Hasbro also licensed the rights to produce another company’s “original” version. However, in the summer of 2012, Hasbro refused to comment on any claims that Universal was in the process of developing a film based on the game.
How Do Ouija Boards Work?
Scientists argue that Ouija boards are not powered by spirits or demons. However, the fact that they are powered by us even when we deny it makes them both frustrating and potentially valuable.
The ideomotor effect has been studied by psychologists for more than 160 years. This automatic muscle activity is examined by physician and physiologist William Benjamin Carpenter in a study for the Royal Institution of Great Britain published in 1852.
(think crying in reaction to a sad film, for example). The ideomotor effect was promptly applied to popular spiritualist pursuits by other researchers. To establish to himself (though not to most spiritualists) that the table’s motion was caused by the ideomotor motions of the participants, chemist and scientist Michael Faraday conducted a series of tests.
It’s hard to deny how persuasive it is. “It can give a very strong sensation that the movement is being caused by some outside source, but it is not,” says Goldsmiths University of London professor Dr. Chris French of psychology and anomalistic psychology.
Non-conscious movement is the same idea behind dowsing rods and other gadgets, such as the false bomb detection kits that fooled foreign governments and military agencies. In all of these machines, he writes, “a relatively modest muscle action can generate a relatively huge effect,”
including dowsing rods, Oujia boards, pendulums, and even these small tables. This is especially true of planchettes, which were formerly made of a lightweight wooden board and equipped with little wheels to aid in movement; nowadays they’re more often made of plastic and equipped with felt feet, which also aid in movement across the board.
In addition, with Ouija boards, you have the entire societal environment to consider. ” Everybody has a little effect,” French says about groups. Because no one can take credit for moving the planchette in a group session of Ouija, it gives the impression that the answers are coming from somewhere other than the participants’ minds — so it can’t be me, people think.
Furthermore, in most cases, there is an assumption or indication that the board is magical or mystical. “There’s almost a readiness to happen once the notion has been implanted.”
But what can we learn from Ouija boards if they can’t provide us with answers from the other side of the veil? It’s a lot, to be honest.
The Visual Cognition Lab at the University of British Columbia believes that using aboard to explore how the brain processes information at multiple levels may be a worthwhile endeavor. Multi-level
information processing in the brain has been proposed before, but how to label these levels is still up for debate. Many other words have been used to describe the human mind: conscious, unconscious,
subconscious, preconscious, zombie mind. When we talk about “conscious” and “non-conscious” ideas, we mean the ones you’re aware of (“I’m reading this intriguing article.”) and the ones that run through your head on autopilot (blink, blink).
It wasn’t until two years ago that Drs. Ron Rensink, Hélène Gauchou, and Sidney Fels set out to investigate exactly what happens when people sit down to use an Ouija board, and the results were astounding. At his Halloween party, Fels arranged a fortune-telling theme and was forced to explain the Ouija board to numerous international students who had never seen it before.
Asked about the batteries, Fels quipped, “They kept asking where to put them.” Instead of the ideomotor effect, he gave the pupils free rein to experiment with the board on their own after explaining it in a more spooky, mystical manner. Hours later, they were still arguing, but they had become increasingly frightened. Fels, Rensink, and a few others discussed the Ouija a few days after the hangover set in,
he added. The team envisioned the board as a novel tool to investigate non-conscious information, and to see if ideomotor action could also represent what the non-conscious understands.
In retrospect, Rensink admits that he and his colleagues were skeptical that the idea would succeed.
An Ouija-playing robot was used at the beginning of their research. Participants were told they were interacting with a robot that was imitating the gestures of another person in a different room via teleconferencing. The person in the other room was only a ploy, a means to fool the participant into thinking they weren’t in charge of the robot’s movements. A series of fact-based questions were asked to the participants (“Is Buenos Aires the capital of Brazil?”). “Was Sydney the site of the 2000 Olympic Games?”) and hoped for an answer from the occult?
Researchers were taken aback when they discovered that, when asked to guess answers to the best of their abilities verbally, participants were only 50 percent correct. In contrast, when students answered utilizing the board as though the answers were coming from somewhere else,
they were correct up to 65 % of the time. Astonishing how much better they did than if they had answered to the best of their abilities: “It was so dramatic how much better they did on these questions,” recalls Fels. “How could they be that much better?” “It was unbelievable how dramatic it was.”
According to Fels, the conclusion was that the unconscious mind was far more intelligent than previously thought.
Unfortunately, further studies with the robot were not possible due to its fragility, but the researchers were intrigued enough to continue their work on the Ouija board. They deduced another experiment: This time, the participant played with a real human rather than a robot.
Blindfolded, a confederate player quietly removed their hands from the planchette at some point. Because the participant was convinced that he or she wasn’t alone, the researchers were able to induce an automatic pilot state, yet the answers were excluded from the individual.
It worked out. ‘Some individuals were moaning about how the other person was moving the planchette around,’ Rensink said. The fact that folks were certain there was someone else there was a good clue we had this condition in real life.
This study’s findings confirmed what was found in the robot experiment: participants learned more when they weren’t under the impression that they were in control of the answers (50 percent accuracy for vocal responses to 65 percent for Ouija responses). In the February 2012 issue of Consciousness and Cognition, they published their findings.
The Ouija can help you answer questions you don’t think you can answer, but something inside you knows and the Ouija can help you answer above chance,” adds Fels.
The trials at UBC suggest that the Ouija could be a highly effective instrument in the investigation of rigorously non-conscious cognitive processes.
We have some theories about what is going on here, and the Ouija board would be a good tool to access knowledge and cognitive talents that you don’t have conscious awareness of,” Fels says. It’s time to use it for different kinds of queries now.
For example, one can inquire as to what and how much the non-conscious mind knows, as well as its capacity for learning, memory, and even amusement.
If there are several systems of information processing, which system is most affected by neurodegenerative disorders, such as Alzheimer’s disease? According to Rensink’s theory, symptoms of the sickness could show up in Ouija manipulation even before they were identified in conscious cognition if it had an earlier impact on the non-conscious.
To ensure the validity of their findings, the researchers are currently conducting a second study and establishing guidelines for using the Ouija as a tool.
They are, however, confronted with a challenge—a lack of finance. Because it’s “far out there,” traditional funding agencies are reluctant to be affiliated with Rensink’s project. With Rensink financing some of the experiment’s expenditures, they’ve done all their work so far on a volunteer basis. They’re turning to crowd-funding to close the funding gap as a workaround.
If they fail, the UBC team has fulfilled one of the early Ouija advertising claims: the board does offer a link between the known and unknown. It’s just not the abysmal mystery that everyone had hoped it would be.
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