There are few things as terrifying as Ouija boards. These occult tools allow anyone to contact the spirit world, and they’re often used by malicious forces to open gateways between our world and the next. If one isn’t especially careful to end a session with one of these spirit boards by always saying GOOD BYE, it’s only a matter of time before something casts a shadow over your life.
If all of that sounds like a perfectly sensible warning to you about the dangers of an unseen occult menace, then you probably aren’t going to like what follows from this point on. Because I hate to be the bearer of bad news on this subject, but generally you can’t buy a deadly occult tool in the toy aisle of your local Wal-Mart. Further, while I’m the first to agree that corporations are willing to do some truly shady stuff to turn a profit, I think that even Parker Brothers would draw the line at conjuring the dead at slumber parties.
Why are you afraid of Ouija boards? For the same reason you’re scared of great white sharks… enough horror movies tell you something is going to be a danger, and you believe it. Whether or not you actually want to.
The Origin of The Ouija Board
To understand the Ouija board, you first have to understand the spiritualism craze that ran through America from the late 1800s through the early 1900s. Spiritualism, at its core, was an alternative belief system that focused on the divide between life and death. Not only that, but a large part of it seemed to be dedicated to trying to contact the spirits of the dead. This usually took place via a seance, through the use of a medium, or both.
For some people, it was a serious spiritual pursuit. For others it was a parlor trick to add a little risque fun to a party. And for a lot of hucksters, it was a way to fleece the masses for money.
While it’s hard to pin down a specific starting date for this craze, one suggestion is 1848, when the Fox Sisters achieved fame and popularity leading seances in New York according to the University of Canterbury. Though they were revealed as frauds, since all of the tapping done by supposed spirits turned out to be their feet knocking on hollow spots, the momentum of the craze kept on going well into the early 1900s.
So where does the Ouija board come in? Well, spiritualists had a lot of ways of contacting the dead, but they were all ridiculously unreliable. For example, there was the knocking, but that was time consuming and sort of tainted from how often it was faked. There was also the use of a planchette and pencil, where the medium (and sometimes the others in the seance) would be guided by the spirit to write messages. Most of what was created was scribble, and impossible to understand.
In the 1880s, though, there was the invention of the talking board. According to Mental Floss, this was seen as a colossal time saver by spiritualists. You and the others hold the planchette, it rolls around the table answering your questions (supposedly guided by spirits), and everyone gets their answers with no muss, and no fuss.
Talking boards became so popular that in the 1890s a patent was filed for turning them into a game by Charles Kennard. The patent was granted in 1891, and it was named the Ouija board. A name that the creator claimed was an ancient Egyptian word for good luck (since no one had Google in the 19th century), but which was really just the word for yes in German and French sandwiched together.
Doesn’t that sound like a carnie trick to you? Cause it does to me.
Kennard left the company, and the production of ouija boards was taken over by William Fuld. Fuld died in 1927, and his estate sold the rights to the ouija board to Parker Brothers in the 1960s. They’ve been making these games ever since.
So How Do They Work, Then?
While the planchette definitely moves when you have a session, you’re actually the one moving it. And I don’t mean the spirits are moving through you; it’s your brain making you do it.
As The Daily Dot points out, the Ouija board is built on something called the Ideomotor Effect. Discovered in the mid-1850s, this psychological effect basically says that if you expect something to happen that you can make tiny, involuntary muscle motions to make that thing happen. So, you didn’t consciously move the planchette. However, because it’s a Ouija board, and you expect certain things to happen, your brain pretty much bypasses your consciousness to make the thing you’re expecting happen. And since it happened without your consent, it feels like it just happened due to some outside force.
Brains are cool, huh?
So Why Are We So Afraid of Ouija Boards?
You know that crack I made about Jaws earlier? That wasn’t a joke. That movie was so effective that, according to Live Science, it actually altered out collective perception of how dangerous sharks were (which is one reason we’ve destroyed huge swaths of their populations). Robin Cook’s book Coma was so effective at scaring people that, as Cracked points out, people flat-out stopped signing their organ donor cards!
What does that have to do with Ouija boards? Well, long after the spiritualism craze died down, and people went to swanky seances in their Model Ts, horror movies decided to ask what would happen if Ouija boards were real? They’ve been used as plot devices in dozens of movies, from films as lackluster as Veronica to short films like Don’t Move. And even if you don’t believe what you see on screen, those films (good, bad, and ugly) set the stage in your mind for what’s supposed to happen. You combine that with the Ideomotor Effect, and you’re guaranteed to get a scare when that little plastic planchette starts moving “all on its own” when you sit down with your friends.