Demystifying the Ouija Board

Ouija board
Photo by Paul Szlosek

The magic of oui (Yes) ja (Yes)
opening portals to spirits long dead or
your own wishes and desires unconsciously alive.
The planchette moves lightly spelling out words,
names, answers and big questions forever unanswered.

Contacting the “spirit world” is an ancient game and there was a rise of spiritualism in the 1840s. Mediums used various techniques and tools for communicating with the spirit world. Table-turning and planchette writing boards were early versions of the modern Ouija boards.

In 1891, there were a few first advertisements in newspapers for “Ouija, the Wonderful Talking Board.” It was sold as a toy that had something unique about it that it could answer questions about the past, present and future. It was implied that it was magical (like a magic trick could claim) but there was also the idea carried in ads that it could link “the known and unknown, the material and immaterial.”

William Fuld took control of the Kennard Novelty Company which had factories in the U.S. and England that were producing the talking boards at the end of the 19th century.

Ouija board
Original Ouija board sold by Kennard 1890

The 1890 board is very similar to what you can buy today in the toys and games department. Nothing magical about the board. You could make your own with the alphabet arrayed in two semi-circles above the numbers 0 through 9 and the words “yes” and “no” in the uppermost corners and “goodbye” at the bottom.

You need a “planchette,” which is traditionally a teardrop-shaped device, with a point and a small window in the body, which is used to maneuver about the board. Typically two people sit around the board with their fingertips on the planchette. They pose a question and wait for the planchette to move from letter to letter and spell out the answers.

That moving is supposed to be beyond the control of the humans touching the planchette and is a result of “spirits” moving it.

Are there really supernatural forces at work here?

Faraday’s apparatus for experimental demonstration of ideomotor effect on table-turning

I don’t find the board as mysterious as some people. Yes, I have used it and yes I have seen words spelled out and even felt that it was moving without me consciously moving it. The Ouija board is still sold as a “game” and scientifically minded people will tell you that you are experiencing the ideomotor effect. That effect is a way for your body to talk to itself.

Michael Faraday first described this effect in 1853, while investigating the paranormal practice of table-turning. The ideomotor phenomenon is not supernatural but is a psychological phenomenon. A subject makes motions unconsciously. The phenomena is studied in connection to hypnosis and other psychological research.

Ideometer comes from “ideo” (idea, or mental representation) and “motor” (muscular action). Scientists use this to explain automatic writing, dowsing, facilitated communication, applied kinesiology, and Ouija boards.  Bodily reactions would also include why salivation can be caused by just imagining sucking a lemon; idea creates motor response. Many phenomena attributed to spiritual or paranormal forces, or to mysterious “energies” are due to ideomotor action.

The Ouija board had a popularity surge during the difficult decades of World War I, the Jazz Age and prohibition, probably both as people sought “answers” and wanted to contact those who had died or just have fun with friends. During the Great Depression, Fuld’s company opened new factories to meet the demand for the boards.

In 1967, the year after Parker Brothers bought the game from the Fuld Company,  they sold 2 million boards. It outsold their Monopoly game. It was a time of the Vietnam War, race riots, and also the counter-culture Summer of Love.

Though the game was treated as such, there were always people who took the idea of contacting spirits with it seriously. That idea and a fear of what could happen by inviting a spirit to “possess” you got its own surge in 1973 when the film version of The Exorcist was a big hit.

That novel and film were supposedly “based on a true story” and the 12-year-old girl in that story becomes possessed by a demon after playing with a Ouija board and allowing that spirit to control her and then not letting go.

I always believed that “Ouija” came from the French and German words for “yes” but I have read that the name is supposed to have been what was spelled out on the board when its inventor asked a supposed ghost to name it. I don’t buy that supernatural coincidence origin story and stick with yes/yes.

There are historical precursors to the talking board familiar to us today. There are also modern-day variations on “supernatural” ways to get answers to questions.

One divination game for simple yes–no questions uses two sticks or pencils balanced to point towards the word “Yes” or “No” written on a sheet of paper.  An older Spanish game called Juego de la Lapicera (“the Pencil Game”) seems to be its precursor. It was popularized in the English-speaking world in 2015, partly through an internet #CharlieCharlieChallenge and started to be called the Charlie Charlie game.

pencil game

The Charlie Charlie game also relies on the ideomotor phenomenon. Even breathing from the participants can cause the top pencil to rotate towards an answer.

A basic experiment used to demonstrate the ideomotor effect is to allow a hand-held pendulum to hover over a sheet of paper with options written to the sides, such as “yes,” “no,” and “maybe.” Very small unconscious movements in the hand, in response to questions, can cause the pendulum to move towards the words on the paper.

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A lifelong educator on and off the Internet. Random by design and predictably irrational. It's turtles all the way down. Dolce far niente.

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