Two people sit opposite each other at a table. On the table is a rectangular playing board with two curved rows of letters, one above the other. The top row runs from A to M, and the lower row runs from N to Z. Just below these is a row with numbers One through Zero. At the top left of the board is the word Yes, and at the top right, the word No. Near the bottom of the board is Goodbye.
On the board rests an odd little device, like a tiny heart-shaped table, with three legs that allow it to glide smoothly over the board's surface. The two people put their fingertips lightly on the little table, the planchette, and it starts moving. The planchette moves from letter to letter, supposedly under its own power, and spells out messages, or answers yes or no to questions put to it.
The Ouija board wasn't so much invented, as it was refined. Communicating with the dead through spirit mediums swept the United States and Europe during the latter part of the 19th century. Seances were held, in which people sat around a table, waiting for the spirits to speak. The disembodied dead made their presence known by tipping the table, and knocking one of its legs on the floor. The taps were supposedly a code which the medium interpreted for her guests.
But table tipping was a slow and rather boring way to receive the spirits' messages. Some mediums chose to go into a trance and allow the spirits to speak through them. Others preferred automatic writing, believing that what they wrote while in the trance state came to them from the spirits. Numerous gadgets were also invented, some of them involving complicated gears and pulleys. Gradually, a simplified planchette and a standardized board evolved, becoming the Ouija board that we know today.
In 1892, in an early business takeover, William Fuld became the owner and president of the Kennard Novelty Company, which had developed the final form of the talking board. He then renamed it the Ouija Novelty Company. Fuld was such an enthusiastic promoter, even claiming that he had invented and named the board, that his name is still associated with it, and its actual originators are mostly forgotten. Capitalizing on public fascination with the exotic and mysterious far east, Fuld declared that Ouija was the Egyptian word for good luck. It's more likely, however, that he derived the name from the Moroccan city of Oujda.
Fuld went on to sell millions of talking boards, as well as other toys and novelties. In spite of fierce competition from other toy makers, his company dominated the market for 35 years. Thanks to his own talent for sensationalizing a simple toy, his accidental death in 1927 was turned into a lasting legend. His fall from the factory roof while doing repairs was rumored to have been a suicide, and to this day that story is still circulated as fact.
After Fuld's death, his family sold the company to Parker Brothers, which still produces the Ouija board, and owns all rights and patents. The popularity of the game has waxed and waned over the years, and controversy has centered on whether it is just a game or a real doorway to another plane of existence. People who believe in spirits and similar beings, insist that using a Ouija board can provide an opening for malevolent forces, placing the souls of users in danger.
In fact, the Ouija board has inspired its own body of superstitions and legends. Most of the superstitions concern ways to make sure that evil spirits can't make use of the board to enter our world and create mischief or worse. Placing a silver coin on the board is supposed to prevent spirits from coming through, but if you don't have a silver coin there are other things you can do to protect yourself. Never use the board in a cemetery or any place where a murder or other unnatural death has occurred. Never use it when you are sick, since evil spirits can take possession of anyone who is in a weakened condition.
Other precautions are: never play alone, don't let the planchette fall off the board, and don't allow it to go straight through the numbers or the alphabet, since these provide a direct path for the spirit's release. If the planchette makes a figure eight several times, or goes to the four corners of the board, you have contacted an evil spirit and should turn the planchette upside down to use it.
Is any of this true, or do all the manifestations have a reasonable explanation? No one has ever completely resolved the question of how the planchette seems to move on its own, even against the wishes of the users. One explanation is that invisible micro movements of the users' hand and arm muscles guide the planchette to spell out messages from their own subconscious. Does such a theory take the fun and mystery out of the Ouija board? Certainly, true believers in spirits ignore any debunking efforts.
Whatever the theories, the Ouija board has made a place for itself in history. In the late 1800s, Pearl Curran produced six novels and reams of poetry which she claimed were conveyed to her by Patience Worth, an entity she contacted with her Ouija board. Later, a friend of Mrs Curran wrote a novel with the help of her board and Mark Twain's spirit. The Ouija board has played a prominent part in at least one murder trial, and has been featured in movies, including Awakenings and Witchboard, a series of three low budget horror films.
Today, the commercially produced Ouija board is seldom considered anything more than a toy. Yet it does have its devotees: collectors whose interest is rare antique boards, spiritual seekers who use the board as a focus for meditation, and craftspeople who design and create limited edition or one-of-a-kind boards. For those who want something more than cardboard and plastic, handmade boards of wood, glass, and even leather are available for prices well up into the hundreds of dollars.
Ouija boards even have a presence on the internet. There are email/chat groups, personal pages devoted to various aspects of its history and use, and several sites with interactive boards to play with on line. Dominating the internet scene is The Museum of Talking Boards. This beautifully designed site is not only full of fascinating information about Ouija boards, it has many photographs of boards past and present, and links to more than a dozen sources of handmade boards.
Toy or mystic portal? Whichever it is, the Wonderful Talking Board is an enduring part of popular culture.
When my sisters and I were in high school, we learned about Ouija boards. We bought one and began to play with it. Two of us would get on it and the other would write everything down. At first it was fun. We talked to several different spirits that told us where they were from and about their families, etc. This went on for weeks, then gradually things started getting a little scary. Eventually, every time we got on the board, the same spirit would come on, who was not very nice. He told us he was the devil and he was going to get us somehow. He called him self "Zozo." When a friend of ours confronted our priest about this name, he got very angry and told us we should not be playing with Ouija boards; they were not toys and we could get into trouble. He gave his Sunday sermon on the subject.
Needless to say, we stopped playing with it. Then, while still in high school, one of my sister's best friends lost her sister in a van accident. She and her sister were very close. She knew of our adventures with our Ouija board and begged my sister to let her come over and use it to talk to her deceased sister. Hesitantly, my sister sat down with her and contacted her sister with the board. Her friend bawled and told her sister how much she loved her and missed her. She didn't want to live anymore without her and wished she could be with her. About two weeks later, my sister's friend died... in a van accident - exactly the way that her sister had died. My sister took the Ouija board and put it out with the trash, and none of us has touched one since. - Bonnie F.
The Saloon Owner
The Choking Entity