Tool of the devil, harmless family game—or fascinating glimpse into the non-conscious mind?
- By Linda Rodriguez McRobbie
- Smithsonian.com, October 28, 2013
In February, 1891, the first few advertisements started appearing in papers: “Ouija, the Wonderful Talking Board,” boomed a Pittsburgh toy and novelty shop, describing a magical device that answered questions “about the past, present and future with marvelous accuracy” and promised “never-failing amusement and recreation for all the classes,” a link “between the known and unknown, the material and immaterial.” Another advertisement in a New York newspaper declared it “interesting and mysterious” and testified, “as sProven at Patent Office before it was allowed. Price, $1.50.”
This mysterious talking board was basically what’s sold in board game aisles today: A flat board with the letters of the alphabet arrayed in two semi-circles above the numbers 0 through 9; the words “yes” and “no” in the uppermost corners, “goodbye” at the bottom; accompanied by a “planchette,” a teardrop-shaped device, usually with a small window in the body, used to maneuver about the board. The idea was that two or more people would sit around the board, place their finger tips on the planchette, pose a question, and watch, dumbfounded, as the planchette moved from letter to letter, spelling out the answers seemingly of its own accord. The biggest difference is in the materials; the board is now usually cardboard, rather than wood, and the planchette is plastic.
Though truth in advertising is hard to come by, especially in products from the 19th century, the Ouija board was “interesting and mysterious”; it actually had been “proven” to work at the Patent Office before its patent was allowed to proceed; and today, even psychologists believe that it may offer a link between the known and the unknown.
The real history of the Ouija board is just about as mysterious as how the “game” works. Ouija historian Robert Murch has been researching the story of the board since 1992; when he started his research, he says, no one really knew anything about its origins, which struck him as odd: “For such an iconic thing that strikes both fear and wonder in American culture, how can no one know where it came from?”
The Ouija board, in fact, came straight out of the American 19th century obsession with spiritualism, the belief that the dead are able to communicate with the living. Spiritualism, which had been around for years in Europe, hit America hard in 1848 with the sudden prominence of the Fox sisters of upstate New York; the Foxes claimed to receive messages from spirits who rapped on the walls in answer to questions, recreating this feat of channeling in parlors across the state. Aided by the stories about the celebrity sisters and other spiritualists in the new national press, spiritualism reached millions of adherents at its peak in the second half of the 19th century. Spiritualism worked for Americans: it was compatible with Christian dogma, meaning one could hold a séance on Saturday night and have no qualms about going to church the next day. It was an acceptable, even wholesome activity to contact spirits at séances, through automatic writing, or table turning parties, in which participants would place their hands on a small table and watch it begin shake and rattle, while they all declared that they weren’t moving it. The movement also offered solace in an era when the average lifespan was less than 50: Women died in childbirth; children died of disease; and men died in war. Even Mary Todd Lincoln, wife of the venerable president, conducted séances in the White House after their 11-year-old son died of a fever in 1862; during the Civil War, spiritualism gained adherents in droves, people desperate to connect with loved ones who’d gone away to war and never come home.
“Communicating with the dead was common, it wasn’t seen as bizarre or weird,” explains Murch. “It’s hard to imagine that now, we look at that and think, ‘Why are you opening the gates of hell?’”
But opening the gates of hell wasn’t on anyone’s mind when they started the Kennard Novelty Company, the first producers of the Ouija board; in fact, they were mostly looking to open Americans’ wallets.
As spiritualism had grown in American culture, so too did frustration with how long it took to get any meaningful message out of the spirits, says Brandon Hodge, Spiritualism historian. Calling out the alphabet and waiting for a knock at the right letter, for example, was deeply boring. After all, rapid communication with breathing humans at far distances was a possibility—the telegraph had been around for decades—why shouldn’t spirits be as easy to reach? People were desperate for methods of communication that would be quicker—and while several entrepreneurs realized that, it was the Kennard Novelty Company that really nailed it.
In 1886, the fledgling Associated Press reported on a new phenomenon taking over the spiritualists’ camps in Ohio, the talking board; it was, for all intents and purposes, a Ouija board, with letters, numbers and a planchette-like device to point to them. The article went far and wide, but it was Charles Kennard of Baltimore, Maryland who acted on it. In 1890, he pulled together a group of four other investors—including Elijah Bond, a local attorney, and Col. Washington Bowie, a surveyor—to start the Kennard Novelty Company to exclusively make and market these new talking boards. None of the men were spiritualists, really, but they were all of them keen businessmen and they’d identified a niche.
But they didn’t have the Ouija board yet—the Kennard talking board lacked a name. Contrary to popular belief, “Ouija” is not a combination of the French for “yes,” oui, and the German ja. Murch says, based on his research, it was Bond’s sister-in-law, Helen Peters (who was, Bond said, a “strong medium”), who supplied the now instantly recognizable handle. Sitting around the table, they asked the board what they should call it; the name “Ouija” came through and, when they asked what that meant, the board replied, “Good luck.” Eerie and cryptic—but for the fact that Peters acknowledged that she was wearing a locket bearing the picture of a woman, the name “Ouija” above her head. That’s the story that emerged from the Ouija founders’ letters; it’s very possible that the woman in the locket was famous author and popular women’s rights activist Ouida, whom Peters admired, and that “Ouija” was just a misreading of that.
According to Murch’s interviews with the descendants of the Ouija founders and the original Ouija patent file itself, which he’s seen, the story of the board’s patent request was true: Knowing that if they couldn’t prove that the board worked, they wouldn’t get their patent, Bond brought the indispensible Peters to the patent office in Washington with him when he filed his application. There, the chief patent officer demanded a demonstration—if the board could accurately spell out his name, which was supposed to be unknown to Bond and Peters, he’d allow the patent application to proceed. They all sat down, communed with the spirits, and the planchette faithfully spelled out the patent officer’s name. Whether or not it was mystical spirits or the fact that Bond, as a patent attorney, may have just known the man’s name, well, that’s unclear, Murch says. But on February 10, 1891, a white-faced and visibly shaken patent officer awarded Bond a patent for his new “toy or game.”
The first patent offers no explanation as to how the device works, just asserts that it does. That ambiguity and mystery was part of a more or less conscious marketing effort. “These were very shrewd businessmen,” notes Murch; the less the Kennard company said about how the board worked, the more mysterious it seemed—and the more people wanted to buy it. “Ultimately, it was a money-maker. They didn’t care why people thought it worked.”
And it was a money-maker. By 1892, the Kennard Novelty Company went from one factory in Baltimore to two in Baltimore, two in New York, two in Chicago and one in London. And by 1893, Kennard and Bond were out, owing to some internal pressures and the old adage about money changing everything. By this time, William Fuld, who’d gotten in on the ground floor of the fledgling company as an employee and stockholder, was running the company. (Notably, Fuld is not and never claimed to be the inventor of the board, though even his obituary in The New York Times declared him to be; also notably, Fuld died in 1927 after a freak fall from the roof of his new factory—a factory he said the Ouija board told him to build.) In 1898, with the blessing of Col. Bowie, the majority shareholder and one of only two remaining original investors, he licensed the exclusive rights to make the board. What followed were boom years for Fuld and frustration for some of the men who’d been in on the Ouija board from the beginning—public squabbling over who’d really invented it played out in the pages of the Baltimore Sun, while their rival boards launched and failed. In 1919, Bowie sold the remaining business interest in Ouija to Fuld, his protégé, for $1.
The board’s instant and now, more than 120 years later, prolonged success showed that it had tapped into a weird place in American culture. It was marketed as both mystical oracle and as family entertainment, fun with an element of other-worldly excitement. This meant that it wasn’t only spiritualists who bought the board; in fact, the people who disliked the Ouija board the most tended to be spirit mediums, as they’d just found their job as spiritual middleman cut out. The Ouija board appealed to people from across a wide spectrum of ages, professions, and education—mostly, Murch claims, because the Ouija board offered a fun way for people to believe in something. “People want to believe. The need to believe that something else is out there is powerful,” he says. “This thing is one of those things that allows them to express that belief.”
It’s quite logical then the board would find its greatest popularity in uncertain times, when people hold fast to belief and look for answers from just about anywhere, especially cheap, DIY oracles. The 1910s and ’20s, with the devastations of World War I and the manic years of the Jazz Age and prohibition, witnessed a surge in Ouija popularity. It was so normal that in May 1920, Norman Rockwell, illustrator of blissful 20th century domesticity, depicted a man and a woman, Ouija board on their knees, communing with the beyond on the cover of the Saturday Evening Post. During the Great Depression, the Fuld Company opened new factories to meet demand for the boards; over five months in 1944, a single New York department store sold 50,000 of them. In 1967, the year after Parker Brothers bought the game from the Fuld Company, 2 million boards were sold, outselling Monopoly; that same year saw more American troops in Vietnam, the counter-culture Summer of Love in San Francisco, and race riots in Newark, Detroit, Minneapolis and Milwaukee.
Strange Ouija tales also made frequent, titillating appearances in American newspapers. In 1920, national wire services reported that would-be crime solvers were turning to their Ouija boards for clues in the mysterious murder of a New York City gambler, Joseph Burton Elwell, much to the frustration of the police. In 1921, The New York Times reported that a Chicago woman being sent to a psychiatric hospital tried to explain to doctors that she wasn’t suffering from mania, but that Ouija spirits had told her to leave her mother’s dead body in the living room for 15 days before burying her in the backyard. In 1930, newspaper readers thrilled to accounts of two women in Buffalo, New York, who’d murdered another woman, supposedly on the encouragement of Ouija board messages. In 1941, a 23-year-old gas station attendant from New Jersey told The New York Times that he joined the Army because the Ouija board told him to. In 1958, a Connecticut court decided not to honor the “Ouija board will” of Mrs. Helen Dow Peck, who left only $1,000 to two former servants and an insane $152,000 to Mr. John Gale Forbes—a lucky, but bodiless spirit who’d contacted her via the Ouija board.
Ouija boards even offered literary inspiration: In 1916, Mrs. Pearl Curran made headlines when she began writing poems and stories that she claimed were dictated, via Ouija board, by the spirit of a 17th century Englishwoman called Patience Worth. The following year, Curran’s friend, Emily Grant Hutchings, claimed that her book, Jap Herron, was communicated via Ouija board by the late Samuel Clemens, better known as Mark Twain. Curran earned significant success, Hutchings less, but neither of them achieved the heights that Pulitzer Prize-winning poet James Merrill did: In 1982, his epic Ouija-inspired and dictated poem, The Changing Light at Sandover, won the National Book Critics Circle Award. (Merrill, for his part, publicly implied that the Ouija board acted more as a magnifier for his own poetic thoughts, rather than as hotline to the spirits. In 1979, after he wrote Mirabelle: Books of Number, another Ouija creation, he told The New York Review of Books, “If the spirits aren’t external, how astonishing the mediums become!”)
Ouija existed on the periphery of American culture, perennially popular, mysterious, interesting and usually, barring the few cases of supposed Ouija-inspired murders, non-threatening. That is, until 1973.
In that year, The Exorcist scared the pants off people in theaters, with all that pea soup and head-spinning and supposedly based on a true story business; and the implication that 12-year-old Regan was possessed by a demon after playing with a Ouija board by herself changed how people saw the board. “It’s kind of like Psycho—no one was afraid of showers until that scene… It’s a clear line,” says Murch, explaining that before The Exorcist, film and TV depictions of the Ouija board were usually jokey, hokey, and silly—“I Love Lucy,” for example, featured a 1951 episode in which Lucy and Ethel host a séance using the Ouija board. “But for at least 10 years afterwards, it’s no joke… [The Exorcist] actually changed the fabric of pop culture.”
Almost overnight, Ouija became a tool of the devil and, for that reason, a tool of horror writers and moviemakers—it began popping up in scary movies, usually opening the door to evil spirits hell-bent on ripping apart co-eds. Outside of the theatre, the following years saw the Ouija board denounced by religious groups as Satan’s preferred method of communication; in 2001 in Alamogordo, New Mexico, it was being burned on bonfires along with copies of Harry Potter and Disney’s Snow White. Christian religious groups still remain wary of the board, citing scripture denouncing communication with spirits through mediums—Catholic.com calls the Ouija board “far from harmless” and as recently as 2011, 700 Club host Pat Robertson declared that demons can reach us through the board. Even within the paranormal community, Ouija boards enjoyed a dodgy reputation—Murch says that when he first began speaking at paranormal conventions, he was told to leave his antique boards at home because they scared people too much. Parker Brothers and later, Hasbro, after they acquired Parker Brothers in 1991, still sold hundreds of thousands of them, but the reasons why people were buying them had changed significantly: Ouija boards were spooky rather than spiritual, with a distinct frisson of danger.
In recent years, Ouija is popular yet again, driven in part by economic uncertainty and the board’s usefulness as a plot device. The hugely popular Paranormal Activity 1 and 2 both featured a Ouija board; it’s popped up in episodes of “Breaking Bad,” “Castle,” “Rizzoli & Isles” and multiple paranormal reality TV programs; Hot Topic, mall favorite of Gothy teens, sells a set of Ouija board bra and underwear; and for those wishing to commune with the beyond while on the go, there’s an app (or 20) for that. This year, Hasbro released a more “mystical” version of the game, replacing its old glow-in-the-dark version; for purists, Hasbro also licensed the rights to make a “classic” version to another company. In 2012, rumors that Universal was in talks to make a film based on the game abounded, although Hasbro refused to comment on that or anything else for this story.
But the real question, the one everyone wants to know, is how do Ouija boards work?
Ouija boards are not, scientists say, powered by spirits or even demons. Disappointing but also potentially useful—because they’re powered by us, even when we protest that we’re not doing it, we swear. Ouija boards work on a principle known to those studying the mind for more than 160 years: the ideometer effect. In 1852, physician and physiologist William Benjamin Carpenter published a report for the Royal Institution of Great Britain, examining these automatic muscular movements that take place without the conscious will or volition of the individual (think crying in reaction to a sad film, for example). Almost immediately, other researchers saw applications of the ideometer effect in the popular spiritualist pastimes. In 1853, chemist and physicist Michael Faraday, intrigued by table-turning, conducted a series of experiments that proved to him (though not to most spiritualists) that the table’s motion was due to the ideomotor actions of the participants.
The effect is very convincing. As Dr. Chris French, professor of psychology and anomalistic psychology at Goldsmiths, University of London, explains, “It can generate a very strong impression that the movement is being caused by some outside agency, but it’s not.” Other devices, such as dowsing rods, or more recently, the fake bomb detection kits that deceived scores of international governments and armed services, work on the same principle of non-conscious movement. “The thing about all these mechanisms we’re talking about, dowsing rods, Oujia boards, pendulums, these small tables, they’re all devices whereby a quite a small muscular movement can cause quite a large effect,” he says. Planchettes, in particular, are well-suited for their task—many used to be constructed of a lightweight wooden board and fitted with small casters to help them move more smoothly and freely; now, they’re usually plastic and have felt feet, which also help it slide over the board easily.
“And with Ouija boards you’ve got the whole social context. It’s usually a group of people, and everyone has a slight influence,” French notes. With Ouija, not only does the individual give up some conscious control to participate—so it can’t be me, people think—but also, in a group, no one person can take credit for the planchette’s movements, making it seem like the answers must be coming from an otherworldly source. Moreover, in most situations, there is an expectation or suggestion that the board is somehow mystical or magical. “Once the idea has been implanted there, there’s almost a readiness to happen.”
But if Ouija boards can’t give us answers from beyond the Veil, what can they tell us? Quite a lot, actually.
Researchers at the University of British Columbia’s Visual Cognition Lab think the board may be a good way to examine how the mind processes information on various levels. The idea that the mind has multiple levels of information processing is by no means a new one, although exactly what to call those levels remains up for debate: Conscious, unconscious, subconscious, pre-conscious, zombie mind are all terms that have been or are currently used, and all have their supporters and detractors. For the purposes of this discussion, we’ll refer to “conscious” as those thoughts you’re basically aware that you’re having (“I’m reading this fascinating article.”) and “non-conscious” as the automatic pilot-type thoughts (blink, blink).
Two years ago, Dr. Ron Rensink, professor of psychology and computer science, psychology postdoctoral researcher Hélène Gauchou, and Dr. Sidney Fels, professor of electrical and computer engineering, began looking at exactly what happens when people sit down to use a Ouija board. Fels says that they got the idea after he hosted a Halloween party with a fortune-telling theme and found himself explaining to several foreign students, who had never really seen it before, how the Ouija works.
“They kept asking where to put the batteries,” Fels laughed. After offering up a more Halloween-friendly, mystical explanation—leaving out the ideomotor effect—he left the students to play with the board on their own. When he came back, hours later, they were still at it, although by now much more freaked out. A few days post-hangover later, Fels said, he, Rensink, and a few others began talking about what is actually going on with the Ouija. The team thought the board could offer a really unique way to examine non-conscious knowledge, to determine whether ideomotor action could also express what the non-conscious knows.
“It was one of things that we thought it probably won’t work, but if it did work, it’d be really freaking cool,” said Rensink.
Their initial experiments involved a Ouija-playing robot: Participants were told that they were playing with a person in another room via teleconferencing; the robot, they were told, mimicked the movements of the other person. In actuality, the robot’s movements simply amplified the participants’ motions and the person in the other room was just a ruse, a way to get the participant to think they weren’t in control. Participants were asked a series of yes or no, fact-based questions (“Is Buenos Aires the capital of Brazil? Were the 2000 Olympic Games held in Sydney?”) and expected to use the Ouija board to answer.
What the team found surprised them: When participants were asked, verbally, to guess the answers to the best of their ability, they were right only around 50 percent of the time, a typical result for guessing. But when they answered using the board, believing that the answers were coming from someplace else, they answered correctly upwards of 65 percent of the time. “It was so dramatic how much better they did on these questions than if they answered to the best of their ability that we were like, ‘This is just weird, how could they be that much better?’” recalled Fels. “It was so dramatic we couldn’t believe it.” The implication was, Fels explained, that one’s non-conscious was a lot smarter than anyone knew.
The robot, unfortunately, proved too delicate for further experiments, but the researchers were sufficiently intrigued to pursue further Ouija research. They divined another experiment: This time, rather than a robot, the participant actually played with a real human. At some point, the participant was blindfolded—and the other player, really a confederate, quietly took their hands off the planchette. This meant that the participant believed he or she wasn’t alone, enabling the kind of automatic pilot state the researchers were looking for, but still ensuring that the answers could only come from the participant.
It worked. Rensink says, “Some people were complaining about how the other person was moving the planchette around. That was a good sign that we really got this kind of condition that people were convinced that somebody else was there.” Their results replicated the findings of the experiment with the robot, that people knew more when they didn’t think they were controlling the answers (50 percent accuracy for vocal responses to 65 percent for Ouija responses). They reported their findings in February 2012 issue of Consciousness and Cognition.
“You do much better with the Ouija on questions that you really don’t think you know, but actually something inside you does know and the Ouija can help you answer above chance,” says Fels.
UBC’s experiments show that the Ouija could be a very useful tool in rigorously investigating non-conscious thought processes. “Now that we have some hypotheses in terms of what’s going on here, accessing knowledge and cognitive abilities that you don’t have conscious awareness of, [the Ouija board] would be an instrument to actually get at that,” Fels explains. “Now we can start using it to ask other types of questions.”
Those types of questions include how much and what the non-conscious mind knows, how fast it can learn, how it remembers, even how it amuses itself, if it does. This opens up even more avenues of exploration—for example, if there are two or more systems of information processes, which system is more impacted by neurodegenerative diseases, such as Alzheimer’s? If it impacted the non-conscious earlier, Rensink hypothesizes, indications of the illness could show up in Ouija manipulation, possibly even before being detected in conscious thought.
For the moment, the researchers are working on locking down their findings in a second study and firming up protocol around using the Ouija as a tool. However, they’re running up against a problem—funding. “The classic funding agencies don’t want to be associated with this, it seems a bit too out there,” said Rensink. All the work they’ve done to date has been volunteer, with Rensink himself paying for some of the experiment’s costs. To get around this issue, they’re looking to crowd-funding to make up the gap.
Even if they don’t succeed, the UBC team has managed to make good on one of the claims of the early Ouija advertisements: The board does offer a link between the known and the unknown. Just not the unknown that everyone wanted to believe it was.
This years Smithonians Hal-o-ween story. I never played it nor ever will…moi is a scaredy cat.