The ouija (/ˈwiːdʒə/ WEE-jə), also known as a spirit board or talking board, is a flat board marked with the letters of the alphabet, the numbers 0–9, the words “yes”, “no”, “hello” (occasionally), and “goodbye”, along with various symbols and graphics. It uses a small heart-shaped piece of wood or plastic called a planchette. Participants place their fingers on the planchette, and it is moved about the board to spell out words. “Ouija” was formerly a trademark belonging to Parker Brothers, and has subsequently become a trademark of Hasbro, Inc. in the United States, but is often used generically to refer to any talking board. According to Hasbro, players take turns asking questions and then “wait to see what the planchette spells out” for them. It is recommended for players over the age of 8.
Following its commercial introduction by businessman Elijah Bond on July 1, 1890, the ouija board was regarded as a parlor game unrelated to the occult until American spiritualist Pearl Curran popularized its use as a divining tool during World War I. Spiritualists claimed that the dead were able to contact the living and reportedly used a talking board very similar to a modern ouija board at their camps in Ohio in 1886 to ostensibly enable faster communication with spirits.
The Catholic Church and other Christian denominations have “warned against using ouija boards”, holding that they can lead to demonic possession. Occultists, on the other hand, are divided on the issue, with some saying that it can be a positive transformation; others reiterate the warnings of many Christians and caution “inexperienced users” against it.
Paranormal and supernatural beliefs associated with Ouija have been harshly criticized by the scientific community, since they are characterized as pseudoscience. The action of the board can be parsimoniously explained by unconscious movements of those controlling the pointer, a psychophysiological phenomenon known as the ideomotor effect.
One of the first mentions of the automatic writing method used in the ouija board is found in China around 1100 AD, in historical documents of the Song Dynasty. The method was known as fuji “planchette writing”. The use of planchette writing as an ostensible means of necromancy and communion with the spirit-world continued, and, albeit under special rituals and supervisions, was a central practice of the Quanzhen School, until it was forbidden by the Qing Dynasty. Several entire scriptures of the Daozang are supposedly works of automatic planchette writing. According to one author, similar methods of mediumistic spirit writing have been practiced in ancient India, Greece, Rome, and medieval Europe.
As a part of the spiritualist movement, mediums began to employ various means for communication with the dead. Following the American Civil War in the United States, mediums did significant business in presumably allowing survivors to contact lost relatives. The ouija itself was created and named in Baltimore, Maryland, in 1890, but the use of talking boards was so common by 1886 that news reported the phenomenon taking over the spiritualists’ camps in Ohio.
Commercial parlor game
Businessman Elijah Bond had the idea to patent a planchette sold with a board on which the alphabet was printed, much like the previously existing talking boards. The patentees filed on May 28, 1890 for patent protection and thus are credited with the invention of the Ouija board. Issue date on the patent was February 10, 1891. They received U.S. Patent 446,054. Bond was an attorney and was an inventor of other objects in addition to this device.
An employee of Elijah Bond, William Fuld, took over the talking board production. In 1901, Fuld started production of his own boards under the name “Ouija”. Charles Kennard (founder of Kennard Novelty Company which manufactured Fuld’s talking boards and where Fuld had worked as a varnisher) claimed he learned the name “Ouija” from using the board and that it was an ancient Egyptian word meaning “good luck.” When Fuld took over production of the boards, he popularized the more widely accepted etymology: that the name came from a combination of the French and German words for “yes”.
The Fuld name became synonymous with the Ouija board, as Fuld reinvented its history, claiming that he himself had invented it. The strange talk about the boards from Fuld’s competitors flooded the market, and all these boards enjoyed a heyday from the 1920s.
The ouija phenomenon is considered by the scientific community to be the result of the ideomotor response. Michael Faraday first described this effect in 1853, while investigating table-turning.
Various studies have been produced, recreating the effects of the ouija board in the lab and showing that, under laboratory conditions, the subjects were moving the planchette involuntarily. A 2012 study found that when answering yes or no questions, ouija use was significantly more accurate than guesswork, suggesting that it might draw on the unconscious mind. Skeptics have described ouija board users as ‘operators’. Some critics noted that the messages ostensibly spelled out by spirits were similar to whatever was going through the minds of the subjects. According to Professor of neurology Terence Hines in his book Pseudoscience and the Paranormal (2003):
The planchette is guided by unconscious muscular exertions like those responsible for table movement. Nonetheless, in both cases, the illusion that the object (table or planchette) is moving under its own control is often extremely powerful and sufficient to convince many people that spirits are truly at work … The unconscious muscle movements responsible for the moving tables and Ouija board phenomena seen at seances are examples of a class of phenomena due to what psychologists call a dissociative state. A dissociative state is one in which consciousness is somehow divided or cut off from some aspects of the individual’s normal cognitive, motor, or sensory functions.
Ouija boards were already criticized by scholars early on, being described in a 1927 journal as “‘vestigial remains’ of primitive belief-systems” and a con to part fools from their money. Another 1921 journal described reports of ouija board findings as ‘half truths’ and suggested that their inclusion in national newspapers at the time lowered the national discourse overall.
In the 1970s ouija board users were also described as “cult members” by sociologists, though this was severely scrutinised in the field.
Since early in the Ouija board’s history, it has been criticized by several Christian denominations. For example, Catholic Answers, a Roman Catholic Christian apologetics organization, states that “The Ouija board is far from harmless, as it is a form of divination (seeking information from supernatural sources).” Moreover, Catholic Christian bishops in Micronesia called for the boards to be banned and warned congregations that they were talking to demons when using Ouija boards. In a pastoral letter, The Dutch Reformed Churches encouraged its communicants to avoid Ouija boards, as it is a practice “related to the occult”. The Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod also forbids its faithful from using Ouija boards as it teaches that such would be a violation of the Ten Commandments.
In 2001, Ouija boards were burned in Alamogordo, New Mexico, by fundamentalist groups alongside Harry Potter books as “symbols of witchcraft.” Religious criticism has also expressed beliefs that the Ouija board reveals information which should only be in God’s hands, and thus it is a tool of Satan. A spokesperson for Human Life International described the boards as a portal to talk to spirits and called for Hasbro to be prohibited from marketing them.