The Ouija Board – How did this strange board game catch on?

Last updated on January 31st, 2023 at 11:40 pm

The Ouija board is one of Americana’s most fascinating and enigmatic artifacts. What began as a harmless parlor game in the late 1800s has become a cultural phenomenon far beyond its original boundaries.

From its early popularity rooted in spiritualism to its later emergence as a common trope in horror films, the story of the Ouija board reveals a unique historical evolution.

What is a Ouija Board?

A Ouija board is a flat surface with letters, numbers, and symbols. Players place their fingers on a planchette, a small tear-drop-shaped piece of wood or plastic, and ask questions. The planchette then moves around the board to spell out answers. The Ouija board first gained popularity in the late 1800s. It was initially seen as a harmless game or a parlor trick.

The game consisted of a board with the alphabet on it and the numbers 0-9; the words “yes” or “no” were in the uppermost corners, and “goodbye” was at the bottom. 

Two or more people would sit around the board, ask it questions, and place their fingers on the planchette. Then, with their hands on the planchette, players would watch as the device moved from letter to letter, spelling out the answers independently.

The History of The Ouija Board

The earliest known reference to the commercialization of the Ouija board is from 1891 when advertisements appeared in the newspapers talking about the: “Ouija, the Wonderful Talking Board.” The game was created by Elijah Bond, who sold the rights to Charles Kennard and his Kennard Novelty Company.

They patented the Ouija board in 1892. The board game promised players that they would receive never-ending amusement and recreation for all the classes. The board’s name comes from an Egyptian phrase, “Good luck.”

The Ouija Board was described as a link between the known and the unknown, the material and the immaterial. A New York newspaper claimed that it was successfully demonstrated at the Patent Office before it was given a patent.

Before its commercialization, the mysterious board was already famous during the Victorian era when spiritualism was all the rage.

The Ouija board, during this time, was seen as a way to contact the dead. It became popular among people looking to contact their deceased loved ones.

Spiritualism in Europe and America

The Ouija board became a tool for spiritualism in Europe and America. Spiritualism is a belief that the dead can communicate with the living. In 1848, famous mediums in upstate New York, like Kate and Margaret Fox, claimed they could communicate with spirits. They claimed they could interpret the “knocks” from the other side, which sparked the movement across the nation.

Spiritualism became somewhat of a religion in the late 1800s. People began to hold seances, which are meetings where people try to communicate with the dead.

In 1862, Mary Todd Lincoln, the wife of President Abraham Lincoln, held a seance in the White House. During the seance, Mary asked about her son, who had died from a fever when he was 11 years old.

Famous People Use Them For Inspiration

Many famous people have used the Ouija board for inspiration. In the 1930s, author Pearl Curran claimed that she started receiving messages from a spirit named Patience Worth through a Ouija board.

Even the Pulitzer Prize-winning poet James Merrill uses the board for inspiration; in his 560-page poem, The Changing Light at Sandover, he claims he used “consultations” from W.B. Yeats, a friend of Maya Deren, and the Archangel Michael

It should be no surprise that the boards took on a particular religious and spiritual meaning. However, Ouija boards were even associated with witchcraft, which may have led to more sinister assumptions about the game boards.

Scientists Are Intrigued By It

Currently, scientific experiments point to the Ouija’s planchette moving on its own due to the Ideomotor effect, a mechanism discovered decades before Sigmund Freud’s theory of the unconscious mind. The Ideomotor effect is a psychological phenomenon where the brain unconsciously controls the body’s muscle movements in response to outside stimuli.

So this led researchers to consider the unconscious mind in a series of experiments that support the idea that the unconscious mind is much more intelligent than anyone knew. This means it can pull information that isn’t accessible to the conscious mind.

Ouija Boards Become Associated With Odd Occurrences

Nothing could control the massive popularity of these boards, and even during the Great Depression, it never wavered. During that time, the Fuld Company opened new factories to deal with the high demand for the boards. In 1944, a single New York department store sold 50,000 Ouija boards.

Then in 1967, the Parker Brothers bought the game from Fuld Company, and the brothers sold 2 million boards, out-selling Monopoly. But during that time, the reputation of the Ouija board changed forever, and its history became bizarre and steeped in controversy and mystery.

For instance, in 1920, crime investigators turned to the Ouija board to try and solve the murder of a New York City gambler named Joseph Burton Elwell.

Then in 1921, The New York Times reported that a Chicago native was sent to a psychiatric hospital even though she tried to assert that she was sane. She had used her Ouija Board, and it told her to leave her mother’s dead body in the living room for 15 days before burying it.

Finally, in 1930, newspapers covered a story where two women from Buffalo, New York, murdered another at the behest of a Ouija Board. 

The Ouija Board Reputation Is Changed Forever

The most significant change in perception perhaps came from pop culture.

For example, in the 1973 horror movie The Exorcist, a young girl is possessed by a demon, and the only way to save her is to perform an exorcism. The film suggests that the girl’s possession was caused by using a Ouija board. This film profoundly affected how people viewed the Ouija board, and its reputation changed, convincing them that it was associated with evil.

Throughout the 1980s, there was a massive fear of spiritualism and Ouija boards as they were associated with evil, demonic possession, and nefarious deeds. Christians believed that Ouija boards revealed information that only God should know, which means it’s a tool for the Devil

Modern Ouija Board Associations

The popularity of the Ouija board waned in the 1990s as people became more interested in video games and less interested in spiritualism.

But in the 2000s, there was a resurgence thanks to films like The Blair Witch Project and Paranormal Activity. These movies helped fuel the public’s interest in the supernatural and Ouija boards and TV shows like Breaking Bad and Stranger Things.

While the Ouija board’s reputation has changed over the years, it is still a popular game and tool for many people who use it for harmless fun or to satisfy a curiosity about the supernatural. However, there are still those who believe that the Ouija board is evil and should be avoided. Nevertheless, the Ouija board is a fascinating part of pop culture and history, whatever your beliefs may be.

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