*Please note that this episode may not be suitable for children younger than 13.
This week I explore the origins of the oft-discussed board game, Ouija. I get into the birth of its name, the rules of the game, and why I think it's equal parts dangerous and a good financial investment. Spooky and enlightening, we just can't seem to keep this board game locked away in our closets for too long.
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Hello everyone and welcome to the second episode of Strange Origins.
As before, I am your host, Paige Woolstenhulme, and I’m very excited to get into the story of a toy that everyone seems to have a story about; the Oujia Board.
I’m pretty sure just about everyone knows what a Ouija Board is, whether it’s from watching horror films, sleepovers, or your cousin telling you about their terrifying experience with one. Technically, it’s a flat board with markings on it, usually the alphabet, the numbers 0-9, and the words “yes,” “no”, and “Goodbye” printed or etched on the top. They also frequently feature sun, moon, and star symbols. There also is a separate piece, a planchette, which is a small heart-shaped piece made of glass or wood.
When it was first introduced the Ouija Board was simply just referred to as a “Talking Board.” This makes sense seeing as its main purpose is to allow communication between the living and the dead. Technically, it is a tool used to conduct a seance, a french word meaning “session.” These sessions became popular with the founding of the religion of Spiritualism in the 1840s.
As I mentioned in my previous episode, the 19th Century was referred to as the Romantic Era and was a time period that people from Europe and the Americas became extremely fascinated by the supernatural world. A large reason for this fascination with the dead, especially in the United States, was that the Civil War took place in the 1860s. It’s often cited as being America’s bloodiest war, as there were around 655,000 deaths, which is close to the number of deaths from every other U.S. conflict combined.
After this incredible loss of life, everyone began looking for ways in which to speak to their dead husbands, fathers, sons, and brothers. Even Mary Todd Lincoln, who with President Abraham Lincoln, held a seance in order to contact her recently deceased son. Spiritualism was so popular because death wasn't a stranger to anyone in the mid-1800s. Even before the civil war Yellow Fever and Cholera had taken thousands of lives in the U.S. and Europe.
This is why, years before Ouija was born, talk of communication between a spirit and two sisters, Kate and Maggie Fox, spread like wildfire. In 1948, in Hydesville, New York the sister reported hearing random knocking in their small home. They probably blamed it on creaks in the wood or the wind outside, until they visited other homes and the same tapping persisted. After they began asking questions, and the knocks seemed to answer, they became overnight celebrities. With Spiritualism growing in number to a reported eight million members worldwide, it’s not surprising that Ouija was born.
The Talking Board
Though there are earlier reports of items referred to as turning tables or witches' boards being used, Ouija’s specific history goes back to 1890, when a group of men decided to turn the board into a toy and market it for the masses. Charles Kennard, Elijah Bond, and William Fuld worked in the same company around the 1890’s. There are several stories as to how and who invented the board, and honestly, it gets pretty complicated as to A) who actually invented the board, and also, B) where the name came from.
One story states that Charles Kennard asked his neighbor, a Prussian Immigrant who was a cabinet maker (and coincidentally a coffin maker) to create a few prototypes of the board. Other reports state that his neighbor actually came up with the idea and that Charles stole it. Regardless, in April of 1890, Charles met lawyer and businessman, Elijah Bond, and proceeded to show Elijah his creation, seeing the benefit in becoming business partners.
They tested the board, along with Charles’s sister-in-law who luckily enough, was a medium. Here’s where it gets even more confusing. Reports state that the board named itself during that session, spelling out the word Ouija when asked what it wanted to be called. Other stories say that Charle’s sister-in-law had a heart-shaped locket around her neck that had the word Ouija on it during this session, and others just state that Kennard simply named it himself without help from others. The word Ouija is reported to mean Good-Luck in Egyptian, while others state that it’s just an amalgamation of French and German words that both mean “yes.”
Soon after this event, Elijah applied for a patent to sell the board. The patent officer, not wanting to be embarrassed that he had given a patent to such a silly object as a “talking board,” told Elijah that if the board could spell out his name that he could have the patent. During a session at the patent office, it surprised everyone and did just that.
There were a few instances like that, where the board helped itself out a little. On one occasion, the board told William Fuld to “prepare for big business,” so he went ahead and built a new factory to support production. When a large shipment going to St. Paul, Minnisota got lost in transit, the board directed Fuld to its exact location in Ohio, where officials had been unable to locate it.
Fuld was right though, business would be booming in the coming years. They originally sold the boards for a whopping $1.50, which in today’s currency was about $42. I’d say that’s pretty good profit margins for a piece of wood and a planchette.
Ouija became popular again after World War One when it was used as a divining tool by Pearl Curran, an American Spiritualist. Pearl was an interesting person to read about, seeing as she claimed to have written several books through the use of a Ouija board, co-writing them with a Puritan woman named Patience Worth. In 1937, Patience was even kind enough to warn Pearl that she would die soon. She would develop pneumonia in November of that year, despite being perfectly healthy before that.
Papers in the late 1800’s referred to the board as “Oujia, the wonderful talking board, which were in stark contrast to today’s reports of the board. A simple google search comes back with numerous reports of hauntings, demonic possession, and stories of the board warning users of their imminent death. Sometimes the planchette will be mysteriously lifted into the air or thrown across the room.
The Spirits Behind Ouija
There have been quite a few incidences where spirits lie about who they are. On occasion, a mysterious spirit by the name of ZOZO appears, who is famous around the internet for acting friendly in the beginning with Ouija Board users and gaining their trust only to turn nasty. While this is a common thing for spirits contacting users, more people report a ZOZO appearing than any other spirit.
There are also a few stories where users report playing with the game only to have nothing happen, but for things to go sour after they’ve put the game away. For weeks afterward, users would experience strange events, such as nighttime sleep paralysis, or even being followed by spirits during the day. A lot of the time people attempt to get rid of the game by throwing it in the garbage, leaving it somewhere, or even attempting to burn it. This never really ends well, as the boards seem to find their way back to their owners. This is probably due to the fact that these people aren’t following the rules of the board.
How To Get Rid Of A Ouija Board
Several sites mention that the safest way to get rid of a Ouija Board is not to burn it or break it into seven pieces and sprinkle it with holy water. Rather, the safest way to get rid of it is to not. Simply just make sure you’ve successfully closed your last session and leave it alone in a closet somewhere. Most importantly, don’t touch it again.
I know, I know, this sounds like the beginning of a scary movie. But Ouija boards are a tricky business, and when there’s really no way to get rid of something without causing more damage, the best thing to do is just do your best to forget about it and tell others to stay away from toys like it.
But since people don’t listen, I thought that I should mention a few other rules mentioned by users in order to minimize damage while using the board. Though I don’t endorse using a Ouija, I do still think that the rules people follow when using one are fascinating.
Rule One - Never leaving the planchette on the board unattended
Rule Two - Never invite a spirit to make a noise
Rule Three - Never play in a cemetery. You wouldn’t want people to disturb your eternal rest would you?
Rule Four - Don’t use the board in your own home, as it could make it harder to shake clingy spirits.
Rule Five - Never ask the board when you are going to die.
Rule Six - Never play alone.
Rule Seven - Never talk about God.
Rule Eight - Never leave the planchette on the board when you're done with your session.
Rule Nine - If the planchette begins moving in an infinity shape, say goodbye and leave the session immediately.
Rule Ten - Never play at 3 AM. This is regarded as the Devils hour, and when the veil between the living and dead is at its thinnest.
The Ideometer Effect
While I personally do believe in the spirit world, and the idea that they can communicate with us through the board, I can also see many valid reasons for as to why people believe the boards are fake. For one, it doesn’t help that Spiritualism was a capitalist’s dream landscape.
People will pay anything when it comes to contacting those who they believed to have been lost to them forever, whether that’s through the services of expensive seance leaders, or even the purchasing of a talking board. It’s pretty evident that contacting spirits was a lucrative business. This idea is based on the fact that people could make entire livings based on seances during the last two centuries, and also the fact that Ouija Boards are still for sale in popular toy stores to this day.
Another reason people believe Ouija is hoax is that there is actually scientific evidence that proves that your body has ways of talking to itself through the use of movement. If you’ve ever jerked awake from a deep sleep, you’ve experienced an extreme version of what’s referred to as the Ideometer effect. It’s like dreaming, in the way that the body tells us things we sometimes are trying to guard ourselves against.
Our dreams are a way of organizing emotions and siphoning through all the events, good or bad. While sometimes dreams can be mundane, a reflection of what you’ve done the previous day, such as grocery store shopping, or talking to a friend, they can also be pretty symbolic about how we should deal with traumas or worries about the future.
The Ideometer Effect is similar, though it occurs when you’re awake. When you ask someone a question, maybe a ghost, you usually already have an idea as to what the answer should be, whether you want to hear it or not. This has been tested by having users of Oujia Boards try it out with blindfolds on. The answers to their questions are usually much more incoherent, meaning that when users can’t see where to push the planchette, it just ends up being misspelled words or wrong answers.
Another fact that gives this idea a little more credit is that studies suggest that The Ideometer Effect is more effective when a subject believes he or she has no control over their movement. When they give up physical control, that’s when their brains are exerting the most control. It’s confusing, I know. But if you’d like to learn a little more, Vox.com has a great article on it that’s listed in the description of this podcast.
While I love that there is a scientific explanation, I also personally believe that the Ideometer effect can’t fully explain everything that happens when someone decides to use a Oujia Board. There are too many instances outside of the answering of questions during a session that make Ouija Boards unnerving.
Ancient Spirit Communication
As I mentioned before, the true origin of talking to spirits goes back farther than the Ouija Board, farther even than recorded history can account for. In Ancient Greece, philosopher and mathematician Pythagoras encouraged his disciples to use a rudimentary version of a talking board, to unearth revelations about themselves and the world around them.
Another popular way for people to contact spirits before Ouija began in China around 420 AD. People would use a suspended sieve or tray in order to guide a stick that would write Chinese characters in the sand. According to a folk tale, it even became so popular that an Emporer during the Song Dynasty, around 1000 AD, built a special planchette altar in the Forbidden City. Even today this practice, referred to as Fuji Spirit Writing, is perfomed today in Daoist Temples in Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Malaysia, but this is only with great discretion following a period where it was banned from the 1600s to the early 1900s.
In the 1850’s planchettes and pendulums even became so popular that the Bishop of Paris felt it necessary to issue a letter forbidding nuns and monks from communicating with the other side.
Modern Ouija References
Though different methods have been used, it seems that communicating with spirits has been a favorite pastime for just about everyone. And it’s not just that people have had fun playing around talking to spirits. What’s come back from the other side has had an effect on our everyday lives.
Singer Alice Cooper claims to have got his stage name from using a Ouija Board, once being told by a spirit that he was the reincarnation of a 17th Century Witch by the same name.
Bill Wilson, co-founder of the group Alcoholics Anonymous, states in his autobiography that he contacted a 15th Century monk using the Board. He even said that this Monk helped him to create the famous 12-Steps that serve to help Alcoholics recover from addiction.
And in the early 1960’s a couple started receiving several messages from an entity names Seth. Seth went on to create several volumes of work which discuss everything from quantum physics to religion, ethics and existance before life on Earth. Today boxes of his words reside at the Yale Archives in New Haven, where volunteers attempt to put his work into a computer database.
The Popularity of Ouija
Even though plenty of useable information has come from Ouija boards, they are, understandably, less popular today. This is primarily due to the fact that religious leaders are more outspoken about the spiritual dangers of the board. Another reason for people both being drawn to the game and also avoiding it are the use of Ouija in horror films. A large reason for the decline in sales for the game fifty years ago was the 1973 film The Exorcist. Though I don’t personally have the stomach for this film, I do know that it featured the possession of a girl named Regan following an interaction with a Ouija board and communication with a spirit referred to as Captian Howdy.
Today kids learn about the dangers of the board through films such as Ouija: Origin of Evil and Veronica.
From a historical perspective though, it’s easy to see why Ouija Boards are still selling to this day. The popularity of the board reached a record after the Vietnam war, in 1966. This was, lucky enough for Parker Brothers, as they had bought the Ouija Trademark from William Fuld’s family. By 1967 Ouija had outsold Monopoly, which was one of the only times a board game had ever done that.
Grief, especially when it concerns loved ones whom you didn’t get a chance to say goodbye to, is a great motivator for the purchase of a talking board. But just because one is grieving doesn’t mean that a) a talking board with work for you or that b) that the person you’re attempting to contact will communicate with you.
As a final warning I feel the need to remind everyone listening, that while learning about the history of the Oujia Board has been enlightening, I would personally never use one. I would advise the same for those of you out there, whether you are deeply intrigued by supernatural subjects, or whether you think it’s all a big hoax.
Opening oneself up to negative thoughts has never led to positive thoughts. The only people who I cannot advise on the use of a Oujia Board to are those who have been taught to use them in a positive atmosphere with all of the necessary precautions, and even then, that’s a very, very small percentage of people who have years of qualifications.
If you still have an interest in Ouija like I do, though, the one safe activity I would advise is visiting Elijah Bond’s grave site. After his death in 1921, he was buried in Baltimore, Maryland’s Green Mount Cemetary, where visitors can usually spot where he is buried. All you have to do is find the headstone with the markings of a Ouija Board on the back.
I want to thank anyone that took the time out of their day to take a chance on this weird little project of mine. I would absolutely love to be able to hear from you, whoever you are, and to know what about this week’s topic interests you. I would love to be able to read your stories, thoughts and about this topic.
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And as always, Keep It Strange.