The mysterious Ouija board has long epitomized the fear and curiosity people feel toward the unknown. Noted as being used by Pythagoras as early as 540 B.C., ouija boards came to more popular attention in the nineteenth century when they were played as parlour games. Ouija boards are used by one or more people who place their fingers lightly on the indicator, which moves across the wooden board, seemingly involuntarily, from letter to letter, making words or sentences. The messages created during the game have been described as links to the spiritual world and/or the subconsciousness of the players.
The modern ouija board was invented to ease the process of what believers thought of as communicating with the beyond. Its predecessors included the "automatic writing" of nineteenth-century French spiritualist M. Planchette and the system of raps (one for no, two for yes) devised by the Fox sisters of New York state, who were among to first to hold seances with the dead. In 1890 Charles Kennard set up the Kennard Novelty Company to market the ouija board that he, E.C. Reich, and Elijah Rand had designed. Their flat wooden board was inscribed with two arches, one of letters and one of numbers, with "Yes" and "No" options on either side. The board had an indicator (called a planchette) on which users lightly placed their fingers and which floated mysteriously across the board to spell out words. In 1892 William Fuld purchased the company and renamed it the Ouija Novelty Co. (It was Fuld who explained the name as the conjunction of the French and German words for yes.) After Fuld died in 1927, the company remained a family operation until 1966, when Parker Brothers bought the business. Throughout the years various methods of communication had been devised for the boards; automatic writing, drawing, and musical notation were some of the innovations.
Studying ouija boards in 1914, William F. Barret of the American Society for Psychical Research declared that after "reviewing the research as a whole, I am convinced of their supernatural character, and that we have here an exhibition of some intelligent, discarnate agency, mingling with the personality of one or more of the sitters and guiding their muscular movement." In addition to those who viewed the ouija board as a medium for receiving messages from other worlds, others suggested that the boards were a medium for the subconscious of an individual or a group to say things that they would not voice out loud. After World War I and the Spanish flu epidemic, spiritualism became very popular and so did ouija boards. National newspapers ran regular columns devoted to the subject of ouija boards.
Mrs. John H. Curran is perhaps the most noted ouija board user. A woman of limited education and travel, Mrs. Curran nevertheless created texts of quality by using the ouija board. Her books, The Sorry Tale: A Story of the Time of Christ (1917), Hope Trueblood (1918), and The Pot upon the Wheel (1921), listed the spirit Patience Worth as the imputed author and Mrs. Curran as the communicator.
In the 1970s ouija boards played a role in frightening urban legends and graphic horror films, including the The Exorcist (1973), which linked them to evil spirits and demon possession. At this time moral and religious objections to ouija boards increased. The dangerous connotations of ouija boards spurred some users to incorporate ritual elements into the use of the boards, including reciting Psalm 23 and opening and closing each session with blessings. By the end of the twentieth century, ouija boards continue to be viewed either as dangerous links to the occult or as amusing games.
Covina, Gina. The Ouija Book. New York, Simon and Schuster, 1979.
Hunt, Stoker. Ouija: The Most Dangerous Game. New York, Barnes and Noble, 1992.
Stadtmauer, Saul A. Visions of the Future: Magic Boards. New York, Contemporary Perspectives, 1977.