A board game for game night; pop culture’s vogue every Halloween or a portal to Hell? Vanshika Dhyani investigates.
Ouija boards have equal parts intrigued and intimidated their way into pop culture. The Exorcist is a 1973 American horror film through which the board made its blockbuster debut. By this time it had already been an integral part of spiritualism for decades. The Ouija board (known also as a Spirit board or Talking board) is a device for divination, commonly believed to be a portal to the spiritual world. The central part of the board comprises of the alphabet, with numbers (0 – 9) appearing right below them. A ‘yes’ and a ‘no’ is inscribed on the top left and right corner, respectively, while a ‘Goodbye’ is positioned in the centre, below the numbers. Each board comes with a teardrop shaped piece of wood or plastic called the ‘planchette’ meaning ‘little plank’ in French. The planchette acts as a pointer. The board works when two or more people are seated around it, with their fingertips placed on the planchette. When a question is asked, the planchette supposedly moves on its own, to spell out the answers.
There is a lot of ambiguity associated with the board’s history, and the same goes for the origin of its name. No one ‘really’ knows where it came from or what it means. Some spiritualists believe that the peculiar name for the talking board comes from a combination of the French and German words —oui and ja, both meaning “Yes”. However, Helen Peters-the medium-who coined the term told a different story about the origins of the name. While using the board with her brother-in-law Elijah Bond, she happened to ask the board what it wanted to be called. Allegedly, the planchette spelled out “Ouija”. When the board was asked what it meant, it spelled out “good luck”
Robert Murch, founder of the Talking Board Historical Society believes that ouija boards gained popularity in America after the civil war. “Everyone lost a father, a son, an uncle, a grandfather, a cousin,” Murch said. “Death touched everybody in a way that had never happened in the US.” In the wake of the war, many had to deal with bodies of their loved ones never being recovered. These circumstances led to a widespread desire to make contact with the dead. Mediums began advertising their services of spirit channeling, while spiritual instruments such as talking boards became a household object. “They gave people peace of mind because they couldn’t get answers any other way.” Murch believes. The ouija boards became so well acclaimed that the New York Times compared its popularity to ‘chewing gum’, in an article printed in 1920.
The ouija board was patented under the name of Helen Peters. In order to get a patent under her name, Peters had to prove the authenticity of the board, at the patent office. Thus, it was later advertised with a “proven” to work tagline. William Fuld- an entrepreneur took over the business and started to market the board, in national catalogues like ‘Sears’. “Ouija – The Magic Game. Remarkable, interesting, and mystifying game. Great mirth and making game for parties. Apparently answers questions concerning past, present, and future,” read one ad in the Sears catalogue. Another promotion read: “If you call it we-ja or wee-gee, it still spells good fun.” and promised to answer questions related to “past, present and future with marvelous accuracy” This is how ouija boards made their way into American households, after a wave of spiritualism hit the country. Fuld’s family sold the business to Parker Brothers, after William’s death. It was later bought by Hasbro, whose website warns: “Handle the Ouija board with respect and it won’t disappoint you!”
While the board has taken over almost all subgenres of horror films-with claims from the spiritual world that label it as vortex- science has too, had its fair share of fun with the board. In an episode of NatGeo’s well acclaimed show Brain Games, Mark Edward, a paranormal expert, conducted an experiment with a couple of participants. Under his guided supervision they attempt to use the Ouija board. In the first part of the experiment, they seemed to have established contact with the spiritual world. One of the volunteers believed that she had channelised the spirit of her deceased grandfather, who was responsible for moving the planchette. The second and the final step of the experiment involved contacting the spirits, again, only this time there was a little twist- the participants were blindfolded. If we assume that the volunteers were in fact communicating with the spiritual world, the blindfolds shouldn’t have made a difference, right? But they did. The ‘spirit’ got confused and drew blanks instead of clearly pointing in the direction of the alphabets, like it had without the blindfolds. This begs the question: ‘why did the participants get no definitive answers with their blindfolds on?’
People who choose to use these boards are often looking for comfort and consolation in a time of uncertainty in their life-at least that is what the movies suggest. While spiritualists claim that answers come from ‘the beyond’ scientists have a slightly different take on it. Science terms this ‘ghostly affair’ as a psycho-physiological principle called the ‘ideomotor effect’. This is also employed in other extrasensory experiments such as lie detection, dowsing pendulum, etc. The ideomotor effect is a psychological phenomenon whereby a person makes motions unconsciously. This implies that muscular action is not always an outcome of our awareness. During ideomotor action the planchette seems to move on its own to spell out words, however our perception of a definite outcome can influence and direct the movements of our arms and hands. There is no supernatural element to it, our body makes diminutive movements subconsciously that can become exaggerated. This is the same principle on which Chevreul’s Pendulum or the Dowser Pendulum works. The effect was investigated by the English scientist Michael Faraday, Manchester surgeon James Braid, French chemist Michel Eugène Chevreul, and American psychologists William James and Ray Hyman.