“Good Luck”: Ouija Board History and Use


When I was a young girl, my Catholic grandmother sat me down and warned me of a board with numbers, letters, and a mobile planchette. If I were to play with this board, I would be playing with the devil. Being the stubborn and curious child I was, I made one from a sheet of paper, pen, and small glass. The devil never appeared, but I assumed the computer paper I used wasn’t equipped to open a vortex to hell. What made my grandmother so fearful of a Parker Brothers game? And what made me want to use such a controversial tool with the chance of possession?

I recently opened my notebook and wrote “Ouija Board History” at the top of the page to pursue this mysterious topic. I have always loved a good Ouija board story and my Etsy favorite list includes a few beautiful, handmade ones. But, what is making me hesitant to buy one? Also, what is with my fear of buying an antique one? Can a board really do so much harm (I mean, it’s just a BOARD made of materials I touch everyday)? Are there ways to use it correctly so to not open a door to evil? What would Scully do? What would Mulder do?

Today I explore the history of the Ouija board and its method of use. And, I was sweet enough to share a scary Ouija board story at the end.

Using an Ouija Board

The Ouija board in theory is easy to use:

Instructions for using the board are simple: two or more people — mediums — place their fingers lightly on the planchette, ask a question, and let the spirits guide the planchette around the board. The answer will either be a yes or no, or it will be a word spelled out.

For best results, the board asks for mediums who are serious about the process, turn off anything that emits electrical disturbances, and who light candles and incense. (Nerdist)

Sure, that’s what the box probably tells us, but is there a process to protect your home, body, and soul? I did some digging into Ouija board lore to find out. The following are tips I found for a safe Ouija board session. Remember, this is lore and not a handbook.

  • Always say goodbye at the end, so to shut the door to the other side.
  • Never use a Ouija Board in your home, so to avoid negative spirits from inhabiting your home.
  • Play sober.
  • Maintain control during the session; end it if it gets too aggressive.
  • You might create a positive atmosphere with a prayer or smudge prior to your session. You might even surround it with salt to keep the evil away (like the show Supernatural).
  • When finished, keep the planchette away from the board, so to stop communication and possibilities of letting a spirit in when not under your control.

I looked into what one does with a tainted Ouija board. I found answers ranging from burning it (though many say that does more harm than good) to donating it to Goodwill. Some say bury it face down and separate from the planchette. Regardless, lore provides various methods beyond the instructions on the box.

Ouija Board History

The Ouija board was a product of American 19th century Spiritualism, which is the belief that we can communicate with the dead. Spiritualism was full force in America in 1848, and would provide solace in a time when lifespans were shorter and then later when America was torn by civil war. Communicating with the dead, whether through table turning, automatic writing or seances, wasn’t considered dangerous and no one worried about opening any gates to hell. “Spiritualism,” Linda Rodrigeuz McRobbie wrote for the Smithsonian, “worked for Americans: it was compatible with Christian dogma, meaning one could hold a seance on Saturday night and have not qualms about going to church the next day.”

The methods of communicating with the dead, though, proved to be a long process. One doesn’t just have a table levitate within the first three minutes of a seance. There had to be a faster way! Enter: the Kennard Novelty Compnay. In 1980 Charles Kennard (of Baltimore, Maryland), after hearing of the popularity of talking boards, pulled together a group of investors. Kennard and these men were not spiritualists, but rather businessmen making money off an opportune moment.

Naming the Ouija Board

According to the Smithsonian, the name Ouija did not come from the combination of the French words for “yes” and “no.” The name came from the board itself:

[Ouija Board Historian Robert] Murch says, based on his research, it was Bond’s sister-in-law, Helen Peters (who was, Bond said, a “strong medium”), who supplied the now instantly recognizable handle. Sitting around the table, they asked the board what they should call it; the name “Ouija” came through and, when they asked what that meant, the board replied, “Good luck.” Eerie and cryptic—but for the fact that Peters acknowledged that she was wearing a locket bearing the picture of a woman, the name “Ouida” above her head. That’s the story that emerged from the Ouija founders’ letters; it’s very possible that the woman in the locket was famous author and popular women’s rights activist Ouida, whom Peters admired, and that “Ouija” was just a misreading of that. (Source)

Ouida (1839-1908) was the pseudonym used by novelist Maria Louise Rame. (Image Source)

A much more interesting story, oui? Sorry.

Robert Murch’s research also revealed an interesting story of the Ouija’s board original patent:

Knowing that if they couldn’t prove that the board worked, they wouldn’t get their patent, Bond brought the indispensible Peters to the patent office in Washington with him when he filed his application. There, the chief patent officer demanded a demonstration—if the board could accurately spell out his name, which was supposed to be unknown to Bond and Peters, he’d allow the patent application to proceed. They all sat down, communed with the spirits, and the planchette faithfully spelled out the patent officer’s name. Whether or not it was mystical spirits or the fact that Bond, as a patent attorney, may have just known the man’s name, well, that’s unclear, Murch says. But on February 10, 1891, a white-faced and visibly shaken patent officer awarded Bond a patent for his new “toy or game.” (Source)

So the patent doesn’t really explain how the Ouija board works, but it confirms it indeed works. Here’s a copy of the patent to look over if ya want.

It also worked, too, as a business. Especially during years of uncertain times including: World War I, the chaotic years of the Jazz age and prohibition, and during the Great Depression. Sales spiked when uncertainty spiked.

Same Ouija Board, New Reputation

The board was mysterious and non-threatening until 1978 with the release of The Exorcist. The film, based on a supposedly true story, was about a young girl that became possessed by a demon after using the board. While pop culture had tackled the Ouija board in a tongue-in-cheek fashion, Munich explains that The Exorcist “actually changed the fabric of pop culture.” Instantly, the Ouija board became the devil’s toy.

The Ouija board has become popular again in recent years for it’s horror narrative. Do you remember the scene in Paranormal Activity when the video camera captured the planchette moving on its own and the Ouija board catching fire? Have you heard of the horror film, Ouija? It was even in an episode of Breaking Bad.

How the Ouija Board Works (According to Psychology)

Lore tells us that spirits make Ouija boards work, psychology says it’s our subconscious. Or more specifically: the ideomotor effect. “The ideometer effect,” writes The Nerdist, “says that people can move or move something without their conscious mind realizing it.” There’s even been experiments on this effect using a Ouija board:

The University of British Columbia ran a study on the ideomotor effect and the Ouija board in 2012. One test had subjects sit at a Ouija board with another person and answer factual yes or no questions. The subject was blindfolded when using the board and the partner knowingly removed their hands from the planchette. The blindfolded subject moved the planchette alone, answering questions, but felt that they were exerting no force on it at all. The subjects answeredmore questions correctly than when they answered the same questions verbally — they did better when they believed they weren’t in full control of the planchette.

This an example of implicit — unconscious — cognition, and experiments with the Ouija board and concepts like it may end up revealing quite a lot about how the mind makes decisions below our level of awareness. (Source)

So even if you don’t believe you are talking to the dark side, you may be talking to the dark depths of your mind. What scares you more?

For now, I’m going to keep that dream handmade Ouija board in my Etsy shopping cart. I’m not sure I’m ready for spirits or my inaccessible unconscious.

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