Secrets of the Ouija board

Are Ouija boards dangerous? A comprehensive article traces its history, and the answers aren’t quite conclusive.

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A Ouija board is a game that allows users to attempt to contact the spirit world. The board consists of letters and numbers. The player asks a question, and using a pointer, the spirit world will supposedly guide the pointer to letters that spell out an answer. Simple enough, right? Not really.

AlwaysMine_finalOuija boards have a bad reputation. Many consider them a gateway to evil. If this latest news report is to be believed, three young Americans in Mexico fell into convulsions after using a Ouija board (the local priest refused to perform an exorcism because none were parishioners). I used a Ouija board as an element in my horror story Always Mine, and from reader response, it struck a nerve.

But what’s the truth behind this game?

This long Smithsonian article breaks down the history of the Ouija board. It turns out that Ouija boards are a uniquely American creation. In the mid 1800s, a wave of spiritualism swept the US. People believed they could contact the spirit world, which would deliver messages. This belief dovetailed neatly with organized religion, which more or less sanctioned this practice.

Then, in the late 1800s, a canny investor caught wind of a “talking board” and formed a company to manufacture these boards.

Among the interesting facts about the Ouija board:

–The name Ouija supposedly came from the board itself.

–The US patent office approved its patent after the board revealed the patent official’s first name (proof that it worked).

–It quickly became a best-seller, marketed as both a way to contact spirits, predict the future, and as wholesome family fun. Even Norman Rockwell got into the act.


But there was a dark side to it as well:

–One company head died after falling from a factory building, which he built based on advice from the Ouija board.

–In 1930, two women killed another based on the advice from a Ouija board.

And a quirky side:

–Writers have claimed that their works were written via Ouija board. One poet, James Merrill, won a major award for a poem that was “magnified” by his Ouija board.

So why have Ouija board become linked to evil?

Blame The Exorcist. Since that 1973 groundbreaking horror movie (which was supposedly inspired by actual events), Ouija boards lost any wholesome status they enjoyed. Following the phenomenal success of The Exorcist, Ouija boards have been denounced by religious groups and have become a staple for horror writers (guilty as charged). Interestingly, the board is still a hot seller.

The Smithsonian article delves in to the “why” of the Ouija board. In the simplest of terms, scientists believe Ouija boards tap into our unconscious mind. We may think we are talking to spirits, and in a sense, we are: our own.

But is this all there is to it? Maybe not. Check out these supposedly true scary stories of Ouija board freakiness.

To be honest, I’m not as concerned with how Ouija boards work. Don’t get me wrong: I love science. But when it comes to something like Ouija boards, I’d prefer to keep that element of scary suspense alive.

Evil and the Ouija board

An underused trope of horror gets its due.

The Ouija board is basically just a game. You touch a pointer (or other object), and ask questions of the spirit world. The pointer will move between yes/no, or letters to give you an answer. Simple enough.

Except when you play with a Ouija board, you’re messing with the spirit world.

From a creative standpoint, there are tons of possibilities. But I’ve rarely seen it portrayed in TV, movies or in print. the 2007 movie Paranormal Activity used it to good and creepy effect. A recent episode of American Horror Story: Coven had one as well (they called it a spirit board), though it wasn’t nearly as consequential as it could have been.

Now there’s a new movie in production, called, simply enough, Ouija. It’s way too early to tell how this one will pan out; from the looks if it, it will be a typical teen horror flick. At least it’s a start.

My opinion?The more interpretations the better.

Always MineI’ve added my own Ouija board story to the canon. It’s called Always Mine, and it’s about Danny, a 15-year-old who has a crush on Tina, the new girl next door. She lures him into Ouija board play, and he quickly becomes the target of the spirit of a drowned Swedish sailor.

It was a fun story to write, and I attribute that to the Ouija board — a great prop and a cool gateway into tales of terror.