Ouija boards have been a popular game in the US for more than 125 years, and while you can find them for sale in just about every toy store across the country, many people believe they're instruments used by demons to possess anyone who dares use one. So what’s the truth? How did the Ouija board go from humble parlor game for the whole family to a demonized tool to contact the dead? And how does it really work? Read on to learn more. You might even gain a new perspective on this paranormal pariah.
Just about everyone has heard of Ouija boards, if not used one, and they all have an opinion of them. Some believe the board itself is inherently evil and that demons use it to speak to, coerce, threaten, and even possess the user. Some people believe the board can be used to speak to the spirits of people who’ve passed on in order to receive guidance from the other side. Others believe it’s nothing more than a way to seek personal insight, having no paranormal implications at all. And there are still many people who view the Ouija board as absolutely nothing more than a harmless game.
"Ouija board" is actually a name brand name owned by Hasbro. Before the name entered the cultural vocabulary, they used to be called spirit boards, speaking boards, or talking boards. These tools were used to help facilitate what’s known as automatic writing, or writing words without consciously writing words. Performing automatic writing with a planchette (the little plastic heart-shaped tool you use with a Ouija board) is thought to date back as far as to 12th century China, and one version or another would survive throughout different cultures for the next 700 years, along with other forms of divination. However, it wasn’t until the late 1800s in America that spirit boards really took off.
Mysticism came into fashion in Victorian-era North America during the American Civil War, and it continued to grow and flourish through World War II—especially during wartime, when people felt helpless and had a sense of losing control of their lives. Many people had also lost loved ones in the wars and were desperate to reconnect with them. It was a fascinating time in American history, and an entire podcast could be built around this one topic alone. But we’re just going to focus on the bit relevant to Ouija boards. One final word on early American mysticism: Victorians had a very different relationship to death than we do today. It wasn’t something to necessarily be afraid of or to shy away from. Victorians, by today’s standards, were quite morbid (taking photos of dead loved ones, making jewelry from the hair of a deceased family member, etc.), and talking to the dead was considered normal and something that anyone could do with the help of a spiritualist using many different methods, including spirit boards.
In 1890, businessman and decidedly not-a-spiritualist Elijah Bond realized that by mass producing, marketing, and selling a ton of spirit boards, he could make a whole lotta money. And that’s exactly what he did. By 1901, however, Bond’s employee, William Fuld, took over production and began producing his own version of the speaking board, which he called “Ouija.” Fuld claimed that the word was an Egyptian word for “good luck,” which is just plain untrue. In fact, it was very fashionable in Victorian-era mysticism to claim things were from Egypt because people thought that meant they were naturally imbued with magical power. Later, Fuld changed his story and said the name came from the combination of the French and German words (respectively) for “yes.” However, what’s more likely is that the word “Ouija” is a misspelling of the name Ouida.
William Bond’s sister-in-law, Helen Peters, was, as Bond put it, a “strong medium.” While holding a séance to discover what to name this new speaking board, Bond claimed that the word “Ouija” was spelled out. When they asked the board what the word meant, the answer was “good luck.” However, Helen later said that she'd been wearing a necklace with the portrait of author and women’s rights activist Ouida, who Helen greatly admired. In short, the board was given a nonsensical word for a name that evoked the idea of magic and mystery. That’s all. But now that the board had a mystical name, it could be marketed and sold.
The Ouija board was an instant success and was used by everyone from mystics and mediums to families and friends. Of course, the game had its detractors back then. Some people claimed you could become addicted to the board and be driven insane. Many churches banned its use because they banned all divination tools, and the Ouija board fit the bill. But today, the Ouija’s reputation is much darker, with many claiming the boards can open portals to Hell or that you can even become possessed by demons. So where did that reputation come from? We're glad you asked.
Let’s go back to 1973. That’s where things went very, very wrong for the humble Ouija board. In December of that year, the hit film The Exorcist was released. In the movie, a young girl named Regan uses an Ouija board to speak to a spirit called Captain Howdy. As the film progresses, Regan becomes possessed, and all hell breaks loose. Literally. After the success of The Exorcist, the Ouija board became a popular trope in horror films as a terrifying tool of the Devil that would obviously lead to possession and other sundry satanic shenanigans. Churches and religious groups began denouncing Ouija boards as evil, which just added more fuel to that fire.
Now, we did quite a lot of internet research, desperately looking for documented cases of possession due to Ouija boards. Aside from anecdotal “evidence” and the occasional movie that claimed to be based on a true story, I couldn’t find any. Now, that doesn’t mean there’s NO evidence out there that you can be possessed, but we do find it odd that, for such a bad reputation, there are very few credibly documented cases of possession and demon portals being flung open.
Okay, so if it’s not demons or Satan, how exactly does the board do the thing? There are actually a lot of theories, and information on this topic is plentiful online (ahem, unlike possession…). One theory for how the planchette moves across the board seemingly on its own is known as the ideomotor response, or involuntary movements. Another theory is that the subconscious mind is at work through the help of the ideomotor response. And sometimes, the person sitting across from you really IS pulling your leg and pushing the planchette, no matter how emphatically they deny it. But we encourage you to do your own research and see what you think!
Now, we're not trying to convince anyone to change their beliefs about Ouija boards. We're merely trying to offer some information so that you can make educated decisions about whether or not to use a board. Remember that intention is everything, and more often than not, we manifest our own outcomes through acting with intention—meaning that if you believe Ouija boards are evil and that only evil things come from using them, you'll mostly likely have a negative experience. Likewise, if you view the board as a game or a tool to gain positive personal insight, speak to guides/angels/a higher power/etc., you’re more likely to have a positive and inspiring experience. And, obviously, if you approach it from a very clinical, scientific point of view and don’t believe in the board’s powers either way, you are much less likely to have any kind of experience with it at all.
Listen to your Ghostkeepers discuss all things Ouija in the Castle of Spirits paranormal podcast.