There is perhaps no “game” that sparks as much curiosity and fear as a Ouija board. The flat board with numbers, letters, a few words, and a planchette (aka the board’s moving device) is generally synonymous with breaking the veil between the living and dead realms. Many see it as a tool to open horrifying portals while others use it to curiously commune with “the other side.” It is also a staple in horror stories, pop culture, entertainment, and certain spiritual practices. But, despite being such a looming part of our culture, most people don’t know the complex history behind Ouija boards.
The Spiritualism Movement and Talking Boards
According to Smithsonian Magazine, the Ouija board stems from Spiritualism, a belief that the dead can communicate with the living. Of course, this idea is something that has existed on a global scale for thousands of years. But, it became quite prominent in the United States during the 19th century when childbirth, war, and disease among other things led to shorter life spans and frequent deaths. Many people desired a pathway to connect with lost loved ones and get answers to unresolved issues and questions.
The concept of contacting the dead was seen as socially acceptable and even wholesome in many circles. Of course, this is likely because the prominent faces of Spiritualism were white people. For example, in 1848, people became enraptured by Maggie and Kate Fox. They were two young sisters who claimed to get messages from spirits through taps on their walls. Their abilities made them household names and further sparked public interest in reaching out to deceased people.
This led to the birth of “talking boards,” the precursor to the Ouija board, in the late 1880s. It had letters, numbers, and a small cursor to point towards its script. It’s not clear who came up with the first talking board. But technically that person should get credit for laying the groundwork for Ouija boards. Today, Ouija board, talking board, and spirit board are all interchangeable terms to describe the same tool with a rich history. Now buckle up because it’s about to get wild.
The Ouija Board, Séances, and a Very Messy Origin Story
It wouldn’t be the American way if someone didn’t try to further capitalize on the popularity of séances and personal pain, right? And, like most American origin stories, there is a lot of messiness behind the Ouija board’s beginnings and very early history. Charles Kennard of Baltimore, Maryland didn’t care about the Spiritualism movement but he did see a profitable business opportunity. The (allegedly) shady businessman teamed up with coffin maker/undertaker E.C. Reiche, a Prussian immigrant, to start producing their own wooden boards. But, when Kennard starting looking for investors, he took credit for the invention.
There’s some debate over Reiche’s actual involvement. As reported by MyEasternShoreMD, information about Reiche’s life is spotty at best. There are little official records and no real credit to him being the Ouija board creator. This makes sense if Kennard simply took credit for Reiche’s handiwork. But, if that is the case, then why didn’t Reiche at least try to put up a legal or verbal fight for his creation? However, leading talking board expert Robert Murch told Baltimore Magazine that Reiche was indeed involved with early productions only to be cut out by Kennard. Ouch.
After Kennard’s many failed attempts to secure funding, attorney Elijah Bond became interested. They formed Kennard Novelty Company in 1890 along with other investors like William H.A. Maupin, Colonel Washington Bowie, and John F. Green. Bond’s sister-in-law Helen Peters also played a key role in creating the Ouija board’s handle and possibly the name. Kennard and his colleagues claimed that the board named itself after they asked it. The board said Ouija is an ancient Egyptian phrase which means “good luck.”
There’s also a popular albeit nonsensical belief that Ouija is a combination of the French and German words for “yes” (oui + ja). Peters later said she wore a locket with a picture of a woman with the word “Ouija” over it. It is also possible that the name on the locket may have been misread. This is plausible considering there was a prominent author and activist named Ouida at that time. So, even the name itself boasts a history of (potential) magic and mystery.
However, Peters did convince the patent office to approve the Ouija board’s application. She did this through a demonstration that spelled out the officer’s supposedly unknown name. It’s unlikely that they wouldn’t already know the officer’s name but it’s another interesting addition to the origin story. A patent file confirms she did a demonstration and the patent was issued on February 10, 1891.
The company soon brought Bond’s employee William Fuld into the fold and they began to produce boards. The Ouija boards became a hit, which led to the company quickly opening additional factories before Kennard and Bond’s unceremonious booting out of the business. Fuld took over but he strangely died in 1927 after falling from the roof of a new factory. Wildly, he claimed a Ouija board told him to build this factory.
The “Ouija, the Wonderful Talking Board” game became a cultural staple when it hit shelves for $1.50 in 1891. It was a direct path to ancestors but also a bit of intriguing and escapist Friday night fun amid a tumultuous world. People would gather with family or friends and experience the rush of asking questions as the (then) wooden planchette jumps around to provide an otherworldly answer. Their intentions were by all accounts what many would consider pure. The Ouija board began to appear in sketches for major newspapers and grew in popularity throughout the disparity of the Great Depression.
Writers like Pearl Curran and Pulitzer Prize-winning poet James Merrill all began to use the board for creative inspiration. There were people from certain religious and spiritual backgrounds who saw the board as a form of divination (seeking information from spiritual forces), which their beliefs condemn. It fell under the umbrella term of witchcraft that was associated with ungodly deeds.
Decades later, TV shows took a jovial approach to using a Ouija board. I Love Lucy episode “The Séance” (1951) depicts Lucy faking a séance to find favor with a businessman.
However, several stories began to surface about Ouija boards and murder. In 1930, Clothilde Marchand was killed by Lila Jimerson, who was having an affair with Marchand’s husband. Jimerson used a Ouija board to convince an associate, Nancy Bowen, that Marchand was a “witch” who caused Bowen’s husband’s death. Jimerson and Bowen later pled guilty to manslaughter. Despite dark stories involving the Ouija board, many people did not see it as an inherent void of evil. In fact, forty years after Fuld’s death, Ouija boards outsold Monopoly games.
The Exorcist Effect Changes the Ouija Board Forever
Interestingly, the sharp collective change in attitudes towards the Ouija board stems from none other than The Exorcist in 1973.
The supposedly “based on a true story” (which has its share of debatable and murky details) seminal horror flick about a girl who is possessed by a demon after playing with a Ouija board scared the fear of Hell into people. It also didn’t help that The Exorcist‘s release came at an already uneasy time in America. People were still reeling from the Manson cult murders of the late 1960s. The rise of serial killing sprees by culprits like the Zodiac and Alphabet killers who seemed to use ritual patterns in their murders.
The USA was also witnessing the beginnings of modern Satanism through Anton LaVey, who wrote The Satanic Bible and founded the Church of Satan in 1966. People like John Todd and David Hanson began to plant ideas that evil witchy cults run the world. So, a film with spiritual possession and green vomit spewing all over the place absolutely played into those fears.
But The Exorcist isn’t the first film in history to depiction of a Ouija board as a gateway to possession. The Uninvited (1944) features siblings who host a séance to find out the truth behind a death in the home. It apparently isn’t same level of disturbing as The Exorcist.
Suddenly, people forgot about the Ouija board’s relatively pure history and deemed it an evil and demonic tool. Satanic Panic came shortly after in the 1980s after a group of Californian kids told their community that their school was a location for rape, prostitution, and Satanic activities. These unproven allegations led to yet another wave of fear among the American public.
So, anything that could be even remotely associated with Satanism or the occult like the Ouija board, Dungeons & Dragons, and certain types of music became evil. Naturally, this made the Ouija board more interesting to rebellious youth who would use them in secret for some possible thrills and scares. Parker Brothers later became acquired by Hasbro, which still sells Ouija boards and owns the trademark for the name.
Ouija boards remain in more recent public consciousness as stories about demonic possession continue to thrive. In November 2014, 35 Bolivian students were hospitalized because of trances, sweating, and rapid heartbeats after playing with a Ouija board. There have been stories of mass fainting and spirit possession in Mexico, hysteria, and even the rise of a 2015 viral game called ‘Charlie Charlie.’ Players would create a make shift version of a Ouija board with “yes” and “no” on a piece of paper. The game uses two pencils to supposedly chat with a demonic spirit.
Ouija Boards Reign Supreme in Film and TV
The Ouija board’s notoriety as a symbol of evil took over the horror genre. In 1986, the first movie in the Witchboard franchise hit theaters. The story follows Linda and Jim, who become haunted by a ghost after a Ouija board session with Jim’s friend/Linda’s ex Brandon. Linda begins to act unusual and people predictably start to die.
Sorority House Massacre II (1990) taps into the “Ouija board as sleepover entertainment” trope with a group of sorority sisters who use the board to contact a deceased murderer. What Lies Beneath (2000) shows the main character, Claire, using one to contact a missing/possibly dead neighbor. In 2007, Paranormal Activity took Ouija boards to found-footage territory with a paranormal houseguest gaining power from the board.
That same year, the board finally got a film bearing its name. Ouija shows a group of kids who use a board and end up dealing with a stalkerish (and murderous) spirit. The film became a franchise with its latest installment releasing in 2016. And the Ouija board continues to make appearances in film and TV, affirming that is a vital part of pop culture history.
It made an appearance in HBO’s Lovecraft Country (2020), which takes place back in 1955 during pre-Satanic Panic and Exorcist times. A group of teens (including Emmitt Till) get some sinister foreshadowing while playing with the board in a basement. It’s a small scene that speaks to the Ouija board’s firm place in pop culture as a vehicle for spooky and sinister happenings. Netflix’s The Curse of Bridge Hollow (2022) addresses the Ouija board through a horror comedy and very modern lens. In the flick, teenage Sydney uses a Ouija board app to contact a spirit that’s allegedly in her creaky old home. Looks like this mysterious board is here to stay, evil rumors be damned.
Ouija Boards as a Modern Spiritual Tool
The Ouija board is still an available and controversial game. But there are people who use it for their own spiritual work and/or to guide others. Popular astrologer, witch, apothecary owner, and YouTuber BehatiLife made an in-depth video about using a Ouija board safely. She says she doesn’t use it for connecting with spirits but rather leans into her abilities for spiritual connection.
She warns against using it if a user is afraid of the Ouija or lacks grounding and personal protection. BehatiLife believes that mainstream media and YouTube feeds into the idea of demonic possessions through using one. A quick YouTube search proves her point with countless videos about people sharing their Ouija board horror stories.
In fact, the general attitude among people who identify as occultists and/or witches is that a person who uses a Ouija board should be cautious, respectful, and use common sense. This is a sentiment in the board’s official description: “Handle the Ouija board with respect and it won’t disappoint you!” Many people believe it can be a source of connection and enlightenment but can perhaps become dangerous with the wrong intention. And some people still use it to connect with their ancestors or find answers from the other side.
Of course, there is no scientific evidence to suggest that Ouija boards can contact the spirit world. Scientists have attributed the planchette’s movement to the ideomotor effect: the unconscious mind’s ability to direct motor activity. But, science certainly can’t and doesn’t explain every single phenomena on Earth, so perhaps there is something taking place. It’s all rather subjective depending on the user’s beliefs about spirit world, the afterlife, and demons.
The Ouija board continues to survive and thrive even after a history of public panic, technological advances, and several generations of users who claim its everything from a connection tool for good to the work of a devil. It sits in the upper echelon of horror plot devices to tap into our deepest fears of losing control over our bodies or allowing an evil entity to slide its way into our space. And, whether its Halloween night, a girl’s sleepover, or a quiet séance searching for answers, this iconic tool will likely remain a staple existing on society’s fringes.
Originally published October 22, 2020.