We've all seen it in the movies... a group of teenagers get together in a cemetery and light a few candles, sitting in a circle and placing their finger tips on the planchette of an old Ouija board. The candle light begins to flicker and blows out as their breath shows, signaling an extreme drop in temperature (the sign of a strong spiritual presence). The planchette starts flying all over the Ouija board, spelling demonic names, creepy words and phrases like "die" and "it's coming", and they know they made a mistake... but how accurate is this? Are Ouija boards always an invitation for evil, or is this image just a product of Hollywood?
I recall my first public ghost hunt I attended where we were instructed that Ouija boards (or talking/spirit boards in general, i'll get in to the differences soon) were strictly not allowed, and that any attempt at bringing or using one would result in you being told to leave. I was confused, but followed the rules and didn't give it much thought. The idea of contacting spirits with an Ouija board was something that interested me as a child, and I purchased my first board at 19 and have been slowly collecting them since. Over time, I noticed this anti-Ouija stance more and more as I began showing my boards online in TikToks or Instagram posts, and watched as direct messages filled my inbox warning me that I was talking to demons and opening portals. Sure, my first time using one did get a little scary; it was a glow in the dark Ouija board from Toys "R" Us that we secretly used at my parents house in our youth. To our disappointment, the planchette didn't move and nothing seemed to happen, but we began to see shadowy figures throughout the home as poltergeist-like activity started to center around me. But I don't view this as the boards fault; it was nothing but a tool for us to use to try and contact the "other side", and I maintain this stance today. To look into these boards and how dangerous they might be, and why so many people are strongly against them, I first want to cover the history of these boards themselves.
Origin of the Ouija Board
The origins of the Ouija board were a bit of mystery for quite some time. Much of what we know about them today can be accredited to the Ouija historian Robert Murch who has meticulously researched the history behind these boards since 1992. Murch said of these boards: "For such an iconic thing that strikes both fear and wonder in American culture, how can no one know where it came from?". According to some of Murch's research, the makers of these boards had asked the board itself what it should be called, and watched as the planchette spelled "Ouija". When they asked what it meant, the planchette spelled "good luck." They were first produced by the Kennard Novelty Company who were only really looking to rake in some profits from American wallets. But they weren't the inventors of these lettered and numbered boards; according to a reporting by the Associated Press in 1886, "talking boards" were popular among spiritualist camps in Ohio. A man named Charles Kennard jumped on this marketing opportunity with the help of some investors to start the Kennard Novelty Company to exclusively produce their own boards to appeal to this talking board craze.
America saw a rise in the popularity of spiritualism in the late 1800's to early 1900's partly due to famous figures like the Fox Sisters who claimed to receive messages from the dead who rapped and knocked on the walls in response to their questions. (One of the sisters would go on to admit it was a hoax and that the knocking was staged.) The idea of communicating with the dead intrigued many as spiritualists and séances swept the nation. Part of this popularity was due to the heartache of losing loved ones during times of epidemics or war, and the desire the talk to a deceased loved one just one more time. This grief was exploited by fraudulent psychics and mediums, and although many of them would be outed as frauds and their popularity slowly declined, a belief in the paranormal and the desire to talk to spirits would be here to stay.
In February, 1891 an advertisement for "Ouija, the Wonderful Talking Board" hit the newspapers. The makers claimed that this board would answer questions "about the past, present and future with marvelous accuracy" and declared "never-failing amusement and recreation for all the classes" and that this board was a link "between the known and unknown, the material and immaterial." These boards were essentially the same as we see them today, and the talking boards that came before them: a flat board with the numbers 0 - 9, each letter of the alphabet, the words "yes", "no", and "goodbye", and a teardrop/heartshaped "planchette" to select the letters/numbers/words. Two or more users would sit down, placing their finger tips on the planchette and ask a question. The planchette would then (ideally) move in response to spell out words or entire sentences. According to the makers, who were mostly business men with no real interest in spiritualism, the Ouija board had been "proven" to work at the Patent Office in order for it to proceed. During this demonstration at the patent office, the chief officer asked that the board spell his name (something that the makers of the board weren't supposed to have known yet) and much to the officers surprise, the board produced his name. It is very likely that they had simply learned of the officers name prior to arriving, but the officer was impressed regardless and the patent was given.
Talking boards, and the newly marketed Ouija board (also sometimes called spirit boards) were a much faster means at receiving a supposed message from a spirit; much quicker than repeating the alphabet and listening for a knock, writing down the letter and then repeating the alphabet again, etc. until a full message was received. (A method used often by the Fox Sisters.) Ouija boards were also a wholesome and fun means to entertain for the evening, and the use of these boards, and similar spirit communication methods, was widely accepted as a norm across all groups of people: from Christians to the non-religious, old to young, and rich to poor, it was something everyone could do for a bit of intrigue and fun.
By 1892, the Kennard Novelty Company grew from one factory in Baltimore to having two in Baltimore, two in New York, two in Chicago and even one over-seas in London. By 1893 the company was now being run by William Fuld, a former employee and stockholder of the company who watched as the popularity of the Ouija board continued to grow. During the 1910's and 1920's, the troubles brought on by World War I left families struggling and devastated, but was followed by the mania and partying of the Jazz age and prohibition. In May 1920, the famous illustrator Norman Rockwell depicted a man and woman using an Ouija board for the cover of the Saturday Evening Post, signifying their very common use in the average American household. During this time, national wire services also reported on wanna-be crime solvers who would use Ouija boards to try and solve crimes, and strange Ouija stories would pop up in American newspapers. For example, in 1916 Mrs. Pearl Curran began to make headlines when she claimed that the poems and stories she wrote were actually told to her though an Ouija board by the spirit of Patience Worth, a 17th century Englishwoman. A friend of Curran, Emily Grant Hutchins, also claimed that her book Jap Herron was given to her through an Ouija board by the spirit of Mark Twain. The Pulitzer Prize-winning poet James Merrill also wrote multiple Ouija-dedicated poems, including Mirabelle: Books of Number and The Changing Light at Sandover which won the National Book Critics Circle Award. Merrill, unlike previous Ouija-wielding writers, implied that the board magnified his own poetic thoughts, as opposed to them being fed to him by spirits. The use of these boards was vast as the mystery behind how they actually worked remained unknown, allowing users to experiment and find creative new ways to utilize their boards, wether it be through spirits or possibly receiving responses from their own subconscious mind.
In 1944, a single department store in New York had sold 50,000 Ouija boards, and in 1966 Ouija was purchased by the Parker Brothers who continued their production. In 1967 a grand total of 2 million boards were sold, outselling other popular games like Monopoly. This was the same year that large numbers of American soldiers were sent to Vietnam, the "Summer of Love" counter-culture popped up in San Francisco, and the race riots in Detroit, Newark, Minneapolis and Milwaukee broke out. Spiritualism generally peak during times of hardships and tragedy, and Ouija sales reflected this.
Although the occasional creepy Ouija tale would pop up in the news, such as thieves who stole because their board told them to, or someone claiming that they committed a murder because their board encouraged them to, Ouija boards were still considered innocent fun when you take into account just how many people owned them, and the incredibly small number of bad stories associated with them. So where did our modern view of these boards come from, and their rampant association with demons?
Ouija in the Movies
In 1960 the film 13 Ghosts featured the use an Ouija board when the tenants of a haunted home are warned (via the board) that a death will occur in the house. The movie goes on to have scenes of panic as the current 12 ghosts in the home, which included a wailing lady, fiery skeleton, a chef who continuously murders his wife and her lover, a hanging lady, and an executioner holding a severed head (among others) who believe that their spirits could only be set free with an unlucky 13th ghost. The movie ends when a 13th victim in claimed and the ghosts seemingly move on. Although this film was sure to draw more attention to the use an Ouija board with its dark and deadly undertones, a movie that made its debut coincidentally 13 years later would really set the tone for how these boards were viewed in the public eye.
The movie The Exorcist came out in 1973 and was a huge success across the nation. One of the major plot points of the film is when Regan, a young girl, uses an Ouija board to make contact with what appeared to be an entity named "Captain Howdy". This encounter seemed innocent... until Regan becomes possessed by a demon. This movie was based on a novel of the same name, which was loosely based on the supposed real-life possession of a young boy in St. Louis, Missouri who also used an Ouija board to try and contact a diseased family member. (You can learn more about the origin story of The Exorcist in episode 14 of Ghouls Trip.) This novel and film played a key roll in what would become a more popularized and wide-spread fear of demonic possession, with the image of the Ouija board stapled directly to it. The public now viewed these boards differently as they wondered what evils they might accidentally make contact with, and a once harmless party-game or writers assistant was now seen as a risky dance with the devil himself. This would attract some people to these boards, but others would throw theirs away, burn them, leave them on the doorsteps of their local church, or toss them into rivers and lakes.
Ouija Boards and Ghost Hunting - Are they any different than using other pieces of equipment?
I have personally spoken and worked with ghost hunters who are strictly against these boards, but will gladly pull out a pendulum and ask a spirit to spin it clockwise, or hold out a KII EMF meter (a device used to measure electromagnetic fields) and ask any spirits that may be present to interact with the device and trigger the lights. But my question is this: how is asking a spirit to interact with other items different than asking them to interact with an Ouija board? Some have argued that for a spirit to move a planchette, they must channel through you, putting you are at risk for harm or attachments at the hands of the spirit. But couldn't this be the case with any other device we hold? A pendulum, for example, works in a very similar manner, as do dowsing rods, with both items being held by the user who asks questions and looks for movement in the pendulum or rods in response. We do not know or have proof as to how spirits are actually communicating with us, so isn't it possible that they might channel you to trigger your EMF meter or REM pod? (A REM pod emits its own electromagnetic field, that when disrupted emits light and sound.) You will also sometimes hear the belief that Ouija boards can open/act as a portal once they have been used. But again, this is something that I rarely see applied to other items and devices used on a standard ghost hunt. Ouija users will also instruct you to always say "goodbye" with the board to close this channel or portal, but I have never been advised to do this with any other device at the risk that it too becomes an active portal if it hasn't been "closed". Personally, I will usually give a courteous "goodbye" when attempting to communicate with spirits to let them know that I appreciate their willingness to interact with me, and that I will be leaving. Do I believe that forgetting to do so will open portals attached to any items you use? No, not really.
On a similar note, why is it mostly the Ouija board that is blamed for bad/scary paranormal encounters? When someone encounters what they believe might be a demon while they film with an Infrared Full-Spectrum camera, asking the entity to "show itself", the camera isn't to blame for the malevolent presence, nor is any other piece of equipment they use to try and make contact with said presence. Many Ouija users will advise that you verbally state phrases such as "No entities with ill-intent may contact me through this board" as a way to avoid demons coming through, but this same thought and energy into who may communicate with them isn't typically applied to any previously stated devices that serve the same purpose, leading me to believe that this fear of demons coming through an Ouija board is directly linked to the wide-spread fears that came after The Exorcist. I also can't help but wonder how necessary it really is to make a clarifying statement of protection, and how many entities are actually out to harm us v.s. how many entities simply want to communicate back, but their attempts at doing so are misinterpreted as "scary" or "evil" in nature. A good example being shadow entities. We always assume they are malevolent...but why? How many might be a loved one attempting to manifest and say hello, but movies have taught up that dark shadows = bad.
At the end of the day, we all have our preferences and personal beliefs with what tools we utilize when hunting for ghosts. My only wish here, and the purpose of this post, is to spread more awareness into why we associate the Ouija board with demonic evils and portals due to their portrayal in movies and the media. I am not trying to force or influence/convince anyone to go purchase an Ouija board and begin using it immediately. I just want to see the opinions about them become a little less extreme and demon-based. Seeing someone use one of these boards and telling them they are probably talking to demons, opening a portal, and are in danger only promotes an unnecessary fear of demons that can be so toxic in the world of ghost hunting, and in society in general. (See my post on Ed and Lorraine Warren for more discussions on Satanic Panic within ghost hunting.)
For more information on these stories and topics, you can check out these sources below which I used for this blog post:
Ouija board history:
The Fox Sisters: