It's a piece of wood with letters and numbers, as simple as simple can be, but the Ouija board has a place in American culture that is shrouded in mystery and fear. Everyone knows of it, but few people know about it. There's a lot more to the Ouija board than what you see in the movies - and some of it is even spookier.
The Ouija board didn't officially get its name until the late 1800s, but the first historical mention of a "writing tablet" is found all the way back in 1100 AD in Ancient China. It was known as fuji, which translates into "planchette writing" and was used to contact the dead. The board was only used in special ceremonies and even then under supervision.
Entire scriptures were said to have been written using this method during the Song Dynasty, which lasted from 960 - 1279, but was outlawed by the Qing Dynasty in the 1600s.
Other written works in Ancient Greece, Medieval Europe and India are believed to have been written using similar boards.
Spiritualism In The US
The Civil War was a dark time in America. Countryman fought countryman, and hundreds of thousands died. Whenever death and destruction run rampant people turn to the divine for answers and solace. During the Civil War many people turned to spiritualism, or the idea that you could contact the otherwise.
Many families turned to "table-turning" parties, where attendees would sit around a table and place their hands on top. A question would be asked and then the alphabet called out. Supposedly the table would turn when the spirit wanted a specific letter, spelling out the answer.
The practice wasn't considered to be occult in nature, and many God-fearing people took part. Even Mary Lincoln, wife to the President, was known to have conducted seances after their 11-year-old son died of a fever. The practice eventually tapered off in the 1920s due to scandals involving famous mediums.
It Named Itself
There's a common misconception that Ouija is actually just a combination of the French and German words for "yes", but that's not true. The Ouija Board was initially patented by the Kennard Novelty Company in 1890, although it wasn't named Ouija yet.
Elijah Bond, one of the owners, invited his sister-in-law Helen Peters to dinner with the company. Peters was an established medium in her own right, and after dinner they pulled out the board and asked what it would like to be named.
O-U-I-J-A came through. They asked what it meant.
"Good luck," the spirit on the other side was purported to have said, before ceasing contact.
Advertisements in the late 1800s hocked the Ouija board, promising a tried and true method of communicating with spirits and creating a link between the "known and unknown, material and immaterial." Ads also cited a patent number, saying the board was "proven" at the US Patent Office. That's actually true.
According to Robert Murch, a historian who has spent over 20 years studying the history of the Ouija Board, the claim that the board was tried, tested and approved in the Patent office is actually true.
Bond, a Baltimore lawyer, Peters and other owners of the company, held a demonstration for the Chief Patent Officer at the time. The officer withheld his name from the group, and asked the board to spell out his last name.
The name was spelled out correctly and witnesses say the officer emerged from the room white-faced and shaken. He awarded the company a patent immediately afterwards.
This should be taken with a grain of salt however as Bond was a practicing patent attorney, and could easily have known the officer's name.
Owner's Curious Demise
The board was a huge success, but one by one the owners of the Kennard Novelty Company fell by the wayside. By 1893 the patent and rights to the Ouija board were owned by William Fuld.
The Ouija board had its greatest success under Fuld, although he had to spend much of his life contesting lawsuits over the name, practice and efficacy of the board.
In the 1920s Fuld received a message from the Ouija board, instructing him to build a new factory in Baltimore. While he was overseeing the construction a safety rail gave way, and Fuld fell three storeys to the ground below. While being taken to hospital a rib bone pierced his heart and he died at the hospital. Fuld's children inherited the Ouija Board and eventually sold it to Parker Brothers in the 1940s.
Scientific Reasons For Working
Most of us don't believe in Ouija board. We chalk up any answer to someone at the table being a prankster, or worse, a con artist. But surely it's a deliberate attempt to trick us right?
Actually science says no, it's not necessarily a conscious attempt to lie to you. Many psychologists attribute Ouija boards, and other things like water divining, table-turning parties etc, to something known as the "ideomotor phenomenon".
Simply described, the phenomenon is the unconscious brain taking over muscle control to complete an action. People who strongly believe in a Ouija board will unconsciously move the planchette to the letter or word they most want to hear.
They even tested people using neurotransmitters to record brain waves during a Ouija board session. The results backed up the theory that the unconscious mind was working overtime.
Not Actually Outlawed
Many rumors float around about Ouija boards being prohibited in certain states or countries. That's not strictly true. Many countries have laws forbidding the "fraudulent practice of witchcraft" but the Ouija board doesn't actually fit into that category. However many religions, even Satanism, warn members against the use of Ouija boards and other divining tools.