The Strange, Spiritual Origins of the Ouija Board

Even as an avid hor­ror movie fan, I find it hard to sus­pend dis­be­lief when Oui­ja boards show up, and they show up often enough, in clas­sics like The Exor­cist and mod­ern favorites like Para­nor­mal Activ­i­ty. Oui­ja boards have always seemed more like wands with plas­tic flow­ers in them than telegraphs to the after­life or the infer­nal abyss. But I grew up with peo­ple who con­sid­ered it a gate­way to hell, just as spir­i­tu­al­ists have con­sid­ered it a por­tal to the beyond, where their dead rel­a­tives wait­ed to give them mes­sages.

So, how did this nov­el­ty item become such a potent fig­ure of fear and fas­ci­na­tion in Amer­i­ca? When it was mass-mar­ket­ed by “a Pitts­burgh toy and nov­el­ty shop” in the late 19th cen­tu­ry, as Lin­da Rodriquez McRob­bie writes at Smith­son­ian, “this mys­te­ri­ous talk­ing board was basi­cal­ly what’s sold in board game aisles today.” Its adver­tise­ments promised “nev­er fail­ing amuse­ment and recre­ation for all the class­es,” and a bridge “between the known and unknown, the mate­r­i­al and imma­te­r­i­al.”

The Oui­ja board might have become a toy by the end of the cen­tu­ry, but through­out the ear­li­er decades, belief in the super­nat­ur­al held seri­ous sway among “all the class­es.” The aver­age lifes­pan was less than 50. “Women died in child­birth; chil­dren died of dis­ease; and men died in war. Even Mary Todd Lin­coln, wife of the ven­er­a­ble pres­i­dent, con­duct­ed séances in the White House after their 11-year-old son died of a fever in 1862.” Dis­ease epi­demics and the Civ­il War left mil­lions bereft.

“Com­mu­ni­cat­ing with the dead was com­mon,” says Oui­ja his­to­ri­an Robert Murch. “It wasn’t seen as bizarre or weird,” even among the staunchest reli­gious peo­ple who filled the pews each Sun­day. “It’s hard to imag­ine that now, we look at that and think, ‘Why are you open­ing the gates of hell?’” These com­mon­ly held beliefs may not have damned anyone’s soul, but they made even the rarest minds, like Sher­lock Holmes’ cre­ator Arthur Conan Doyle, sus­cep­ti­ble to fraud and trick­ery.

It was only a mat­ter of time before believ­ers in spir­i­tu­al­ism became a tar­get demo­graph­ic for the cheap com­modi­ties spread­ing across the coun­try with the rail­roads. “Peo­ple were des­per­ate for meth­ods of com­mu­ni­ca­tion” with the dead “that would be quick­er” than the local medi­um. “While sev­er­al entre­pre­neurs real­ized that,” McRob­bie writes, “it was the Ken­nard Nov­el­ty Com­pa­ny that real­ly nailed it” with their 1886 prod­uct. But they didn’t invent it. Such devices date back years ear­li­er.

Some ear­ly ver­sions “looked like Oui­ja boards, and some didn’t,” notes Vox. “Some devices even used planchettes (that’s the name for the thing you hold when you oper­ate a Oui­ja.” (Planchette, from medieval French, means a small board.) As for the non­sense word “Oui­ja,” one leg­end has it that the name came from an 1890 ses­sion in which the board was asked what it would like itself to be called. Learn more in the Vox video above about why the Oui­ja board came to loom so large, or in their words, became so “over­rat­ed,” in the Amer­i­can imag­i­na­tion.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Eerie 19th Cen­tu­ry Pho­tographs of Ghosts: See Images from the Long, Strange Tra­di­tion of “Spir­it Pho­tog­ra­phy”

Eerie 19th Cen­tu­ry Pho­tographs of Ghosts: See Images from the Long, Strange Tra­di­tion of “Spir­it Pho­tog­ra­phy”

Arthur Conan Doyle & The Cot­tin­g­ley Fairies: How Two Young Girls Fooled Sher­lock Holmes’ Cre­ator

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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  • jeffrey g. buchalco says:

    i have designed my elec­tro­mag­net­ic wave oui­ja style com­mu­ni­ca­tor! i plan to con­struct it and use it to employ alien or e.t. enti­ties to spy and gath­er intel­li­gence from world gov­ern­ments for my per­son­al gain!

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