The untold truth of Ouija boards
We all have fun stories about messing around with a Ouija board, whether it was that one night in college, a Halloween party, or that time we actually summoned a demon who spoke Latin and threatened to set us on fire. (That’s happened to everyone, right?) It’s one of those board games that’s fun no matter what you think of it, and it doesn’t matter if you think you can speak to the dead or if you just think it’s a great opportunity to mess with someone. (Spoiler alert: It is.)
The Ouija board was born from the 19th century’s spiritualism movement, and it has a really strange history. It’s caused deaths, murders, and feuds, it’s destroyed lives, and done some things the biggest skeptics have to admit are a little weird. There’s actually a good reason for that, and it has to do with our very own deepest, darkest thoughts. Whether that’s more disturbing than contacting the devil, well, that depends on who’s touching the planchette, doesn’t it?
The original text message
The Victorian era was a strange time, and one of the movements sweeping across Europe and America was spiritualism. It was basically the idea the living could communicate with the dead via seances and things like tapping out messages on the walls. Don’t laugh — it started in some grim times, when the Smithsonian says the average life span was under 50 years, and a ton of people went off to war and never came back.
That was the spiritual climate, and historians say the Ouija board was created by some businessmen looking to cash in on people’s beliefs, hopes, and need to reach out to someone in the afterlife.
The problem with a seance was that it took a long time to tap out a message on the walls. If only there were a Victorian keyboard that spirits could use to quickly spell out exactly what they were trying to say. Suddenly, there was. In 1886, the Associated Press reported some spiritualists were using a “talking board” in their seances, but it wasn’t until Charles Kennard got wind of the story that magic really happened. He gathered investors who were as psyched as he was at the prospect of having this massive market to exploit, and they started the Kennard Novelty Company to become the exclusive manufacturer of the talking boards.
It named itself (maybe)
The popular story is that the Ouija board was named from the words for “yes” in French (“oui”) and German (“ja”), but historian Robert Murch says (via Atlas Obscura) it’s absolutely not true.
Although there are a lot of conflicting stories, according to the official Ouija board lore he was able to track down, Kennard, investor Elijah Bond, and Bond’s sister-in-law Helen Peters were trying to figure out what to call their official talking board, and when they couldn’t come up with a name, they decided to ask the board itself. It replied “Ouija,” and when they inquired as to what the heck that meant, it replied “good luck.”
That’s exactly the sort of thing a demon might do to lure you into a false sense of security, but there’s still more to the story. Peters — who was something of a medium — was wearing a locket with a picture of a woman and “Ouija” written inside. She claimed she hadn’t been thinking of it when the board started spelling, and the name stood. But there’s a footnote: Murch thinks the woman in the locket was Maria Louise Ramee, a 19th-century writer and lover of purple stationery and dogs. They may have misread her pen name — Ouida — making the Ouija board a misspelled tribute. It was a nice thought.
A century-long family feud
If you’re thinking a guy who would take advantage of the grief of a nation to make a fortune is a little shady, Baltimore magazine says you’d be right. Kennard originally enlisted the help of a furniture-maker turned coffin-maker turned undertaker to make the first board, then cut him out of the company completely. After making his Ouija fortune, though, Kennard cashed out and threw his company to the sharks: his other investors.
One of those was William Fuld. Also in the picture was brother Isaac, and the two brothers embarked on such a bitter feud over the company that after William cut Isaac out of the picture, Isaac went as far as exhuming his infant daughter from the family cemetery and burying her elsewhere. William went on to make millions, but the family wouldn’t reunite until Isaac’s grandson and William’s granddaughter called it off 96 years later.
William’s story actually ends with a weird coincidence. He died in 1927, when he was 57 years old. His biography says he was standing atop one of his buildings when the support he was leaning against gave way and he fell. One of his broken ribs pierced his heart. What’s weird? He was fond of telling people he’d built the building because the Ouija board told him to. More evidence for the demon angle.
Condemned as a liar
Helen Peters — the medium with the locket — had her family destroyed by the board she helped name, too. Historian Robert Murch came across her part in the story starting with a series of letters published in the Baltimore Sun. They were basically a list of grievances Ouija board investors started flinging at each other, published in the city’s paper presumably because the internet hadn’t been invented yet, but the human desire for sharing too much information is as old as time itself.
Peters went from being an original investor and working on the patent application to completely condemning the Ouija board as something evil. It started when her family found some of their Civil War memorabilia was missing and decided to ask the board what happened to it. As you can guess, it didn’t end well. The board identified one family member as the thief, and while some believed the board, Peters didn’t. The following feud tore the family apart. Peters condemned the board as a liar and warned others not to use it.
Heartbreaking wartime popularity
Today, the Ouija board might be something of a party game that people don’t take too seriously (or, at least, don’t want to admit they take seriously). But it first got popular for a very serious and very heartbreaking reason: the Civil War. Robert Murch says (via Time) that the overwhelming majority of families were touched by the war in some way, mostly by deaths and disappearances. Families wanted to know what happened to their loved ones, and when you’re looking for those kinds of answers, you’re willing to look anywhere.
“You wrote letters, you waited for a response, and in the meantime, wanted to know if your son or father was okay,” says Murch. The Ouija board gave the promises of answers, and even if it didn’t actually give those answers, hope was enough to make it popular.
You can’t just laugh at our old-timey ancestors, either. Parker Brothers bought the Ouija board in 1966 at the height of the Vietnam War. 1967 was the only year a board game outsold Monopoly.
The original dating game
According to historian Robert Murch (via Time), it wasn’t until 1973’s The Exorcist that people started making a major connection between the Ouija board and the devil. Reagan uses one to make contact with the demon that goes on to possess her, and the world never looked back. The danger was there, the danger was legit, and other movies tapped into it.
But before that, Murch says the Ouija board had a completely different vibe. It was featured in television shows like I Love Lucy, but it was a vehicle for humor and embarrassment rather than possession. Go back even further, and in between the wars that made the Ouija board popular for another reason, it was actually marketed as a family game particularly suited to couples. Norman Rockwell even painted a couple having a go at the Ouija board, and Murch adds at the time, getting up close and personal on a date wasn’t as widely accepted as it is now. It was a brilliant excuse to sit next to each other, touch hands, maybe touch knees, and hopefully not summon the devil. It was such a popular way to send a romantic sort of message, men often bought one for their ladies.
A bizarre witch-murder
The Ouija board has — rightly or wrongly — been linked to a lot of weird stuff. The weirdest might be the strange saga that unfolded in Buffalo, New York, in 1930.
Artvoice says it starts with Nancy Bowen, a Native American healer who had just lost her husband, Sassafras Charlie, and her friend Lila Jimerson, who was working as a model for a French sculptor. Only a few years after moving to the Cattaraugus Reservation, sculptor Henri Marchand’s wife, Clothilde, was brutally murdered. Police arrested Jimerson after a witness put her at the crime scene, and she implicated Bowen in the whole messy affair.
Both women confessed, and only part of the reason was Jimerson’s plan to get Marchand’s wife out of the way so their relationship could become something a little more respectable than an affair. She needed an accomplice, though, and here’s where the Ouija board comes in. Jimerson and Bowen held a seance to contact Bowen’s dead husband, who they said reached out through the board to claim Clothilde was actually a witch, and she’d killed him. What followed was an insane trial that involved exhuming Sassafras Charlie and lurid testimony from the Frenchman detailing his many, many affairs. Ultimately, The Buffalo News says, Bowen pleaded guilty and got time served, while Jimerson was acquitted. Marchand was outraged, but not so outraged that he left his new, 18-year-old bride home when he had to show up to the trial.
The mystery of Patience Worth
One of the weirdest Ouija board stories is still unexplained. In 1913, Pearl Curran was mucking about with her Ouija board when she contacted a spirit she named as Patience Worth. Worth, she said, was a 17th century poet who not only spoke to her, but wrote through her.
It was a seriously incredible feat, too. Between 1913 and 1917, Curran — whom the Smithsonian describes as “a St. Louis housewife of limited education” — wrote around 4 million words. There were seven books, and a ton of poems, plays, and short stories. Sometimes, she worked on them all simultaneously, with the Ouija board jumping between works without missing a word. Curran (and Patience) toured the country, sitting with the board and turning out original works. Ask any writer — that’s a seriously enviable skill, no matter where it comes from.
Curran claimed Patience was an Englishwoman who had come to the future United States in the late 1600s, and she had been killed in a conflict with Native people. At the time, people believed it. The writing wasn’t just accurate, but it was factual, it touched on history from almost all eras, and disciplines from botany and historical cuisines to anthropology. Skeptics were charmed, scholars were shocked at the quality of the work, and it still hasn’t been entirely explained just how all those stories, poems, and plays came together. Was it her subconscious? Was she a savant? Or … was Patience real?
There's a demon that lives in there
Mention the Ouija board in certain company and there’s a good chance someone’s going to warn you about Zozo. The legend says Zozo is a demon who shows up through the Ouija board with a frequency that would be terrifying … if there really were anything to the story.
The Paranormal Scholar did some digging into whether or not Zozo has any basis in history, mythology, or folklore, and they found he basically starts showing up in earnest in 2009 — the same time an Oklahoma man named Darren Wayne posted a story about Zozo online. The story was a hit, and Wayne ran with it. There have been movies, books, and even more stories about Zozo, so … what’s the deal?
Zozo does, in fact, show up in an 1818 book called Le Dictionnaire Infernal. It’s the very book Zozo believers and Wayne point to as proof the demon exists, but there’s a big problem. Translate the text from French to English then read the entire thing, and you find the girl who claims to have been possessed by three demons — Zozo, Mimi, and Crapoulet — was taken to a church official who then recognized she was sick, not possessed. She ended up being publicly beaten then imprisoned, and Zozo was called out as a hoax way back then.
So, what's really going on here?
There’s actually a pretty cool physiological phenomenon at work here, moving the planchette and spelling out all kinds of weird stuff. It’s called the ideomotor effect, and it’s basically caused by our body’s own minute, imperceptible movements. They’re so imperceptible, in fact, that we don’t know we’re making them and even when it’s pointed out to us, we still tend not to believe we’re causing it.
According to the BBC, it’s the same principle that makes things like dowsing rods work, and it’s not just as simple and straightforward as having a case of the twitchies. It brings up an important question about our own consciousness, and it forces us to wonder: How can we be so oblivious to movements we’re actually making ourselves, and how can we be completely convinced it’s not us at all?
Start looking closely at this, and it’s a little mind-blowing. Psychologist Daniel Wegner suggested the phenomenon was proof that assigning ownership to an action is nothing but an illusion, and it’s entirely possible to convince the human mind of pretty much anything as far as causality is concerned. That’s pretty heavy stuff.
It's creepier (and cooler) than demons
What’s creepier than demons from the great beyond? Demons in our very own heads. Science has started to get interested in the disconnect a Ouija board facilitates between our actions and our responsibility for our actions, and it turns out there’s something here. In 2014, researchers at the University of British Columbia (via CBC News) blindfolded volunteers, put them in front of a Ouija board, and asked them questions. They found people tended to get questions right about two-thirds of the time, even if they were sure they didn’t consciously know the answer.
What’s that mean? It’s possible the Ouija board can actually give us a way to tap into the subconscious, the part of the brain we’re not aware of, by encouraging movements we’re not aware we’re making. Ever had something on the tip of your tongue, and just can’t remember it? It’s possible a Ouija board might help.
This fun bit of brain science has the potential to be massively important. Researchers think unlocking some of the secrets here might help us understand what happens to cause things like dementia and Alzheimer’s, and it might even allow us to communicate with parts of the brain that are normally off-limits. Pretty nifty, right?