How Ouija Boards Work


Closeup of an Ouija board.
Closeup of an Ouija board.
Jeffrey Coolidge/Getty Images

If you've ever watched "The Exorcist," you'll know that Regan's troubles all began when she started to play the Ouija board.

Granted, that was just a movie. But there have been some weird happenings in real life attributed to the board. In 1913, spirits allegedly spelled out "CHINAMAN" for British author Sax Rohmer, and his famously mustachioed super-villain Dr. Fu Manchu was born. In 1920, a Ouija boom in the tiny town of El Cerrito, Calif. led to mass hysteria and landed several residents in an asylum. And in 1935, Nellie Hurd of Kansas City learned during a Ouija session her husband was having an affair, which he denied. She proceeded to beat him until he shot her.

Advertisement

Advertisement

Even more bizarre, James Merrill's 1976 Pulitzer Prize-winning book of poetry, "Divine Comedies," included the controversial "The Book of Ephraim," which was about the author's Ouija-assisted contacts with spirits, one being W.H. Auden.

Tales of sudden brilliance, insanity and death have circulated ever since 1891, when attorney Elijah Bond patented the "Ouija Egyptian Luck-Board" [source: Patent Museum]. Egypt probably had nothing to do with it – there's little real evidence of Ouija's reputed ancient roots, and the word is not in fact Egyptian for "good luck."

Over the next 70 years, ownership moved around -- from Bond to businessman Charles Kennard, who manufactured and sold the new toy (and made the Egyptian "good luck" claim), and then from Kennard to inventor (and former Kennard employee) William Fuld, who ran with it. Fuld filed numerous Ouija-related patents over the years and is credited with mass-marketing the Ouija board into a moneymaker. (He also said the name is a joining of the French and German words for "yes" – oui and ja. But who knows.) Fuld finally sold the rights to toymaker Parker Brothers (now Hasbro) in 1966 [source: Horowitz].

One thing is for sure, though: Ouija's creators had timing.

This engraving shows a planchette from 1885. Note the pencil so the spirit could "write" a message through the medium.
This engraving shows a planchette from 1885. Note the pencil so the spirit could "write" a message through the medium.
Universal History Archive/Getty Images

In the mid-19th century, a movement called Spiritualism swept through the United States. Mediums, mainly women, who claimed they could contact the dead gained large followings.-- perhaps because deadly disease epidemics were rampant, and other "spiritual" outlets at the time seemed stodgy and paternalistic [source: Suart]. Regardless, by the early 20th century, séances, readings and trances were all the rage as entertainment or as serious attempts to make contact with those who had passed on. In this mystical context, the Ouija board was an exciting development [source: Horowitz].

The original Ouija design was simple, somehow creepy, and has hardly changed to this day: a rectangular, wooden board with a small, heart-shaped pointer, or planchette, meant to glide around it on three tiny legs. Printed on the center of board were letters and numbers: the English alphabet in two arced lines, and a line of numbers directly below it. In the upper left were the moon and the word "yes;" in the upper right the sun and "no," and across the bottom, "good bye."

Advertisement

Advertisement

Mediums had been using similar "talking boards" or "spirit boards" for years. There was the dial plate, a spinning wheel with letters and numbers along its circumference, which stopped at characters to spell out a spirit's message; and the alphabet board, which was similar to the Ouija but had people pointing consciously to various letters until the spirits responded noisily, eventually spelling a message; and the planchette, essentially a Ouija pointer but with a hole for a pencil so the spirit, moving the planchette through a medium, could write his message down [sources: Horowitz, Museum of Talking Boards].

The Ouija board put divination into a neat, mass-marketed package. Anyone, it seemed, could talk to a long-dead mother, or W.H. Auden, or any random spirit using only this wooden board and pointer. Or just inject some "great mirth-making" into a party, as an ad from 1920 put it [source: Australian Paranormal Phenomenon Investigators].

It's not just the Ouija design that's stood the test of time. Gameplay, too, has changed very little in its century on the shelves.

From the 19th to the 21st centuries, the instructions included with the Ouija board have stayed pretty much the same. The basic process of conducting a séance via Ouija goes like this:

Two or more players lightly rest their fingertips on the planchette. One asks a question while everyone in the séance concentrates. Players then watch as the planchette glides around the board, seemingly of its own accord, to various letters or numbers or the "yes" or "no" words. The planchette has an opening in the center through which players can read the letters and numbers it stops on. The yesses and noes are instant answers, while the letters and numbers are written down for later analysis. Ideally, they spell words or sentences the players can understand [source: Hasbro].

Advertisement

Advertisement

It may take up to five minutes for the planchette to start moving. If, after five minutes, nothing happens, players should ask another question and try again.

But that's a pretty bare-bones approach. The Internet has many tips for improving chances of contact. For instance, you should set the mood. Mr. Fuld himself advised that you:

Have no one at the table who will not sit seriously and respectfully. If you use it in a frivolous spirit, asking ridiculous questions, laughing over it, you naturally get undeveloped influences around you [source: Museum of Talking Boards].

Concentration is essential. Experts in this sort of thing advise that you dim the lights, burn incense and breathe deeply. Witchboard World recommends turning off daily "noise" like televisions and computers and using candles instead of electric lighting. Some practitioners begin with a ritual: perhaps a recitation, song, or request for only friendly spirits to speak through the board [source: Museum of Talking Boards].

How players pose their questions matters, too. You should ask simple questions, one at a time, speaking clearly. Avoid scary questions; if the spirit you contact turns out to be an evil one, it may "feed on your fear" and use it to mess with you [source: The Astral World]. Along those lines, always move the planchette to "good bye" before ending a séance, lest the portal to the other side stay open, allowing entry to all sorts of unsavory entities [source: Thrillvania].

Finally, the ability to channel the dead doesn't happen overnight. The Museum of Talking Boards recommends 30 minutes of practice daily for two weeks. The Astral World, however, recommends moderation, "only a handful of hours each week, if that." If you develop a Ouija addiction, unscrupulous spirits might sense it and decide to mess with you.

Got it, you say. But what, if anything, is really going on? Are spirits really moving the pointer?

Two people play the Ouija board in 1972. The basic design has not changed in more than 100 years.
Two people play the Ouija board in 1972. The basic design has not changed in more than 100 years.
Millard Smith/The Denver Post via Getty Images

What or who is driving the motion of the planchette is and always will be controversial. In the spiritual crowd, it's a force from the beyond. In the science crowd, it's much more earthly.

The short version is: things move when we push them. The long version is a lot more interesting.

Advertisement

Advertisement

Scientists call it the ideomotor effect. Essentially, the ideomotion theory claims the unconscious mind can cause the body to move without the conscious mind knowing about it [source: Stafford].

The pregnant woman's "pendulum test" for her baby's gender is a good example of ideomotion. In this test, she holds a string weighted with a ring over her belly and waits for it to move on its own. Back-and-forth swinging means a boy; circular motion means a girl. Without her consciously willing it, her finger muscles make tiny movements, which will build up until the pendulum starts to swing in one direction or the other.

The "self-moving" pendulum, in fact, was the subject of one of the earliest studies of ideomotion. In the 1800s, in the context of hypnosis research, a man named Anton Chevreul found that a pendulum could help reveal a person's unconscious thoughts by magnifying minute movements of which the subject was not consciously aware [source: Stafford].

In a much later study that focused specifically on the Ouija board, published by psychologists at the University of British Columbia in 2012, researchers posited the effect is strongest when multiple people have their fingers on the planchette. Each blindfolded subject was told he or she was one of two people touching the pointer, and as the planchette moved, the subject often claimed the other player was pushing it -- when in fact there was no other player involved [source: Palmer]. A person's conscious belief that she is not moving the pointer, they say, enhances her unconscious mind's ability to trigger the movement without her knowing [source: Wilson].

In this way, the game's "two or more players" instruction makes a lot of sense: The more people touching the pointer, the easier it is to believe you aren't moving it. Often, the player or players have a preference for a specific outcome and unconsciously move the planchette in the desired direction.

Not that it always moves. Or spells something remotely intelligible.

Does the board really provide access to the spirit world? Here's one test to try: If you blindfold your players and turn the board 90 degrees (to foil layout memorization), the nonsensical results will tend to discourage a mystical explanation [source: Eberle].

Even the earliest Ouija patents made no direct claims of otherworldliness. One of Fuld's patents explained the pointer's motion as caused "by the involuntary muscular motion of the hands of the players, or through some other agency" [source: William Fuld]. An ad from 1920 hedged its bets by stating that the Ouija board "apparently answers questions regarding past, present, and future" [source: Australian Paranormal Phenomenon Investigators].

Advertisement

Advertisement

In fact, when asked by a reporter if he believed in the Ouija board, Fuld replied, "I should say not. I'm no spiritualist. I'm a Presbyterian – been one ever since I was so high" [source: Horowitz].

Yet, even if there is nothing "spiritual" going on while playing the Ouija board, perhaps the release of unconscious thoughts is itself fascinating and something to ponder.

When Pulitzer Prize-winning poet James Merrill was asked if he couldn't have written his work without the Ouija board, Merrill responded, "You could think of the board as a delaying mechanism. It spaces out, into time and language, what might have come to a saint or a lunatic in one blinding ZAP. ...It's made me think twice about the imagination. If the spirits aren't external, how astonishing the mediums become!" [source: Vendler].

Author's Note: How Ouija Boards Work

In explanatory writing, the audience always matters. In explaining the "why" of anything reported to have mystical properties, writers often have to make a choice between focusing on the spiritual and explaining the science. Here, I chose to go primarily with the scientific explanation of the phenomenon, partly because my audience tends to skew that way, and partly of necessity: Explanations for what many view as Ouija-assisted contact vary widely and, by the very nature of the topic, lack even the possibility of "objective" proof. Science is safer. And, if you ask me, a far more fascinating context in which to view what often does appear to be magic.

Related Articles

Sources

  • The Astral World. "Fifteen Ouija Board Tips." (Sept. 14, 2013) http://www.theastralworld.com/occult/ouijaboardtips.php
  • Banyan, Calvin D. "Chevreul's Pendulum." Banyan Hypnosis Center. (Sept. 9, 2013) http://www.hypnosiscenter.com/free-article-pendulum.htm
  • BBC. "Ouija Boards." (Sept. 10, 2013) http://www.bbc.co.uk/dna/place-london/plain/A671483
  • Berridge, Robert. "Ouija Does It." The Saturday Evening Post. January/February 2012. Online: Feb. 22, 2012. (Sept. 14, 2013) http://www.saturdayeveningpost.com/2012/02/22/in-the-magazine/norman-rockwell-in-the-magazine/ouija.html
  • Catholic Answers. "Are Ouija boards harmless?" (Sept. 4, 2013) http://www.catholic.com/quickquestions/are-ouija-boards-harmless
  • Donaghue, Denis. "What the Ouija Board Said." The New York Times. June 15, 1980. (Sept. 10, 2013) http://www.nytimes.com/books/01/03/04/specials/merrill-pageant.html
  • Eberle, Scott G. "The Ouija Board Explained." Psychology Today. May 16, 2012. (Sept. 19, 2013) http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/play-in-mind/201205/the-ouija-board-explained
  • Engle, Tim. "The Ouija board speaks; Dare we listen? Maybe we're the ones making it talk!" The Kansas City Star. Oct. 3, 2007. (Sept. 9, 2013) http://www.kansascity.com/2007/10/03/301937/the-ouija-board-speaks-dare-we.html
  • The Harbinger. "Ouija Board Widely Criticized; Devotees Committed to Mental Asylum, 1920." July 2, 2010. (Sept. 19, 2013) http://www.devilspenny.com/2010/07/ouija-board-widely-criticized-devotees-committed-to-mental-asylum-1920/
  • Hasbro. "Ouija Board Instructions." (Sept. 14, 2013) www.hasbro.com/common/instruct/Ouija_Board_%282001%29.pdf
  • HistoryNet. "The Fox Sisters: Spiritualism's Unlikely Founders." June 12, 2006. (Sept. 19, 2013) http://www.historynet.com/the-fox-sisters-spiritualisms-unlikely-founders.htm
  • Horowitz, Mitch. "Ouija!" MitchHorowitz.com. (Sept. 8, 2013) http://www.mitchhorowitz.com/ouija.html
  • IMDB. Synopsis: "Paranormal Activity." http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1179904/synopsis?ref_=tt_stry_pl
  • The Kansas City Star. "Ouija in pop culture." Oct. 27, 2004. Online: Oct. 3, 2007. (Sept. 14, 2013) http://www.kansascity.com/2007/10/03/301938/ouija-in-pop-culture.html
  • McCarthy, Erin. "A Brief History of the Ouija Board." Mental Floss. (Sept. 14, 2013) http://mentalfloss.com/article/12952/brief-history-ouija-board
  • Museum of Talking Boards. "Directions on How to Use the Ouija Board." (Sept. 14, 2013) http://www.museumoftalkingboards.com/directio.html
  • Museum of Talking Boards. "The Dial Plate Talking Boards." (Sept. 10, 2013) http://www.museumoftalkingboards.com/dials.html
  • Museum of Talking Boards. "Tales From the Talking Board." (Sept. 14, 2013) http://www.museumoftalkingboards.com/stories.html
  • Museum of Talking Boards. "Talking Boards in the Movies." (Sept. 9, 2013) http://www.museumoftalkingboards.com/Film.html
  • Palmer, Daniel. "UBC researchers use Ouija board to study 'unconscious' intelligence." Metro News. June 13, 2012. (Sept. 19, 2013) http://metronews.ca/news/vancouver/262104/ubc-researchers-use-ouija-board-to-study-unconcious-intelligence/
  • Patent Museum. "Ouija Board (Planchette): Elijah J. Bond – 1891." (Sept. 14, 2013) http://patentmuseum.com/patents_c.asp?Thumb=085_6_sm
  • Poetry Foundation. "James Merrill." (Sept. 19, 2013) http://www.poetryfoundation.org/bio/james-merrill
  • Stafford, Tom. "How the Ouija board really moves." BBC. July 30, 2013. (Sept. 4, 2013) http://www.bbc.com/future/story/20130729-what-makes-the-ouija-board-move
  • Thrillvania. "How to Host a Ouija Board Party." Aug. 12, 2013. (Sept. 18, 2013) http://www.hauntedhousepark.com/haunted-house-news/how-to-host-a-ouija-board-party/
  • Vendler, Helen and James Merrill. "James Merrill's Myth: An Interview." The New York Review of Books. May 3, 1979. (Sept. 14, 2013) http://www.nybooks.com/articles/archives/1979/may/03/james-merrills-myth-an-interview/?pagination=false
  • WilliamFuld.com. "Ouija." (Sept. 14, 2013) http://www.williamfuld.com/ouija_patentsandtrademarks_williamfuld.html
  • WilliamFuld.com. "Strange Aftermaths Not Foreseen by the Ouija's Inventors." (Sept. 14, 2013. http://www.williamfuld.com/ouija_articles_unknown1940.html
  • Wilson, Clare. "Ouija board helps psychologists probe the subconscious." New Scientist. July 5, 2012. (Sept. 4, 2013) http://www.newscientist.com/blogs/shortsharpscience/2012/07/-is-there-anybody-there.html
  • Whittaker, Dan. "Tips for Use." Witchboard World. (Sept. 14, 2013) http://www.witchboards.net/tips.html