How Ouija Boards Work

The Blindfold Test

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].


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.

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