Monday, July 7, 2014

The Ouija and Me - Strange Times with Parker Brothers

The latest. The Spirit Six - Spirit control: no running expense
Life Magazine,
January 1920
It probably isn't surprising that when I started writing I chose the supernatural to be one of my recurring topics. Growing up I had a fascination with all things occult. If you had asked me I would have said that there were UFOs hovering over my neighborhood, Bigfoot infesting the local campgrounds, and every graveyard and old house came with at least one ghost. So, I spent my summers in the public library, scouring Richard Cavendish's Man, Myth, and Magic and reading anything I could on the subjects of UFOs, psychic phenomena, and hauntings. By the time I got to junior high, I'd learned to read the Tarot and regularly used a Ouija board that was handed down by my aunt. Today that same Ouija board sits in a closet in the hallway and I haven't taken it out of its box for years. It's a connection between me, the spiritualists of the 19th century, and beyond - maybe even the great beyond.

That little press-board oracle with its alphabet, numbers, "Yes", "No", and "Goodbye" has an interesting history. According to, the first ads for the Ouija appeared in February 1891 in the window of a Pittsburgh novelty shop. The ads promised that the Ouija would tell its users "about the past, present, and future with marvelous accuracy" and that it was "never-failing amusement and recreation for all the classes" and "a link between the known and unknown, the material and immaterial."

Unlike most products that have managed to stay around for over a hundred years, the Ouija you might find in your local toy store is virtually identical to the one that a Victorian shopper might have purchased. Though the materials have changed, the fortune-telling board set still consists of a board (now made of cardboard) and a pointer or planchette (now made of plastic). The seekers sit in a dimly-lit room around the board with their fingertips lightly resting on the planchette as one of them asks a question. The planchette slowly moves about the board, using the letters and numbers to spell out an answer to the question posed. Dubious, yes, but what can be said is that the US Patent Office required the board be demonstrated before granting a patent, the demonstration was performed and the patent granted, so to paraphrase Miracle on 34th Street, if the US government admits the presence of supernatural powers manipulating the Ouija...

The Ouija board emerged from American 19th century spiritualism, a belief that accepts that if given an opportunity and means, the dead can communicate with the living. Spiritualism arrived on America's shores in 1848 with a pair of mediums known as the Fox sisters. The Foxes claimed they received messages from beyond the grave in the form of rapping on the walls of their parlor and with the aid of these celebrities, spiritualism spread across the nation. By the second half of the century, spiritualism had peaked and provided a method of holding a séance which was compatible with Christian dogma. In a century where the average life expectancy was 50, spiritualism was the best of both worlds. It kept you in line with what you heard from the pulpit while providing evidence of the life everlasting.

The problem with the typical séance was ambiguity and, to be honest, the clunkiness of the whole affair. Imagine getting together on a Saturday night with a group of five or ten friends, locking yourselves in the parlor, diming the lights, and calling "on the spirit of dear departed aunt Hester" to provide you a message from the afterlife. She can knock once for yes and twice for no, which eliminates just about any really interesting information from the conversation. The answer to this issue was the Ouija with its alphabet and numbers. Now dear old Hessie could spell out, "don't marry that leach of a New Jersey insurance salesman you've been catting around with" instead of yes-ing and no-ing all night long. The Ouija was a telegraph to the netherworld, a direct line to all your loved ones and the sum and whole knowledge of the ages. In 1886 AP reported on something new sweeping through spiritualist camps in Ohio, the talking board. This article circulated in many papers, but it took Charles Kennard of Baltimore, MD to create the first mass-marketed talking board, but it wasn't the Ouija quite yet, in fact the board didn't even have a name.

Now, there's an urban legend that states the Ouija got its name from a combination of the French Oui (meaning yes) and German ja (also meaning yes). Truth is that the name is a bit more mysterious, because the board named itself. According to research by Ouija authority Robert Murch, Kennard investor Elijah Bond's sister-in-law Helen Peters, who was purported to be a "very strong medium". asked the board what it should be called and it spelled out Ouija. When Peters asked what the word meant, the board replied "good luck". Of course it should be said that the night of the board's naming Peters happened to be wearing a locket with a picture of author and women's rights activist, Ouida, which had the word "Ouija" printed above the picture.

By 1892 Kennard Novelty Company was raking in cash from sales of the Ouija and, but 1893, Kennard himself was out of the talking board business. William Fuld, who the New York Times erroneously credited as the inventor of the Ouija in his obituary, took over the company. By 1927 Fuld was dead, having perished in a freak fall from the top of his new factory for building talking boards.

The Ouija has remained popular for more than 120 years, a direct line to the spirit world with no medium intermediary required. Its popularity grew in tough times when people needed answers and something to believe in (World War I, prohibition, and so forth). Norman Rockwell illustrated a scene including a man and woman with an Ouija on their knees for the Saturday Evening Post and Life Magazine joked on the idea of spirit-powered cars (see the Spirit Six comic at the beginning of this post). During the Great Depression, while industry was stagnating, Fuld and Company had to open additional plants to manufacture enough boards to meet demands. During five months in 1944 one New York department store sold over 50000 Ouijas. In 1967 (the year I was born and the same year additional American troops were being sent to Viet Nam), Parker Brothers bought the rights to the Ouija board and sold 2 million copies, more than their Monopoly game. And, considering the state of the world economy, Afghanistan, Iraq, and Russia setting its site on whichever former satellite country it finds an irritant this week, that Ouija sales are climbing again.

Ouija boards have been credited with the inspiration for novels and poetry, but the reputation of the talking board has darkened significantly since the days of the early spiritualists. In 1973 a movie that scared me to death hit the big screen. The Exorcist plot featured a little girl who'd become possessed after playing with the Ouija and it managed to alter the fabric of pop culture. Suddenly the Ouija was seen as a tool of the devil, a cliché in bad horror movies, and a target of hatred for fundamentalist Christians, but sales stayed strong.

How does the Ouija work? Well, there's a lot of theory about that, the most widely accepted hearkening back to something called the ideometer effect described in 1852 by physician and physiologist William Benjamin Carpenter and published a report for the Royal Institution of Great Britain. But I'm not here to bury the Ouija, I'm here to revel in its mystery. For example, a group of researchers performed an experiment involving a robot, a test subject, and an Ouija board. The subject was told that they were p playing with a subject in another room and that the robot simply mimicked that isolated participant's movements, but this was a trick. The robot did nothing but amplify the participant's movements as a way to make them think they weren't in control. They then were asked a series of yes or no, fact-based questions and expected to use the Ouija to answer. This is where the weirdness starts.

When a group of participants were asked to guess the answers, they scored approximately 50%, but the participants using the Ouija scored approximately 65%. Further research is underway, but I'm going to use this shred of statistically insignificant data to support my dear old talking board. Maybe I'll break it out the next time I have to take a test. As for writing inspiration, the Ouija is one of those tropes that's been pretty much done to death (pun intended). It still appears on TV and in the movies as the conduit for demonic entities, spirit possession, and all sorts of paranormal mischief, which says something for its cultural significance, but if you're looking for an entry point to a story, I'd choose something else.

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