My godfather used to say that he didn’t believe in witches, but he was certain that they flew. What he meant was that, even though he believed they weren’t real, he didn’t want to find out the contrary. I’ve always followed that same logic mainly when it comes to “playing” with supernatural devices such as the Red Book game or the Ouija board, both favorites of some of my friends. Now, what do these have in common? They both allegedly answer to the questions you ask, and these are thought to be answered by a supernatural spirit. The first one doesn’t really need an explanation since it’s just as simple as asking a question, flipping the questions of the book, and placing your finger (or a knife if you want to get darker) to read the selected sentence; no biggie. The latter, the famous Ouija boards are what have always called my attention and clearly millions of other people’s over the years. So, where did these come from and how do they really work? That’s what we’re going to talk about today.
From a novelty product to the devil’s tool
Unlike what many would believe (myself included), the origins of Ouija boards don’t date back to some ancient civilization or religious practice (though there’s something similar from 5th century China). Disappointingly, these were actually a nineteenth-century invention created by a group of businessmen who didn’t even believe in the existence of spirits but saw the increasing popularity of Spiritualism as a great opportunity to make a fortune. Though Spiritualism had been really popular in Europe for a while, it became a thing in the US in the mid-nineteenth century. This happened mainly due to the emergence of a group of people who claimed to be able to communicate with the dead, giving people the opportunity to contact their loved ones. Soon, with the outbreak of the Civil War, the practice became even more common, with people wanting to know if their loved ones were still alive or not. As I said before, this anxiety and urge to communicate with the dead was a great opportunity to make a fortune.
The Ouija board was first produced by Charles Kennard in 1890 with the help of a group of investors along with the Kennard Novelty Company. What was the idea? At the time, séances and other Spiritualist activities were quite expensive, but still, people really did their best to be able to communicate with the spirits. In addition, these practices took a lot of time, and since normal communication technology was being optimized every day, people really wanted something as effective and fast as, let’s say the telegram. Long story short, the board got patented and advertised all over the country and soon all over the world. In less than a year, the Kennard Novelty Company opened six more factories in the US and one in London.
They were selling like hotcakes by the end of the century. Later on, sales went down, but they increased again in the late 1910s and twenties mainly due to the outbreak of WWI and the Prohibition. As you can imagine, this was a pattern repeated in the subsequent decades always linked to horrible moments in history, the Great Depression, WWII, Vietnam. However, this wasn’t going to last forever, and according to Murch, the craze ended in 1973 with the release of The Exorcist. Ouija boards were no longer a harmless device to contact your loved ones, now it was the devil’s main tool of communication, and people were really freaked out that they would experience something like in the movie.
Though they were still for sale, they never achieved the success they’d had for more than eighty years. The few who got them did it out of mere morbidity, actually looking for something really spooky to happen. Now, we’ve talked a lot about how it came about and how it became a massive success throughout the world, but how did it work and why were millions and millions of people convinced of its effectivity?
A bond with the spirits or an unconscious response of our brain?
For starters, the story says that in order for it to be patented, the office chief told them that if the board was able to spell correctly his name (which he hadn’t told them) he would give them the patent with no other objection. The board did, though it’s believed that they had actually researched all about the officer beforehand. But still, how were people convinced? Many have tried made to decipher the mechanism behind the Ouija board, but to no avail.
Actually, Spiritualism was what inspired chemist and physicist Michael Faraday in 1852 after seeing the many devices people were using to connect with the spirits. He discovered the Ideomotor phenomenon or effect. This consists of subtle, unconscious muscular movements that can have a powerful physical effect. Besides this, Ouija boards back then were created with very light materials that made easy even a slight movement. Modern ones, though they’re created with plastic, have a felt base that facilitates the movement as well.
This ideomotor theory has been widely tested and analyzed not only to reveal the science behind Ouija boards but actually as a way to better understand the many levels of human subconsciousness and how these levels can actually have an important impact in our physical movements. Moreover, it gives a logical explanation to a lot of the different “evidence” we have about paranormal events. This might explain moving tables during séances or even the recent game of “Charlie, Charlie.”
Ouija boards definitely have that air of mystery that continues frightening us and intriguing us, and that was probably it’s creators’ plan all along. However, at the same time, pop culture (mainly cinema) has recently brought us back to that era of gullibility and blind faith that dragged so many to the board in the first place. Of course, this time it’s all centered on morbidity and a strange fixation with the occult and paranormal to spice up our lives.
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