The following article appeared in
the Fall 2006 issue of Esopus
a biannual of arts and culture.
How this American Anomaly
More than Just Fun and Games
some the rectangular board evokes memories of late-night sleepover
parties, shrieks of laughter, and toy shelves brimming with Magic Eight
Balls, Frisbees, and Barbie dolls.
For others, Ouija
boards – known more generally as talking boards or spirit boards – have
darker associations. Stories abound of fearsome entities making threats,
dire predictions, and even physical assaults on innocent users after a
night of Ouija experimentation.
And the fantastic
claims don’t stop there: Pulitzer Prize-winning poet James Merrill
vowed until his death in 1995 that his most celebrated work was written
with the use of a homemade Ouija board.
For my part, I first
discovered the mysterious workings of Ouija nearly twenty years ago
during a typically freezing-cold winter on eastern Long Island. While
heaters clanked and hummed within the institutional-white walls of my
college dormitory, friends allayed boredom with a Parker Brothers Ouija
As is often the case
with Ouija, one young woman became the ringleader of board readings. She
reprised the role of spirit medium that had typically fallen to women in
past eras, when the respectable clergy was a male-only affair. Under the
gaze of her dark eyes – which others said gave them chills – the
late-night Ouija sessions came into vogue.
Most of my evenings
were given over to editing the college newspaper, but I often arrived
home at the dorm to frightening stories: The board, one night, kept
spelling out the name “Seth,” which my friends associated with evil.
(Probably connecting it with the malevolent Egyptian god Set, who is
seen as a Satan prototype.) When asked, “Who’s Seth?” the board directed
its attention to a member of the group, and repeatedly replied: “Ask
Carlos.” A visibly shaken Carlos began breathing heavily and refused to
Consumed as I was
with exposing scandals within the campus food service, I never took the
opportunity to sit-in on these séances – a move I came to regard with a
mixture of relief and regret. The idea that a mass-produced game board
and its plastic pointer could display some occult faculty, or could tap
into a user’s subconscious, got under my skin. And I wasn’t alone:
In its heyday, Ouija outsold Monopoly.
Ouija boards have
sharply declined in popularity since the 1960s and 70s, when you could
find one in nearly every toy-cluttered basement. But they remain among
the most peculiar consumer items in American history. Indeed,
controversy endures to this day over their origin. To get a better sense
of what Ouija boards are – and where they came from – requires going
back to an era in which even an American president dabbled in talking to
Today, it is
difficult to imagine the popularity enjoyed by the movement called
Spiritualism in the nineteenth century, when table rapping, séances,
medium trances, and other forms of contacting the “other side” were
practiced by an estimated ten percent of the population. It began in
1848 when the teenaged sisters Kate and Margaret Fox introduced “spirit
rapping” to a lonely hamlet in upstate New York called Hydesville. While
every age and culture had known hauntings, Spiritualism appeared to
foster actual communication with the beyond. Within a few years, people
from every walk of life took seriously the contention that one could
talk to the dead.
Spiritualism seemed to extend the hope of reaching loved ones, and
perhaps easing the pain of losing a child to one of the diseases of the
day. The allure of immortality or of feeling oneself lifted beyond
workaday realities attracted others. For others still, spirit counsels
became a way to cope with anxiety about the future, providing
otherworldly advice in matters of health, love, or money.
newspaper accounts of the era, President Abraham Lincoln hosted a séance
in the White House – though more as a good-humored parlor game than as a
serious spiritual inquiry. Yet at least one vividly rendered
Spiritualist memoir places a trance medium in the private quarters of
the White House, advising the President and Mrs. Lincoln just after the
outbreak of the Civil War.
In this atmosphere of
ghostly knocks and earnest pleas to hidden forces, nineteenth-century
occultists began looking for easier ways to communicate with the beyond.
And in the best American fashion, they took a do-it-yourself approach to
the matter. Their homespun efforts at contacting the spirit world led
toward something we call Ouija – but not until they worked through
several other methods.
One involved a form
of table rapping in which questioners solicited spirit knocks when
letters of the alphabet were called out, thus spelling a word. This was,
however, a tedious and time-consuming exercise. A faster means was by
“automatic writing,” in which spirit beings could communicate through
the pen of a channeler; but some complained that this produced many
pages of unclear or meandering prose.
directly prefigured the heart-shaped pointer that moves around the Ouija
board. The planchette – French for “little plank” – was a
three-legged writing tool with a hole at the top for the insertion of a
pencil. The planchette was designed for one person or more to
rest their fingers on it and allow it to “glide” across a page, writing
out a spirit message. The device originated in Europe in the early
1850s; by 1860 commercially manufactured planchettes were
advertised in America.
Two other items from
the 1850s are direct forebears to Ouija: “dial plates” and alphabet
paste boards. In 1853 a Connecticut Spiritualist invented the “Spiritual
Telegraph Dial,” a roulette-like wheel with letters and numerals around
its circumference. Dial plates came in various forms, sometimes of a
complex variety. Some were rigged to tables to respond to “spirit
tilts,” while others were presumably guided – like a planchette –
by the hands of questioners.
further simplified matters. In use as early as 1852, these talking-board
precursors allowed seekers to point to a letter as a means of prompting
a “spirit rap,” thereby quickly spelling a word. It was, perhaps, the
easiest method yet. And it was only a matter of time until inventors and
entrepreneurs began to see the possibilities.
More than 150 years
after the dawn of the Spiritualist era, contention endures over who
created Ouija. The conventional history of American toy manufacturing
credits a Baltimore businessman named William Fuld. Fuld, we are told,
“invented” Ouija around 1890. So it is repeated online and in books of
trivia, reference works, and “ask me” columns in newspapers. For many
decades, the manufacturer itself – first Fuld’s company and later the
toy giant Parker Brothers – insinuated as much by running the term
“William Fuld Talking Board Set” across the top of every board.
history is wrong.
The patent for a
“Ouija or Egyptian luck-board” was filed on May 28, 1890 by Baltimore
resident and patent attorney Elijah H. Bond, who assigned the rights to
two city businessmen, Charles W. Kennard and William H.A. Maupin. The
patent was granted on February 10, 1891, and so was born the Ouija-brand
The first patent
reveals a familiarly oblong board, with the alphabet running in double
rows across the top, and numbers in a single row along the bottom. The
sun and moon, marked respectively by the words “yes” and “no,” adorn the
upper left and right corners, while the words “Good bye” appear at the
bottom center. Later on, instructions and the illustrations accompanying
them, prescribed an expressly social - even flirtatious - experience:
Two parties, preferably a man and woman, were to balance the board
between them on their knees, placing their fingers lightly upon the
planchette. ("It draws the two people using it into close companionship
and weaves about them a feeling of mysterious isolation," the box read.)
In an age of buttoned-up morals, it was a tempting dalliance.
The Kennard Novelty
Company of Baltimore employed a teenaged varnisher who helped run shop
operations, and this was William Fuld. By 1892, however, Charles W.
Kennard’s partners removed him from the company amid financial disputes
and a new patent – this time for an improved pointer, or planchette
– was filed by a 19-year-old Fuld. In years to come, it was Fuld who
would take over the company and affix his name to every board.
Based on an account
in a 1920 magazine article, inventor’s credit sometimes goes to an E.C.
Reichie, alternately identified as a Maryland cabinetmaker or coffin
maker. This theory was popularized by a defunct Baltimore business
monthly called Warfield’s, which ran a richly detailed – and at
points, one suspects, richly imagined – history of Ouija boards in 1990.
The article opens with a misspelled E.C. “Reiche” as the board’s
inventor, and calls him a coffin maker with an interest in the afterlife
– a name and a claim that have been repeated and circulated ever since.
Yet this figure
appears virtually nowhere else in Ouija history, including on the first
patent. His name came up during a period of patent litigation about
thirty years after Ouija’s inception. A 1920 account in New York’s
World Magazine – widely disseminated that year in the popular weekly
The Literary Digest – reports that one of Ouija’s early investors
told a judge that E.C. Reichie had invented the board. But no reference
to an E.C. Reichie – be he a cabinetmaker or coffin maker – appears in
the court transcript, according to Ouija historian and talking-board
manufacturer Robert Murch.
role, or whether there was a Reichie, may be moot, at least in terms of
the board’s invention. Talking boards of a homemade variety were already
a popular craze among Spiritualists by the mid-1880s. At his online
Museum of Talking Boards, Ouija collector and chronicler Eugene Orlando
posts an 1886 article from the New-York Daily Tribune (as
reprinted that year in a Spiritualist monthly, The Carrier Dove)
describing the breathless excitement around the new-fangled alphabet
board and its message indicator. “I know of whole communities that are
wild over the 'talking board,'” says a man in the article. This was a
full four years before the first Ouija patent was filed. Obviously Bond,
Kennard, and their associates were capitalizing on an invention – not
conceiving of one.
And what of the name
Ouija? Alternately pronounced wee-JA and wee-GEE, its origin may never
be known. Kennard at one time claimed it was Egyptian for “good luck”
(it’s not). Fuld later said it was simply a marriage of the French and
German words for “yes.” One early investor claimed the board spelled
out its own name. As with other aspects of Ouija history, the board
seems determined to withhold a few secrets of its own.
but misleading, claim is that Ouija, or talking boards, have ancient
roots. In a typical example, Frank Gaynor’s 1953 Dictionary of
Mysticism states that ancient boards of different shapes and sizes
“were used in the sixth century before Christ.” In a wide range of books
and articles, everyone from Pythagoras to the Mongols to the Ancient
Egyptians is said to have possessed Ouija-like devices. But the claims
rarely withstand scrutiny.
Orlando points out that the primary reference to Ouija existing in the
pre-modern world appears in a passage from Lewis Spence’s 1920
Encyclopedia of Occultism – which is repeated in Nandor Fodor’s
popular 1934 Encyclopedia of Psychic Science. The Fodor passage
reads, in part: “As an invention it is very old. It was in use in the
days of Pythagoras, about 540 B.C. According to a French historical
account of the philosopher’s life, his sect held frequent séances or
circles at which ‘a mystic table, moving on wheels, moved towards signs,
which the philosopher and his pupil Philolaus, interpreted to the
audience...’” It is, Orlando points out, “the one recurring quote found
in almost every academic article on the Ouija board.” But the story
presents two problems: The “French historical account” is never
identified; and the Pythagorean scribe Philolaus lived not in
Pythagoras’s time, but in the following century.
It is also worth
keeping in mind that we know precious little today about Pythagoras and
his school. No writings of Pythagoras survive, and the historical record
depends upon later works – some of which were written centuries after
his death. Hence, commentators on occult topics are sometimes tempted to
project backwards onto Pythagoras all sorts of arcane practices, Ouija
and modern numerology among them.
Still other writers –
when they are not repeating claims like the one above – tend to misread
ancient historical accounts and mistake other divinatory tools, such as
pendulum dishes, for Ouija boards. Oracles were rich and varied from
culture to culture – from Germanic runes to Greek Delphic rites – but
the prevailing literature on oracular traditions supports no suggestion
that talking boards, as we know them, were in use before the
After William Fuld
took the reins of Ouija manufacturing in America, business was brisk –
if not always happy. Fuld formed a quickly shattered business alliance
with his brother Isaac, which landed the two in court battles for nearly
twenty years. Isaac was eventually found to have violated an injunction
against creating a competing board, called the Oriole, after being
forced from the family business in 1901. The two brothers would never
speak again. Ouija, and anything that looked directly like it, was
firmly in the hands of William Fuld.
By 1920, the board
was so well known that artist Norman Rockwell painted a send-up of a
couple using one – the woman dreamy and credulous, the man fixing her
with a cloying grin – for a cover of The Saturday Evening Post.
For Fuld, though, everything was strictly business. “Believe in the
Ouija board?” he once told a reporter. “I should say not. I’m no
spiritualist. I’m a Presbyterian – been one ever since I was so high.”
In 1920, the Baltimore Sun reported that Fuld, by his own
“conservative estimate,” had pocketed an astounding $1 million from
Fuld’s success may have brought him was soon lost: On February 26, 1927,
he fell to his death from the roof of his Baltimore factory. The
54-year-old manufacturer was supervising the replacement of a flagpole
when an iron support bar he held gave way, and he fell three stories
Fuld’s children took
over his business – and generally prospered. While sales dipped and rose
– and competing boards came and went – only the Ouija brand endured. And
by the 1940s, Ouija was experiencing a new surge in popularity.
and other Spiritualist methods proliferate during times of war.
Spiritualism had seen its last great explosion of interest in the period
around World War I, when parents yearned to contact children lost to the
battlefield carnage. In World War II, many anxious families turned to
Ouija. In a 1944 article, “The Ouija Comes Back,” The New York Times
reported that one New York City department store alone sold 50,000 Ouija
boards in a five-month period.
manufacturers were taking notice. Some attempted knock-off products. But
Parker Brothers developed bigger plans. In a move that would place a
carryover from the age of Spiritualism into playrooms all across
America, the toy giant bought the rights for an undisclosed sum in 1966.
The Fuld family was out of the picture, and Ouija was about to achieve
its biggest success ever.
The following year,
Parker Brothers is reported to have sold more than two million Ouija
boards – topping sales of its most popular game, Monopoly. The occult
boom that began in the late 1960s, as astrologers adorned the cover of
Time magazine and witchcraft became a fast-growing “new”
religion, fueled the board’s sales for the following decades. A Parker
spokesperson says the company has sold over ten million boards since
The sixties and
seventies also saw the rise of Ouija as a product of the youth culture.
Ouija circles sprang up in college dormitories, and the board emerged as
a fad among adolescents, for whom its ritual of secret messages and
intimate communications became a form of rebellion. One youthful
experimenter recalls an enticing atmosphere of danger and intrigue –
“like shoplifting or taking drugs” – that allowed her and a girlfriend
to bond together over Ouija sessions in which they contacted the spirit
of “Candelyn,” a nineteenth-century girl who had perished in a fire.
Sociologists suggested that Ouija sessions were a way for young people
to project, and work through, their own fears. But many Ouija users
claimed that the verisimilitude of the communications were reason enough
to return to the board.
While officials at
Parker Brothers (now a division of Hasbro) would not get into the ebb
and flow of sales, there’s little question that Ouija has declined
precipitously in recent years. In 1999, the company brought an era to an
end when it discontinued the vintage Fuld design and switched to a
smaller, glow-in-the-dark version of the board. In consumer
manufacturing, the redesign of a classic product often signals an effort
to reverse falling sales. Listed at $19.95, Ouija costs about 60% more
than standards like Monopoly and Scrabble, which further suggests that
it has become something of a specialty item.
In a far remove from
the days when Ouija led Parker Brothers’ lineup, the product now seems
more like a corporate stepchild. The “Ouija Game” (“ages 8 to Adult”)
merits barely a mention on Hasbro’s website. The company posts no
official history for Ouija, as it does for its other storied products.
And the claims from the original 1960s-era box – “Weird and mysterious.
Surpasses, in its unique results, mind reading, clairvoyance and second
sight” – have since been significantly toned down. Given the negative
attention the board sometimes attracts – both from frightened users and
religionists who smell a whiff of Satan’s doings – Ouija, its sales
likely on the wane, may be a product that Hasbro would just as soon
receives more customer reviews – alternately written in tones of
outrage, fear, delight, or ridicule – than any other “toy” for sale on
Amazon.com (280 at last count). What other “game” so polarizes opinion
among those who dismiss it as a childhood plaything and those who
condemn or extol it as a portal to the other side? As it did decades ago
in The Exorcist, Ouija figures into the recent fright films
What Lies Beneath and White Noise. And it sustains an urban
mythology that continues to make it a household name in the early
twenty-first century. There would seem little doubt that Ouija – as it
has arisen time and again – awaits a revival in the future. But what
makes this game board and its molded plastic pointer so resilient in our
culture, and, some might add, in our nightmares?
Among the first
things one notices when looking into Ouija is its vast – and sometimes
authentically frightening – history of stories. Claims abound from users
who experienced the presence of malevolent entities during Ouija
sessions, sometimes even being physically harassed by unseen forces. A
typical storyline involves communication that is at first reassuring and
even useful – a lost object may be recovered – but eventually gives way
to threatening or terrorizing messages. Hugh Lynn Cayce, son of the
eminent American psychic Edgar Cayce, cautioned that his researches
found Ouija boards among the most “dangerous doorways to the
For their part, Ouija
enthusiasts note that teachings such as the inspirational “Seth
material,” channeled by Jane Roberts, first came through a Ouija board.
Other channeled writings, such as an early twentieth-century series of
historical novels and poems by an entity called “Patience Worth” and a
posthumous “novel” by Mark Twain (pulled from the shelves after a legal
outcry from the writer's estate), have reputedly come through the board.
Such works, however, have rarely attracted enduring readerships. Poets
Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes wrote haunting and dark passages about their
experiences with Ouija; but none attain the level of their best work.
So, can anything of
lasting value be attributed to the board – this mysterious object that
has, in one form or another, been with us for nearly 120 years? The
answer is yes, and it has stared us in the face for so long that we have
nearly forgotten it is there.
In 1976, the American
poet James Merrill published – and won the Pulitzer Prize for – an epic
poem that recounted his experience, with his partner David Jackson, of
using a Ouija board from 1955 to 1974. His work The Book of Ephraim
was later combined with two other Ouija-inspired long poems and
published in 1982 as The Changing Light at Sandover. “Many
readers,” wrote critic Judith Moffett in her penetrating study entitled
James Merrill, “may well feel they have been waiting for this
trilogy all their lives.”
First using a
manufactured board and then a homemade one – with a teacup in place of a
planchette – Merrill and Jackson encounter a world of spirit
“patrons” who recount to them a sprawling and profoundly involving
creation myth. It is poetry steeped in the epic tradition, in which
myriad characters – from W.H. Auden, to lost friends and family members,
to the Greek muse/interlocutor called Ephraim – walk on and off stage.
The voices of Merrill, Jackson, and those that emerge from the teacup
and board, alternately offer theories of reincarnation, worldly advice,
and painfully poignant reflections on the passing of life and
ever-hovering presence of death.
The Changing Light
at Sandover gives life to a new mythology of world creation,
destruction, resurrection, and the vast, unknowable mechanizations of
God Biology (GOD B, in the words of the Ouija board) and those
mysterious figures who enact his will: Bat-winged creatures who, in
their cosmological laboratory, reconstruct departed souls for new life
on earth. And yet we are never far from the human, grounding voice of
Merrill, joking about the selection of new wallpaper in his Stonington,
Connecticut home; or from the moving council of voices from the board,
urging: In life, stand for something.
“It is common
knowledge – and glaringly obvious in the poems, though not taken
seriously by his critics – that these three works, and their final
compilation, were based on conversations...through a Ouija board,” wrote
John Chambers in his outstanding analysis of Merrill in the Summer 1997
issue of The Anomalist.
Critic Harold Bloom,
in a departure from others who sidestep the question of the work’s
source, calls the first of the Sandover poems “an occult
splendor.” Indeed, it is not difficult to argue that, in literary terms,
The Changing Light at Sandover is a masterpiece – perhaps the
masterpiece – of occult experimentation. In some respects, it is like an
unintended response to Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, in which not
one man acting alone, but two acting and thinking together, successfully
pierce the veil of life’s inner and cosmic mysteries – and live not only
to tell, but to teach.
One wonders, then,
why the work is so little known and read within a spiritual subculture
that embraces other channeled works, such as the Ouija-received “Seth
material,” the automatic writing of A Course In Miracles, or the
currently popular Abraham-Hicks channeled readings. The Changing
Light at Sandover ought to be evidence that something – be it
inner or outer – is available through this kind of communication,
however rare. It is up to the reader to find out what.
Of course, the
Merrill case begs the question of whether the Ouija board channels
something from beyond or merely reflects the ideas found in one’s
subconscious. After all, who but a poetic genius like James Merrill
could have recorded channeled passages of such literary grace and epic
dimension? Plainly put, this wasn’t Joe Schmoe at the board.
In a 1970 book on
psychical phenomena, ESP, Seers & Psychics, researcher-skeptic
Milbourne Christopher announces – a tad too triumphantly, perhaps – that
if you effectively blindfold a board’s user and rearrange the order of
letters, communication ceases. A believable enough claim – but what does
it really tell us? In 1915, a specialist in abnormal psychology proposed
the same test to the channeled entity called Patience Worth, who,
through a St. Louis housewife named Pearl Curran, had produced a
remarkable range of novels, plays, and poems – some of them hugely
ambitious in scale and written in a Middle English dialect that Curran
(who didn’t finish high school) would have had no means of knowing.
As reported in Irving
Litvag’s 1972 study, Singer in the Shadows, Patience Worth
responded to the request that Curran be blindfolded in her typically
inimitable fashion: “I be aset athin the throb o’ her. Aye, and doth
thee to take then the lute awhither that she see not, think ye then she
may to set up musics for the hear o’ thee?” In other words, how can you
remove the instrument and expect music?
Some authorities in
psychical research support the contention that Ouija is a tool of our
subconscious. For years J.B. Rhine, the veritable dean of psychical
research in America, worked with his wife, Louisa, a trained biologist
and well-regarded researcher in her own right, to bring scientific rigor
to the study of psychical phenomena. Responding to the occult fads of
the day, Louisa wrote an item on Ouija boards and automatic writing
adapted in the winter 1970 newsletter of the American Society for
Psychical Research. Whatever messages come through the board, she
maintained, are a product of the user’s subconscious – not any
metaphysical force: “In several ways the very nature of automatic
writing and the Ouija board makes them particularly open to
misunderstanding. For one thing, because [such communications] are
unconscious, the person does not get the feeling of his own involvement.
Instead, it seems to him that some personality outside of himself is
responsible. In addition, and possibly because of this, the material is
usually cast in a form as if originating from another intelligence.”
For his part, the
poet Merrill took a subtler view of the matter. “If it’s still
yourself that you’re drawing upon,” he said, “then that self is much
stranger and freer and more far-seeking than the one you thought you
knew.” And at another point: “If the spirits aren’t external, how
astonishing the mediums become!”
Ouija – Or Not to Ouija?
As I was preparing
for this article, I began to revisit notes I had made months earlier.
These presented me with several questions. Among them: Should I be
practicing with the Ouija board myself, testing its occult powers in
person? Just at this time, I received an email, impeccably and even
mysteriously timed, warning me off Ouija boards. The sender, whom I
didn’t know, told in sensitive and vivid tones of her family’s harrowing
experiences with a board.
As my exchange with
the sender continued, however, my relatively few lines of response
elicited back pages and pages of material, each progressively more
pedantic and judgmental in tone, reading – or projecting – multiple
levels into what little I had written in reply (most of which was in
appreciation). And so I wondered: In terms of the influences to which we
open ourselves, how do we sort out the fine from the coarse, allowing in
communications that are useful and generative, rather than those that
become simply depleting?
Ouija is intriguing,
interesting, even oddly magnetic – a survey of users in the 2001
International Journal of Parapsychology found that one half “felt a
compulsion to use it.” But, in a culture filled with possibilities, and
in a modern life of limited time and energy, is Ouija really the place
to search? Clearly, for a James Merrill, it was. But there exists a
deeper intuition than what comes through a board, or any outer object –
one that answers that kind of question for every clear-thinking person.
For me, the answer was no.
It was time to pack
up my antique Ouija board in its box and return to what I found most
lasting on the journey: The work of Merrill, who passed through the uses
of this instrument and, with it, created a body of art that perhaps
justifies the tumultuous, serpentine history from which Ouija has come.