Spirit communication has been practiced for as long as humankind can recall. It speaks intensely to our need as humans to understand the unknown and it is a practice that points to the reassuring concept that there is a life that exists outside of our dimension, that we have the ability to communicate with it and that we as humans do survive our own mortal death. Enter the Ouija Board, one of the most infamous tools of spiritual communication that exists today. But where did this Ouija Board come from? Why is it perceived to be so evil? How is it evolving in today’s culture, and what makes it so different from any other type of divination tool out there?
The Ouija Board’s history has been discussed in several podcasts and blogs, but we owe it to the reader to give a quick reference on how this board of “evil” got started, to help further the narrative along.
It uses a small heart-shaped piece of wood or plastic called a planchette. Participants place their fingers on the planchette, and it is moved about the board to spell out words. “Ouija” is a trademark of Hasbro, Inc., but is often used generically to refer to any talking board. (wikipedia)
Ouija had the first reference in China in approximately 1100 AD, in the form of automatic writing, in a method that was called fuji “planchette writing”. It was an essential part of The Quanzhen School* until it was outlawed by the Qing Dynasty. There was also medium and channeling rituals that were performed in ancient Greece and India.
The spiritual movement in Victorian times is mainly to thank for the presence of automatic writing in our culture today. Seances became a popular gig for psychics and mediums around the end of the 19th century, and it also was rife with fraud. In 1890 businessman Elijah Bond had the idea to patent the planchette into a game board and by 1901 production of this parlor game was taken over by William Fuld. It was Fuld who would create the name Ouija, but Charles Kennard claimed he obtained the name from an ancient Egyptian word meaning “good luck”. Fuld declares the original etymology comes from the French and German words for “yes”.
In history, the Ouija Board was thought to be a great tool in terms of practicing magic. It would have been used in seances and parlor events throughout the Victorian and Edwardian era. Even the occultist and magician Aleister Crowley thought the board to be a powerful communication tool to the other side. In fact, Crowley had at one point written a letter to one of his students, Charles Stanford Jones stating:
dated February 21, 1919, in which Crowley tells Jones, “Re: Ouija Board. I offer you the basis of ten percent of my net profit. You are if you accept this, responsible for the legal protection of the ideas, and the marketing of the copyright designs. I trust that this may be satisfactory to you. I hope to let you have the material in the course of a week.” In March, Crowley wrote to Achad to inform him,”I’ll think up another name for Ouija.”
Unfortunately, any trace of Crowley’s board design and concepts have not survived and he certainly did not bring it into production for the world to see. He did, however, give some added advice about the device:
There is, however, a good way of using this instrument to get what you want, and that is to perform the whole operation in a consecrated circle so that undesirable aliens cannot interfere with it. You should then employ the proper magical invocation in order to get into your circle just the one spirit you want. It is comparatively easy to do this. A few simple instructions are all that is necessary, and I shall be pleased to give these, free of charge, to anyone who cares to apply.
Now that I’ve covered a very basic history of the board we really ought to look at how it has evolved within our modern culture. Of course, we can’t look at the perception of the Ouija Board today without outlining how it has appeared in popular films because they are quite responsible for giving the board the reputation of a tool that goes beyond a mere parlor game. The board first appears in a 1920 silent film called “The Ouija Board”, where animator Max draws a cartoon figure called KoKo that gets out of control when his colleagues begin to play the ouija board. The board also appears in movies like The Uninvited, 13 Ghosts and Tales From The Crypt, but it was one movie in particular that projected Ouija into the realm of pure evil: The Exorcist.
The Exorcist combines the religious elements of Catholicism, ie: Good vs Evil, God vs Satan, all into the story of a little girl who becomes possessed after she innocently plays with the Ouija Board and summons her friend, Captain Howdy. No longer is the board just a parlor game, a ghost story, or a tool for magical practitioners. The Exorcist brands the board into the popular psyche by showing it’s sinister effects of demonic possession on a normal everyday little girl. After the success of The Exorcist, you see a multitude of movies depicting the board as the main villainous character, out to trick anyone using it in order to steal their soul.
This onslaught of spirit communication as horror entertainment would have the board destined to become the center attraction within the realms of slumber parties and gatherings of young teenagers. It won’t take one long to find a story online about a Ouija Board session in a graveyard or dark basement. Ouija takes on a new life on the internet via Youtube. When you search Ouija Board you get titles like this:
I’m not sure about you, but I couldn’t endure watching an entire 42-minute video of young teenagers getting possessed by a demon via the Ouija Board.
One of the most interesting characters to surface online concerning Ouija is a demon called ZoZo:
“Apparently the first mention of the evil Zozo was in Jacques Collin de Plancy’s Dictionnaire Infernal, wherein we find that an unnamed girl from Picardy, France was possessed by Zozo back in 1816.” (http://zozotheouijaspirit.blogspot.ca/)
This character of ZoZo has now resurfaced in modern times as a demon whom teenagers and only those brave enough to venture through the wicked realm of the board summon up on a dare. Once again you can search ZoZo** on YouTube and see the results of a session with “it”. There was also a movie from 2013 called I Am ZoZo that added to the creation of this modern figure. It seems to parallel closely with figures like Slenderman, where the dark entity takes on a life of its own via the internet and is mostly perpetuated and escalated by teenagers. ZoZo serves as a warning of what dangers can happen when teenagers attempt to explore the darker realms of their psyche, and ironically it sounds similar to the name Koko from the 1920 movie on Ouija I mentioned earlier.
This still begs the question, does the Ouija Board really work? Is the planchette really moving by the force of a spirit or demon summoned by the user? Science would argue logically against that notion and here is where we discover the theory of Ideomotor Response Phenomenon. This is best described as a subconscious reflex action that happens when people are placing their hands on the planchette. Especially when in a group, they can unknowingly create subconscious muscles movements that guide the planchette along the surface. Mix this with religious beliefs or a bit of teenage hysteria and you’ve got an evil demon or long dead relative moving the planchette and giving you accurate answers.
If we also look at other parlor type games such as a plain and simple deck of cards we can also see that cards in history have had a more ominous reputation. Playing cards were invented in Imperial China (608-907) and could have been intended to operate as paper currency at some point. They first spread into southern Europe in the 14th century and because of their link with currency resulted in a huge gambling issue and were deemed evil by the church. They also were the likely predecessor to the modern conception of the Tarot deck. In fact the practice of cartomancy uses a plain deck of cards to tell the fortunes of individuals, a fact that would have added to their reputation as being evil by the church.
Today playing cards still serve that role in terms of gambling and fortune telling but are no longer deemed evil and taboo to use. Perhaps the Ouija Board will hopefully follow that same route, or is there something unique about the talking planchette? Conceivably, there could be an aura about the Ouija Board and its concept as a portal to other dimensions and the unknown that make it so alluring, keeping it in the realm of the taboo in modern culture. Perhaps the Ouija Board is the spiritual Russian roulette, where you, the individual take the risk to journey into the unknown where you can have one of two results: Communication and knowledge from the dead, or a much more sinister fruition of a life of terror, possession, and loss of your own mortal soul.
Dare you take the gamble?
UPDATE: Ouija App Causes Student Possession – more evidence of belief based hysteria in The Scarlet Woman’s opinion.
References & Further Reading:
*The Quanzhen School is a branch of Taoism that originated in Northern China under the Jin dynasty (1115–1234). One of its founders was the Taoist Wang Chongyang, who lived in the early Jin. When the Mongols invaded the Song dynasty (960–1279) in 1254, the Quanzhen Taoists exerted great effort in keeping the peace, thus saving thousands of lives, particularly among those of Han Chinese descent.
** You can see other references to channelling evil spirits online with characters like Charlie Charlie. The “Charlie Charlie” game is a modern incarnation of a Spanish paper-and-pencil game called Juego de la Lapicera (game of the pens). Like a Magic 8-Ball, the game is played by teenagers using held or balanced pencils to produce answers to questions they ask. Teenage girls have played Juego de la Lapicera for generations in Spain and Hispanic America, asking which boys in their class like them.