Common section

CHAPTER THREE

DON’T TRY THIS AT HOME

Ouija and the Selling of Spiritualism

 … these creepy things; there may be great truths in them, but they have nearly destroyed us.

—SWAMI VIVEKANANDA, COMPLETE WORKS

More than a century after the dawn of the Spiritualist era, three teenage girls, who’d probably never heard the word Spiritualism uttered in their 1960s suburban homes, huddled over an object nearly every teenager recognized: the Ouija board. Giggling nervously, they asked about their futures: “Will we all get married?” They rested their fingers with no more than the weight of a whisker on the molded plastic pointer, or planchette, waiting for the little tripod to slide across the board’s lettered surface. And it did, first in a slight jerk and then smoothly, as though guided by some unseen force. As the board’s eerie faces of the sun and moon grinned back at the girls, the pointer slid over the word: YES. “Will there be divorce?” they asked. The pointer moved again: YES: THREE. It was not until years later that the anxious girls, grown into middle-age women, could look back and laugh: All had married, but only one had divorced—thrice.

By the time youth culture had become big business, when the Beach Boys sang about T-Birds and having “Fun, Fun, Fun” at hamburger stands—developments that would have been as unrecognizable to the Fox sisters as life on Mars—Ouija reigned supreme as the nation’s most intriguing novelty. The game board’s mysterious movements and beguiling communications made it a staple of slumber parties and toy-cluttered basements. By the late 1960s, its sales rivaled those of the best-selling board game in the world, Monopoly.

Though patented and sold as entertainment, Ouija was no ordinary fad. It was, in fact, a homemade device concocted by nineteenth-century American Spiritualists who, from the earliest days of their movement, yearned to make talking with the dead as natural as dinnertime conversation. Whether the object of fear or fascination, Ouija proved the most enduring symbol of their success.

Spiritual Telegraphs

Among nineteenth-century believers, Spiritualism was a practice of deep intimacy. Acolytes squeezed hands around séance tables, felt the quickened breath of those on either side of them, and heard raps and voices in a way that could make the dead seem close enough to embrace. Profoundly touched by their experiences, Spiritualists determined to find ever better and easier ways to communicate with the beyond. Acting from the best American instincts, they demanded a do-it-yourself approach to the matter. Their homespun efforts at reaching the afterlife led to what is called Ouija, or what its earliest users called “talking boards” or “spirit boards.” But such devices did not appear until early Spiritualists and inventors 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. Many Spiritualists in the 1850s, however, found this a tedious and time-consuming exercise. A faster means was “automatic writing,” in which spirit beings could communicate through the pen of a medium, but some complained that this produced many pages of unclear or meandering prose.

Another invention 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 or more people to rest their fingers upon and allow it to “glide” across a page to write 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 roulettelike 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—like planchettes—glided beneath the resting hands of questioners.

Alphabet boards 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 experimenters and entrepreneurs began to see the possibilities.

Baltimore Oracles

The conventional history of American toy manufacturing credits Ouija to a Baltimore businessman named William Fuld. Fuld, we are told, “invented” Ouija around 1890. So it has been repeated in articles, 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.

The conventional 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 J. 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 talking board.

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, labeled respectively YES and NO, adorn the upper left and right corners, while the phrase GOOD BYE appears 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, a toe-to-toe Ouija session could be a tempting dalliance.

True Origins

The Kennard Novelty Company of Baltimore employed a teenage varnisher who helped run shop operations, and this was William Fuld. By 1892, however, Charles W. Kennard’s partners removed Kennard from the company amid financial disputes, and a separate patent—this time for an improved planchette—was filed by a nineteen-year-old Fuld. In years to come, it was Fuld who would take over the novelty firm and affix his name to every board.

After Fuld took the reins of Ouija manufacturing in America, business was brisk—if not always happy. Fuld formed a volatile 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 any thing that looked directly like it, was firmly in the hands of William Fuld.

So went the business history of Ouija. But the board had a still deeper set of roots. Contrary to the many conflicting claims of ownership, talking boards of a homemade variety were already a popular craze among Spiritualists by the mid-1880s. And here we encounter Ouija’s lost link to the Spiritualist movement. In its Sunday supplement of March 28, 1886, the New York Daily Tribune ran an article on “A Mysterious Talking Board and Table Over Which Northern Ohio Is Agitated.” The short piece featured a matchbox-size illustration of a rectangular alphabet board—the spitting image of Ouija, a full four years before its first patent was filed.

“I know of whole communities that are wild over the ‘talking board,’ as some of them call it,” an Ohio man was quoted. “I have never heard any name for it. But I have seen and heard some of the most remarkable things about its operation—things that seem to pass all human comprehension or explanation.” And best of all: “Anyone can make the whole apparatus in fifteen minutes, with a jack-knife and a marking brush.”

The 1886 eyewitness described how to use the “witching thing” as clearly as later instructions on a Ouija box top: “You take the board in your lap, another person sitting down with you. You each grasp the little table with the thumb and forefinger at each corner next to you. Then the question is asked.… Pretty soon you think the other person is pushing the table. He thinks you are doing the same. But the table moves around to ‘yes’ or ‘no.’ ”

Covering the spate of Ouija patent litigation, the New York World asked in 1920: “Who shall own the cable line to the spirit-land?” Well, if trial judges had been clearer on the history of the matter, it is possible that the question of who “owned” Ouija might have been tossed out of court, and the original patent with it. Obviously Bond, Kennard, and their associates were capitalizing on a Spiritualist sensation—not inventing one.

Ancient Ouija?

Another oft-repeated but misleading claim is that Ouija or talking boards have ancient lineage. In a typical example, Frank Gaynor’s 1953 Dictionary of Mysticism states that primeval 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 are said to have possessed Ouija-like devices. But these claims rarely withstand scrutiny.

Ouija collector and chronicler Eugene Orlando points out that the primary reference placing Ouija in the premodern world appears in Lewis Spence’s widely reprinted 1920 Encyclopedia of Occultism: “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 as being revelations supposedly from the unseen world.’ ” It is, Orlando notes, “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.

While successive generations of Pythagoreans produced a wide range of mathematical and mystical treatises, precious little is known today about the philosopher and his original school. No writings of Pythagoras survive, and the historical record depends upon interpretive works—some of which were written centuries after his death at the end of the sixth century B.C. Hence, commentators on occult topics are sometimes tempted to project backward onto Pythagoras all sorts of arcane practices, Ouija and modern numerology among them.

Still other writers, when 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. Oracle methods were rich and varied from culture to culture—from Germanic runes to Chinese pictograms to African cowrie shells. But the prevailing literature on oracular traditions supports no suggestion that talking boards were in use before the American Spiritualist era.

And what, finally, of the beguiling name Ouija? Alternately pronounced wee-JA and wee-GEE, its origin raises another question mark. Baltimore’s Charles W. Kennard at one time claimed it was Egyptian for “good luck” (it’s not). William Fuld later said it was simply a marriage of the French and German words for “yes.” One early investor claimed the board had spelled out its own name. As with other aspects of Ouija history, the board seems determined to withhold a few secrets of its own.

Ouija Boom

By 1920, the Ouija 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 manufacturer Fuld, though, everything was strictly business. “Believe in the Ouija board?” he 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 incredible $1 million from sales.

Whatever satisfaction Fuld’s success may have brought him was soon lost: On February 24, 1927, he fell to his death from the roof of his Baltimore factory. The fifty-six-year-old manufacturer had been supervising the replacement of a flagpole when an iron support bar gave way, and he fell three stories backward.

Fuld’s children took over his business, and they 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 run of sales.

Historically, séances and other Spiritualist methods have proliferated during times of war, when families struggled with uncertainty and loss. “People have had to bear so many things they had not thought possible,” wrote Thomas Mann on an upsurge of Spiritualism after World War I, “and to undergo such dramatic events, that the indignation we are still struggling to feel … is combined, in a not negligible proportion, with a tendency to make concessions.” During World War II, many American families “made concessions” to unseen powers and looked toward Ouija for news of loved ones, or to reach those who had died. In a 1944 article, “The Ouija Comes Back,” The New York Times reported that one New York City department store alone had sold fifty thousand Ouija boards in a five-month period.

For all its commercial reach, Ouija remained essentially a family-operated business. But after the war, novelty manufacturing shed its slightly disreputable, carnival-style reputation and became a more mainstream line of business. And American toy giants began looking more closely at the enduring curio. In a move that would place an instrument from the age of Spiritualism into playrooms all across America, the manufacturer Parker Brothers bought the rights to Ouija for an undisclosed sum in 1966. With the Fuld family out of the picture, Ouija was poised for 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. An occult vogue that rode the countercultural tides of the late 1960s, as astrologers adorned the cover of Timemagazine and witchcraft became a fast-growing “new” religion, fueled the board’s sales for the following decades. A Parker Brothers spokesperson reports the company has sold more than ten million boards since 1967.

The ’60s and ’70s saw Ouija’s reinvention as a fad among adolescents. For some it was a mere diversion, while for others its secret messages and intimate communiqués became a youthful rite of rebellion. Ouija circles sprang up in college dormitories, often with young women at their helm, unconsciously reprising the role of spirit medium that women had held in the Spiritualist days. A onetime teenage experimenter recalled 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 reached 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 was reason enough to gather around the board. Not all sessions were titillating or adventurous, however. As will be seen, some were tragically, terribly frightening.

Ouija in Winter

While officials at Parker Brothers (today a division of Hasbro) do not disclose the ebb and flow of sales, there’s little question that Ouija declined commercially as it neared the twenty-first century. In 1999, the company brought a tradition to an end when it discontinued the vintage Fuld-era design and switched to a smaller glow-in-the-dark version of the board. In consumer manufacturing, the redesign of a classic product often indicates an effort to reinvigorate shaky sales. In the first decade of the twenty-first century, Ouija retailed at $22.99, about sixty percent more than old favorites like Monopoly and Scrabble, further suggesting its transformation into a specialty item.

Today, the “Ouija Game” (ages 8 to Adult) merits barely a mention on Hasbro’s Web site. The company posts no official history for Ouija, as it does for its other storied brands, such as Twister and Yahtzee. And the claims from the original 1960s-era box—Weird and mysterious. Surpasses, in its unique results, mind reading, clairvoyance and second sight—are now 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—as well as the fact that its sales are likely on the wane, Ouija seems like a product that Hasbro would just as soon forget.

And yet Ouija has a way of hanging on. It receives more customer reviews—alternately written in tones of outrage, fear, delight, or ridicule—than most other “toys” for sale on Amazon.com: “DANGER—YOU CAN BE POSSESSED.” “I wouldn’t even consider using it without deep and sincere prayers for protection.” “This IS a TOY, made by Parker Brothers, NOT a Satanic Board Game!” Even in its September years, Ouija polarizes opinion among those who dismiss it as a childhood plaything and others who condemn or extol it as a portal to the other side. Just as it figured in The Exorcist in the 1970s, Ouija saw new life in the early-twenty-first-century fright films What Lies Beneath and White Noise. A Ouija-based movie entered the early stages of production in 2008. And its urban mythology remains a ubiquitous presence online. There seems little doubt that Ouija—as it has arisen time and again—awaits a revival in the future. But what has made this game board and its molded plastic pointer so resilient in our culture and, some might add, in our nightmares?

“An Occult Splendor”

One of the most notable characteristics of Ouija lore is the vast—and sometimes authentically frightening—history of stories reported by users. A common story line involves communication that is at first reassuring and even useful—a lost object may be recovered through the board’s counsel—but eventually gives way to threatening or terrorizing messages. One group of Ouija enthusiasts reported ghostly knocks on their apartment doors after contacting the spirit of a serial killer. Others claimed physical and sexual assaults from unseen hands after a night of Ouija experimentation. One famous murder trial in 1933 involved claims that Ouija had “commanded” an Arizona girl and her mother to kill the girl’s father. Hugh Lynn Cayce, the soft-spoken son of the famous American psychic Edgar Cayce, once cautioned that his researches found Ouija boards among the most “dangerous doorways to the unconscious.”

For their part, Ouija enthusiasts respond that influential spiritual teachings such as the “Seth material,” channeled by writer Jane Roberts in the 1970s, first emerged through the board. In the World War I era, a St. Louis housewife used Ouija to record a remarkable range of novels, plays, and poems from a seventeenth-century English spinster named Patience Worth. Some were hugely ambitious in scale and written in a Middle English dialect that the St. Louis homemaker (who didn’t finish high school) would have had no obvious means of knowing. Ouija writing also produced a posthumous full-scale “novel” by Mark Twain in 1917, pulled from store shelves after a legal outcry from the writer’s estate. While such works won brief popularity, they failed to retain enduring readership. Further up the literary scale, poets Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes wrote haunting and dark passages about their experiences with Ouija. (“Fame will come,” the board tells Sylvia in Ted’s 1957 poem, “Ouija,” “…   And when it comes you will have paid for it with your happiness, your husband, and your life.”) Though darkly prophetic, such works are not generally counted among either poet’s finest efforts.

Given that this mysterious object has, in one form or another, been on the American scene for over 120 years, it’s natural to wonder: Can anything of lasting value be attributed to Ouija? 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 epic poems and published in 1982 as The Changing Light at Sandover. “Many readers,” critic Judith Moffett wrote in her penetrating study James Merrill, “may well feel they have been waiting for this trilogy all their lives.”

First employing a manufactured board and then a homemade one—with a teacup in place of a planchette—Merrill and Jackson encountered a world of spirit “patrons” who described for them a sprawling and profoundly involving creation myth. In Merrill’s hands, it became poetry steeped in the epic tradition, in which myriad characters—from W. H. Auden, to lost friends and family members, to a ghostly Greek muse/interlocutor called Ephraim—walk on and off stage. The voices of Merrill, Jackson, and those who 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 is nothing less than 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 hosts 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 grounding human voice of Merrill, joking about the selection of new wallpaper in his Stonington, Connecticut, home, or from the moving counsel 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 1997 analysis of Merrill in The Anomalist. Critic Harold Bloom, in a departure from others who avoided the question of the work’s source, called 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, the book challenges the cautionary moral of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, as its two protagonists, Merrill and Jackson, successfully pierce the veil of life’s inner and cosmic mysteries. But, as with Victor Frankenstein, did the revelation they found also destroy them?

Creepyville

Merrill and Jackson acknowledged that their social contacts with friends withered as they became more engrossed in their nightly readings. Their sometime friend and neighbor Truman Capote drifted away, branding Stonington as “Creepyville.” One of their closest friends, novelist Alison Lurie, even suggested that the Ouija-channeled spirit Ephraim sanctioned the couple’s pursuit of multiple sex partners outside their domicile, contributing to the sixty-eight-year-old Merrill’s death in 1995 from heart failure linked to HIV. All of this leaves hanging the question: Can Ouija be a tool, psychological or otherwise, for hidden knowledge and ideas—or is it merely a disastrously distracting toy?

An academic survey of Ouija buffs in the 2001 International Journal of Parapsychology found that one half “felt a compulsion to use it.” An eighteen-year-old male offered researchers this chilling account:

There have been many interesting [ones] but the best would be with a spirit named Kyle. He was a sixty something year old child molester. I don’t remember how he died but he seems to have some kind of connection to me. Every time I use the Ouija board Kyle’s name comes up. Most of the time the people playing know nothing about him. Even sometimes I’m not even playing when he comes up. I think I’ve seen him twice in spirit form and he once threatened to kill my half sister. He’s a complete psycho. He scares me. Strange things happen the nights we speak to him. He likes to switch lights on/off.

More than two centuries earlier, the mystic Emanuel Swedenborg, who inspired so many American spiritual visions, would not have been surprised by such accounts. While Swedenborg recorded his own flights to heavenly realms, he often warned that spirit communications should never be attempted casually. In what may have been the first application of the don’t-try-this-at-home disclaimer, the seer cautioned in his 1758 opus, Heaven and Hell: “At the present day to talk with spirits is rarely granted because it is dangerous … evil spirits are such that they hold man in deadly hatred, and desire nothing so much as to destroy him both soul and body, and this they do in the case of those who have so indulged themselves in fantasies as to have separated from themselves the enjoyments proper to the natural man.”

Sounding a different but not unrelated note, twentieth-century authorities in psychic research made the contention that Ouija is a gateway for the gremlins of the unconscious. 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. Reacting to Ouija’s popularity, Louisa wrote in the winter 1970 newsletter of the American Society for Psychical Research: “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!”

In the end, Ouija confounds. This oddly magnetic toy—the one device from the age of Spiritualism still used in the twenty-first century—evokes nostalgic memories of pajama parties for some and for others nightmares they would sooner forget. It also left an indisputable mark on the work of one of the greatest American poets of the last century. Whether Ouija is a mysterious instrument, a harmless entertainment, or a “dangerous doorway” lies in the experience of the user. But the words caveat emptor inevitably hang over the history of this strangest of American curios.

If you find an error please notify us in the comments. Thank you!