The 'Mystery' of the Ouija Board

It's probably not Satan—just your unconscious muscle movement.
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It's probably not Satan—just your unconscious muscle movement.
Ouija. (Photo: indi/Flickr)

Ouija. (Photo: indi/Flickr)

Patent number 446,054 was issued on February 10, 1891, to a pair of businessmen named Elijah Bond and Charles Kennard. It was listed in the category “toy or game,” and in it, Bond described “a board of suitable thickness, having the letters of the alphabet printed, painted, engraved, or affixed upon it in any suitable manner, but [flush] with the surface, and also the numerals from 1-0, inclusive, as well as other configurations … all of which will be more fully described hereinafter.” Bond called his game “Ouija.”

Ouija was not the first “talking board”—early mentions of a version called “fu chi” date to the 12th century, during China’s Song Dynasty, and from there it spread around the globe—but it has perhaps become the best known. Now thought of, by turns, as a teenage girls’ sleepover game and a demonic tool with which Satanists contact the devil, Ouija boards were the go-to fuel (alongside copies of Harry Potter books) for a series of infamous witchcraft-themed book burnings in 2002.

There is good news for those of us who want to believe there is more to any given Ouija reading than a pair of liars. Sometimes, maybe even many times, when two people use the Ouija board, and it moves, and both parties swear they didn’t intentionally move the planchette, they really are telling the truth.

Before it became associated with the occult, Ouija was a simple, moderately popular parlor game. But the board’s inventors made some staffing changes shortly after receiving their patent, and the game’s origin story changed with it. Kennard was removed from the company and replaced by a former employee named William Fuld. Fuld re-branded the company, naming it “The Ouija Novelty Company.” When Kennard had been asked where he got the name “Ouija,” he’d said it was an ancient Egyptian term for “good luck.” Under Fuld’s leadership, the word was described as a combination of the French and German words for “yes.”

Fuld also took sole credit for the board’s invention and eventually expanded his business to include a wider range of products, including a cheaper version of Ouija called “Mystifying Oracle,” a Ouija jewelry line, and something called “Ouija Oil,” which purported to treat rheumatism. He perpetually sued competitors—including his own brother, with whom he’d once shared the business—for infringement. In 1920, Fuld claimed that Ouija-associated products had made him more than $1 million.

In 1966, Fuld’s estate sold the Ouija business to Parker Brothers, which was acquired by Hasbro in 1991, which owns the game today. You can buy a glow-in-the-dark version for $19.99. The product description reads: “How it works has been a mystery for over 30 years!”

I ACQUIRED MY FIRST (and only, so far) Ouija board when I was 12 or 13 years old. I don’t remember exactly where I got it—whether I bought it with babysitting money or received it as a gift. I called my mom to ask if she remembered, and she wasn’t totally sure either. She was, however, suspiciously insistent on assuring me she “wouldn’t have had a problem” with me having it. She then asked my dad whether he remembered how I got it, and he said, “Tell her I ordered it online from a coven of witches.”

So I think I got it as a birthday present.

I know that I was very excited and very nervous to use it. The movie Jumanji would have been fairly fresh in my memory at the time, and though I wasn’t sure if I believed in magic, or my ability to communicate with the dead, I still believed in marketing. I remember the ads: A bunch of little kids’ hands moving the planchette around the board—or, rather, having them moved by something unknown. The way I understood it (which was evidently not very well), Ouija was sort of like a two-dimensional Magic 8 ball. It would answer your questions. That was its only function.

I don’t know who sat down with me that first time to try it; it was probably one of my beleaguered younger brothers. Whoever it was didn’t care much for what we were doing—certainly not enough to sneakily move the planchette himself and divert the blame toward the dead. I placed my fingertips on the little plastic triangle, and so did he, and then we waited.

“It doesn’t work,” I said.

I didn’t realize then that what makes a Ouija board “work” (barring, of course, divine intervention) is an eager, jittery, and possibly sugar-high pack of participants, all of whom are willing to be guilty at the same time they swear on their innocence. Perhaps because I’ve always loved it too much, I’ve never been able to lie, to others or myself, about experiencing the supernatural. Lying about it would mean closing off whatever small part of me thought it was really possible.

I tried using my Ouija board a few more times, but it was never anything but disappointing. It went back into its box, which went to the bottom of my closet, where it remained, lifeless, for several years. I sold it at one of the garage sales my family held in our driveway, probably for a quarter.

THERE IS GOOD NEWS for those of us who want to believe there is more to any given Ouija reading than a pair of liars. Sometimes, maybe even many times, when two people use the Ouija board, and it moves, and both parties swear they didn’t intentionally move the planchette, they really are telling the truth.

The bad news is that the reason for this discrepancy—at least as far as any earthly researcher is able to tell—is non-demonic, and therefore boring: During certain activities, or in response to certain stimuli, the body is capable of making unconscious movements. This phenomenon is called the ideomotor effect, and it explains (or could explain) why Ouija users can move the planchette without realizing they’re responsible.

In a literature review examining the ideomotor effect, researcher Dr. Philip D. Shenefelt describes one of the earliest applications of the phenomenon to occult rituals. In 1812, a French natural scientist and chemist named Michel Eugène Chevreul began investigating the popular practice of “pendulum divination,” in which it was said a pendulum hanging by a chain from a person’s hand could answer questions by spinning in the direction of “yes” or “no.”

In his experiments, Chevreul found that “the pendulum would move without apparent conscious control in the direction that the individual expected.” In order to test whether his muscles were, in effect, acting without him, he stabilized his wrist with an armrest, and found that doing so eliminated the predictability (and force) of the pendulum’s swing. Chevreul also tested the pendulum after blindfolding himself, and found that the pendulum stayed stationary. He deduced that even seeing the pendulum imparted it with his intent, which led his muscles to move it the same way—and that all of this could be accomplished without his awareness.

The mechanics of the Ouija board are much the same as those employed in pendulum divination. Both the heavy pendulum, hanging from a chain, and the planchette, lying flat on a smooth board, can, it’s argued, be moved by these unconscious, excitable little jerks of the hand. To me, this still sounds far-fetched. Though, I guess not any more so than there a) being a devil who b) takes time out of his schedule to tell a 12-year-old girl if Billy Svenson likes her or not.