One of the most controversial ‘tools’ in the arsenal of many ghost investigation groups is the Ouija Board, the standard term used as a catchall for all spirit and talking boards. The idea of a talking board is pretty standard… you have a board with a set of numbers, letters and markers such as ‘yes’ and ‘no’, then everyone pops a hand on a glass or planchette resting on the board, and when you ask a spirit that’s present a question, the glass/planchette will move to the appropriate answers, or will spell those answers out.
So why is this ‘tool’ so controversial? Well, many believe that while it works, it also has the nasty habit of allowing forces of evil in. Others say that its just a child’s game, nothing more. Others also say that it acts as a conduit for nothing more than the ideomotor effect. While the overriding objection should, to the rational mind be the latter issue, certainly in my experience the main controversy surrounds the idea of summoning the Forces of Darkness, or allowing a spirit to attach itself to the board user causing untold issues.
So where did the idea of a talking board come from? The evolution of the board is pretty complex, so I’ll simplify the history here. In the 19th Century, the Spiritualist Movement was sweeping western civilisation with the movement having a membership of over eight million by 1897. Spiritualists held (and hold) the belief that the living can contact and converse with the dead, so the rise of the talking board holds little surprise in that context, when a board could be constructed or bought and used in the comfort of one’s own home, instead of heading out to see a spiritualist medium.
The potential for economic gain from the boards drew attention (see, its not just now that communication with the dead can be seen as a moneymaker) and in 1890 the Kennard Novelty Company began designing a board for mass production. There are a couple of different stories as to how Kennard’s talking board got its name, but in 1891 the Ouija Board was patented by Kennard.
The board was massively popular – and proved to have been a wise investment for the board of Kennard. By the 1920s, it is thought that many American families had a board as standard: it wasn’t thought to be anything out of the ordinary. Moving through the 20th century, the Parker Brothers bought the rights to the board and in 1967 over two million ouija boards were sold.
So when and why did the homely image of communing with your ancestors after your dinner change? The answer seems to lie in the production of a single movie, The Exorcist, in 1973. The movie had such a massive impact on pop culture (in it, the main character is demonically possessed after using an ouija board) that the view of talking boards shifted within months of the movie’s release, and the transition of the Ouija from a tool to chat to your (dead) relatives and ask for advice into a tool to open a gateway to Hell began.
Oddly, this view doesn’t appear to have changed. You just have to read or take part in any conversation about ouija to find you’ll always have at least someone extolling its demonic abilities.
So, if the board has the ability to contact the dead and/or otherworldly demonic forces, surely they should be a good tool to a paranormal investigator… right?
Personally, I’d like to argue the ‘no’ viewpoint. First of all, the use of a board as an investigation tool highlights a rather large mistake: investigator belief bias. To use the board as a tool of investigation, you have to believe that there is something there for it to contact. As there is not yet any empirical proof for the existence of the afterlife/demons, how can a board with letters on it contact such things? Surely, as an investigator you have to deal with facts and evidence.
But then, if there’s nothing there to communicate with, how did the board become so popular with literally millions of people experiencing alleged communication?
For this, I’d argue the ideomotor arguement. The ideomotor response is simple: the body reacts (involuntary motor activity) to an idea or thought you’ve had, much like can be argued for dowsing. So basically, you can physically move an object you’re touching like a glass or planchette very easily without even realising you’re doing it, through tiny muscle responses, changes in balance etc. Thats why in some cases you can watch an ouija session and see someone move the planchette but they adamantly insist that they didn’t. Their body reacted to their thoughts and created action. So from this, it can be quite easily assumed that items such as talking boards and dowsing can quite easily be triggered by the ideomotor effect, with the responses based upon their users’ conscious or subconscious thoughts.
So not devils or ghosts, but our own thoughts and ideas. One way to test this, if you happen to be taking part in a nice active ouija session is to blindfold the participants. Where I’ve witnessed this in the past, the responses suddenly become gobbledygook.
Trundle on another step though, and you hit on the next critical error. The assumption that all talking board activity is caused by ideomotor response and not by some form of outside agency.
So it is at this stage that you come to realise that talking boards should not be a tool of paranormal investigation, but a subject of investigation.
Here at Otherworld North East we’ve never used an ouija board as a tool of investigation, based upon the thoughts outlined above. We did however decide to start to investigate the board itself. The experiment began in 2011, but we only ended up undertaking one filmed session, as the conditions we wanted to undertake the initial experiments in didn’t come up very often: the use of a board in a location said to be haunted. That should have been easy, I hear you say, but a decade ago most locations were only starting to cotton on to the fact that they could make £££ off investigations, and when £££ speaks initial thoughts of disallowing demon summoning boards evaporate. Back in 2011, most venues simply didn’t want boards to be used.
This is something that we will revisit now though. Going through 2020 and beyond, we’ll look more at the talking board and delve into its history. For now though, our Ouija Experiment Session 1 can be viewed on Youtube. If you have any thoughts or wish to discuss the board, or any experiences you’ve had, please come see us on the Otherworld North East Forum. Thanks for reading!