Spirited Games: Why Ouija Won’t Let Us Go

We have two rules at home: Don’t make fun of your little brother, and no Ouija before homework

Mitch Horowitz
May 31, 2017 · 5 min read
Family scareloom: Our Ouija board, circa 1966.

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Actually, we don’t allow the kids anywhere near our antique Ouija board (pictured above). But they resort to their own, um, devices.

In recent years, Americans have adopted a homemade Ouija-like contraption from Spain, here named “Charlie, Charlie” for the spirit who “speaks” through it. Pictured below — courtesy of my 12-year-old, Caleb — is this Ouija spinoff, in which one pencil is balanced atop another on a yes-no grid. You ask. Charlie replies.

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“Charlie, Charlie.”

Does it work? Not for me. But I’ve had my own pea-soup experiences. More on that shortly.

For more than 130 years, Americans have been enchanted with — and terrified by — what used to be called the “talking board.” This terror-turned-toy was with us long before Parker Brothers started retailing Ouija in a shrink-wrapped, bar-coded box.

In the winter of 1848, a pair of teenage girls living near Rochester, New York, enthralled the nation with claims of “spirit raps” heard throughout their family home. Judges, ministers, and scientists descended on the cabin — and proclaimed the girls were telling the truth. So began the era of Spiritualism, which drew millions of Americans into an ongoing enthusiasm for talking to the dead. Early practitioners included future first lady Mary Todd Lincoln, who brought séances into the White House.

In a can-do spirit, American seekers yearned to cut out the middleman — in this case, the medium — and forge their own connection to the Other Side. Spiritualists used a variety of homemade methods, including automatic writing, dial plates, and the planchette — French for “little plank.” A direct precursor to the pointer in Ouija, the planchette was a small tripod mounted on ball bearings with a hole on top for inserting a pencil. You gently rest your hand on the planchette, and it glides out a message.

In March 1886, the New York Daily Tribune ran an article about “a mysterious talking board” popular in northern Ohio. The piece featured a matchbox-sized illustration of a rectangular alphabet board — the spitting image of Ouija — with a man and woman seated knee-to-knee balancing the board between them and guiding a planchette across its surface. The talking board was born.

Four years later, a group of novelty manufacturers in Baltimore filed a patent for the first Ouija board — and launched the craze across the nation.

McDonald’s magnate Ray Kroc once attributed the success of his fast-food chain to its wholesome-sounding name. It is likewise possible that the exotic name “Ouija” popularized the talking board. Alternately pronounced wee-JA and wee-GEE, no one agrees on where the name came from. One of the early manufacturers said it was Egyptian for “good luck” (it’s not). Another said it was simply a marriage of the French and German words for “yes.” And one claimed the board had spelled out its own name.

Riding a wave of interest in the occult, toy giant Parker Brothers bought the rights to Ouija in 1966 and sold 2 million board in the next year, surpassing sales of its most popular game, Monopoly. In years ahead — as the Woodstock generation embraced the occult and movies like The Exorcist sparked renewed interest in Ouija — this carryover from 19th-century Spiritualism became a fixture of American playrooms, pajama parties — and nightmares.

Ouija’s most notable feature is the legion of genuinely creepy stories that dot its history. A typical storyline involves communication that is at first reassuring or useful — a lost set of keys might be found through its guidance — but soon grows threatening. In 2001, an 18-year-old Ouija enthusiast described his encounters to researchers in the International Journal of Parapsychology:

“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.”

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Familiar spirits: Contacting the dead with friends at Elite Daily.

I’m often asked about my own scary experiences with Ouija. Last Halloween, I sat down with editors at EliteDaily.com for a holiday séance. The persona who “spoke” through the board identified herself as a writer who committed suicide. The board supplied a nearby street address. It checked out with the 1940s suicide of a female journalist.

My more ominous encounters, however, have not involved voices from beyond, but those in our own realm.

I experienced two remarkably similar incidents, 10 years apart. The first occurred in 2006, when I was writing my first article about Ouija. I was thinking then that I should use the board personally, as a matter of research; I mentioned this to no one. Out of the blue, I received an email from a stranger: “I get the idea that you’re thinking about using a Ouija board, and I just want to warn you against it.” I complimented him on his prescience. We struck up a friendly email relationship, but his posts began getting confrontational, and I ended the communication. This struck me as very close to a classic Ouija encounter: Here was a mysterious voice from out there, which was, at first, foresightful (mysteriously so), but then grew harsher, following the pattern that Ouija users describe.

Ten years later, another stranger emailed me, this time to describe a dream in which I’d played a part. I thanked her, and she began following me on social media. After I announced my séance at Elite Daily, someone on Facebook asked whether I oppose using Ouija. Now, I don’t “oppose” any kind of metaphysical experimentation, though I advise caution. I jokingly replied to the effect of “What could go possibly wrong?” The person who had emailed me earlier about her dream apparently misunderstood my humor and sent me a violently worded email. Once again: A voice from “out there” was at first friendly, and then bellicose.

That kind of scenario plays out constantly on social media — where the problem is more routine and, hence, more serious. The occult isn’t the only realm in which anonymous communication requires caution. Whether on the lettered board or the glowing screen: Be careful who you let in.

For more on Ouija…

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