The Terrifying, Trippy, Totally True History Behind Your Ouija Board
In the new horror movie Ouija: Origin of Evil, a young girl living in Los Angeles in 1967 and her family begin charging money for seánces using a "talking board" to communicate with their customers' dead loved ones -- and inadvertently summon a demon from the ether in the process. Demonic presences must be sold separately in the real world: Ouija boards are now mostly associated with late-night sleepovers and weird dorm activities. When did a device introduced nearly 125 years ago as a tool designed to talk to spirits from the other side become... fun?
To find out why the Ouija board endures as a pop-culture trope, we sifted through the toy's long and surprisingly rich history -- beginning with its arrival in the mid-19th century and running through the satisfyingly creepy new movie. Ouija's true origins, it turns out, have less to do with the devil and more to do with the intersection of women, the afterlife, and making mad money.
1847: The "Rochester Rappers"
One day in the winter of 1847, 14-year-old Maggie Fox and her kid sister, Katy, pretended that their house was haunted by a devilish spirit called Mr. Splitfoot in order to frighten their mother, Margaret. To pull off the prank, the crafty siblings mimicked the ominous thumping of footsteps by tying apples to strings and dropping them on the stairs. They learned how to manufacture mysterious popping sounds using their own bodies. When Margaret attempted to speak to Mr. Splitfoot, Maggie and Katy snapped out answers to her questions with their toes. The awestruck Margaret asked Mr. Splitfoot if he could speak to her neighbors, and the girls made the ghost agree.
By the spring of 1848, news of the Fox sisters' "contact" with a spirit from the other side triggered curiosity across upstate New York. Their older sister, Leah, who had moved with the girls to Rochester, joined in on the excitement and conducted public séances that proved Maggie and Katy could contact the dead. One of their first gatherings centered on Amy and Isaac Post, a local Quaker couple who had lost several children to disease. Just like they'd done to their mother, the sisters rapped out responses to the couple's questions that were close enough to the truth for the couple to find relief, and the Posts became some of the girls' first public supporters.
Over the next few years, the Fox sisters became a touring act, helping loved ones connect with spirits on the other side. Leah Fox negotiated the prices of these sessions: The biggest public demonstration in Rochester sold for 25 cents per ticket, which would be about $8 a pop today.
When spiritualism sprang out of Protestant Christianity in the mid-1800s, the idea of talking to the dead wasn't universally linked to danger of demonic possession like the horror movies of today would have you believe. Death was a great equalizer, affecting all genders, races, and creeds somewhat equally, and people were eager to touch it without passing. Girls were seen as pure and capable of connecting to spirits on the other side, so American spiritualism empowered women.
After the Fox sisters made a splash in New York, the nation's first crop of mimicking mediums were young females. As in Victorian England, the trade allowed women to break societal norms and occasionally cross into a different class of living, although Great Britain was quicker to equate female mediums with the highly regarded society of spiritualists willing to investigate the other side, like Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (author of the Sherlock Holmes stories).
1854: Nervous electricity and the psychograph
By the 1870s, spiritualism had evolved into a full-fledged movement. In the time of the telegraph, the so-called "Rochester Rappers" gained wide acclaim, and soon "mediums" with new methods of contacting the spirit world sprung up across the country. Maybe the spirit would take control of the medium's hand to write a message on paper (dubbed "automatic writing") or move a table that everyone had placed their hands on. Depending on the level of performance a medium was willing to attempt, spirits could even inhabit a body and speak through her or his mouth. At that time, major American cities saw adult mortality skyrocket, and disease in poor communities claimed the lives of a staggering number of children. Belief in the spirit world surged.
Nobody knows for sure when spiritualism adopted the first talking board. A British patent for a "Psychograph, or Apparatus for Indicating Person's Thoughts by the Agent of Nervous Electricity," was awarded to Adolphus Theodore Wagner in London on January 23rd, 1854. The patent itself claims that "nervous electricity" causes the device's pointer to move to letters and spell words, suggesting that a person's subconscious, not a spirit, was communicating using the board. Other European devices of the mid-1800s used a "planchette," the heart-shaped wooden slider used with Ouija boards today, to guide a writing instrument.
The talking board was a natural progression in spiritualism once automatic writing took off. Its first known North American use was referenced in a New York Daily Tribune article from March 28th, 1886, which profiled a group of Ohio spiritualists using "the new planchette," a talking board. A few East Coast businessmen -- Charles W. Kennard, Harry Welles Rusk, Col. Washington Bowie, William H. A. Maupin, John T. Green, their friend Elijah J. Bond, and their employee William Feld -- saw the Tribune article, and on February 3rd, 1891, the Kennard Novelty Company received a trademark on the title "Ouija." Days later, on February 10th, Elijah Bond was awarded the patent for the Ouija talking board, the first iteration of the game we know today.
1891: Yes, yes to the Ouija
The "myths" surrounding Ouija's naming and patenting process were conjured by those looking to control its perception. Initially, the product's creators purported that the name was "given" to them by the board itself. Later, the name was simply said to be a hybrid of the French affirmative "oui" and the German affirmative "ja." What has never been in dispute, though, is that making Ouija boards was primarily a capitalistic venture, not one meant to spread spiritualism or make any actual attempt to contact the dead.
During the early 1900s, the Ouija board was seen as a tool to practice séances. People contacted the dead for sport, and even published books based on the words of supposed dead authors. In 1916, Pearl Curran published "the words" of the ghost of a woman named Patience Worth; a year later, Lola Hays published Jeb Herron, a posthumous novel dictated to her over Ouija board by Mark Twain. "The ouija board seems to have come to stay as a competitor of the typewriter in the production of fiction," the New York Times wrote in a review.
1920: From mysticism to entertainment
Eventually, America got wise to the hucksters who preyed on mourning family members, leading the National Association of Spiritualism to ban "physical mediumship." As a result, the practice of a single medium running a paid séance was driven underground, while the American spiritualism movement shifted towards moral advocacy, like campaigning for temperance.
The Ouija board was forced to find new footing, and did so as a source of entertainment. The original accepted use of the talking board was to place it across the knees of two people who would sit opposite each other: Each person would put both hands on the planchette and then ask a question. For young couples of a different time, it was simply an excuse to touch your crush. In 1919, Norman Rockwell visited a school in Potsdam, New York, where he witnessed a few young couples flirting over a Ouija board. He later captured the mystic meet-cute on his May 1920 cover for the Saturday Evening Post.
1966: Toy story
Parker Brothers bought the rights to manufacture the Ouija board in 1966. Despite pushback from religious groups taking a harder line against spiritualism, the board outsold Monopoly in its first year on the market. Scientific studies had proved that the board's planchette was subconsciously manipulated by the user, but that just made Ouija the subject of mid-'60s studios on extrasensory perception.
A wholesome excuse to touch your lover's knees became a potential portal to the demon world thanks to an incident in 1949: In Mount Rainier, Maryland, 13-year-old Robbie Mannheim was supposedly possessed by the devil. According to local sources, Robbie underwent multiple exorcisms by Catholic priests who claimed he spoke in tongues, and words like "hell" were found scratched into his body.
Sound familiar? The story became the basis for William Peter Blatty's The Exorcist, published in 1971. Modern investigations of Robbie's case detail a child who was acting out to get attention. Still, Blatty's novel invented a fictional source for demonic possession: the Ouija board.
The '70s and '80s: The Exorcist and "Satanic Panic"
The Exorcist novel and its 1973 film adaptation weren't the first bits of popular culture to make the connection between the Ouija board and the occult, but thanks to phenomenal success, the terrifying one-two punch imbued the American zeitgeist with a sense of fear and pitted the toy against mainstream Catholicism. This was unfortunate for Ouija's reputation. Suddenly, using the board to contact the spirit world wasn't cathartic spiritualism but dangerous occult business.
The 1980s brought about the "Satanic Panic" period, which centered on the McMartin preschool case -- in which dozens of California children convinced their community that the local school was the center of a satanic child rape and prostitution ring -- and made things worse for any sort of pop culture even vaguely connected to the devil. Dungeons & Dragons, heavy-metal music, and, yeah, Ouija boards were associated with grisly murders committed by teenagers, accusations of roving cults making sacrifices, and suicides. Although mainstream culture eventually moved past Satanic Panic, reckoning with a fear of the spirit world left its mark on the country and the Ouija board economy.
While "ritualistic" murders and satanic child abuse gripped the nation, the Ouija board was on the periphery of the pop-culture psyche throughout the 1980s. Movies used the Ouija board to commune with evil spirits -- the most profitable example being the Witchboard franchise, whose first installment, released in 1986, makes an overt Exorcist reference: One of the main characters sees her roommate, Linda, retrieve a board and exclaims, "So what you're telling me is... that I'm living with Linda Blair?"
Amazingly, no Christian organizations called for official boycotts of the board during this period. Since the odds of actual demonic possession by way of Ouija board was deemed highly unlikely, parents often played with the idea. Children kept the Ouija board afloat because it could be dangerous, which helped transition the toy into the sleepover freakout machine it is today.
Hasbro bought out Parker Brothers in 1991 and makes all of the official Ouija boards you find in stores today. The toy company still touts the board as a way to talk to spirits -- on the Hasbro website, its product description ends ominously: "Handle the Ouija board with respect and it won't disappoint you!" When I drove my own car to buy a Ouija board as a young adult, my Lutheran mother made sure to find it and bless it with holy water the next time I left the house. Satanic fears still linger decades later.
Other Hasbro game properties have gotten the movie treatment -- remember Battleship? (On second thought, don't.) -- and more are in the works. Ouija hasn't changed since its early days as a spiritualist device, even if most of America sees it as an occult tool. When I asked if the company had ever considered updating Ouija gameplay, a Hasbro spokesperson's official answer was very clear: "While we sometimes refresh packaging or artwork to keep the game fresh, we haven't made significant updates to the gameplay of the classic Ouija game. Like many of our classic brands, the original game is what fans know and love, so we keep it that way!"
In 2013, Hasbro tried sprucing up the planchette by giving it a black light to illuminate the letters on the board, but that design was later discontinued. Chances are if you find a Ouija board in the wild, it won't be much different from the original speaking boards -- except that wood pieces have been swapped for plastic ones.
The irony of Ouija: Origin of Evil is that the horror movie's 1967 setting places us at a time when the talking board transitioned from spiritualist diversion to a tool of the occult. The one thing familiar in each phase of Ouija history is capitalism: Universal and Blumhouse made two horror movies; The Exorcist sold more VHS tapes; Parker Brothers wanted to own the game outselling Monopoly; kids wanted to buy something that would allow them to touch each other.
At the very beginning, two young girls figured out they could turn a ghost prank into revenue. And if box-office receipts are any indication, Ouija should continue to mesmerize paying paranormal inquisitors for years to come.
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