Karen, Sam and Jake sit down on the dusty floor of the cabin and place the board on the ground in front of them. Sam and Jake reach their arms forward and place their hands on the wooden planchette, but Karen hesitates for a moment. “Come on, you aren’t scared are you?” chuckled Sam. “It’s just a game. Nothing to be afraid of”.
Although she didn’t feel very reassured, Karen gathered her courage and placed her hand on the small wooden piece. Nothing happened. After sitting for a minute in silence, Jake spoke up. “I think we’re supposed to say something. Like a question. Does anybody have any ideas?”
“How about ‘Is anybody out there?'” Sam suggested. For a few moments, the board sat unchanged. Then, slowly, the planchette began to gradually slide towards the top right corner of the board.
“Which one of you is doing that?” asked Karen as the planchette slowly came to a stop over the word ‘Yes’.
For a moment, the three friends sat in disbelieving silence, staring at the board. Then, Jake decided to speak up. “Who are you?” he whispered.
All three friends held their breath as the planchette began to move again, more quickly this time. As it moved it began to spell out a word. D…E…A…T…H.
It took a few days for the police to find the three teens in that old abandoned cabin in the woods, and even when they did the couldn’t figure out what had happened. All three seemed to be in perfect health, and yet they had all died so suddenly. There was no apparent cause of death – no blood, no bruises, no traces of poison. The only other thing investigators were able to recover from the scene of the crime was an old wooden board game, with the hands of the three friends still holding that small wooden planchette.
The story above is completely fictional, but odds are that when you think of Ouija boards, you probably think of this type of story. These boards have long been associated with spirits, dark magic, and the occult, and are so infamous that many religious or superstitious individuals refuse to even touch these boards for fear that they may be possessed by a demon, or befall some similarly terrible fate.
In this article, I hope to get down to the roots of the mystery behind these boards. Where did these boards come from? Where did they get their reputation, and is it deserved? And what actually happens when you use one of these boards?
History of the Mystery
The Ouija board as we know it today goes back to a patent granted in 1890 to a businessman known as Elijah Bond. This was in the middle of the spiritualism movement, which was characterized by a belief in the existence of spirits and their willingness to communicate with the living, and Bond saw a business opportunity by patenting and selling these boards.
Bond, however, did not invent the boards. While he may be responsible for spreading the popularity and solidifying the look of these boards, he was more interested in business than spirits. The “talking board” was around before him, and was already quite popular among spiritualist communities by the time Bond made his patent. The Ouija board was just one of his many business ventures which included a patent for a steam boiler, trademarking the word “Nirvana”, and running what was known as the “Swastika Novelty Company”.
After patenting the board, Bond eventually handed over responsibility for the boards to one of his employees, William Fuld. Fuld was the one who actually began using the name “Ouija” to describe these boards, and soon his name became synonymous with the boards themselves. Concerning the name “Ouija”, the most common explanation is that it is a combination of the French and German words for “yes”. However, I cannot find any sources on why this would be the case, or what this name has to do with a talking spirit board. One alternative explanation for the name is that the board itself chose the name Ouija when asked what it wanted to be called.
The popularity of Ouija grew into the 1920s, and its popularity has fluctuated since then. However, it has always remained a part of popular consciousness. Throughout the years Ouija boards have appeared in a number of horror movies, books and t.v. shows, and have often been rejected by religious organizations. Ouija boards have even been involved in moral panics connected with other “symbols of witchcraft”, such as Dungeons & Dragons or the Harry Potter books.
Let the Write one in
While the particular name and design of Ouija boards may only go back around 130 years, the idea behind them is much older than that. Ouija boards are a form of what is known as “automatic writing”. There are many forms of automatic writing, but the one thing that they all share is the idea of producing words without conscious effort, being guided by subconscious or spiritual forces.
Although automatic writing first gained popularity in the west during the spiritualism movement of the 1800s, it has been practiced in other parts of the world for over 1500 years. Some of the earliest mentions of automatic or “spirit writing” goes back to the 5th century AD in China. The method of using a board for spirit writing, known as “Fuji”, goes back to the late 10th century, and is associated with a branch of Taoism known as the “Quanzhen School”.
In the western world, one of the first examples of automatic writing comes from the works of John Dee and Edward Kelly, who were scientific and mystical investigators and advisors to Queen Elizabeth I. These two men reportedly able to channel the writing of angels, and wrote down what is now called the “Enochian” language.
As mentioned above, the practice of automatic writing began to grow in popularity in the west during the spiritualism movement. This included both the standards, handwritten forms of automatic writing, as well as the forms that used a board and planchette (the precursors to modern Ouija boards). Many mediums during this time became renowned for their automatic writing abilities, and it became a symbol of spiritual power and sensitivity.
The Big Ideo
The explanation behind Ouija boards has long been the subject of scientific inquiry, and the leading explanation depends on a phenomenon known as the ideomotor response. Basically, this phenomenon involves the body making small, unconscious movements in response to their own thoughts. In regards to Ouija boards, the theory is that even thinking about where the planchette might go can create small, subtle movements that move the planchette around the board. When played with multiple people at once these effects can be multiplied, and it can be difficult to tell where the movements actually came from.
The ideomotor effect is not only an explanation for the Ouija board, but a number of similar effects. One simple effect that uses this phenomenon can be done with a simple swinging pendulum and a piece of paper. Write the words “yes”, “no”, and “maybe” on the paper, and swing the pendulum back and forth above it. When asked questions, it is possible for your unconscious movements to actually cause the pendulum to stray towards one of the answers or the other.
Another example of the ideomotor effect is the phenomenon known as dowsing. In dowsing, a person takes hold of either two dowsing rods or a single rod with a fork in the middle, and walks around searching for some secrets hidden in the ground (usually a water source). When the source is discovered, the dowsing rod is supposed to dip or twitch to indicate that they have found what they are looking for.
Most scientific studies have shown that, under controlled test conditions, most dowsers are unable to locate running water better than random chance. However, in the few cases where results were better than chance, the likely explanation is through the ideomotor effect. Experienced dowsers are able to detect, whether consciously or not, subtle surface-level signs that indicate the existence of underground water. These unconscious observations then get translated into small movements of the hands, which are amplified by the dowsing rods to a much more obvious movement. It is nothing magical or spiritual, just the dowsing rod assisting the user’s own subconscious knowledge.
The ability for the ideomotor effect to tap into subconscious knowledge has also been tested with Ouija boards as well. In one experiment, participants were asked a series of yes or no questions, first without a Ouija board board, then with one. When given the Ouija board the participants were first given a series of practice questions (to prime their brains with the locations of the “yes” and “no” answers on the board), then blindfolded. After blindfolding the users were told to think about the question but not to consciously move the planchette, but simply allow it to move however it wanted to.
The results were very interesting – when asked questions that the participants were confident in the answer, their accuracy dropped slightly when using the Ouija board. However, when asked questions that they did not know the answer to (basically, when guessing) they were able to answer about 15% more accurately using the Ouija board than without. The explanation given in the paper is that the board was able to tap into knowledge that may not be available to the conscious mind, and help guide the user towards the right answer.
I hope you enjoyed this article on Ouija boards – I know it is a little different than my usual game design content, but it’s nearly Halloween so I decided to do something a little spooky. While the Ouija board would not really be considered a game (because it has no rules, goal, or endpoint), it is still an activity involving a board so I figured it was close enough.
Even though the Ouija board itself would not be considered a game, however, I do think that the ideomotor effect could be used as an interesting mechanic for a game – perhaps a fun party game where the ideomotor effect is used to reveal embarrassing details about the players? As far as I can tell this mechanism is not currently being used, but if you know of any games that use an ideomotor mechanic please let me know in the comments down below.
As one final note, I want to say that there will most likely not be a new article next week – (I will probably post another repeat article from a few months back). However, I do plan to be back the week after that with an article on tiers in competitive games. If that sounds interesting to you, be sure to follow the blog via email, Twitter, or here on WordPress so you will always know when I post a new article. See you in a few weeks!