Ghosts. Who needs 'em? Ever since the dawn of humanity, we've wondered about where all the dead people go. Death is a very jarring experience for the living. One moment you have a vibrant, living, human in your life, and the next that existence is gone.
No wonder we've been trying to explain death away. Belief in haunting spirits and the lingering dead, can be found in every human culture. The natural evolution of those beliefs is the shamanic practice of communication with the spirits of the dead.
Spiritualism was just the 20th century's version of shamanism. Just like the modern trend of high-tech 'ghost hunting' is the shamanism of today.
These new beliefs often come into conflict with the old guard. Conservative Christians, for example, typically claim that things are 'Gateways to Hell' or that they 'Open the Door for Satan'.
This is exactly what happened following the creation of the Ouija Board. Today the Ouija Board has grown to become a totemic object of Satanic-Panic based fearmongering. Visible in such films as Paranormal Activity.
What is the Ouija Board, though? Is it really the Devil's Doorbell, or is it just a toy? Let's take a look at the history of the Ouija Board.
Spiritualism, Automatic Writing, & Talking Boards
Spiritualism was a social movement built on the belief that the spirits of the dead were not only close, but could be communicated with. Psychic Mediums use 'powers' to facilitate this communication.
This is frequently done in the setting of a séance. Several people sit in a dark room, holding hands around a table. The Medium calls up a spirit, and said spirit manifests itself in some way.
Knocking on furniture, and shifting small objects around the room are common. Back in the day, spirits were also known to manifest physically.
Investigations proved these manifestations to all be nothing but parlor tricks. Harry Houdini, the world's greatest magician, set out to disprove the practices of these Spiritualists, himself.
Another technique, which survived Houdini, is known as Automatic Writing. That is when a Medium scribbles idly on a piece of paper. The spirit takes control of the Medium's hand, and writes a message on the paper. It's all extremely scientific and entirely above being faked.
Automatic Writing, or Psychography, evolved into the Talking Board. The board itself is usually a wooden rectangle, with the alphabet, numbers, and the words Yes/No printed on its surface. Some boards also include a 'Hello' and 'Goodbye', but that seems optional.
The board works by having all participants place their fingers gently on a planchette. This is a small, heart-shaped wooden cursor. Using the magic of Spiritualism, the planchette then moves of its own accord to spell out answers to the questions asked by the users.
People swear high and low that they aren't moving the planchette, and thus you have an encounter with a spirit. Religious institutions decry the practice as devilry. They will tell you that by using the Talking Board, you are opening your soul to demonic influences.
Spiritualists will tell you that the spirits communicated with in such a way are the benign dead. Some might warn that there are darker spirits out there.
Psychology suggests that the movement of the planchette could be a subconscious thing. Users may not be aware that they are moving the planchette across the board. Thus, the Talking Board, is a great way to connect with one's own subconscious mind.
Whatever the truth is, an aura of fear and excitement exists around the Talking Board, or Ouija Board. But where did this devilish device come from?
The History of the Ouija Board
Spiritualism was a hot trend in the late 19th century. Looking to cash in on the fad, Pittsburgh Toy Shop - Danziger's, started advertising their new 'game' in the Pittsburgh Dispatch. The 'toy' was manufactured by the Kennard Novelty Company.
"Ouija", or The Wonderful Talking Board
According to the original advertisement, the board can offer remarkable answers about past, present, and future. No mention of spirits is ever made. They also claim to have 'proven' its efficacy at the patent office.
Robert Murch has dedicated his life to researching the history of the Ouija Board. He has a fairly complete picture of the controversial game's origins.
In 1890, Charles Kennard was joined by Elijah Bond, and Colonel Washington Bowie to form the Kennard Novelty Company. Their sole product was the Talking Board.
None of the founders of the Kennard Novelty Company were Mediums. They were just really into business and making money.
At the time, Talking Boards were becoming a popular tool in Spiritualist circles. Early models were very close to the form the board takes today.
Some people believe that the name of the Ouija Board comes from the combination of the French and German words for 'Yes'. This theory is slightly tamer than the truth.
According to the legend of the Ouija Board, the name came from an early Ouija session. Elijah Bond's sister-in-law, Helen Peters, was a popular Medium at the time. She was interested in the Kennard Talking Board, and gathered the company's founders for a séance.
Together they asked the board what it should be called. It allegedly spelled out the word 'Ouija'. When Helen asked the board what 'Ouija' meant, it replied with 'Good Luck'.
The next step was to get their Ouija Board patented. Kennard took the Ouija Board to the patent office. There, the Chief Patent Officer asked for proof that the board works before he allows the patent.
The applicants used the board to spell out the Patent Officer's first name, which was allegedly unknown to them. He was flabbergasted, and signed the patent right away. Witnesses reported that the man lost all color in his face after witnessing the Ouija Board's power.
They never bothered to explain how their new toy worked. Instead, they used the mystery of it all as a marketing ploy. Soon the Ouija Board was a very popular toy. The Kennard Novelty Company opened several factories across the USA and UK, dedicated solely to the production of Ouija Boards.
In Part 2, we'll discuss the myths and legends surrounding the Ouija Board.