Tales of the Talking Board

by David G. Thorne (writing as Georgia Allan)

This was the third article I ever wrote, for submission to Prediction magazine. Unsurprisingly it was rejected, but editor, Jo Logan was very encouraging. She kindly forwarded my article on to Psychic News. I was gobsmacked when PN editor Tony Ortzen rang me up to discuss the piece. See, there are some nice editors out there!

Few areas of the occult have captured the public imagination as vividly, or as controversially as the humble Ouija board. There can be few who have not dabbled with it at one time or another. Its appeal crosses all social boundaries. Francisco Madero, one time president of Mexico, claimed to have been told by the Ouija that he would attain his nation’s highest office. In 1910 Madero led a major revolution, seizing power from the dictator Porfirio Diaz.

Yet despite its enduring popular appeal as a form of divination, claims persist that it is a gateway to the occult, paranoia and even demonic possession. During the 1930s Mattie Turley and her mother Dorothea were convicted of murder, after Mattie killed her father with a shotgun. In her defence Mattie claimed that the Ouija, operated by Dorothea, had told her to commit the crime. Similar cases are common.

It has been claimed that Ouija boards were used by the ancient Greeks as an instrument for contacting the dead as early as 540 BC, and by the Chinese in the time of Confucius. The Romans are said to have used similar oracles by the third century AD. Some claim evidence that primitive man used symbol boards to obtain knowledge of the unknown in prehistoric times.

In reality the Ouija was first produced in Maryland, USA during the 1890’s. Its origins began in the 1850s with the invention of the planchette, the first instrument used by spiritualists to facilitate written messages from the spirit world. The planchette was a narrow heart-shaped platform fitted with swivelling casters and a pencil at the tip. Users would place their fingertips on the planchette and supposedly spirits would allow it to move, thus spelling out messages from the other side.

In 1868 the planchette was introduced to the United States where it became an instant sensation as a parlour game. Thousands were sold in a matter of months. However it was the courageous concept of three Baltimore businessmen which turned communication with the great beyond into a phenomenon.

Charles Kennard, E.C. Reiche and Elijah Bond had long been interested in spiritualism, but found the planchette erratic and its pencil messages difficult to interpret. They created a simple wooden board with the letters of the alphabet arranged in two parallel arcs in the centre. Underneath were the numbers one to ten, and in the top corners the words YES and NO.

The planchette was modified to enable it to move freely over the polished board, with padded wooden pegs replacing the casters. Now the planchette could simply move from letter to letter to spell out messages. It was Kennard who coined the name Ouija (pronounced We-Ja), following a session with the board, claiming it was the Egyptian word for good luck. In fact it does not mean this, but the name stuck anyway.

Borrowing money, he founded the Kennard Novelty Company, and in 1890 the first commercial Ouija board appeared. However, just two years later a hostile takeover by his financial backers forced Kennard out of the company.

William Fuld took control of the business, changing its name to Ouija Novelty Company in the process. Soon the Ouija was being produced in record numbers and aggressively marketed as a board game. William Fuld was on his way to establishing himself as the father of the Ouija Board.

The Ouija’s claims to antiquity were Fuld’s own invention in an inspired move to market his product. He boldly claimed that he himself had invented the board and that the name came from a combination of the French and German words for ‘yes’ .

Over the next seventy years, dozens of imitators sprang up, with names such as Kennard, Haskelite and Lee producing boards featuring ever more elaborate designs. The Ouija Novelty Company remained in the Fuld family until 1966, when it was sold to Parker Brothers. Two years later the Ouija was outselling Monopoly by a considerable margin. Parker still retain all trademarks and patents, and continue to produce modern versions of the board.

But is the Ouija a toy as it’s manufacturers contend, or is it a dangerous and unpredictable means of communicating with the spirit realm? Discounting cheating and fraud, there are numerous hypotheses as to how the Ouija works but two contrasting theories stand out; the sceptical or Automatism theory and the Spiritualist theory.

Sceptics apply the clinical terms “ideomotor response” or automatism to describe what happens at a sitting. In short, the sitter is moving the planchette subconsciously, although they are unaware of it. The theory was developed during the study of mediums who performed automatic writing and is now a well-understood occurrence. Automatism theorists commonly accept that it is possible to move the planchette unconsciously, and that the Ouija may, in effect, open a direct route from the conscious to the unconscious mind. Collective automatism is thought to be at work when several persons are operating the board, although the mechanics of this are less clearly understood.

In 1913 Pearl Curren began channelling an entity called Patience Worth through her Ouija. Over the next few years Patience Worth dictated twenty-nine volumes of writings, 2,500 poems and six acclaimed historical novels. Sceptics suggest that Curren was reaching into her own subconsciousness for her material, and under pressure Curren denied that the Ouija was responsible for her prolific output. However, the sceptical approach cannot explain how an uneducated St Louise woman could demonstrate such literary skill or describe with extreme accuracy places and historical events of which she had no knowledge.

Advocates of the Spiritualist Theory postulate that Ouija messages originate outside of human consciousness. By helping to focus latent psychic abilities, the board acts as a medium through which entities are channelled. These may be disembodied spirits, ghosts, or other ethereal beings who have cause to contact the living.

Proponents of the Spiritualist Theory are divided with regard to the dangers of contacting the ethereal domain. Some maintain that spirits are essentially benign and are seeking to guide humanity through their messages. Witness California housewife, Iris Maloney, who won 1.4 million dollars on a lottery using numbers suggested by her Ouija board.

More evangelical spiritualists believe that only malevolent forces seek to cross over to the mortal realm, in order to cause emotional or even physical harm to the sitter. As evidence they sight cases of demonic possession, poltergeists and similar. This is the popular perception of the Ouija promoted by films such as The Exorcist and the Witchboard series. However the vast majority of such cases can be attributed to psychologically disturbed individuals, over-zealous investigators or fraud.

Whatever the mechanics involved, taken seriously, the Ouija does seem to work for most people. The board is placed upon the knees of two participants, preferably male and female, with the planchette or glass placed somewhere on the board. Each sitter places their fingers lightly but firmly on the planchette. The sitters concentrate their minds upon the matter in question, with one person nominated to ask the questions. Within minutes it should begin to move, slowly at first, then gathering speed. The pointer touches the letters or markings, spelling out words and sentences in answer to questions from the sitters. At times the board will fail to respond. On these occasions a short rest before trying again will usually produce more positive results.

Best results are generally obtained where the group has decided in advance what they want the Ouija to do, and by phrasing the questions simply. Surroundings are also important. The area should be free from loud noises, distractions or interruptions. Some people like to light candles and incense to create the right atmosphere. Others perform protective rituals before starting.

The Ouija frequently uses abbreviated words and phrases. Expressions which appear nonsensical may only become clear upon reflection. For this reason it is common to have a non-participant taking notes.

Anecdotal evidence suggests that like attracts like. Perhaps as evidence of Automatism, the sort of entity likely to be encountered is often directly related to the level of spiritual development of the participants and their intent. It therefore almost goes without saying that the user should stop using the board if the experience is unpleasant or any distress occurs!

Contrary to popular rumours that it has been banned, there are still numerous companies producing intriguing variants of the Ouija, now frequently called Talking Boards. Many current designs retain the traditional format of letters and numerals, while others blend new age ideas, Astrological, Qabalistic or Tarot symbolism. Boards such as the Ziriya or those painted by Kipling West and funk artist Shelley Martin have rapidly become sought after collectors’ items.

For those who cannot find or afford a commercially produced Ouija however, the tried and tested solution remains to make one. Homemade boards work equally as well as manufactured ones, often better, probably due to the makers own creative input.

For most people the Ouija Board remains a game or party amusement, albeit one inclined to frighten the pants off drunken players. As a tool for divination it is equally as effective as palm reading or the tarot. Whilst those seeking a psycho-dynamic tool to stimulate their creativity, or to reach their subconscious are unlikely to be disappointed.

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