Skip to main content
Ouija Board

The spooky history of Ouija Boards


The original Ouija Board was a humble object. No more than a small, rectangular wooden board with the letters of the alphabet displayed in two curves and a straight line of numbers underneath. Below that is the phrase ‘Good Bye’. At the top of the board on the right is a crescent moon and a five-pointed star, accompanied by the word ‘No’. On the left is the sun, complete with a schematised face, and the word ‘Yes’.

The board is paired with a palm-sized ‘planchette’, best described as a tear-shaped wooden object. This is the device that the users place on the board and touch with their fingers before asking questions that might be answered by allowing the planchette to navigate the board before pointing at corresponding letters, numbers or words.

Spiritualism in America

A year before Edgar Allen Poe, the acclaimed pioneer of American Gothic, died in 1849, the newspapers were heavy with the exploits of Margaret and Catherine Fox. With the help of their domineering older sister, Leah, Margaret and Catherine became famous across the USA as mediums. Their séances made them wealthy, but when Margaret confessed to making up the ghostly noises, the business collapsed.

But this was an age when Abraham Lincoln’s wife conducted séances in the White House, the obsession with Spiritualism was such that, despite Margaret’s confession, many maintained the sisters were authentic and the conducting of séances continued unabated as relatively normal activity. The timing was perfect for the introduction of a compatible gadget.

The original ‘Talking Board’

The board that evolved into Ouija appeared in 1886 and was already being used in séances. It was first manufactured by Charles Kennard and Elijah Bond in 1890 in Baltimore, the former hometown of Edgar Allen Poe. It was Bond’s sister-in-law, who came up with the word ‘Ouija’ by asking the board what it would like to be called. It was launched as a ‘novelty item’, with no instructions.

An overnight sensation

The Ouija Board sold in vast droves from the get-go. In just a couple of years, the Kennard Novelty Company, the manufacturers of the board, had two factories in Baltimore, two in Chicago, two in New York and even one in London to keep up with demand. It’s still hugely popular today with multiple versions available on the market.

Is it ghosts?

Unlike other tools of spiritual delineation, such as Tarot which can be open to interpretation, Ouija is more succinct when it comes to providing the information asked of it. But, crucially, the planchette doesn’t move about on its own. It requires a human hand to make it move. So, we can argue with some credibility, that if one person is using the Ouija Board, they’re merely answering their own questions either consciously, subconsciously or unconsciously. However, it’s not quite the same story if more than one person is playing because, in theory anyway, there isn’t a single person in control of the planchette.

How does it work?

In 1852, physiologist William Carpenter invented the phrase ‘ideomotor effect’ to describe the unconscious muscular actions of Ouija players, adding that the answers revealed by the board were already known to the participants. But there is more to Carpenter’s theory.

In a 2018 experiment conducted by Dr Marc Anderson at Denmark’s Aarhus University, Ouija Board participants had their eye movements tracked while interacting with the board. The results demonstrated that the corresponding movements on the planchette weren’t just the result of the ‘ideomotor effect’, but a collective response perpetuated by visual data and the subtle physical movements of other, like-minded, participants.

The original ghostwriters

Sadly, there are dozens of examples from around the world where, predominantly, pre-existing mental health issues and Ouija have collided with tragic consequences, but some have put Ouija to use in more creative ways.

Pearl Lenore Curran was 30 years old when a Ouija session with her friend, Emily Grant Hutchings, ended with the board briskly spelling out, ‘Many moons ago I lived. Again, I come. Patience Worth my name.' Instead of quietly putting the board away and visiting a priest, the experience heralded the beginning of a remarkable career with what could be described as a genuine ghostwriter. While claiming to channel Patience, Pearl produced an impressive volume of early-20th-century poems and novels, one of which, The Sorry Tale, was even critically acclaimed by the New York Times.

It was noted that Patience didn’t speak to Pearl in contemporary English but in a sort of Anglo-Saxon with no specific providence. She claimed to be from Portesham in Dorset before emigrating to Nantucket Island in the late 1600s, where she was subsequently murdered by Native Americans. It’s worth noting that, in addition to her prodigious literary achievements, Pearl/Patience possessed a vast knowledge that astonished her contemporaries. And despite being investigated by a line of sceptics and psychologists, no one could explain the phenomenon.

But, as we’ve seen in previous examples of Ouija, the reality is that Patience was no more than an extension of Pearl's considerable intellect. Maybe, it would be arrogant to presume we have all the answers, but the case for Ouija being a credible tool for contacting an unseen spirit world is seriously flawed.