Thursday, July 16, 2020

Summertime, Scary Movies, and the History of the Ouija Board - by Dani Harper

Posted by: Dani Harper, Author
As a kid, I watched a metric crap-ton (a unit of measurement equal to 1000 butt-loads) of SCARY MOVIES, especially on hot, humid summer afternoons. For me, going outside would quickly incite sunburn, an allergic reaction, or a nosebleed. Sometimes all three. Vintage science fiction and horror flicks on TV were a welcome alternative – and our local station always aired a double-feature. 

Even at a young age I noticed that most of the plots were cautionary tales: Somebody gets bored/curious/greedy and they decide to break an unwritten rule. And before they know it, they’re up to their neck in ghosts-zombies-demons-aliens-whatever. 

According to Hollywood, one of these unwritten rules is never play with a Ouija board. In reality, however, the origins of this unusual device were spiritual rather than sinister. 

Originally called a spirit board, talking board or witch board, it was a popular psychic tool and widely used in the Great Spiritualist Movement of mid-nineteenth century America. It was believed that communicating with the dead could be very helpful, even instructive, to the living, and was considered a wholesome activity by more than a few Christians in that era.

The premise was simple. Participants rested their fingertips lightly on the triangular planchette and it would glide over the spirit board, pointing to various letters and numbers to spell out a message or answer questions. 

Tragic and uncertain times—the Civil War, World War 1, the 1918 Flu Pandemic, the Depression, etc—led to increased use of the spirit board and other psychic tools as people searched for proof of an afterlife and a way to connect with loved ones who had passed. First Ladies Jane Pierce and Mary Todd Lincoln each lost young children, and both women held seances and other spiritualist activities in the White House itself in hopes of contacting them. 

Initially, these divining tools were simple household items. An upside-down teacup with a handle could be used as a pointer or planchette. An upside-down wineglass or plain drinking glass worked well because you could see the letter it had landed on. 

Planchettes could also be used without a formal board, utilizing an ordinary piece of paper upon which you'd written yes and no, and perhaps the alphabet as well. Some planchettes were fitted with pencils and used with a blank sheet of paper, in hopes of achieving what was known as automatic writing

Boards came in a variety of shapes and sizes too, and most were homemade. Some were round like a clock face with the alphabet printed around the edge. Others were oval or square. Some were elaborately painted keepsakes, others rough-hewn and temporary.

It was the patenting of OUIJA (wee-JA or wee-GEE) in 1890 that standardized these tools. Factory-produced, the Ouija consisted of a pre-printed rectangular board paired with a triangular or heart-shaped planchette. The planchette often included a round “window” through which to view the letter it had landed on. As for the unusual name, the patent owner claimed he'd learned it while using the board, and that the word simply meant "good luck".  

Luck was certainly on the side of the manufacturer as Ouija rapidly gained popularity as a parlor game. In fact, the cover of the May 1920 issue of the highly conservative Saturday Evening Post featured a painting by Norman Rockwell of a young couple using the Ouija. The spirit board of the previous century had graduated to mainstream culture, becoming a normal American family activity. At parties, it rivaled traditional board games, and by 1966 Ouija outsold Monopoly. 

Although some churches began criticizing the use of the Ouija early in the 1900s, it was usually about the waste of time rather than any occult concerns. The board continued to be embraced by the general public. For some it was still a spiritual tool. For most, it was harmless fun. At worst, it was looked upon as hokey and silly. 

All that changed with the publication of "The Exorcist" in 1971. The story is about a 12-year-old girl who becomes possessed by a demon after using an Ouija board. And when the movie came out in 1973, the board's new reputation as a tool of the devil was sealed. 

"The Exorcist" was an enormous success and is considered a classic. And Hollywood writers have used the Ouija board as a plot device ever since. I was able to put together a list of 25 horror movies featuring the spirit board as a method of summoning evil beings in less than two minutes! 

But let's get back to basics.

How does the Ouija board actually work? We know that tiny unconscious and involuntary motions can produce big results, just like a tiny pebble tossed in a pond creates big ripples. We may not think that we’re directing the movement of the planchette—but in most cases some part of us is doing exactly that. Why? That’s harder to answer. Many scientists think we’re unconsciously reacting to suggestions or prior expectations and beliefs. Some people think it’s possible to study the expression of the subconscious mind through the use of Ouija boards. 

What if you’re using the board with a group of friends and everyone has their fingers on the planchette? Turns out that human beings, just like some animals, are capable of unconscious and unplanned collaboration. It’s not telepathy. Instead, people can read visual cues from each other—and intuit what happens next—without being aware that they’re doing so.

Still, there’ll always be those occasions where words are spelled out or events occur that simply defy any explanation... 

Meanwhile, I find myself once again spending some hot summer afternoons the same way I did as a kidsafely indoors watching scary movies! I just finished a couple of Ouija-themed flicks considered to be among the best: “The Conjuring 2” (2016) and "Paranormal Activity" (2009).

And in the spirit of summer fun, if you happen to be a fan of deliberately bad productions like the Sharknado franchise, there’s a 2020 movie just for you: "Ouija Shark"

I'm not sure I'm brave enough to watch that one!


THE GRIM SERIES by Dani Harper

The fae are cunning, powerful and often cruel. The most beautiful among them are often the most deadly. Hidden far beneath the mortal world, the timeless faery realm plays by its own rules—and those rules can change on a whim. Now and again, the unpredictable residents of that mystical land cross the supernatural threshold…

In this enchanting romance series, the ancient fae come face-to-face with modern-day humans and discover something far more potent than their strongest magic: love.

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