Though I am mostly interested in sciences that are measurable, I have a curiosity about things that people would otherwise call pseudoscience - techniques and methods which have no basis in science, but rather rely on belief for outcome. But I am not naive enough to say that belief has no place in paranormal research. In fact, I see belief as the basis of our curiosity about the paranormal and even a guide as we look to uncover what may be possible.
One area of the paranormal I have always been fascinated by is the Ouija Board. I remember receiving one as a gift when I was young, and though I was a little bit afraid to use it, I gave it a try. I asked it questions like "When Will I Die?" and "How old will my parents live to be?" Now as an adult, I can look back and say that the answers I received were false, but I can't answer the question of was the Ouija Board wrong, or was there an intervening factor that made its predictions inaccurate?
The History of Ouija Boards
Ouija boards are believed to be ancient, dating back as far as 1100 BC where they were used as a form of necromancy and communication with the dead during the Song Dynasty. Proof of similar medium based devices has also been found in ancient India, Greece, Rome, and parts of Europe. Modern usage of the Ouija Board began as part of the spiritualism movement of the late 1840's and grew following the Civil War. This new movement was spearheaded by mediums claiming to be intermediaries between the living and the dead, hoping to profit from loved ones who hoped to communicate with those who had died during the war and passed to the other side. There was so much death during the Civil War that almost every family could say they had lost a father, grandfather, or son to the war. Often the dead carried no identification on them and so their bodies could not be identified or returned. Obviously the families yearned for a chance to say a final goodbye, or ask unanswered questions so these spirit communicators offered a chance to lay those questions to rest by acting as a medium to the spirit world.
The talking boards took off mostly during times of war and economic depression. These mediums had various ways of making their followers believe they were passing messages to the dead, but the Ouija board became the most successful and popular method used since there seemed to be a response before the eyes of the hopeful. In 1886, there were reports of a new talking board being used in Ohio among members of "Spirit Camps". These were traveling groups who would go from town to town to earn money with their gifts of communication with the dead. The board they used was 18 by 20 inches and featured the words Goodnight, good evening, no, yes, along with numbers and the alphabet. It would be the basis of the Ouija Board we know today. The other required object to use the board was the planchette, which the spirits would use to select and identify letters to spell out their message from the other side on to the board.
Family Feuds and Business
The Ouija board was initially created in 1894 by Elijah Bond, a businessman, who developed it as a board game. The boards were simply referred to as Talking Boards and they were supposed to be used for future predictions and facts about the past. The board game was meant to be a fun throwaway game entirely unrelated to the occult or ghosts. However, by the time World War I came around, there were large groups of people who had come to believe that the planchette’s movement in the game must have otherworldly origins making them the default appliance for communicating with the dead.
The first person to give the modern talking board its current name (Ouija board) was William Fuld, who was Elijah Bond’s employee. There are conflicting reports about the origins of the boards name. One states that William combined the French word ‘Oui’ and German word “Ja” both meaning “yes” to create the unique moniker. The other theory is that he came up with the name from the ancient Egyptian term for “good luck”.
As Ouija board profits and popularity began increasing, most of the earlier investors tried solidifying their roles in the creation of the device but one Helen Peters did not want any association with the board after it resulted in serious damage to her family. Some civil war heirlooms were missing from Helen’s home and she asked the Ouija Board who was responsible for taking them. Peter’s grandson states that the board indicated that a family member had done so. Half the family believed this while the other half thought it was a lie creating a family conflict that was never resolved and tore everyone apart. Helen then sold all her stock in the company.
William Fuld also had family troubles related to the Ouija board. Fuld cut out his brother from the business in 1919 and they never spoke again. The year was a good one in terms of sales after a flu epidemic and a world war. William continued opening new factories after the Ouija board told him to get ready for big business. Early in 1927, Fuld went up to the building roof to supervise a flag pole replacement and was standing close to the edge of the roof holding an iron support of the pole while studying it himself. The support pulled away suddenly and he fell over backward. Fuld grabbed hold of an open window sill which closed suddenly leaving him to fall to the sidewalk below. Fuld broke a few ribs but was supposed to survive the accident until a bump in the road, while he was en-route to the hospital, caused one of the fractured bones to pass through his heart so he died.
Fuld’s estate sold the family business to the Parker Brothers in 1966; this comprised more than just the Ouija board business. Parker Brothers manufactured the modern Ouija board we know today. Parker Brothers was sold in 1991 to Hasbro, which currently holds all the Ouija patents and rights.
Operating the Board
Ouija boards are flat boards usually made of wood along with numerals (0-9) and the alphabet written on them. Many boards have a sun and moon symbol that signify yes and no answers, while others will simply have the word yes or no. Wood is the preferred material for constructing a Ouija Board because it is believed that wood will harness Earth energy and increase the likelihood of spiritual communication. A planchette is placed onto the board which moves over the numbers and letters to form the response to the questions asked. Some people choose to make their own board believing that it will have unique powers and better communicate. If you would like to print out a simple Ouija Board, here is one from WikiHow.
Operating a Ouija Board is fairly simple: to begin communicating, first place the board on a flat surface. The room should be quiet and everyone should be concentrating their thoughts onto communication. Most people choose to dim the lights to create a proper mood akin to a seance. Everyone in the group lightly (so that the device can freely move) places their finger tips and onto the planchette. A chosen medium, or communicator, then begins asking questions. It's recommended to ask simple questions first, such as "what is your name", or "how many spirits are in the room?". Almost immediately you should feel as if the other person is moving the planchette, and they would also think the same. Supposedly the spirits are guiding the device to respond to your questions. It is recommended to only operate the board in groups as this creates a collective energy to enhance communication.
Some recommended offering gifts to the spirits to encourage them to respond. This is done by placing small trinkets around the board. Others, who hope to communicate with loved ones, will bring items that were owned by the deceased one. Some people also believe a cleansing of the room should be conducted beforehand so that evil spirits can be warded off.
Scientific Explanation for Ouija Boards
Though many believe that conjured spirits are answering the questions, a more scientific explanation suggests that natural micro movements by the participants is what causes the planchette to move about the board. A scientific study was done by Aarhus University in Denmark: the study measured the eye movements of participants for hundreds of hours and found that ideomotor phenomenon was the cause of the "answers". Basically, the answer given by the board was a reflexive action combining the answers each participant had in their head. So if you ask a simple question like "What is a yellow fruit" the participants would collectively answer "banana". Ask a more in depth question and the response will be a combination of answers from those participating. This maybe why people will often get strange answers or words that seem misspelled. Though unintended, participants are all trying to answer the question with whatever answer they think is right.
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