Ouija Boards, too Scary or Explained by Science?

I’m contemplating a Ouija board scene in my book. I’m evaluating its relevancy to the plot among other things. To help me make a decision on the scene I did some brainstorming and research. What I discovered was rather interesting.

I had numerous brainstorming questions: What are they? How do they work? Is it spirits or demons? Is it our subconscious  mind?  Or is it simply involuntary minute muscle movements? Do they open a portal to hell or just harmless fun? I probably haven’t touch one myself since my twelfth birthday.

Although the origin of the Ouija board seems shrouded in mystery there is a patent for one in London from 1854 by Adolphus Wagner. In his patent he clearly states that the messages spelled out on the board are accomplished by the unintentional movements of the people using it. In the 1890’s it was sold in America in novelty shops and made by the Kennard Novelty Company. They were able to receive a patent in 1891 because they had proven to the patent office it worked when they were able to get the board to spell out the name of the Chief Patent Officer, which they supposedly did not know before hand.

From there the Ouija board obtained a strong foothold in American culture. Using the board was not a controversial activity early on like it is today. Norman Rockwell portrayed a man and woman using the board on the front page of the Saturday Evening Post in 1920. That’s like seeing someone use a smartphone on the evening news today. Parker Brothers bought the rights to the game in 1967 and sold 2 million boards that year.

Norman Rockwell

Norman Rockwell

Perhaps one of the most interesting things to me as a writer are writers who used the board to help guide their writing. Here are just a few that made me go, hmmm.

  • In 1917 Emily  Grant Hutchings published a book called Jap Herron, about a diamond in the rough young man who blossoms under the tutilage of a graceful couple. She claimed the book was dictated to her via the Ouija board by none other than Mark Twain, who died in 1910. Reviews at the time called her claim into question not because she used the board but because it was terribly written. One critic wrote, there was no way Mark Twain would have written such drivel, dead or alive.
  • In 1957 Sylvia Plath wrote Dialogue over a Ouija Board after her experience of a Ouija session. Apparently, she used the board quite a bit and even took some writing direction and advice from the board. It begs the question, did her use of the board have anything to do with the way her life ended?
  • In December of 1972 an Eastern Airlines jet, flight 401, crashed into the Florida Everglades. The crashed was caused by the flight crew’s distraction of a landing gear light not functioning. While their attention was on the light the plane lost altitude and crashed into the swamp. 101 people perished. The ghosts of the 12 flight crew members who died were reported by numerous reliable people to have been seen around the company and on other flights. Salvageable parts from Flight 401 had reportedly been installed in these aircraft. In 1972 John G. Fuller wrote The Ghosts of Flight 401 about the phenomena and used the board and a medium to contact the spirits as he wrote the book.
  • Not exactly a writer but quite surprising, Bill Wilson, co-founder of Alcoholics Anonymous, is reported to have used a Ouija board to develop the familiar 12 steps.

The board did not really become controversial in popular culture until after The Exorcist came out in 1977. In case you have been living on a deserted island for many decades, a young girl plays with a  board and begins chatting with an entity. This fun and games end with the girl being possessed by a demon. Not the portrait of a harmless parlor game.

Ouija board advertisement, via Pinterest

Ouija board advertisement, via Pinterest

Even in the camp that believes it is spirit energy moving the planchett there is strife. On one end of the spectrum there are those that believe your intent when using the board dictates the outcome. If you intend to communicate with departed loved ones or good spirits that is all that will come through. For those who think they are an acceptable tool for contacting spirit they stress exercising caution. They say that before you use one say a prayer of protection, know how to close anything you open, smudge the board with sage, and the like.

Way over on the other end are those who say it is definitely spirit communicating through the board but your intent doesn’t make one bit of difference. It can only be demons moving the planchett, impersonating loved ones or good spirits to lead people astray. They point out that scripture forbids believers from participating in communication with the dead. People with this viewpoint would never touch one under any circumstance and suggest we all do the same.

Skeptics and science have a different opinion, not surprisingly, it does not include spirits. It is the live humans using the board. The planchett moves because of something called the ideomotor effect. This term describes the small, automatic muscular movements we all make and are totally unaware of. Experiments have suggested that the planchett movements to spell answers to the questions asked are caused by the ideomotor effect working in conjunction with our own subconscious mind. These two things combine to generate the effect of an outside force moving it. To disprove this notion there have been experiments of people using the board blindfolded to minimize user influence with mixed results.

There is a strange phenomena around the board that shows just how mucky the understanding of the way the board works is. It’s been coined the Zozo phenomena by paranormal investigator Darren Evans. People from all over the world report the board spelling out “I am Zozo”. These encounters are characterized by extremely negative encounters with death threats and blasphemous messages. Believers feel this is a demon or negative entity that attaches to users and affects their life in detrimental ways, proving the boards are dangerous. Listening to their personal stories make for a compelling viewpoint.

Skeptics say it is simply the ideomotor effect and the subconscious that has knowledge of this phenomenon at work. Others say it is the ideomotor effect and the “collective subconscious” that causes the common experience to emerge. Mostly, it is dismissed as internet folklore.

Lunch anyone?

Lunch anyone?

Here’s my own experience.

The year I turned twelve I was living out on an acreage just north of Calgary, Alberta, Canada. We lived in a large home which was good because there were seven kids living in the house. We had a walk out basement that had a large open room with a wood fireplace that we called the rec room. Just off this room was my favorite area of the house, the den. It was floor to ceiling book shelves with a heavy desk under the window. I got to commandeer these two areas for my birthday party sleep over.

At some point during the evening we settled down in front of the fire to tell scary stories. I don’t remember exactly how it came about but we pulled out the Ouija board and I suggested we go under the desk in the den where it was really dark.

We huddled under the desk and sat with the board balanced on our legs. Not everyone could fit so some of the girls sat on the floor as close as they could. The only light source was the slowly dying fire in the other room. We started asking questions and the room was very quiet as we were all very intent on what we were doing. Not much was happening.

I finally said in my most dramatic voice: If there are any spirits in the room, give us a sign. At that exact moment there were three very loud and slow knocks on the window above us. We shrieked and bolted up the stairs in a jumble of legs and arms like the devil himself was chasing us.

By the time we reached the kitchen we were laughing. Of course, it was the older kids heading into town for Saturday night. They must have seen us get the Ouija board and waited around to scare us. When my aunt heard the ruckus she came in and we explained what happened. She didn’t laugh. She explained that the older kids had left for a movie in town over an hour ago. Needless to say we slept upstairs in the living room that night.

I don’t know how to explain that using the ideomotor effect, unless someone’s  subconscious was able to tap the window.

I still haven’t decided whether or not to use the scene in this particular book. Feel free to share your experiences, they might just make me lean one way or the other.

For now, never turn off the lights, especially if you’ve been messing with one of these and somebody or something or (holy crap) Zozo knocks on your window.