So there’s no gray-haired psychic in your town? And you can’t sneak another call into the astrology hotline without your mom noticing the long-distance charges? If you need some answers in your life, and answers more specific than the good old Magic 8 Ball can provide, the Ouija Board might be your next stop. Not only, for example, can the Ouija tell you if you should go ahead and color your hair, but it can also tell you what color you should choose. Fortune telling was never this specific! There is much debate as to what moves the pointer around on the board—is it the players themselves or the busybody spirit world? And if you think the 8 Ball has its fair share of literal-minded, no-fan-of-anything-you-can’t-reach-out-and-grab opponents, you should get a load of the apprehension and controversy that the Ouija inspires. All of it would make William Fuld, the board’s quirkily entrepreneurial patriarch, very, very proud.
In mid-nineteenth century New York, communing with the ‘other side’ was all the rage. Spiritualist churches were popping up everywhere, and the city’s chic hostesses clamored for authentic mediums to attend their gatherings, so that chatty members of the spirit world could speak through them. As an alternative to all that zany vocalizing, there was “spirit writing,” wherein the medium would establish contact with a spirit, grab a pencil, and let the spirit do the rest. A doohickey called the “planchette” was invented for such parlor sessions—a small, heart-shaped plank (planchette means “little plank” in French) with a pencil at the heart’s apex. The downside to spirit writing was that the mediums, or ahem, their spirit-communicators, didn’t always have the most legible penmanship, and message transmission tended to be a bore—and nobody wants that at a séance party.
“Talking boards,” the brainchild of three Americans named E.C. Reiche, Elijah Bond and Charles Kennard, came next. This rectangular wooden slab provided a flat surface for the wooden-pegged planchette to glide over, featuring the alphabet, numbers one through ten, and words ‘yes’ and ‘no.’ According to some, Kennard called the board “Ouija” after an Egyptian word for good luck, and even better yet (at least better for Ouija’s sometimes purposely murky history), Kennard claimed the board itself suggested the word. In 1892, Kennard’s ex-foreman, William Fuld, took the company over, named it the Ouija Novelty Company, and began producing the board in high volume numbers.
Fuld, no marketing dimwit himself, concocted his own version of the Ouija’s genesis: claiming he invented the whole enchilada himself, and that the word Ouija was actually an amalgam of the French “oui” and the German “ja”—possibly just a way to force people to pronounce it correctly. Fuld didn’t own the market on talking boards (there was Milton Bradley’s Genii, for instance), but he certainly cornered it. In 1927, Fuld fell from a factory roof in his native Baltimore—some say suicide, some accident. Fuld’s children took over after that, and then in 1966, Parker Brothers bought the company.
Today, the board is made of folding cardboard instead of wood, and the planchette glides on velvet tabs instead of wooden pegs, but other than that, it looks nearly the same as it did over one hundred years ago. The alphabet spans the board in two crescent rows, the numbers are below that, and in the corners are the words ‘yes’ and ‘no,’ and at the bottom, ‘good bye.’ All this handy data faces the player who sits at the base of the board, so if reading upside down doesn’t come easy, savvy players sometimes recruit a note-taker to jot down the letters, which can then be deciphered later.
The unspoken rules that go along with this game are legion. Never play it alone. Never play angry. Never, especially in the case of permanent hair color choices, let the Ouija be the final authority. Play at night, because according to Ouija aficionados, there is less traffic in the psychic atmosphere. Decide on one person who will ask all the questions, because there is less confusion to any, um, spirits who are out there, navigating said psychic traffic. Candlelight is recommended (the spirit world having always been a big advocate of energy conservation), and two players are best. The board is best placed atop the two players’ knees, but a table is okay if the candlelight is making a jittery player’s knees knock. Warm the planchette, or pointer, up by moving it around in circles, but then stop moving it altogether. Check for white around the fingertips, which indicate someone is pressing down, and then ask a clearly stated question. Hopefully, if the atmosphere is favorable and the traffic is light, the spirits will take over.
Or will they? Some believe the board is just a reflection of the players’ inner psyches—no spirits at all, just us good old fashioned, earthbound folks who guide the pointer unconsciously. Fair enough, but let’s face it, sometimes the pointing isn’t always unconscious. Those same rascals who occasionally “borrow” from the bank in Monopoly when no one is looking are also known to form words on the Ouija Board deliberately. And then, of course, we feign great surprise (with a sly mental nod to their junior high drama class teachers) as that magic planchette spells out exactly what we want to hear.
Parker Brothers likes to avoid negative Ouija connotations, but when dealing with a supposed conduit for incorporeal intelligences, there’s a certain degree of creepiness that can’t be helped. The board was supposedly banned in Britain during the ’70s, and there are plenty of parents and religious groups today who’d just as soon their kids just play checkers. Of course, all the mystique just sells more boards and makes impromptu Ouija sessions feel nicely forbidden and scandalous—a feeling you just can’t get from checkers.