By JILLIAN KRISTINA
“What about all that other stuff you used to be into? Witchcraft, seances, and all that?”
“Oh no. I got out of that scene when I started to realize just what sort of things I was playing around with. Dangerous games, those.”
– ALISON’S BIRTHDAY (1981)
“Guess what? I found a Ouija board here, and we’re going to play it tonight.”
“The rules are simple: Never play alone, never play where someone’s been murdered before, and always say goodbye before you leave.”
– OUIJA HOUSE (2018)
An innocent find, an old wooden board stowed away somewhere in a forgotten house, a run down shed, a secret room, or a previously locked closet. Featuring arced letters, numbers, a sun, a moon, and the familiar ‘Yes,’ ‘No,’ and ‘Good Bye,’ a tear-dropped planchette accompanies the board, requiring all fingers to be placed on the planchette and stay on the planchette for the duration of the ‘game.’ As the wooden pointer glides across the surface, slightly scraping against the weathered planks of the board, letters and numbers are amplified under the clear porthole-like eye, answering the proposed questions of those brave enough to summon the spirits.
But it’s just a game, right?
It certainly started out that way. In fact, it started out as a way for a savvy businessman and a handful of investors to cash in on the very popular spiritualist movement of the 19th century. With the rise of the Fox sisters, the self-proclaimed mediums from upstate New York, new methods for spirit communication began to surface, one being the spirit board. Reported by the Associated Press in 1886, ‘talking boards’ were growing in popularity amongst spiritualist camps in Ohio. After reading this, a Chestertown, MD fertilizer entrepreneur, Charles Kennard, wasted no time collaborating with another local entrepreneur, E. C. Reiche. A Prussian immigrant, Reiche began his career as a furniture maker, transitioning to a coffin maker, then finally, an undertaker, making him the perfect partner to create the prototypes for their new ‘talking boards.’ In fact, the original prototype for what would come to be known as the Ouija board was said to be made from the recycled wood of Reiche’s coffins.
After relocating to Baltimore in 1890, Kennard started petitioning investors for what he was now claiming was his sole vision for a mass-marketed talking board. One of these investors, a local attorney by the name of Elijah Bond, brought another powerful piece of the puzzle into the mix – his sister-in-law and purported powerful medium, Helen Peters. Contrary to the widely accepted belief that the word ‘Ouija’ was chosen as a combination of ‘oui,’ the French word for ‘yes,’ and ‘ja,’ the German word for ‘yes,’ the name, according to popular accounts, came to Peters during an actual talking board session in which she asked the board what it wanted to be named. The medium claimed to have received the word, ‘Ouija,’ and after asking the board what it meant, received the phrase, ‘Good Luck.’ However, it’s speculated that the name, ‘Ouija,’ was inspired by the name engraved above a woman’s picture on the locket Peters was wearing. A note – many believe that the woman depicted in Peters’s locket was Maria Louise Ramee, better known by her pen name, ‘Ouida,’ a well known progressive and evocative author at the time, and that her name was misinterpreted as ‘Ouija.’
A patent was granted on February 10th, 1891, giving this new board game the green light for production and distribution. It hit the ground running, and remains one of the most popular and best-selling board games to this day.
It’s interesting to note that with mass production of the Ouija board, mediums of the time were annoyed with the game because it began cutting them out of the equation, making spiritual contact accessible for the whole family. And why not? During a time of incredible uncertainty, warfare, and the fear that families were enduring as they suffered under the unbearable weight of not knowing whether or not they’d ever see their loved ones again, ‘parlour games’ like the Ouija board, tarot cards, crystal gazing, palm reading and other forms of divination provided not only a comfort, but an escape. These methods of engaging with the unknown – the unseen – were, for the most part, viewed as positive, powerful and healing experiences. They put the power back into people’s hands during a time when most felt a keen sense of powerlessness; divination was a source of relief and affirmation during times of acute desperation, much like it continues to be today.
What’s fascinating about the Ouija board in modern cinema is the creative liberties different directors take with the structure of the spirit tool. In Ian Coughlin’s 1981 Australian horror, ALISON’S BIRTHDAY, three teenage girls gather around a glass table upon which a circle of Scrabble pieces are meticulously placed, employing an upturned glass in the middle of the circle which serves as a planchette. Lightly nudging each lettered square, the glass streams across the table, spelling out responses until the game takes on a life of its own; Alison’s deceased father possesses one of the girls, using her as a channel to deliver an ominous warning to Alison. The terror and intensity grows as all hell breaks loose, and the circle is broken.
Always remember the cardinal rule, kids: Never, ever break the circle.
The Duffer Brothers reinvented the circle in 2016 with their breakout first season of Netflix’s STRANGER THINGS, as Joyce Byers frantically paints the letters of the alphabet on her living room wall. In a stroke of genius desperation, she hangs Christmas lights over each letter, then proceeds to ask the disembodied spirit of her missing son, Will, to use the lights as a planchette, blinking over individual letters to spell words and communicate his whereabouts from the Upside Down. In this take, the ‘never play alone’ rule is cast aside in favour of the power of a singular grieving mother, channeling her immense sorrow into an iconic, highly effective DIY spirit board.
In 2018, Ben Demaree took The Duffer Brothers’ play and raised it with an entire house in the outlandish and explosive OUIJA HOUSE. The site of a murderous coven of witches plays host to a group of friends looking to dive deeper into the dark history of the house. After finding an old Ouija board in a hidden room, the group decide to try to channel the spirits of the house, not realizing they’ve already become ensnared in a nefarious trap – the entire house is a Ouija board; letters wallpapered over, discovered when one of the girls is turned into a human planchette, raging and clawing at spots on various walls, tearing wallpaper down and revealing the letters that will (hopefully, but not really) spell the answers to their escape.
Three very different examples, yet, there’s a common thread running through each one – the Ouija board is malleable; it morphs, is deconstructed, reapplied and expanded as storylines have demanded, which brings us full circle: the talking board, or any tool used for magical or paranormal purposes, is just that – a tool. We, first and foremost, are always the most powerful tools of connection. Incorporating curated devices of divination and communication offers unique and creative layers to our supernatural experiences, but in the end, we are the ultimate talking boards. We are the best, most powerful conduits of spirit communication and channeling, flexing our inherently (if not latent) psychic muscles to stretch our minds beyond our perceived limitations, allowing us to pierce the veils of our realities…and all that lies beyond.