Thursday, December 28, 2006
How this American Anomaly Became More than Just Fun and Games
By Mitch Horowitz
Ouija. For some the rectangular board evokes memories of late-night sleepover parties, shrieks of laughter, and toy shelves brimming with Magic Eight Balls, Frisbees, and Barbie dolls.
For others, Ouija boards – known more generally as talking boards or spirit boards – have darker associations. Stories abound of fearsome entities making threats, dire predictions, and even physical assaults on innocent users after a night of Ouija experimentation.
And the fantastic claims don’t stop there: Pulitzer Prize-winning poet James Merrill vowed until his death in 1995 that his most celebrated work was written with the use of a homemade Ouija board.
For my part, I first discovered the mysterious workings of Ouija nearly twenty years ago during a typically freezing-cold winter on eastern Long Island. While heaters clanked and hummed within the institutional-white walls of my college dormitory, friends allayed boredom with a Parker Brothers Ouija board.
As is often the case with Ouija, one young woman became the ringleader of board readings. She reprised the role of spirit medium that had typically fallen to women in past eras, when the respectable clergy was a male-only affair. Under the gaze of her dark eyes – which others said gave them chills – the late-night Ouija sessions came into vogue.
Most of my evenings were given over to editing the college newspaper, but I often arrived home at the dorm to frightening stories: The board, one night, kept spelling out the name “Seth,” which my friends associated with evil. (Probably connecting it with the malevolent Egyptian god Set, who is seen as a Satan prototype.) When asked, “Who’s Seth?” the board directed its attention to a member of the group, and repeatedly replied: “Ask Carlos.” A visibly shaken Carlos began breathing heavily and refused to answer.
Consumed as I was with exposing scandals within the campus food service, I never took the opportunity to sit-in on these séances – a move I came to regard with a mixture of relief and regret. The idea that a mass-produced game board and its plastic pointer could display some occult faculty, or could tap into a user’s subconscious, got under my skin. And I wasn’t alone: In its heyday, Ouija outsold Monopoly.
Ouija boards have sharply declined in popularity since the 1960s and 70s, when you could find one in nearly every toy-cluttered basement. But they remain among the most peculiar consumer items in American history. Indeed, controversy endures to this day over their origin. To get a better sense of what Ouija boards are – and where they came from – requires going back to an era in which even an American president dabbled in talking to the dead.
Today, it is difficult to imagine the popularity enjoyed by the movement called Spiritualism in the nineteenth century, when table rapping, séances, medium trances, and other forms of contacting the “other side” were practiced by an estimated ten percent of the population. It began in 1848 when the teenaged sisters Kate and Margaret Fox introduced “spirit rapping” to a lonely hamlet in upstate New York called Hydesville. While every age and culture had known hauntings, Spiritualism appeared to foster actual communication with the beyond. Within a few years, people from every walk of life took seriously the contention that one could talk to the dead.
For many, Spiritualism seemed to extend the hope of reaching loved ones, and perhaps easing the pain of losing a child to one of the diseases of the day. The allure of immortality or of feeling oneself lifted beyond workaday realities attracted others. For others still, spirit counsels became a way to cope with anxiety about the future, providing otherworldly advice in matters of health, love, or money.
According to newspaper accounts of the era, President Abraham Lincoln hosted a séance in the White House – though more as a good-humored parlor game than as a serious spiritual inquiry. Yet at least one vividly rendered Spiritualist memoir places a trance medium in the private quarters of the White House, advising the President and Mrs. Lincoln just after the outbreak of the Civil War.
In this atmosphere of ghostly knocks and earnest pleas to hidden forces, nineteenth-century occultists began looking for easier ways to communicate with the beyond. And in the best American fashion, they took a do-it-yourself approach to the matter. Their homespun efforts at contacting the spirit world led toward something we call Ouija – but not until they worked through several other methods.
One involved a form of table rapping in which questioners solicited spirit knocks when letters of the alphabet were called out, thus spelling a word. This was, however, a tedious and time-consuming exercise. A faster means was by “automatic writing,” in which spirit beings could communicate through the pen of a channeler; but some complained that this produced many pages of unclear or meandering prose.
One invention directly prefigured the heart-shaped pointer that moves around the Ouija board. The planchette – French for “little plank” – was a three-legged writing tool with a hole at the top for the insertion of a pencil. The planchette was designed for one person or more to rest their fingers on it and allow it to “glide” across a page, writing out a spirit message. The device originated in Europe in the early 1850s; by 1860 commercially manufactured planchettes were advertised in America.
Two other items from the 1850s are direct forebears to Ouija: “dial plates” and alphabet paste boards. In 1853 a Connecticut Spiritualist invented the “Spiritual Telegraph Dial,” a roulette-like wheel with letters and numerals around its circumference. Dial plates came in various forms, sometimes of a complex variety. Some were rigged to tables to respond to “spirit tilts,” while others were presumably guided – like a planchette – by the hands of questioners.
Alphabet boards further simplified matters. In use as early as 1852, these talking-board precursors allowed seekers to point to a letter as a means of prompting a “spirit rap,” thereby quickly spelling a word. It was, perhaps, the easiest method yet. And it was only a matter of time until inventors and entrepreneurs began to see the possibilities.
More than 150 years after the dawn of the Spiritualist era, contention endures over who created Ouija. The conventional history of American toy manufacturing credits a Baltimore businessman named William Fuld. Fuld, we are told, “invented” Ouija around 1890. So it is repeated online and in books of trivia, reference works, and “ask me” columns in newspapers. For many decades, the manufacturer itself – first Fuld’s company and later the toy giant Parker Brothers – insinuated as much by running the term “William Fuld Talking Board Set” across the top of every board.
The conventional history is wrong.
The patent for a “Ouija or Egyptian luck-board” was filed on May 28, 1890 by Baltimore resident and patent attorney Elijah H. Bond, who assigned the rights to two city businessmen, Charles W. Kennard and William H.A. Maupin. The patent was granted on February 10, 1891, and so was born the Ouija-brand talking board.
The first patent reveals a familiarly oblong board, with the alphabet running in double rows across the top, and numbers in a single row along the bottom. The sun and moon, marked respectively by the words “yes” and “no,” adorn the upper left and right corners, while the words “Good bye” appear at the bottom center. Later on, instructions and the illustrations accompanying them, prescribed an expressly social - even flirtatious - experience: Two parties, preferably a man and woman, were to balance the board between them on their knees, placing their fingers lightly upon the planchette. ("It draws the two people using it into close companionship and weaves about them a feeling of mysterious isolation," the box read.) In an age of buttoned-up morals, it was a tempting dalliance.
The Kennard Novelty Company of Baltimore employed a teenaged varnisher who helped run shop operations, and this was William Fuld. By 1892, however, Charles W. Kennard’s partners removed him from the company amid financial disputes and a new patent – this time for an improved pointer, or planchette – was filed by a 19-year-old Fuld. In years to come, it was Fuld who would take over the company and affix his name to every board.
Based on an account in a 1920 magazine article, inventor’s credit sometimes goes to an E.C. Reichie, alternately identified as a Maryland cabinetmaker or coffin maker. This theory was popularized by a defunct Baltimore business monthly called Warfield’s, which ran a richly detailed – and at points, one suspects, richly imagined – history of Ouija boards in 1990. The article opens with a misspelled E.C. “Reiche” as the board’s inventor, and calls him a coffin maker with an interest in the afterlife – a name and a claim that have been repeated and circulated ever since.
Yet this figure appears virtually nowhere else in Ouija history, including on the first patent. His name came up during a period of patent litigation about thirty years after Ouija’s inception. A 1920 account in New York’s World Magazine – widely disseminated that year in the popular weekly The Literary Digest – reports that one of Ouija’s early investors told a judge that E.C. Reichie had invented the board. But no reference to an E.C. Reichie – be he a cabinetmaker or coffin maker – appears in the court transcript, according to Ouija historian and talking-board manufacturer Robert Murch.
Ultimately, Reichie’s role, or whether there was a Reichie, may be moot, at least in terms of the board’s invention. Talking boards of a homemade variety were already a popular craze among Spiritualists by the mid-1880s. At his online Museum of Talking Boards, Ouija collector and chronicler Eugene Orlando posts an 1886 article from the New-York Daily Tribune (as reprinted that year in a Spiritualist monthly, The Carrier Dove) describing the breathless excitement around the new-fangled alphabet board and its message indicator. “I know of whole communities that are wild over the 'talking board,'” says a man in the article. This was a full four years before the first Ouija patent was filed. Obviously Bond, Kennard, and their associates were capitalizing on an invention – not conceiving of one.
And what of the name Ouija? Alternately pronounced wee-JA and wee-GEE, its origin may never be known. Kennard at one time claimed it was Egyptian for “good luck” (it’s not). Fuld later said it was simply a marriage of the French and German words for “yes.” One early investor claimed the board spelled out its own name. As with other aspects of Ouija history, the board seems determined to withhold a few secrets of its own.
Another oft-repeated, but misleading, claim is that Ouija, or talking boards, have ancient roots. In a typical example, Frank Gaynor’s 1953 Dictionary of Mysticism states that ancient boards of different shapes and sizes “were used in the sixth century before Christ.” In a wide range of books and articles, everyone from Pythagoras to the Mongols to the Ancient Egyptians is said to have possessed Ouija-like devices. But the claims rarely withstand scrutiny.
Chronicler-curator Orlando points out that the primary reference to Ouija existing in the pre-modern world appears in a passage from Lewis Spence’s 1920 Encyclopedia of Occultism – which is repeated in Nandor Fodor’s popular 1934 Encyclopedia of Psychic Science. The Fodor passage reads, in part: “As an invention it is very old. It was in use in the days of Pythagoras, about 540 B.C. According to a French historical account of the philosopher’s life, his sect held frequent séances or circles at which ‘a mystic table, moving on wheels, moved towards signs, which the philosopher and his pupil Philolaus, interpreted to the audience...’” It is, Orlando points out, “the one recurring quote found in almost every academic article on the Ouija board.” But the story presents two problems: The “French historical account” is never identified; and the Pythagorean scribe Philolaus lived not in Pythagoras’s time, but in the following century.
It is also worth keeping in mind that we know precious little today about Pythagoras and his school. No writings of Pythagoras survive, and the historical record depends upon later works – some of which were written centuries after his death. Hence, commentators on occult topics are sometimes tempted to project backwards onto Pythagoras all sorts of arcane practices, Ouija and modern numerology among them.
Still other writers – when they are not repeating claims like the one above – tend to misread ancient historical accounts and mistake other divinatory tools, such as pendulum dishes, for Ouija boards. Oracles were rich and varied from culture to culture – from Germanic runes to Greek Delphic rites – but the prevailing literature on oracular traditions supports no suggestion that talking boards, as we know them, were in use before the Spiritualist era.
After William Fuld took the reins of Ouija manufacturing in America, business was brisk – if not always happy. Fuld formed a quickly shattered business alliance with his brother Isaac, which landed the two in court battles for nearly twenty years. Isaac was eventually found to have violated an injunction against creating a competing board, called the Oriole, after being forced from the family business in 1901. The two brothers would never speak again. Ouija, and anything that looked directly like it, was firmly in the hands of William Fuld.
By 1920, the board was so well known that artist Norman Rockwell painted a send-up of a couple using one – the woman dreamy and credulous, the man fixing her with a cloying grin – for a cover of The Saturday Evening Post. For Fuld, though, everything was strictly business. “Believe in the Ouija board?” he once told a reporter. “I should say not. I’m no spiritualist. I’m a Presbyterian – been one ever since I was so high.” In 1920, the Baltimore Sun reported that Fuld, by his own “conservative estimate,” had pocketed an astounding $1 million from sales.
Whatever satisfaction Fuld’s success may have brought him was soon lost: On February 26, 1927, he fell to his death from the roof of his Baltimore factory. The 54-year-old manufacturer was supervising the replacement of a flagpole when an iron support bar he held gave way, and he fell three stories backward.
Fuld’s children took over his business – and generally prospered. While sales dipped and rose – and competing boards came and went – only the Ouija brand endured. And by the 1940s, Ouija was experiencing a new surge in popularity.
Historically, séances and other Spiritualist methods proliferate during times of war. Spiritualism had seen its last great explosion of interest in the period around World War I, when parents yearned to contact children lost to the battlefield carnage. In World War II, many anxious families turned to Ouija. In a 1944 article, “The Ouija Comes Back,” The New York Times reported that one New York City department store alone sold 50,000 Ouija boards in a five-month period.
American toy manufacturers were taking notice. Some attempted knock-off products. But Parker Brothers developed bigger plans. In a move that would place a carryover from the age of Spiritualism into playrooms all across America, the toy giant bought the rights for an undisclosed sum in 1966. The Fuld family was out of the picture, and Ouija was about to achieve its biggest success ever.
The following year, Parker Brothers is reported to have sold more than two million Ouija boards – topping sales of its most popular game, Monopoly. The occult boom that began in the late 1960s, as astrologers adorned the cover of Time magazine and witchcraft became a fast-growing “new” religion, fueled the board’s sales for the following decades. A Parker spokesperson says the company has sold over ten million boards since 1967.
The sixties and seventies also saw the rise of Ouija as a product of the youth culture. Ouija circles sprang up in college dormitories, and the board emerged as a fad among adolescents, for whom its ritual of secret messages and intimate communications became a form of rebellion. One youthful experimenter recalls an enticing atmosphere of danger and intrigue – “like shoplifting or taking drugs” – that allowed her and a girlfriend to bond together over Ouija sessions in which they contacted the spirit of “Candelyn,” a nineteenth-century girl who had perished in a fire. Sociologists suggested that Ouija sessions were a way for young people to project, and work through, their own fears. But many Ouija users claimed that the verisimilitude of the communications were reason enough to return to the board.
While officials at Parker Brothers (now a division of Hasbro) would not get into the ebb and flow of sales, there’s little question that Ouija has declined precipitously in recent years. In 1999, the company brought an era to an end when it discontinued the vintage Fuld design and switched to a smaller, glow-in-the-dark version of the board. In consumer manufacturing, the redesign of a classic product often signals an effort to reverse falling sales. Listed at $19.95, Ouija costs about 60% more than standards like Monopoly and Scrabble, which further suggests that it has become something of a specialty item.
In a far remove from the days when Ouija led Parker Brothers’ lineup, the product now seems more like a corporate stepchild. The “Ouija Game” (“ages 8 to Adult”) merits barely a mention on Hasbro’s website. The company posts no official history for Ouija, as it does for its other storied products. And the claims from the original 1960s-era box – “Weird and mysterious. Surpasses, in its unique results, mind reading, clairvoyance and second sight” – have since been significantly toned down. Given the negative attention the board sometimes attracts – both from frightened users and religionists who smell a whiff of Satan’s doings – Ouija, its sales likely on the wane, may be a product that Hasbro would just as soon forget.
And yet...Ouija receives more customer reviews – alternately written in tones of outrage, fear, delight, or ridicule – than any other “toy” for sale on Amazon.com (280 at last count). What other “game” so polarizes opinion among those who dismiss it as a childhood plaything and those who condemn or extol it as a portal to the other side? As it did decades ago in The Exorcist, Ouija figures into the recent fright films What Lies Beneath and White Noise. And it sustains an urban mythology that continues to make it a household name in the early twenty-first century. There would seem little doubt that Ouija – as it has arisen time and again – awaits a revival in the future. But what makes this game board and its molded plastic pointer so resilient in our culture, and, some might add, in our nightmares?
“AN OCCULT SPLENDOR”
Among the first things one notices when looking into Ouija is its vast – and sometimes authentically frightening – history of stories. Claims abound from users who experienced the presence of malevolent entities during Ouija sessions, sometimes even being physically harassed by unseen forces. A typical storyline involves communication that is at first reassuring and even useful – a lost object may be recovered – but eventually gives way to threatening or terrorizing messages. Hugh Lynn Cayce, son of the eminent American psychic Edgar Cayce, cautioned that his researches found Ouija boards among the most “dangerous doorways to the unconscious.”
For their part, Ouija enthusiasts note that teachings such as the inspirational “Seth material,” channeled by Jane Roberts, first came through a Ouija board. Other channeled writings, such as an early twentieth-century series of historical novels and poems by an entity called “Patience Worth” and a posthumous “novel” by Mark Twain (pulled from the shelves after a legal outcry from the writer's estate), have reputedly come through the board. Such works, however, have rarely attracted enduring readerships. Poets Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes wrote haunting and dark passages about their experiences with Ouija; but none attain the level of their best work.
So, can anything of lasting value be attributed to the board – this mysterious object that has, in one form or another, been with us for nearly 120 years? The answer is yes, and it has stared us in the face for so long that we have nearly forgotten it is there.
In 1976, the American poet James Merrill published – and won the Pulitzer Prize for – an epic poem that recounted his experience, with his partner David Jackson, of using a Ouija board from 1955 to 1974. His work The Book of Ephraim was later combined with two other Ouija-inspired long poems and published in 1982 as The Changing Light at Sandover. “Many readers,” wrote critic Judith Moffett in her penetrating study entitled James Merrill, “may well feel they have been waiting for this trilogy all their lives.”
First using a manufactured board and then a homemade one – with a teacup in place of a planchette – Merrill and Jackson encounter a world of spirit “patrons” who recount to them a sprawling and profoundly involving creation myth. It is poetry steeped in the epic tradition, in which myriad characters – from W.H. Auden, to lost friends and family members, to the Greek muse/interlocutor called Ephraim – walk on and off stage. The voices of Merrill, Jackson, and those that emerge from the teacup and board, alternately offer theories of reincarnation, worldly advice, and painfully poignant reflections on the passing of life and ever-hovering presence of death.
The Changing Light at Sandover gives life to a new mythology of world creation, destruction, resurrection, and the vast, unknowable mechanizations of God Biology (GOD B, in the words of the Ouija board) and those mysterious figures who enact his will: Bat-winged creatures who, in their cosmological laboratory, reconstruct departed souls for new life on earth. And yet we are never far from the human, grounding voice of Merrill, joking about the selection of new wallpaper in his Stonington, Connecticut home; or from the moving council of voices from the board, urging: In life, stand for something.
“It is common knowledge – and glaringly obvious in the poems, though not taken seriously by his critics – that these three works, and their final compilation, were based on conversations...through a Ouija board,” wrote John Chambers in his outstanding analysis of Merrill in the Summer 1997 issue of The Anomalist.
Critic Harold Bloom, in a departure from others who sidestep the question of the work’s source, calls the first of the Sandover poems “an occult splendor.” Indeed, it is not difficult to argue that, in literary terms, The Changing Light at Sandover is a masterpiece – perhaps the masterpiece – of occult experimentation. In some respects, it is like an unintended response to Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, in which not one man acting alone, but two acting and thinking together, successfully pierce the veil of life’s inner and cosmic mysteries – and live not only to tell, but to teach.
One wonders, then, why the work is so little known and read within a spiritual subculture that embraces other channeled works, such as the Ouija-received “Seth material,” the automatic writing of A Course In Miracles, or the currently popular Abraham-Hicks channeled readings. The Changing Light at Sandover ought to be evidence that something – be it inner or outer – is available through this kind of communication, however rare. It is up to the reader to find out what.
Of course, the Merrill case begs the question of whether the Ouija board channels something from beyond or merely reflects the ideas found in one’s subconscious. After all, who but a poetic genius like James Merrill could have recorded channeled passages of such literary grace and epic dimension? Plainly put, this wasn’t Joe Schmoe at the board.
In a 1970 book on psychical phenomena, ESP, Seers & Psychics, researcher-skeptic Milbourne Christopher announces – a tad too triumphantly, perhaps – that if you effectively blindfold a board’s user and rearrange the order of letters, communication ceases. A believable enough claim – but what does it really tell us? In 1915, a specialist in abnormal psychology proposed the same test to the channeled entity called Patience Worth, who, through a St. Louis housewife named Pearl Curran, had produced a remarkable range of novels, plays, and poems – some of them hugely ambitious in scale and written in a Middle English dialect that Curran (who didn’t finish high school) would have had no means of knowing.
As reported in Irving Litvag’s 1972 study, Singer in the Shadows, Patience Worth responded to the request that Curran be blindfolded in her typically inimitable fashion: “I be aset athin the throb o’ her. Aye, and doth thee to take then the lute awhither that she see not, think ye then she may to set up musics for the hear o’ thee?” In other words, how can you remove the instrument and expect music?
Some authorities in psychical research support the contention that Ouija is a tool of our subconscious. For years J.B. Rhine, the veritable dean of psychical research in America, worked with his wife, Louisa, a trained biologist and well-regarded researcher in her own right, to bring scientific rigor to the study of psychical phenomena. Responding to the occult fads of the day, Louisa wrote an item on Ouija boards and automatic writing adapted in the winter 1970 newsletter of the American Society for Psychical Research. Whatever messages come through the board, she maintained, are a product of the user’s subconscious – not any metaphysical force: “In several ways the very nature of automatic writing and the Ouija board makes them particularly open to misunderstanding. For one thing, because [such communications] are unconscious, the person does not get the feeling of his own involvement. Instead, it seems to him that some personality outside of himself is responsible. In addition, and possibly because of this, the material is usually cast in a form as if originating from another intelligence.”
For his part, the poet Merrill took a subtler view of the matter. “If it’s still yourself that you’re drawing upon,” he said, “then that self is much stranger and freer and more far-seeking than the one you thought you knew.” And at another point: “If the spirits aren’t external, how astonishing the mediums become!”
TO OUIJA -- OR NOT TO OUIJA?
As I was preparing for this article, I began to revisit notes I had made months earlier. These presented me with several questions. Among them: Should I be practicing with the Ouija board myself, testing its occult powers in person? Just at this time, I received an email, impeccably and even mysteriously timed, warning me off Ouija boards. The sender, whom I didn’t know, told in sensitive and vivid tones of her family’s harrowing experiences with a board.
As my exchange with the sender continued, however, my relatively few lines of response elicited back pages and pages of material, each progressively more pedantic and judgmental in tone, reading – or projecting – multiple levels into what little I had written in reply (most of which was in appreciation). And so I wondered: In terms of the influences to which we open ourselves, how do we sort out the fine from the coarse, allowing in communications that are useful and generative, rather than those that become simply depleting?
Ouija is intriguing, interesting, even oddly magnetic – a survey of users in the 2001 International Journal of Parapsychology found that one half “felt a compulsion to use it.” But, in a culture filled with possibilities, and in a modern life of limited time and energy, is Ouija really the place to search? Clearly, for a James Merrill, it was. But there exists a deeper intuition than what comes through a board, or any outer object – one that answers that kind of question for every clear-thinking person. For me, the answer was no.It was time to pack up my antique Ouija board in its box and return to what I found most lasting on the journey: The work of Merrill, who passed through the uses of this instrument and, with it, created a body of art that perhaps justifies the tumultuous, serpentine history from which Ouija has come.
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