Society has always been fascinated by the Ouija board, striking fear and curiosity into our minds. Ouija boards have stayed throughout pop culture and remain attractive due to their fascinating strangeness. The creation of the Ouija board feeds the belief that otherworldly powers are beyond our human comprehension, bolstering the theory that there must be more than the physical world.
The Ouija board first appeared in 1886 thanks to the collaboration between Charles Kennard, Elijah Bond, and Col. Washington Bowie, who founded the Kennard Novelty Company. The Ouija board was advertised as a family game that could answer questions from the past, present, and future. Families used the board to contact spirits. The Smithsonian Magazine stated the idea derived from “the American 19th-century obsession with spiritualism, the belief that the dead can communicate with the living.” The spiritualist movement gained momentum during the 1840s and continued until the 1920s. The idea behind this movement was that the dead could communicate with the living. Communicating with the dead and holding seances was a common pastime in the 19th century, so Ouija boards became a popular activity that many participated in.
The Ouija board has a mysterious past. William Fuld, one of the factory owners, died while falling from the roof of the factory as a railing gave way. What’s spooky is that the Ouija board supposedly told Fuld to build the factory. The Ouija board’s enigmatic history and past were useful for marketing purposes; the marketing strategy was to give away as little as possible, adding to the allure and ambiguity. The mystery alone was enough to get people to buy. In the article "Not Dead Yet" for Baltimore Magazine, Ron Cassie states, “Ouija’s public image has always been complicated.
Initially, the ‘mysterious oracle’ was marketed as a game to invigorate a party or encourage a little light-hearted intimacy” leading to the use of the Ouija board as a way to encourage romance. Strict societal codes around courting and intimate relations existed during the Victorian era. The game required the participation of two persons, such as a man and a woman. They were to place their hands close together on the planchette and touch their legs–which was ideal for Victorian-era flirting. The marketing strategy of labeling the Ouija board as a family game, and when it became a way to court, it turned sensational.
Over time, perceptions of the Ouija board changed. Roman Mars in an article for Slate from his podcast 99% Invisible states, “In the late 1800s continuing into the 1960s, the Ouija board was considered good, clean, family fun.” From its inception up until the 1960s, the Ouija board was seen as a harmless toy and a method to communicate with the dead, with Ouija boards outselling Monopoly. However, Satanic Panic skyrocketed during the late 1970s and early 1980s, infusing terror in the American people.
The theatrical release of The Exorcist (1973) served as a spark for this rising anxiety. Ouija boards became associated with occult sacrifices and murders, fostering fear in our society. The famous horror film Witchboard (1986) even references The Exorcist with the line “So you’re telling me that I live with Linda Blair?”
Witchboard is an occult film containing seances, spine-chilling subject matter, and demonic possession. Director Kevin Tenney mixes horror with sentimentality. Brandon (Stephen Nichols) pulls out his Ouija board at a party, hoping to connect with David, the little boy's spirit. Jim Morar (Todd Allen) looks on skeptically as Linda Brewster (Tawny Kitaen) takes part. Brandon and Tim are constantly at odds, ruining the party and causing David to become irritated. The planchette and board launch off Brandon and Linda's lap after Jim disturbs the spirit. Then, Linda plays the game alone, oblivious to the rules. As a result, an evil spirit becomes intent on utilizing Linda as a conduit to the living world and pursues her relentlessly. Her obsession with the Ouija board grows while Brandon and Jim band together to exercise the spirit and bring peace to Linda.
The use of the Ouija board in Witchboard makes the film alluring, as demonstrated in the film's opening when Brandon uses it at a party to entertain the guests and communicate with the dead. However, there's always a skeptic. In this case, it's Jim. Everyone else is intrigued, while he's scoffing at the idea. Linda has the strongest connection with the board, and her ever-growing need to use it feeds her attraction to the ominous object. Her desire to commune with the spirits is so intense that it harms both her physical and spiritual well-being.
Satanic panic rose in the 1970s and 1980s when unfounded reports of Satanic ritual abuse caused panic. This widespread fear of the Ouija board and other occult objects was influenced by the Satanic Panic and the appearance of occult artifacts in popular media. In an article for Vox, "Why Satanic Panic never really ended," writer Aja Romano maintains that the Satanic Panic never left public consciousness and that “the collective fears that consumed the US in the 1980s and 1990s are still alive.” Pop culture alters social perceptions of various phenomena. For instance, when The Exorcist was released, alarm seized the nation. People who practiced religion, especially religious extremists, were most affected by this pop culture phenomenon. Filmmakers capitalized on this anxiety by making more Ouija board films throughout the 1980s and beyond with films like The Devil’s Gift (1984) and Don’t Panic (1987).
Reactions to Ouija boards spark either anxiety, curiosity, or both. Individuals or groups who adhere to strict religious beliefs have reacted strongly to these frequent depictions of demonic objects. In an article for HistoryHit, "The Strange History of the Ouija Board," Lucy Davidson reports, “In 2001, Ouija boards alongside the Harry Potter books were burned by fundamentalist groups in Alamogordo, New Mexico, who believed them to be ‘symbols of witchcraft.’ More mainstream religious criticism has stated that Ouija boards reveal information that should be known by God alone, meaning it is thus a tool of Satan.” This disdain and rejection of the occult is a response to the deep-seated reverence for anything unnatural.
This fear of occult objects developed due to pop culture, the media, and reports of harm caused by interacting with Ouija boards. Numerous people across the nation have claimed that Ouija boards told them to do terrible things. According to Lauren Cahn in the Reader’s Digest listicle, "10 Chilling Crimes Involving Ouija Boards," in 1983, Bunny Dixon, a sixteen-year-old, and her boyfriend and another couple used a Ouija board, and the consequences were terrible. The four of them had been instructed by a Ouija board to join a carnival and leave their home. The article also states they funded the trip by “robbing and murdering a motorist,” for which they were all convicted.
Another case occurred in 1995 when a teen boy, Michael McCallum, “lured a younger boy, Michael Earridge, to his apartment to play with a Ouija board.” The board spelled the word “KILL,” and the boy tried to escape. McCallum stabbed the boy to death and claimed Satan told him to do it. It’s no wonder the public subconscious is alarmed and slightly intrigued every time a Ouija board pops up on the news or the big screen.
Ouija films stand the test of time because fear and intrigue remain ingrained in our psyche. Many Ouija films have been made recently, including Ouija: Origin of Evil (2016), which serves as the prequel to Ouija (2014). Mike Flanagan, who is no stranger to the horror genre mastered the art of horror with Ouija: Origin of Evil. The film is set in 1967, in Los Angeles at the home of the Zanders.
After the death of Roger Zander, Alice (Elizabeth Reaser) and her two daughters are riddled with grief. Alice worries about keeping the house and to make extra cash, she acts as a phony Medium, eventually incorporating a Ouija board into her performance. Alice plays with the board alone, accidentally making contact with a spirit called Marcus, who speaks through Doris (Lulu Wilson). When Doris uses the board hoping to contact her deceased father, their lives begin to deteriorate. Her behavior begins to unnerve Lina (Annalise Basso) and Father Tom (Henry Thomas), and they conspire to exercise whatever spirit may be possessing Doris and haunting their house.
Flanagan understands the progression of how the Ouija board in his film completely takes hold, and he knows how to instill fear and anxiety in audiences. The film lends credence to the idea that these boards are viewed as objects of fascination and terror and produce views of skepticism. A fun little Ouija game at a sleepover and a hint of suggestion were the catalysts for the Ouija board's destruction of their family. An innocent game is transformed into unbridled terror, mirroring the evolution of how our culture perceives the Ouija board. Historically, it started as nothing more than a game and evolved into something that fosters discomfort and interest.
Witchboard and Ouija: Origin of Evil are similar in a multitude of ways. The Ouija boards are discovered at a party or gathering and are viewed as harmless or dismissed as fake. Characters are unaware of or disregard the Ouija board rules entirely, unknowingly wreaking havoc on their lives. The spirits use deceit towards the one using the board, entrapping them, and the houses are an integral part of the hauntings, with the house being the root of where the problem festers. Demonic possessions of the innocent and forms of sacrifice are also present. The Ouija board experience in both films begins as a game and ends with the character's safety and sanity being compromised. Their beginnings and endings share a similar trajectory, and our society fears this progression from naive interest evolving into chaos.
The stories we hear about Ouija boards and how they have been involved in crimes and terrible accidents make us uneasy, yet we are drawn to these stories and continue to watch these types of films. Even though there are skeptics, myself included, the intrigue never fades. This continued discussion of the Ouija board is supported by our bewilderment and trepidation toward supposed supernatural objects. Our fascination with the existential and our fear of the unknown are related to our interest in this object. It's unsettling to consider the possibility of something existing beyond our physical reality. People use the board, like Linda in Witchboard, because they are curious about what is beyond it. Alice Zander, on the other hand, represents the skepticism many harbor. However, one thing is certain: Linda and Alice both faced tragedies in their lives.
The perception of the Ouija board throughout history has had an interesting progression. The product was marketed as an enjoyable game for families and friends to get together and use for seances. They were flying off the shelves. Today, the only places you'll see a Ouija board are in dusty old antique storefront windows, as home decor, or on the big screen. The Ouija board has evolved into a decorative piece. Since its invention until the twenty-first century, we've always been startled when we hear about or watch a Ouija board film. The 1970s and 1980s saw a peak in the intensity of this fear-based perception of the board. Today, we have Ouija enthusiasts, skeptics, and people who find this creepy object compelling enough to add to their collection of oddities.
The Ouija board has always been portrayed as dangerous in horror films and other media. It’s not surprising that it’s a spectacle. Depending on your beliefs, these boards can be seen as inanimate objects, a representation of holy terror, or a cliche horror trope. Scientists make up the majority of the skeptic community, which claims that there are mechanisms that help to explain the behaviors that are frequently connected to using a Ouija board.
How exactly does the Ouija board work? In another article for Vox, "How Ouija boards work. (Hint: It's not ghosts.)," writer Aja Romano defines it as “an example of unconscious, involuntary physical movement — that is, we move when we’re not trying to move. If you’ve ever experienced the sudden feeling of jerking awake from sleep” It’s your brain signaling your body to move, like a reflex. Romano also explains you “may unconsciously create images and memories when you ask the board questions. Your body responds to your brain without you consciously “telling” it to do so.” The effect is linked to your subconscious. Even with the skeptic community providing scientific explanations, the Ouija board’s morbid appeal endures.
Ouija boards have always been a source of fascination. Our understanding of the Ouija board may never be fully understood. There has been a negative perception of the Ouija board ever since The Exorcist was released. After watching the cult classic, the idea of being possessed by a demon through a Ouija board no longer seemed like light entertainment. It is also important to note that society's view of death has changed since the 19th century, therefore our view of the Ouija board has changed.
Due to our fear of death and a disconnected relationship with it, most of us rebuff the Ouija board and everything it represents. However, the boards have made countless appearances in film and pop culture and remain a topic of discussion. The Ouija board survives because of the continuous fascination that horror cinema, paranormal reports, and history provide for us. The Ouija boards will continue to impact believers and non-believers and remain an otherworldly attraction. If you ever use a Ouija board, just remember to say “goodbye”.
Sarak Kirk enjoys writing and researching anything horror related. She also loves reading, true crime, the paranormal, fantasy films, period pieces, and horror cinema. Her favorite horror film is The Shining.