A familiar sight in movies and TV, the Ouija board is an iconic presence for horror fans. Born from the United States’ obsession with Spiritualism, the talking board always straddled the line between fantasy and reality. Who came up with it?
In the late 1840’s, Americans began reaching into the great beyond to contact the spirits of lost loved ones. They were guided by mediums, who were mostly women who became skilled at manipulating people and putting on a good show. The mediums claimed spirits communicated in a variety of ways, such as tapping when letters of the alphabet were called out. It took a long time, but they would spell out messages. To speed up seances, many mediums would “allow” the spirits to possess and speak through them. Some built boards with the alphabet written on them and the spirits would guide a planchette, a heart-shaped piece of wood with two tiny wheels, to the letters.
In 1886, the Associated Press wrote an article about one of these boards and planchettes. Fours years later, Charles Kennard decided to market the idea and sell it as a game. Along with for other investors, known of them true believers in spiritualism, he founded the Kennard Novelty Company. They received a patent for the board, which they called the Ouija board, in 1891. The story goes that they only got the patent by proving that the game actually worked. Helen Peters, the sister-in law of one of the investors and a medium, came along and “the board” spelled out the patent officer’s name, which Peters supposedly didn’t know.
Where did the name come from? The most common legend is that it combines the French and German words for “yes,” but according to Kennard himself, the name came from the sister-in law of one of his investors. Helen Peters, a medium, was using with the board and when she asked it what name it would like, it spelled out “Ouija.” According to the board, it was the ancient Egyptian term for “Good Luck.”
Peters would eventually sell all her stock in the company after asking the board what had happened to some missing family heirlooms. The board accused a member of the family, provoking a vicious conflict that broke the family apart. Peters told everyone she could to never play the Ouija board because “it lies.”
The first official Ouija boards from the Kennard Novelty were made from five pieces of wood and cost $1.50. Kennard himself left the company in 1891, and the name changed to the Ouija Novelty Company. William Fuld took over production; he was the one who came up with the alternative name origin. He designed a huge variety of boards and registered patents in three countries. As other companies tried to replicate his boards, Fuld sued them. He died in 1927.
In 1966, Fuld’s estate sold the company to Parkers Brothers, who made them until 1991. Hasbro currently owns all the rights and patents.
While the board was marketed as a parlor game, a lot of people took it seriously, often with tragic results. In 1930, a woman manipulated the board so it told her friend to kill someone. During the investigation, it came out that the Ouija-board operator was in love with the murdered woman’s husband. Five years later, a woman tortured her husband after the Ouija board “told” her he was cheating on her.
In pop culture, the Ouija board also has a sinister effect on the world. The 1986 movie Witchboard tells the story of a group of teens who accidentally release an evil spirit while using the board. In 2014 and 2016, the films Ouija and Ouija: Origin of Evil focus on demonic spirits and the board’s ability to unleash them. This reflects a common fear among certain groups (like Christians) about the Ouija board. Even though it was meant to be a game, playing around with the supernatural is too dangerous for those who believe.
Humans are a superstitious bunch. The “Spellbound” exhibit at the Ashmolean Museum reveals just how superstitious.