Ouija - the Glimpse of the Unknown

Posted on 08/05/2019
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A chill in the air, a candle-lit room in total silence as the planchette moves slowly. Contact with the forces unknown is established. Everyone is breathless, and it slowly stops on the ‘yes’ field. “Okay, who moved it”, someone probably asks as the general state of the room dissolves into yelling and the ouija board is forgotten for the rest of the evening. Who, or what moved it is never answered.


The paragraph above is a situation that we might have or might have not experienced personally. Be that as it may, it is something that has by now been thoroughly codified, dissected and explored by pop culture. There’s been special episodes, two horror movies series (and countless cameos), numerous books and a black metal band devoted to the board. Everyone knows about the concept.

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Ouija boards (or witch/spirit/channeling boards) themselves have a deceptively short history, becoming known by that name only in 1890, when Elijah Bond, an American businessman also known for patenting steam boilers and the word Nirvana (swastika included), put a claim on the already known phenomenon of talking boards. They were popularised, alongside spiritualism itself, by the Fox sisters, Leah, Maggie, and Kate, until Maggie announced they were frauds and they faded into obscurity.

Now, the talking boards before the Ouija standard varied wildly from one user to another, both in terms of design and clarity, but all had the same underlying concept of needing a lot of time to spell out a message, usually by imitating a safe and clicking louder when it reaches the right letter. Taking a long time is something that the “modern” version shares as well, although to a far lesser extent. The reason the design shifted at all, besides the patent, was that the plank and planchette version was far easier to make, and didn’t require any innate talent for being a medium. All it took was a willingness, and later, some basic ability to follow instructions.


The way it’s supposed to work is as a conduit. It connects the people in a seance with the spirits, usually a particular one, who then answers the questions of the living by moving the little piece of wood until it spells a word. Your mileage may vary.


It’s hard separating fact from fiction when it comes to reported experiences, seeing as it’s usually a deeply personal setting or a dedicated time slot paid for by people who absolutely believe in what they are purchasing. The anecdotes range from unsettling to chilling, which intersects neatly with the other axis of plausible to unbelievable. A seance with an ouija board demands, by its nature, a fair amount of buy-in. Whether it’s coming from a legitimate belief, or skepticism channeled into a dare, when using it, you expect an answer to a question. Be it an inane one, or something you consider vital. The human quest for knowing the future, uncovering the hidden and finding information is an old one, dating back to before Alexander the Great, supposedly. 


Scientific research is sparse, seeing as there’s very little there can be discovered by simple repetition of experiments in controlled conditions. One of the earliest and most prevalent theories would be the automatism hypothesis, also called ‘ideomotor effect’, which poses that the usage of the board draws on the subconscious mind in a way that makes the participants move the planchette unknowingly. Now, the interesting thing about that is, when asking a question that had a concrete answer, participants scored higher with the Ouija board than by simply guessing. The experiment was done way back at the start of the 20th century but has been redone multiple times, most recently in 2012. The potential uses of drawing out hidden thoughts and hidden ways of thinking are numerous and open exciting possibilities.

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Of course, our subconsciousness is just slightly more explored than the afterlife, so there isn’t much we can determine from that tidbit. But it’s interesting to see the correlation between the hidden worlds inside ourselves and outside our comprehension of existence. In a sense, the Ouija board does exactly what it promises to, contacts a different state of being. Just not the one people expect. Spiritualism owes its longevity and pervasiveness to a single trait most of the humanity shares - pattern recognition. We aim to find meaning in everything, correlation or causation. We look for signs, and we find them everywhere. That paved the way and continues to, for numerous divination devices and methods. And those bring to light whole new systems of rules to follow in order to get a good response, or in some cases, avoid making a horrible mistake.


As with everything connected to the paranormal, Ouija boards have a whole mythos of things to avoid at all costs, ranging from basic courtesy (Don’t insult or taunt the person you’re contacting) to downright weird (Stop the seance if you contact Zozo, an entity that might be Pazuzu or a deceased mystic). To a sceptic, it might seem like the rules are thought up in such a way that, while following them, there’s no chance of disproving the claim that the board actually works as a contact device.

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Of course, there have been some legitimately awful things that happened as a direct result of using the board. Real-life tragedies and heinous crimes, supposedly caused or motivated by usage, often accompanied by demonic possession. I won’t go into detail, because the details are really graphic, but it’s all online, so you can see it at your own leisure. Of course, the majority of the criminals have severe mental health issues, which the board was only a trigger for.


It is really interesting, yet again, how our minds, on a level, align our subconscious and the things we believe in, but can’t prove. We will never have a real response to whether the Ouija crimes were a horrible result of an illness, or something even darker, a vile act made with a full sense of what it means and entails.  


Similarly, we’ll never know for sure how the board itself works. Are we really channeling a spirit every time we ask a question to it? Are we talking to ourselves, unaware of the depths of the nature of our knowledge? You see, as full as it is of profiteering people, the history of divination doesn’t consist solely of the easily discountable devices. There are methods of seeing the beyond, or future, that aren’t as known. Are those guided by our minds as well?


A scary possibility, that one. If it’s not spirited, but our minds, that are giving us the answers we don't really know by heart. Do we aware and unaware think that differently from each other? Could we, considering that they seemingly do, be near a breakthrough?


We know we are more than just our thoughts and bodies. We introduced and played around with the concept of soul so much, but we still can’t explain it. How funny would it be if by using a mass-produced medium toy, we stumbled over the very definitions of our sentience, and started to understand it just a bit better? Because you really never know who’s on the other side of the call.


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