Way back in the 1890s, it was touted as innocent family fun. It was essentially a toy that the whole family could play that would tell you "about the past, present and future with marvelous accuracy" and promised "Never-failing amusement and recreation for all the classes," a link "between the known and unknown, the material and immaterial." Doesn't that sound like fun?
The notion that the spirit board would bring evil spirits into your parlor was not on the menu in the latter part of the 19th century nor the early part of the 20th. After all, seances were all the rage. Lots of people of all stripes were checking into the spirit world to talk to deceased relatives. Even Sir Arthur Conan Doyle of Sherlock Holmes fame, and who was duped by those adorable little girls who claimed to see fairies in their garden and took pictures of them, was a seance fancier.
Maybe you've used one once or twice. Even Hasbro, the venerable toy company, makes one. It's all in good fun. Of course, there are a few people who love using them and others who will tell you it's the devil's work and to use one is to invite evil into your home. Ooooo. ARE Ouija Boards a dance with the devil...or is it far simpler than that?
Because there are people who will SWEAR by them that they actually work, and that they have gotten numerous messages from the great beyond. But is that really true?
Here's how the board works. On the board--made of wood, cardboard, or even imprinted on a cloth--you will see the alphabet, some numbers, a "yes" in one corner and a "no" in another and most often a "goodbye" at the bottom to let you know your session is over. You have a arrow-shaped placeholder called a planchette that you touch that the spirits will move across the board for you, spelling out messages. Sometimes the planchette has a hole in the center with a little window to see where the pointer lands on. Anyway, you alone or you and your friends all sit around the board and touch the planchette, and when you ask the spirits to talk to you, it will move the planchette and spell out the answers. Neat, huh?
Scientists have studied spirit boards (if there is a thing out there, a scientist at one time or another has studied them) and they say that it is NOT spirits, but something called the ideomotor effect (pronounced “id-ee-aah-moh-ter”). From Vox: The ideomotor effect is 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 (known as the hypnic jerk), you’ve experienced a more abrupt version of the ideomotor effect: your brain signaling your body to move without your conscious awareness. The obvious difference is that the ideomotor effect happens when you’re awake, so the reflexive movements you make are much smaller... In the case of a Ouija board, your brain 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, causing the muscles in your hands and arms to move the pointer to the answers that you — again, unconsciously — may want to receive...
Still not convinced (because YOU'VE done it to marvelous effect)? But here's the thing, as soon as you blindfold people who KNOW that it works and have made it work, their messages come out as gibberish. That's right, as soon as you can't SEE the board, suddenly your messages don't come out right. You can read more and see a Smithsonian Magazine video clip on this Vox article (if you can get past all the ads).
At any rate, I think they are a visually stimulating piece of graphic art, much like Tarot cards, and fun to have around. Don't fear playing with them, scary movies notwithstanding, and you can appreciate them as a quaint bit of fun from the past.
For more history of the Ouija Board, go here.