The Strange and Mysterious History of the Ouija Board

You may have used a Ouija board before. But where did they come from, and how do they work?

Ouija boards are also known as spirit boards or talking boards. It’s a flat board with letters, numbers, and the words “yes” “no” “hello” and “goodbye.” The goal is to summon spirits you want to communicate with, and they’ll spell out their words using the planchette (the thing you all put your fingers on.)

The Ouija board’s origins come from mid 19th century American spiritualism. The average lifespan was less than 50, so desiring communication with your departed loved ones at a séance wasn’t uncommon. But these spiritual events were rather frustrating and expensive, as spiritual mediums were unreliable and charged a lot to send and give a message. This meant that there was a market for a cheaper way to contact the dead from the comfort of people’s homes.The Ouija board eventually became the device that filled the public’s desire for one on one home contact with the dead. However, it didn’t start out this way.

The Ouija board was commercially introduced in 1890 by a businessman named Elijah Bond. His boards were just called Talking Boards and were supposed to answer facts about the past and predict the future. Initially, it was supposed to be just a fun throwaway game, completely unrelated to ghosts or the occult. By World War 1, however, large groups of people became convinced that the movements of the planchette must have an otherworldly origin, and they became the go to device for contacting the dead.  

While the Ouija board as we understand it only dates back to the 19th century, the concept of people holding a device that points out words from an otherworldly force is almost ancient. Early accounts date back to China in 1100AD. Here it was called “Fuji” and was also considered a valid method of contacting the dead. Similar variations of automatic writing to contact the dead took place all over the world in closed circles over the next 800 years, until Ouija was combined with and popularized the practice.

While the old Chinese name “Fuji” and modern term “Ouija” both sound similar, this is apparently a coincidence. The first person to name the modern talking board “Ouija Boards” was Elijah Bond’s employee, William Fuld. Conflicting reports state that he either came up with the name from the ancient Egyptian word for “good luck,” or combined the French and German words “Oui” and “Ja,” which both mean “yes.”

Some Christian denominations think Ouija boards can lead to demonic possession. But paranormal beliefs associated with Ouija boards have been criticized by the scientific community. The planchette’s movement has been explained with the ideomotor effect, which is a type of unconscious, involuntary physical movement. In other words, you move when you’re not trying to move. When you ask the Ouija board a question, your brain may be coming up with images and memories, which your body responds to without you telling it to do so. This causes muscles in your hands and arms to move to answers that you might want to hear. Still, even if the scientific theory is true, they’re pretty spooky.

If you do believe that Ouija boards really do connect you to the dead, you’re in good company. Many successful and famous people throughout the last 100 years have used Ouija boards, including English writer G.K Chesterton, rock musician Alice Cooper, Pulitzer Prize winning poet James Merrill, Italian president Romano Prodi and Alcoholics Anonymous founder Bill Wilson.