Modern Spiritualism has offered that bit of comfort to us in a way that wasn’t quite done before. Although some sects of Christianity say that dealing with seances, psychic mediums, and Ouija boards opens up potential portals of evil and demonic possession, the ideas behind Spiritualism don’t necessarily contradict most religious belief systems. Some people do seek out a chance to speak to the dead out of a fascination with fear, with the danger of communicating with a realm beyond the one we currently experience. It’s a bit of thrill-seeking, but most people who use these methods are trying to find closure. They want to release unresolved feelings. It can be a healing experience for many.
When the American Spiritualism movement first sprang up in the mid-19th century, it quickly became a popular and accepted activity. First Lady Mary Todd even had a seance at The White House in order to deal with the grief of losing her 11-year-old son Willie.
Although the name Ouija sounds mysterious and enticingly scary, the Ouija board is purely an American invention. The connection with the supernatural it teases comes directly from the rather young Spiritualism movement that’s bred a whole industry for psychic mediums. Both the Ouija board and people like John Edwards, Sylvia Brown and Theresa Capoto owe their concept to The Fox Sisters, three women who claimed to have an encounter with the dead in mid-19th century upstate New York.
Using tricks like connecting an apple to a string and making it thump on the floor in answer to questions, the two youngest Fox sisters, Margaret and Kate, convinced their older sister Leah that they had contacted a spirit. At first they referred to their invisible friend as “Mr. Splitfoot,” a devil reference, but soon built a narrative about a peddler named Charles B. Rosna, who’d been murdered and buried in their cellar. They added toe and joint cracking to their tricks repertoire.
News of the Sisters’ supposed talent spreadably widely, and quickly enough they were giving seance demonstrations that attracted hundreds of people, including many of the rich and famous. With huge acceptance, they also came under intense scrutiny. Many people figured out how they were making their “rapping.”
“I am here tonight as one of the founders of Spiritualism to denounce it as an absolute falsehood from beginning to end, as the flimsiest of superstitions, the most wicked blasphemy known to the world.” – Margaret
“I regard Spiritualism as one of the greatest curses that the world has ever known.” – Kate
Eventually both Margaret and Kate spoke out against their Spiritualist activities, but they’d already made their mark on the imagination of the world. The “rappings” of The Fox Sisters inspired another, similar practice: table-tipping.
Table-tipping or table-turning is a group activity seance where all the participants put their hands on a table and ask a spirit questions. They would call out the letters of the alphabet, and if the table would “tip” at a certain letter, it would be seen as a positive communication.
Other Spiritualists invented a planchette, which was a triangular or heart-shaped plank with a pencil attached. The object would create an illusion of writing on its own when you place your fingers on the planchette and ask a spirit a question. At the height of the Victorian seance crave, both the alphabet method and group activity of table tipping and a person of the planchette without a pencil were combined to make “talking boards.”
The Ouija board is a branded version of this type of board, which operates via a psychological phenomena known as ideomotor effect. Participants will place their hands on the planchette and even if no one consciously moved the piece, it will still move. This is possible because our subconscious minds are extremely susceptible to the power of suggestion and expectation. We can make small, seemingly involuntary movements without being consciously aware of it.
As for the name Ouija, it’s simply a made-up name. By the end of the 19th century, businessman Elijah Bond won a patent for selling boards with the alphabet printed on them that came with a planchette. His sister-in-law Helen Peters was a self proclaimed psychic medium who named the board and helped fight for the patent. She claims the Ouija board named itself during a session, and that it’s the Egyptian word for “good luck,” which simply isn’t true. Peters was also said to be wearing a locket that had “Ouija” printed on it, but there’s no explanation about why those words were on the locket.
Ultimately, the meaning of Ouija is about our complicated relationship with death. We are terrified by it, but familiar. We don’t want it to be the end of a person. Our brains respond to these complicated systems that trick us into thinking we’ve made a connection, no matter how slight and thin, to people who are no longer living. It’s just a game, but it’s a heavy game, weighty with our longing, with the pull of hope. Our fingers moving for us to give us the comfort and thrills we hope for. We’re our own magicians: both the audience and the illusionist.
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