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Jim McDermottOctober 07, 2022
Photo from Unsplash.

Not long ago one of my nieces casually mentioned that she and a friend of hers had recently used a Ouija board. Instantaneously, I went from “Thinks he’s cool with the kids” Uncle Jim to “You will do as I command” Catholic priest. “What? No! You can’t—that’s not—this is bad!”

I consider myself pretty open-minded. I certainly have a lot of my own questions when it comes to the realities of hell or the devil. But when it comes to the Ouija board I get pretty freaked out.

Part of that is definitely a result of growing up in the 1970s and ’80s. Satanic panic was everywhere; the Ouija board was right up there with Dungeons and Dragons and listening to “Stairway to Heaven” backwards—all things considered perilous, not just for your soul but your existence.

But as an adult I have also interviewed and read books by quite a few real-life exorcists for various projects. And time and again the Ouija board pops up as a thing that has led to some really bad stuff happening in people’s lives.

Still, the more my niece and I talked, the more I realized I needed more information to back up my stance. I dug into the history of this object that has long captured popular imagination. Here’s what I learned.

Where Did the Ouija Board Come From?

The origins of the Ouija board actually lie at the intersection of two other American phenomena, neither of which has anything to do with the devil or the Catholic Church.

Time and again the Ouija board pops up as a thing that has led to some really bad stuff happening in people’s lives.

The first is Spiritualism, a major 19th-century religious movement in which people believed that it was possible to communicate with the dead. By many accounts, this phenomenon began with two teenage girls in upstate New York. In 1848, Kate and Maggie Fox told a neighbor of theirs that something crazy was happening in their house. When the neighbor came over, the girls began to talk to the house, and they heard knocking sounds in response. The girls said this was happening every evening, and they had come to believe that spirits of dead people were communicating with them.

(Now, as Smithsonian Magazine points out, the girls brought their neighbor over on March 31st, the night before April Fool’s Day, and they were teenagers, so…)

Soon after, the family moved out of the house, and the two girls were sent to live with their older sister in Rochester. That might have been the end of the story, except for the fact that their sister retained a strong interest in what they were doing, and Rochester at the time was a community with a lot of interest in unusual religious experiences. Joseph Smith is said to have received from the Angel Moroni the golden plates that led to the founding of Mormonism in the area just a couple decades before. More recently the Millerite movement, which predicted that Jesus would return to cleanse the Earth on Oct. 22, 1844, had also been very popular in the region. When Jesus didn’t show up, one of its members had a vision of him working in heaven that would become a foundation of the Seventh Day Adventists, who wait for Jesus to return.

As it turns out, two girls who claimed they could speak to the dead went over really well—not just in town but everywhere else. Before long they were touring the United States. Their act got more and more complex: Rather than just “knock one for yes, two for no” type questions, they began to have the spirits spell out words, by reading through the letters of the alphabet and waiting for the spirits to knock. “Talking boards,” in which spirits were able to spell out words via letters on a board, was an outgrowth of that.

Years later, younger sister Maggie would recant the whole thing, showing in public demonstrations how she and her sister had made the sounds using apples on string and the crack of their own knuckles and joints. Still, it’s important to note that the attraction to Spiritualism was an outgrowth of something very real: the grief and disconnection people felt at the loss of their loved ones. The movement really took off after the Civil War, during which so many across the country had lost parents and children far away and without any real knowledge of how they died. Con artists like the Foxes and devices like talking boards offered a way for people to get some closure and say goodbye. There was a similarly inspired resurgence in the 1920s after the Spanish flu pandemic. Somewhere along the way talking boards became such a common part of life that President Grover Cleveland was given one for his wedding to Frances Folsom in 1886.

The origins of the Ouija board actually lie at the intersection of two other American phenomena, neither of which has anything to do with the devil or the Catholic Church.

The Ouija board itself was far more a product of capitalism than Spiritualism. Charles Kennard was a failed Baltimore fertilizer salesman who read about the popularity of talking boards and got a local attorney to invest in a business of selling one of their own. The name “Ouija” is often explained as the French and German for “yes” put together, but in fact it came from Kennard’s sister-in-law, a self-professed medium, who said she had asked the spirits what they should call the board and had been given the word “Ouija,” which they said meant “good luck.” (Baltimore Magazine notes the word was also on the locket she was wearing at the time.)

The Kennard Novelty Company obviously couldn’t prove that their board actually talked to the dead, so they patented it instead as a children’s toy. It became one of a number of youth entertainment products they sold, along with pool tables and other billiards supplies, and they marketed the device as a fun way for young people to spend an evening, maybe even a romantic one. In May of 1920, the cover of the “Saturday Evening Post” featured a Norman Rockwell painting of two young adults using a Ouija board. The woman’s eyes look up as though toward the spirit world, while the man watches, smiling, their knees touching under the table.

When asked if he believed the Ouija board actually had the capacity to contact the dead, longtime head of the company William Fuld replied, “I should say not. I’m no spiritualist. I’m a Presbyterian.”

So Wait, How did a Kid’s Toy Get Connected to the Devil?

While many Christians were Spiritualists, the Catholic Church had never supported these forms of talking to the dead. In 1898 a decree of the Holy Office condemned automatic writing, which included any practices in which spirits were believed to guide the hand of the living. In 1917 it likewise condemned any sort of participation in séances, including just watching.

Intriguingly, as Spiritualism expert Herbert Thurston points out, in neither decree did the church fully shut the door on such practices. “To genuine students who are well grounded in theological principles and sufficiently versed in psychology to deal with these manifestations in a scientific spirit,” Mr. Thurston explains, “permission may be accorded to experiment with a medium and attend seances.” The church wanted to protect the young, the uneducated, the idle—those who were most vulnerable to the potential dangers of these practices. But they allowed for the possibility of genuine, scientifically informed research.

In 1898 a decree of the Holy Office condemned automatic writing, which included any practices in which spirits were believed to guide the hand of the living.

Still, there were stories of Ouija boards leading to strange and terrible things, like the Cincinnati couple who tore their home to shreds and threatened to kill their children because, they said, American journalist and politician Horace Greeley had told them to do it on a Ouija board. In another Ohio story, an entire community went on a massive treasure hunt as a result of information “learned” from a Ouija board. A woman in Buffalo, N.Y., was beaten to death by a local widow after the widow’s dead husband supposedly spoke to her on a board claiming the woman was a witch who had killed him.

But the key moment in our current understanding of the Ouija board seems to be the 1971 book The Exorcist and the 1973 film adaptation. “The Exorcist” tells the story of a girl who has been using a board to communicate with a spirit known as “Captain Howdy” and is then nightmarishly possessed. Across the country and beyond, the book and movie were a sensation. The lines to get into the film were endless, the flight of terrified viewers out of the theaters frequent, its power over the popular imagination almost immediate.

A decade later, the Catechism of the Catholic Church would condemn “all forms of divination,” saying “all conceal a desire for power over time, history, and, in the last analysis, other human beings, as well as a wish to conciliate hidden powers. They contradict the honor, respect, and loving fear that we owe to God alone.” (No. 2116)

So is the Ouija Board Dangerous?

Let me give you two answers to that question, one from secular research and another from my own life experience as a priest.

As you might imagine, there has been a lot of investigation into how exactly a Ouija board works. How is it possible that you can place your fingers on a little plastic planchette and have it start moving at all?

It turns out, it’s actually a lot less surprising than you might think. The “ideomotor effect” is a scientifically established phenomenon in which the body unconsciously creates tiny involuntary physical movements based upon our mental images. Put simply: If we visualize a person or event, our bodies will sometimes respond with small muscle movements. For instance, you know how we sometimes suddenly jerk awake out of a dream? That’s a dramatic version of the same thing. (This BBC article has a great little experiment to prove this is in fact a real thing that is happening in all of us all the time.)

When it comes to automatic writing or talking boards, what’s going on is that kind of subconscious conversation between your brain and your body. Your brain sends out certain images as you ask a question; your fingers unconsciously respond with movement.

If we do think that a spiritual plane of existence might include forces that are malevolent or just plain indifferent to humanity, why would we want to do anything that might see us tangling with them?

As Vox points out in its study of the Ouija board, there are some very good reasons to accept this explanation over the idea that spirits are speaking through us. For instance, when people are blindfolded, the answers they get from the board are often gibberish. It makes sense: If you can’t see the board, your fingers can’t guide your hands correctly. But why would a spirit need you to be able to see? In fact, why would a spirit need to use your hands at all? Why couldn’t it just move the planchette on its own?

So from a scientific point of view, the Ouija board has nothing to do with spirits or the devil. It’s just a toy that plays upon a natural but little-known process of the body, just like the Fox sisters were not actually talking to the dead; they were playing havoc with their joints. (Oy, the arthritis they must have had later.)

But as a priest, I have a different answer to the question of the board’s “danger.” It’s got nothing to do with discounting the science, and everything to do with intention. When people use a Ouija board, what is it they want to see happen? Generally speaking, whether they are thrill-seekers or searchers, I think most are there because they want something supernatural to happen. They want some external force to move that pointer.

From a spiritual point of view, desires like that have significance. There’s that old story about vampires and doorways; they can’t come in unless they’re invited. When we sit down and say we want to talk to a spirit, we might not be opening the door wide to any crazy thing that exists in the universe, but we are kind of putting a light on out there in the dark and presenting ourselves as available. Who knows what might answer that?

My own sense—based on a lot of reading, years of spiritual conversations with people and admittedly a pretty trusting imagination (ask me about UFOs)—is that there’s a great big universe out there beyond what we can see. And in it exist lots of different spiritual forces. Some are good, some are bad, a lot are probably in between.

A person might say, Well, I don’t believe in evil spirits. And that’s fine. But it’s also sort of like saying I don’t believe in the state police. Fair enough, but if they pull you over for speeding you’re still going to have to pay the ticket. (Trust me on this.)

If we do think that a spiritual plane of existence might include forces that are malevolent or just plain indifferent to humanity, why would we want to do anything that might see us tangling with them? What’s the upside?

Or to put it more simply, better safe than sorry—especially when it comes to children and adults who might be vulnerable.

None of this is to say that we can’t communicate with our beloved dead or a higher power. That’s the good news in all of this: As Catholics, we believe we don’t need a seer for that, or a game board with a plastic pointer sold by Hasbro. It is right there in our theology of communion with the saints and prayer. We just need to sit and listen, to share our longing and our care.

As Pope Francis said in 2019, “True faith means abandoning oneself to God who makes himself known not through occult practices but through revelation and with gratuitous love.”

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