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The fascinating and troubling history behind the Ouija board

The fascinating and troubling history behind the Ouija board

Billy Hallowell, journalist, author, and editor at The Blaze. | (Photo: Charisma House/Billy Hallowell)

The Ouija board almost always emerges amid discussions about the pitfalls of playing with fire. Some dismiss the game as simple and harmless, while others see it as a diabolical window into the spirit world — a tool that can open users up to demonic influence.

There are countless stories of people claiming unexplainable phenomena after playing the game. These claims, which are understandably met with skepticism, seem to challenge the common framing of the board as a mere parlor game.

Dr. Michael Brown is among those who warn people to be wary of the Ouija board. “You’re trying to get in tune with supernatural knowledge, with supernatural information; you’re trying to make contact with another realm,” he said. “And even if for a lot of people nothing really happens and it’s just a piece of wood or whatever, the goal is to make something happen.”

Sold by toy giant Hasbro, the Ouija board’s official sales language promises to let users into the “world of the mysterious and mystifying,” offering people ages eight and up answers from “the spirit world.”[iv]

“Ask your question with a friend using the planchette that comes with the board, but be patient and concentrate because the spirits can’t be rushed,” the description continues. “Handle the Ouija board with respect and it won’t disappoint you!”

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This description hasn’t changed all that much since 1891, when the toy was advertised in the Pittsburgh Dispatch. An ad at the time said that the board’s “mysterious movements invite the most careful research and investigation — apparently forming the link which unites the known with the unknown, the material with the immaterial.”[v]

One of the most remarkable facts about the Ouija board is that its general design and appearance hasn’t radically changed much over the years. It has essentially always been a board with letters of the alphabet, numbers zero through nine, and the words yes, no, and goodbye.[ix]

And there has apparently always been a planchette — the device that is said to move around the board, exposing letters and numbers in ordered fashion. But its origins have always been a bit clouded in uncertainty.

The roots of the board were set in the mid-nineteenth century when America experienced what Smithsonian magazine called an “obsession with spiritualism” and the belief that the living could communicate with the dead.[x] By 1886, the Associated Press was reporting on the new emergence of so-called talking boards, and by 1890 a group of businessmen led by Charles Kennard, from Baltimore, had come together to figure out a way to monetize the new tool.[xi]

At that point, Kennard and his team — which included attorney Elijah Bond and Col. Washington Bowie — formed the Kennard Novelty Company, but they hadn’t yet come up with a name for the talking board. Murch told Smithsonian magazine that it was Bond’s sister-in-law, Helen Peters, a purported medium, who is said to have conjured up the name after asking the board what they should call it.[xii]

A US patent granted for the Ouija board on February 10, 1891, includes images of the board and lists Bond as the inventor.[xiii] The patent describes the toy in detail and proclaims that the men sought “to produce a toy or game by which two or more persons can amuse themselves by asking questions of any kind and having them answered by the device used and operated by the touch of the hand.”

The creators used the fact that the Ouija board was granted a patent in advertising language to help sell the product, with one newspaper ad in the late 1800s proclaiming that “Ouija was thoroughly tested at the United States Patent Office before the patent was allowed.”[xiv]

It didn’t take long for these so-called talking boards to become a big hit, with San Francisco’s the Morning Call reporting in 1893 that “planchette fever” had broken out in Northern California, noting that people were “anxious to hold communion with the dead and distant living.”[xvi]

The Kennard Novelty Company eventually expanded to a second factory in Baltimore and opened locations in New York, Chicago, and London. Within a few years, Smithsonian noted that Bond and Kennard were no longer involved with the company, and that it was being run by a man named William Fuld.[xvii]

Now, Fuld’s story is one of the strangest elements in the history of the Ouija board’s evolution. His life came to a tragic end on February 26, 1927, with the New York Times publishing a February 27 obituary titled, “Ouija Board Inventor Dies in Fall Off Roof: Fuld Loses His Balance While Placing New Flag Pole on His Toy Factory.”[xviii]

According to the obituary, Fuld fell “three stories to the street from the roof of his toy factory.” The Times article, which seems to incorrectly label Fuld as the creator of the board, doesn’t mention some of the other purported details of the story — mainly that Fuld claimed the board told him to build the very factory from which he fell and died.[xx] It’s a strange story indeed, but one worthy of recounting in light of the board’s ongoing infamy.

The popularity of the Ouija board has ebbed and flowed over the years, with times of uncertainty such as war purportedly driving more interest and usage. Spiritualism itself exploded during the Civil War, with the mass of American deaths fueling people’s quest to connect with their deceased loved ones.[xxi]

Remarkably, Parker Brothers sold 2 million Ouija boards in 1967 after the company bought the game, and decades earlier in 1944 — a time of international strife — one department store is said to have sold fifty thousand units.[xxii]

But why has the board lived on and maintained its place in culture? Murch has argued that the 1973 movie The Exorcist transformed how people view the Ouija board, as the film “terrified America.”[xxiii]

At the end of the day, not everyone believes the accounts of those who experiment with Ouija boards. Are they lying, delusional, or simply imagining what’s unfolding? Regardless of where you stand, it’s impossible to deny that millions of people claim to have experienced something seemingly otherworldly. Either way, why risk playing with fire?

Scripture implores us to “put on the full armor of God” so that we can “stand against the devil’s schemes.” It also tells us that the real struggle we face is a spiritual one. It’s easy to forget these truths in our hyper-material world. But I fully explain the dangers of this perspective in Playing with Fire: A Modern Investigation into Demons, Exorcism, and Ghosts where you can explore how this all manifests and why faith truly matters.

Excerpted from PLAYING WITH FIRE: A MODERN INVESTIGATION INTO DEMONS, EXORCISM, AND GHOSTS. Copyright © 2020 by Billy Hallowell. Published by Emanate Books, a division of HarperCollins Christian Publishing, Inc. All rights reserved.

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Billy Hallowell is the director of communications and content for PureFlix.com, whose mission is to create God-honoring entertainment that strengthens the faith and values of individuals and families. He’s a former senior editor at Faithwire.com and the former faith and culture editor at TheBlaze. He has contributed to FoxNews.com, The Washington Post, Human Events, The Daily Caller, Mediaite, and The Huffington Post, among other outlets.

His latest book, Playing with Fire: A Modern Investigation into Demons, Exorcism, and Ghosts is available wherever books are sold.

Learn more by visiting: https://www.thomasnelson.com/9780785234517/playing-with-fire/.

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