As she lights the candle, her nostrils fill with cranberry smoke.
“Are you sure this will work with scented candles?”
“I’m sure spirits from beyond the grave can’t tell if it smells like pumpkin spice in here or whatever …. it’s just for ambience or something like that” her friend replied, spreading out tiny tea-lights, along a chalk rune outline.
“it’s Christmas Delights actually…” she whispers under her breath, attempting to hide the contempt she was feeling for her friend right now.
“Urgh!! Whatever!! Just finish lighting the candles and I’ll set up the board”
Another beleaguered sigh leaves her lips as she fights back a retort, she fails.
“You know it’s a kid’s toy right? The company that makes Monopoly makes them…”
“Yeah, but that doesn’t matter…. It’s just a conduit to the other side, it’s been the same since, like forever, my cousin said so and they did it last year, and it totally worked, they spoke to some old Duke or something”
“A Duke? Do we have Dukes in America?”
“Ghosts don’t care about geography….. they’re dead!”
“Of course they don’t” rolling her rolling eyes so hard she was almost sure they would fall out of her skull. She lights the last of the tiny candles and turns to see that her Mom’s basement actually looks authentically scary. Although if it wasn’t Halloween and they were not attempting a seance, it also could have easily looked like a high-schoolers attempt to make the place look romantic- if not for the chalk pentagram on the floor.
“Ok…. I think I am all set here, turn off the big light…. “
She complies with her friend’s request and the room is plunged into an orange twilight. Carefully tiptoeing her way through the maze of amber teardrops she makes her way to the centre of the pentagram, and sits opposite her friend, “Ok sit down and place two fingers on the planchet, like this” she reaches down and places her index and middle fingers of both hands on the little plastic triangle thing, as soon as the first girl complies, her friend begins to bellow…..
“OOOOHHH!!! WEEEE!!!! AHHHH!!!!…..We call upon any lost spirits, we wish to make contact” accented by some exaggerated swings on her arms, turning the planchette twice to produce two large circles. “If anyone can hear us, use our hands and speak through us!”
Then there was……. silence….. nothing happened
“Is that it? Nothing happened!”
“Of course nothing happened, we haven’t asked anything yet” she replies- smugly
“OWWW!! EEEE!!! Is there anyone with us?!”
Silence rings out throughout the room “told you it wouldn’t…” she stops as she notices that her words are leaving her mouth accompanied by a plume of breath, and the temperature has dropped to almost freezing- “KEEP YOUR HANDS ON THE PLANCHETTE!- IS THERE ANYONE WITH US JOOOOO WOOOOO!!” The room begins to shake and the bulb of the big light starts to flicker back to life. Shadows dance across the room, as the rapid flashes start to make the girls feel dreadfully unwell. A horrid wind whips through the room, the bulb explodes, and the candle lights are extinguishing, all but one. The board is just about illuminated by Christmas delight, as the two girls stare at each other, too shocked to move. But then…. a light tug. Looking down they see the planchette start to move. Tears streaming down her face, her friend repeats silently “KEEP YOUR HANDS ON THE PLANCHETTE”. Their eyes now locked on the board as the little triangle points out its first letter “N”, it then creeps slowly across the board towards the end of the alphabet before finally resting at the letter “O”.
Have you ever been brave enough to try using a Ouija board? You may think that only those with a deep spiritual connection, or people that have trained in the mystic arts should even attempt to converse with those beyond the veil, but actually the side of the box says it is suitable for children 8 years and old. It may come to a shock to some of you that Ouija boards are not ancient relics, only found in the creepiest of abandoned mansions, but are actually mass produced by Hasbro, the same company that creates Monopoly. Originally advertised in 1891 as “Ouija, the Wonderful Talking Board”(1), players ask the board a question, and with their fingers lightly resting on the small triangular pointer (planchette), a response would then be spelt out to them, letter by letter. The planchette would glide across the board, seeming of its own accord, controlled by some other worldly soothsayer.
But where are these responses coming from, and what is moving the planchette?
So if we rule out the influence of ghosts and demons, well that only leaves two rational explanations really. Either, someone is pushing on the planchette deliberately to make it appear as if it is moving on it’s own, or someone is pushing on the planchette without realising what they are doing. The first option needs little explanation, but how could you move something without recognising that you are doing it? Well it’s all down to a physiological phenomenon called the ideomotor effect. Through suggestion and belief, a person using a Ouija board may start picturing the result they expect to see in their mind, and in response, their body can start to unconsciously move to reflect this (2, 3). And once a movement has started, the effect is perpetuated further, with the participants becoming increasingly susceptible, while feeding into their expectations. This reduction of any inhibition and doubt results in increasing the effect and the resulting movements, similar to hypnotic suggestion, especially if there are multiple participants who begin to inadvertently add credence to the experience. People want to believe what they are experiencing is real, and creating a false narrative to explain the unexplainable, not having any conscious recognition that they are actually the cause. Since its recognition in the 1800’s, examples of this phenomena have been studied and it is now widely accepted in the scientific community that the ideomotor effect is in fact the source of these spectral movements(4). Versions of the game have been done where participants are blindfolded while they ask the board questions, the responding messages were much less clearer than in experiments where the participants could see, and in other variants of this experiments, the board is rotated while the participants are blindfolded, and the planchette would move to where the players assumed the letters were located(5). It is therefore apparent that it is necessary for the player to be able to see and know where the letters are to recreate the effect, although these observations appear to be not conducted under controlled conditions.
Returning back to the alternate explanations of how the planchette could move; that someone in your circle is intentionally moving the planchette, to those trying to inject a little additional drama and intrigue to the evening, well the theatrics of the Ouija board is indirectly the driving force behind how it works. However, since the onset of its popularity, there has been an exploitation of people’s faith and naivety; praying on grief and curiosity, ingrained into the story of the Ouija Board.
So how did this parlour trick manage to worm away into infamy as a way of opening portals to hell and being a direct line to talkative spirits? Although variations of the talking board have been documented throughout history, the Ouija Board as we know it started gaining popularity after the American Civil War ended in 1865, when there was a massive spike in the interest in spiritualism(1). Families were longing to speak to loved ones lost to the conflict, and along with tarot cards and tea leaves, the Ouija board was added to the arsenal of mediums and mystics, either as a means to swindle the gullible, or through belief in their own abilities. And although some reports say that spiritualism was originally accepted by the Christian denominations (1), it was slowly brought out of favour, with mysticism and spiritualism being branded as witchcraft (6), and it was eventually pushed into the fringes of society. Although the use of the Ouija board persisted, it was its inclusion in the film “The Exorcist” which cemented the idea of the Ouija being a conduit of evil, earning its place in spooky pop culture and scaring off a generation from the board game.
The ideomotor effect seems to be an interesting quirk of human psychology, with its perceived unexplainable movements fuelling a multitude of pseudoscientific concepts. Some of which are just rooted in tradition, such as the practice of water witching, where people are able to detect the presence of water through the movement of divining rods and others in desperation and longing, as seen in the debunked practice of facilitated communication. Facilitated communication was proposed to be a means of people with severe disabilities to communicate with the world. With the help of their carers, the patient’s wound pointed out a letter on a keyboard and would use this to spell words. However, it soon became apparent that unfortunately these messages were coming from the unconscious ideomotor responses of the patients carers, willing the messages they were hoping to receive from their unresponsive loved ones (7).
However recently there have been interesting developments in the understanding of the ideomotor effect how these involuntary movements could be a way to tap into the power of the unconscious mind. A study conducted by Gauchou et al (2012) studied people’s ability to recall long-term semantic memory, concepts and conceptions that are not derived by personal experience and are therefore not conscious knowledge. When comparing participants responses to these questions, either using a conscious selection (volitional responses) method or by the indications of the ideomotor responses, through an Ouija board style setup, they observed that participants performed significantly better responding through ideomotor actions (65% compared to 50% with volitional selection). Therefore, this could suggest subconscious memory could hold a wealth of knowledge not available to the “thinking” part of the brain (8).
So is the story of the Ouija is one of embellishment and self deception? How could hearsay about fairly unimpressive micromovements lead to a whole otherworldly mythos that transcends heaven and hell, life and death? Well as a species we are one to exaggerate things, to add a little more gravitas to our life experiences, but in the middle of this Venn diagram there are concepts that the human brain just seems bad at rationalising. The first being that life is finite, for ourselves and those around us, an impenetrable veil that remains a mystery to all of us. So perhaps when faced with these unanswerable questions and the sense of loss when a loved one passes out of our reach, it offers a great sense of relief that there are parts of our own reality that we cannot explain, and faith in that uncertainty is a tonic to the perceived chaos that is our lives. However, I think just this aspect belittles the untapped potential that our brains hold, it goes to show that we are not just our thoughts, we all hold surprising depths that we are only just learning to understand and explain, where previously we would have had no concept of the power of the subconscious, with no way to comprehend the actions of our silent passenger, what other explanation is there than to construct some external force that acts through you. The Wonderful Talking Board still does give a voice to the voiceless and does allow for you to speak with those outside of our realm of understanding. Just maybe not in the way many people think it does.
The Ouija still holds a curious place in our collective consciousness and there will probably always be a nagging doubt for those who decide to play for the first time, but that’s all part of the fun, what if it is real? So I suggest this Halloween you should give it a go. it’s just a board game, what’s the worst that could happen?
2.Hyman, R., 2007. Ouija, dowsing, and other seductions of ideomotor action. Tall tales about the mind & brain: Separating fact from fiction, pp.411-424.
3.Stock, A. and Stock, C., 2004. A short history of ideo-motor action. Psychological research, 68(2-3), pp.176-188.
4.Ondobaka, S. and Bekkering, H., 2012. Hierarchy of idea-guided action and perception-guided movement. Frontiers in Psychology, 3, p.579.
7.Wombles, K., 2014. Some fads never die—they only hide behind other names: Facilitated communication is not and never will be augmentative and alternative communication. Evidence-Based Communication Assessment and Intervention, 8(4), pp.181-186.
8.Gauchou, H.L., Rensink, R.A. and Fels, S., 2012. Expression of nonconscious knowledge via ideomotor actions. Consciousness and cognition, 21(2),