Definition: Supposedly the name “Ouija Board” is derived from the French and German words for “yes” (oui and ja). The device is used to supposedly contact immaterial spirits who control the hands of the human participants for the purpose of answering questions. These questions can involve the nature of the afterlife, events which occurred while these spirits still existed in the physical realm, or events which will occur in the future (divination). The Ouija Board has often been used by both kids and adults as basically a game, but it has also been used by people who are “true believers” in the presence and power of spirits.
A Ouija Board is a simple device, consisting of a flat board covered with all the letters of the alphabet, numbers, and four words written large: Yes, No, Maybe and Goodbye. In addition it comes with a triangular object, a bit larger than a fist, resting on three short legs. This is called a planchette, and one corner is used as a pointer.
The original version of such boards consisted just of the planchette and paper – a pencil was put through a hole in the planchette and the “spirits” were supposed to transmit their messages in this fashion. This design was changed in the late 19th century by Isaac Fuld, a Baltimore toymaker who added the board with letters and numbers, thus simplifying the transmission of messages. Sales were tremendous, especially after World War I when millions of people were mourning the loss of loved ones and were anxious to get some sign, any sign, that they might still “exist” in some fashion.
For tax reasons, Fuld insisted that his Ouija board was not a game but rather a scientific instrument. The government attempted to impose a tax upon his sales like they did with other games, something he fought all of the way to the Supreme Court. He lost.
Today, all rights and trademarks are owned by Parker Brothers because Fuld’s children sold the business in 1966. Although they no longer manufacture it, anything which was not made by them is not an authentic Fuld board. As it currently stands, it is operated by having one or more people sit at the board with one or more hands on the planchette and they ask questions of spirits. The planchette is then supposed to move about the board, pointing to the answers – numbers, words, or letters which spell out more specific information.
In practice, the answers are produced by the ideomotor effect, not spirits. That this is the real cause was recognized even early on – the original patent for the Ouija Board included the statement that “A question is asked and by involuntary muscular actions of the players, or through some other agency, the frame will commence to move across the table.”
It is also interesting that if opaque paper is placed over the board, hiding the letters and numbers from the people who are using it, the “spirits” are no longer able communicate. Are we really supposed to believe that these spirits are unable to see through plain paper?