It All Started With Two Sisters in New York State, 1848
When Kate and Maggie Fox convinced their parents and neighbors that they could communicate with spirits through knocking (the girls knocked, the spirits knocked back), they launched a nationwide obsession with the supernatural. The Modern Spiritualist Movement took antebellum America by storm as people tried to communicate with their loved ones beyond the grave through mediums. Soon manufacturers were looking for a way to commercialize easy spiritual communication, without the help of a professional. This led to the invention of the Ouija board in 1890 by Elijah Bond. Sorry, internet folklore—Ouija boards didn't exist in ancient times!
The Ouija Board Named Itself
A popular theory suggest that the Ouija board's name stems from a combination of the French and German words for yes (oui plus ja). But its actual origin story is decidedly spookier. Ouija's first manufacturer, Charles Kennard, asked a board for help naming it, and the planchette, a small tool traditionally used in seances, spelled out "O-U-I-J-A." When Kennard asked what the name meant, the planchette drifted over to "Good Luck."
To Get a Patent, the Board Had to Pass a Test
That's right, the creators of the Ouija board had to prove that it worked before it could actually go up for sale. They brought a board to Washington D.C., where the chief patent officer of the United States asked the board to spell out his name—which, allegedly, the creators of the board weren't supposed to know. When the planchette successfully completed the officer's request, he was seriously spooked—and he granted it a patent.
Some Writers Have Claimed Their Works Were Dictated by Ouija Board
"Ghost writer" takes on a whole other meaning when Ouija is involved. In the early 20th century, a Midwestern housewife named Pearl Curran announced that she had made contact with a spirit named Patience Worth, who had died in the late 17th century. Through Curran, Patience Worth "dictated" seven books, in addition to countless celebrated poems. No one was ever able to figure out just how Curran produced Worth's writing—but chances are, she was just a lot more talented than she let on.
"The Exorcist" Is the Reason Why Ouija Boards Creep You Out
Spiritualism became so popular in the late 19th and early 20th centuries in part because life expectancies were short and primitive recording technology made it difficult to maintain a sense of connection with lost loved ones. So, the original impulse to use Ouija boards was actually quite tender. But then, in 1973, The Exorcist showed a girl getting possessed by a demon after playing with a board. Suddenly, everyone started connecting Ouija to devil worship, hauntings, and basically everything scary. Thanks for the nightmares, Hollywood.
There's a Science Behind How The Boards Work
Barring any belief in spirits, demons, and ghosts of all kind, Ouija boards do have a kind of mystery to them—and it turns out, it's just basic human psychology. The planchette isn't necessarily moved consciously (unless one of your friends is trolling you). Really, it's powered by the ideomotor effect, a phenomenon that occurs when someone moves without realizing it. Mental images, like thoughts about ghosts, can trigger involuntary movements—making it seem like ghosts themselves are moving the planchette in an effort to communicate with you.
A Ouija Board Once Indicted a Criminal
When a British jury had to decide the fate of a man named Stephen Young, who was accused of murdering a young couple in 1994, it decided to go straight to the source—the murdered couple. After a night of drinking, some of the jury members used a Ouija board, which prompted them to indict the defendant. Once the judge found out about the jury's reasoning, though, a retrial was set—and Young was indicted again. The spirits had spoken.
If you'd like to make contact with some spirits or just have a spooky time with some friends, buy your own Ouija board!