O-U-I-J-A

Roman Mars:
This is 99% Invisible. I’m Roman Mars.

Roman Mars:
This is our special Halloween episode. So I’m going to turn up a little bit of this, and a little of this, just to get us in the mood. Oh, and here. Here are some loons. Loons are creepy. All right. A couple of weekends ago, the whole 99PI team got together to do something none of us had done since we were 13, and at slumber parties.

99PI Team Ouji night:
“I feel like we need to recite something first, right?”

Roman Mars:
And it basically sounds exactly like it did when we were 13 at slumber parties.

99PI Team Ouji night:
“Who’s there?”
“You’re just pushing it. You are.”

Katie Mingle:
That night at my house, we turned out all the lights and lit candles, and attempted to summon the spirit world with a Ouija board.

Roman Mars:
That’s producer Katie Mingle. She was our host that evening.

99PI Team Ouji night:
“You’ve got to rest your fingers on it.”

Roman Mars:
We were using a homemade board that Avery designed in the style of a store-bought Ouija board. Two arced rows of letters, the top row A through M, the second row N through Z, and then below the letters, a straight row of all the single-digit numbers. And then of course, “yes” and “no” in the upper left and right corners respectively and “goodbye” at the bottom of the board.

Katie Mingle:
So the way Ouija supposed to work is participants, usually two, though sometimes more, ask a question to the spirits. And then they, the participants, lightly rest their fingers on a planchet, which is the pointer that slides around the board. And you’re not supposed to push the planchet, Sam Greenspan. You’re supposed to allow the spirits to guide it around the board, indicating what letters or words they’re attempting to communicate.

99PI Team Ouji night:
“E, Q, U, P?”

Roman Mars:
The Ouija board is so simple and iconic, and it looks like it comes from another time. Like it has real history. Which it turns out is more than just good design. People have been gathering around a board like this one for about 130 years.

Robert Murch:
Hi, my name’s Robert Murch. Most people call me Murch, and I’m considered the world’s foremost expert on Ouija and talking boards.

Roman Mars:
Murch also collects board and all sorts of other Ouija-related artifacts.

Robert Murch:
So this stuff is everywhere. I frame things. The arrangement I have with my husband is that I can only put things on the wall that can be framed. Now. When he made that agreement, he didn’t realize that I could frame anything. So yeah, that was unfortunate for him.

Katie Mingle:
Murch says to understand where talking boards came from, that’s the generic term, ‘talking boards’, you have to go back to the middle of the 1800s. To three sisters in New York.

Robert Murch:
The Fox Sisters, they are really what starts this explosion of mediumship and spiritualism in America and beyond.

Roman Mars:
The Fox Sisters claim to be mediums to the spirit world, and in public demonstrations, they would ask questions of the spirits and receive audible knocks back on the wall. Knocks that they translated into letters of the alphabet.

Katie Mingle:
The Fox Sisters were a sensation. They were the most visible faces of a growing movement known as spiritualism, which held that spirits of the dead could be contacted by the living and that they had secret knowledge to impart. When tales of the Fox Sisters swept through American newspapers, more and more people started to believe.

Roman Mars:
During and after the civil war, spiritualism became even more important to people.

Robert Murch:
Everyone had, whether it was a father, a son, a grandfather, and uncle, they all lost somebody. People just went away and they didn’t come back. So what else are you going to do? You turn to trying to make contact with these people who are gone.

Katie Mingle:
And 1886, the fledgling Associated Press ran an article in papers all over the country about these new talking boards coming out of the spiritualist movement in Ohio.

Roman Mars:
It’s unclear whether he read the article, but a few years later, in 1890, a businessman named Charles Kennard of Baltimore, Maryland, realized this talking board could make him lots and lots of money. Kennard pulled together a small group of investors, informed the Kennard Novelty Company to exclusively make and market talking boards.

Katie Mingle:
Contrary to popular belief, the name Ouija is not a combination of the French and German words for yes, ‘oui’ and ‘ja’. Murch says that according to documents belonging to the original founders of the company, they sat down and asked the board itself what it wanted to be called.

Robert Murch:
And letter by letter it spells out O-U-I-J-A, and when they asked the board what that means, the board spells out, “Good luck”.

Katie Mingle:
They called the board Ouija, the Egyptian luck board. They added ‘Egyptian’ just for a little exotic flare. The patented Ouija board looked a lot like the talking boards that came out of the spiritualist movement. The only real substantial change was that the Ouija board put the letters of the alphabet in a double arch instead of two straight lines across.

Roman Mars:
There have been a few small design changes since the early boards. For example, there was once a full moon and a crescent moon in the top left and right-hand corners. Eventually, the full moon became a sun, which is what you see now. But through the years, the brand has always been very identifiable.

Robert Murch:
So the Ouija board has always been very simple. Anyone who looked at it would know, “Okay, that’s a Ouija board.”

Katie Mingle:
By 1893, Charles Kennard left the company and it was taken over by William Fold who had come to be known as the “father of Ouija”.

Roman Mars:
Fold’s New York Times obituary actually credited him with inventing the board, which of course he did not do. But he was incredibly good at selling it. Instead of being a straight-up evangelist for the boards, he’d purport to be one of the skeptics.

Robert Murch:
He would say, “I don’t believe in that Ouija board. I’m no spiritualist, I’m a Presbyterian.” And then at the same time, same interview he would say, “But we lost a shipment of Ouija boards on the train tracks and we asked the board where they were and it told us,” and then they went down that track and sure enough, they found that the train had derailed and we found all our boards.

Katie Mingle:
Whether the board worked and how it worked, whether it was just a game or a more serious spiritual tool was something Fold kept intentionally mysterious. And this marketing strategy was extremely successful.

Robert Murch:
Everyone had one.

Katie Mingle:
People played at home with their families. Ladies played at tea parties. In fact, one of the boards in Murch’s collection doubles as a tea tray. People even played with their little kids, which might seem kind of weird now.

Katie Mingle:
Fast forward a couple of decades around 1920 and Ouija is still good clean family fun. And it turned out it was also a great thing to do on a date.

Robert Murch:
So you’re coming out of Victorian times when men and women are not supposed to be alone together. They’re not supposed to be in the dark together. They’re not supposed to be touching. So the original Ouija board would be placed on your lap, your knees would be touching, your fingers would be touching on the planchet, you would be doing it by candlelight. And you can see really quickly that the directions add in two people, a man and a woman preferred.

Katie Mingle:
And if you need proof of what a normal part of Americana the Ouija board was, look no further than the King of Americana himself, Norman Rockwell. In 1920 he made a painting of a man and a woman in the position Murch just described. Knees touching he looking flirtatiously at her, a Ouija board resting in their laps.

Roman Mars:
Of course, Ouija always had a few naysayers, and some of the first and loudest were actually the people whose jobs these talking boards had just stolen.

Robert Murch:
We see mediums actually saying, “These things are dangerous. You don’t know what kind of doors you’re opening. You need someone like me who’s experienced to guide you through this unseen world.” Now, why would they say that? Well, because it’s cutting into their profession, their money.

Katie Mingle:
But naysayers stayed on the fringe through the years. Oh, sure there’d be the occasional, “The Ouija board told me to do it” murder that would make it into the news, but they were few and far between.

Roman Mars:
Throughout the decades, Ouija mostly held on to its wholesome reputation. Until …

Exorcist Clip:
“Mother please! Please mother make it stop! It’s burning! It’s burning!”

Katie Mingle:
‘The Exorcist.’ At least in 1973, I had to sleep in my parents’ bedroom for a week after I saw this when I was a kid.

Exorcist Clip:
“Keep away! The sow is mine.”

Katie Mingle:
At the beginning of the movie, the main character’s mother discovers she’s been playing with a Ouija board.

Robert Murch:
‘The Exorcist’ is really the first big media moment that infers that playing a Ouija board by yourself could lead to demonic possession.

Roman Mars:
The following year saw the Ouija board denounced by religious groups as Satan’s preferred method of communication.

Pat Robertson:
Ouija boards aren’t harmless. Seances aren’t harmless. Listen, don’t be playing games on Halloween. Don’t call on demons because they’ll come and live with you. The Bible says he who seeks evil, evil will come to him.

Roman Mars:
Pat Robertson is pretty extreme, but still, the image of the board changed a lot since that Norman Rockwell painting in 1920.

Katie Mingle:
Parker Brothers and later Hasbro, which acquired Parker Brothers in 1991, still sell a lot of boards, but the reason people buy them has changed. It’s not good clean family fun anymore. Now people buy them because they want to get scared.

Roman Mars:
There’s another Ouija movie just released called ‘Ouija,’ which will do nothing to change the board’s sinister reputation.

Ouija Clip:
“Come on you guys. Who’s doing that? Sarah cut it out.”
Sarah – “I’m not pushing it.”
“It just spelled, ‘Hi friend.'”
“Hey, this is freaking me out. I’m done with this.”

Katie Mingle:
But a sinister reputation is fine with Hasbro. In fact, they put up a lot of the money for that new Ouija movie. They’ve also released a new version of the game and changed the tagline which used to be …

Robert Murch:
“It’s just a game, isn’t it?”

Katie Mingle:
The new tagline-

Robert Murch:
“Do not play the Ouija board if you think it’s just a game.”

Roman Mars:
The design of the new board is different too.

Robert Murch:
For the first time in a very long time, the Ouija board got a makeover.

Roman Mars:
They’ve added a couple of modern features like a purple light in the planchet, but overall they’ve tried to make the board look older than the classic board. It’s brown and kind of weathered and it looks like something you might find on a pirate ship.

Robert Murch:
They’ve really gone for the older look, which is neat because again, people assume these boards have been around for thousands of years, which we know isn’t true, but belief is important to the Ouija board.

Katie Mingle:
Belief is very important to the Ouija board, especially subconscious beliefs. Which brings us finally to how these things work.

Chris French:
Basically, when it comes to the Ouija board, the reason that it seems to work, it feels as if it works, is down to something called the ideomotor effect. And what that is essentially is non-conscious muscular movements.

Katie Mingle:
That’s professor Chris French.

Chris French:
I am head of the anomalistic psychology research unit at Goldsmiths, University of London. And before you ask, anomalistic psychology is the psychology of weird stuff.

Roman Mars:
The term ideomotor effect was first coined by an English physician and researcher named William Benjamin Carpenter back in 1852, right when spiritualism was starting to become popular both in Europe and the US.

Katie Mingle:
So the ideomotor effect applies in the case of Ouija in that our bodies are making small subconscious movements that are guided by a suggestion or some subconscious knowledge.

Chris French:
And so particularly, once the first letter or two has been made apparent, then you kind of get an idea of what’s going to come next. So if it was spelling out a name and it’s spelled out the letter B and then an O, you might well, we know it’s probably going to be Bob.

Roman Mars:
And the ideomotor effect becomes magnified as more people play.

Chris French:
One of the very interested in things that happens when you talk to people who have played around with Ouija boards is that they will very often claim that they’ve got answers from the Ouija board that nobody around the board actually knew that. So that proves that it was some kind of external agency.

Katie Mingle:
Professor French says that what’s happening here is that our subconscious mind does actually know the answer. Our conscious mind just can’t access the information. And researchers are so convinced of this they’ve even used Ouija boards to study our subconscious.

Roman Mars:
So for example, in one of these studies, participants were asked simple fact-based questions like, “Is Buenos Aires the capital of Brazil?”

Katie Mingle:
They got the answers right about 50% of the time. But when they used a Ouija board to help them answer the same questions …

Chris French:
They actually got higher scores then.

Katie Mingle:
They got the answers right about 65% of the time.

Chris French:
So in other words, they did know the answer even if they couldn’t consciously access it.

Katie Mingle:
There’ve been all kinds of studies done on paranormal experiences, and Professor French says they never reveal an external or spiritual force at work. They always reveal an internal force at work, even if it’s a subconscious one.

Chris French:
I don’t have any doubt in my mind that we can explain the vast majority of ostensibly paranormal experiences by looking to psychology. Whether or not we can explain every single one is the $64,000 question.

99PI Team Ouji night:
“Was there an O?”
“Yeah, F-O.”
“Was there an R?
“Yeah.”

Katie Mingle:
When we played Ouija at my house, the planchet seemed less to be governed by the ideomotor effect and more by the law of inertia.

99PI Team Ouji night:
“I don’t know what’s going on.”
“Nothing.”
“Essentially it’s not moving.”

Katie Mingle:
And our experience wasn’t terribly strange or creepy. It was mostly just slow.”

99PI Team Ouji night:
“It was kind of a … Look, it moved a little bit.”

Katie Mingle:
But Murch has played enough times to have had some weird experiences.

Robert Murch:
Some I think are just the person’s pushing it and they don’t know it. It’s clearly ideomotor response. Other times it’s answered things that just seem so bizarre that how would it know? If you can talk to the spirit world, why wouldn’t the Ouija board work? And the real question is, can you make contact with the spirit world? And that’s a question that has been dogging humanity since the beginning of time. Since the first time someone realized when they died, they didn’t come back.

Katie Mingle:
After everyone left my house that night, I was sitting on my couch by myself. It was really quiet. I hadn’t blown out all the candles yet, so there was kind of a mood. And then one of my spring-loaded blinds slammed up and scared the sh*t out of me. And I have to admit, I looked at the Ouija board and I wondered just for a second, it’s just a game, isn’t it?

Credits

Production

This story was adapted from a piece by Linda Rodriguez McRobbie which originally appeared in the Smithsonian Magazine. Producer Katie Mingle spoke with historian Robert Murch and Professor Chris French. Most of the images are from Robert Murch and more can be seen at his website.

The 99% Invisible crew played Ouija on a beautiful homemade board made board designed by Avery in the style of the classic Ouija board. The board told us the first digit of our Kickstarter would be “7” but we think we can do better.

Music

“Ritournelle” — Melodium
“Nightlife” — Amon Tobin
“Music Box” — Philip Glass
“Harrison’s Forest” — Vintage
“Shrink Ray” — E*rock
“Pfeifferhorn” — Ok Ikumi
“Oujia Board” — Morrissey

  1. Salma

    It’s funny that the word ouija was purported to be an Egyptian word because there was a 2006 horror movie entitled Ouija (which is all about a ouija board telling people to kill and stuff) so it looks like things have come full circle

  2. what was the podcast about true crime that was mentioned in the show? I’d like to check it out, but can’t remember the name. True crime? thanks!

  3. roman

    The true crime podcast we mentioned was “Criminal.” If we get to 400,000 in our Kickstarter, we’re hoping to add it to the Radiotopia family.

  4. Tom

    Does anyone know specifics about the music box musical scoring that accompanies the Fox sister’s moment? It’s perfect.

  5. Gwen

    There are actually two Amon Tobin songs featured in this- the other one is “Defocus” at 13:16

  6. Jenn

    Perfect example of your subconscious knowing something your conscious brain doesn’t: I just found out about 99%pi, so I’ve been binging. Having just listened to the flag episode I started mussing about what a 99%pi flag would look like. I came up with a blank or somehow invisible looking space w/ one solid square that would take up exactly 1% of the space…a few hours later, I got on my phone to listen to some more episodes and noticed 99%pi’s icon…

  7. Monica

    I honestly believe the emouija board would be a great success, with very secular looking gothic style emojis. Go for it.

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