Talking to the Spirits

How Ouija became a hit for Hasbro—and a fright for everyone else. By Robert Klara

Forty-five years ago, Americans flocked to theaters to see The Exorcist. Many were sorry they did. The movie—which many consider the scariest of all time—made the news after audiences began fainting, crying and running out of theaters. As Linda Blair’s character Regan MacNeil demonstrated, demonic possession is no picnic—but it is pretty easy to get started. All it takes for the demon Pazuzu to take hold of Regan’s tender little soul is a few games of Ouija.

This week, as millions of our fellow citizens plan Halloween parties, it’s a good bet that many are rummaging around in their basements to find that old Ouija board. After all, there are enough of them out there (25 million, by one estimate). And what other board game can give one a case of the creeps as reliably as Ouija?

It took the contributions of several people to produce the modern Ouija board (l. to r.):  Charles Kennard, who developed a prototype with attorney and partner Elijah Bond. Bond’s psychically gifted sister-in-law, Helen Peters, got the board to spell out its own name. Finally, William Fuld, a gifted marketer, publicized and popularized the Ouija board with millions of Americans.

“The reason people still play it is because of the belief that it might be dangerous,” noted Ouija authority Robert Murch. “Belief is what gives it power. It’s why it works. And it’s why kids in the age of tap, swipe and click [still] put their hands on the planchette.”

Murch is in a position to know. As chairman of the Talking Board Historical Society, Murch and his years of research have unlocked Ouija’s murky origins.

The years following the Civil War (which may have killed as many as 750,000 men) saw the dramatic rise of spiritualism as Americans attempted to converse with departed loved ones. By 1886, Ohioans had begun using a “talking board”—a simple square of wood painted with rows of numbers and letters—to speed up messages supposedly coming in from the great beyond.

The first patented Ouija board of 1890 (top, l.) soon became a popular parlor game (top, r.). Before Ouija acquired its demonic image, it was a genteel distraction respectable enough for courting, as this 1920 Norman Rockwell painting for the Saturday Evening Post (above) suggests.

Watching with keen interest was a Maryland man named Charles Kennard who, based on an AP wire story he’d read about the boards, hired a coffin maker to craft him one. In 1890, Kennard met a Baltimore attorney named Elijah Bond, who invited his sister-in-law Helen Peters to a séance. Peters apparently had some truck with the spirit realm, and when the group asked the board to name itself, it spelled out O-U-I-J-A.

Bond secured a patent for the “mysterious oracle” and, incorporating as the Kennard Novelty Company, began mass-producing boards. Eventually, the reins passed to a man named William Fuld, whose aesthetic modifications and knack for publicity gave us the Ouija board we all know today.

When Parker Brothers purchased rights to the game in 1966, the board had barely changed in nearly 80 years.

But while the board has remained the same, attitudes toward it have not. For the first six decades of the 20th century, Ouija was still regarded as a parlor game. (In 1920, Norman Rockwell painted it for the cover of the Saturday Evening Post.) When Fuld sold his rights to Parker Brothers in 1966, the toy company marketed Ouija to women looking for a romantic mixer (“Funny how a boy seems to make the best partner,” said one ad.) Only with The Exorcist (and, more recently, B-grade fare including Ouija: Origin of Evil) did the board gain its bad rep as a conduit for evil spirits.

But is it, really? Has anyone determined what force is moving that planchette around? Well, no. Some believe it’s the “ideomotor” effect (muscles driven by the unconscious mind); others side with spirits; and a few proclaim it’s all hokum. And inside this ambiguity lies the reason for Ouija’s enduring popularity.

The oracle on screen Hasbro has deftly navigated Ouija into a new generation’s hands— not through ads, but movies. Partnering with Universal, it produced the 2014 horror thriller Ouija. Two years later came Ouija: Origin of Evil. Together, the flicks grossed over $86 million. It was shrewd marketing, of course, but Ouija had already been the go-to horror-movie prop for years, from 1944’s The Uninvited to the scariest of them all, The Exorcist (r.), released in 1973.

“The Ouija board is a telephone to whatever you’re speaking with—to the other side, to your subconscious or your friend having fun and pushing on the planchette,” Murch said. “So the board has to maintain that reputation, or people won’t buy it.”

But people do buy it and, chances are, they’ll continue to. Because while nobody wants to end up like poor little Regan MacNeil, the ominous allure of that board is too much fun to resist.