Mitch Horowitz is the editor-in-chief of Tarcher/Penguin and the author of "Occult America," awarded the 2010 PEN Oakland/Josephine Miles Award for literary excellence. Horowitz has recently written for The Washington Post, U.S. News & World Report, and BoingBoing.
Horowitz is a Big Think Delphi Fellow.
Question: What is the fascination with the Ouija Board?
Mitch Horowitz: The Ouija Board is probably the most successful and recognizable object that came out of the age of spiritualism in this country. It’s exactly the kind of object that American spiritualists were attracted to because it has this do-it-yourself quality. In the 1850s, 1860s, American spiritualists who believed ardently in what they were doing had an ideal that eventually talking to the dead would be as effortless and as ordinary and dinnertime conversation. So they set themselves to the task of figuring out: "How could this be accomplished? What method could we use?"
They experimented with transmediumship, automatic writing, there was a little plank called the planchette, which is French for “little plank,” that was used, you would sort of pencil into it, it was a little triangular table on ball bearings that was used for automatic writing. And eventually spiritualists hit on something they called the “Alphabet Board,” or the “Talking Board.” This is what became the Ouija Board. The earliest image of the Ouija Board appeared in the New York Tribune in the year 1886. There was an article about spiritualists in northern Ohio who were just entranced with this thing that they called the “Talking Board” that was supposed to be the easiest method yet for speaking to the other side.
And the newspaper featured a couple of drawings. One of them was just a little matchbox size drawing of the Ouija Board and is the spitting image of the board that we know today. They also showed a man and a woman using the “Talking Board,” balancing it together on their knees, which this is important because the “Talking Board” or the Ouija Board was also a very flirtatious experience for people in the Victorian Era. It gave men and women an excuse to sit knee to knee, maybe even join hands while they were consulting this magical board.
Now the interesting thing is, the Ouija Board was a homemade invention. The earliest record of it probably is in Ohio as seen in this 1886 newspaper report. Less than five years later, there were a group of novelty manufacturers in the city of Baltimore who seized upon the board and managed to bet a federal patent on it. So they got their patent and they called it the Ouija Board, the name is a source of mystery. Everybody has different stories about where I came from. Nobody really knows. But the invention just... the object just took off. It spread across the country. People were enthralled with it.
It became so popular that by 1922, the artist Norman Rockwell painted a satire of a man and woman using the Ouija Board which appeared on the cover of the Saturday Evening Post. If you look at Rockwell’s satire, you see basically the same image that appeared back in 1886, the man and woman with their knees kind of bumping using the Ouija Board together; in Rockwell’s painting it’s sort of weaving this little flirtatious spell around them.
In 1966, the original Baltimore family that manufactured the Ouija Board sold it to Parker Brothers. And when Parker Brothers marketing the board for the first time the following year in 1967, it actually outsold Monopoly. That’s how popular the Ouija Board was at that time. And the late ‘60’s saw an occult revival sweeping through the nation. The Woodstock Generation was not only open to Eastern religious ideas, but they were open to all kids of occult ideas that were coming out of the age of spiritualism, that we coming from 19th Century movements in this country. One of them was called the theosophy movement, which had helped repopularize occult concepts in the late 19th Century. So the late 60s saw an occult revival, the Ouija Board was at the ready, and young people embraced it. Ouija circles sprang up in dormitories and interestingly enough, very often it was women who were conducting the nightly Ouija sessions, which unbeknownst to them was a reenactment of spiritualism from the mid 19th Century.
Question: Why is Ouija board less popular today than in the past?
Mitch Horowitz: The company Hasbro which owns Parker Brothers and manufactures it, does not seem terribly interested to talk about the board, they continue to manufacture it, but the last time I went on their Web site, they didn’t post a history of the Ouija Board even though they have histories for Twister and The Game of Life and other very story products that they sell.
People are scared of Ouija, they don’t want to attract boycotts from the Christian right, they don’t want to attract somebody who is going to commit some kind of a crime and claim, “Well, the Ouija Board told me to do it.” And that’s part of its history. We never seemed to have been able to digest the Ouija Board because it is an object from the age of spiritualism that has made it into slumber parties and basements and toy rooms all across the country and yet there’s this very frightening and weird urban mythology around the Ouija Board. Ask anyone, and they have some stranger story of being a kid and using the Ouija board and the lights flicked on and off, or they heard mysterious or ghostly knocks at their door. There are some people in occult history who warned against using the Ouija Board, who said: "This is a dangerous door to the unconscious. Don’t approach this thing."
So we like to make fun of it, we’re sort of frightened of it. There’s nostalgia around it, but the fact is, in some ways it reflects the success of spiritualism.
Question: Is there consensus among scientists about how the Ouija Board works?
Mitch Horowitz: Well the most common explanation that you’ll find is it’s just a tool of auto-suggestion. We are just using it to act out communications from our deepest unconsciousness. There are serious psychical researches who looked at the Ouija Board in the 1960’s and that was the conclusion they came up with. It’s as reasonable conclusion as any, except when you talk to people who use it and, you know, you hear about the events they describe, they’ll have none of it. So, it seems to be an object that’s just going to withhold its mysteries from us.
Recorded on October 4, 2010
Interviewed by Max Miller