How the Ouija Board Swept America
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
The author gives a brief history of the Ouija Board, the wildly popular artifact that came out of the spiritualist movement and captivated America for a century. It is now less popular because of the Christian right, he says.
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- The research raises many ethical questions and puts to the test our current understanding of death.
The image of an undead brain coming back to live again is the stuff of science fiction. Not just any science fiction, specifically B-grade sci fi. What instantly springs to mind is the black-and-white horrors of films like Fiend Without a Face. Bad acting. Plastic monstrosities. Visible strings. And a spinal cord that, for some reason, is also a tentacle?
But like any good science fiction, it's only a matter of time before some manner of it seeps into our reality. This week's Nature published the findings of researchers who managed to restore function to pigs' brains that were clinically dead. At least, what we once thought of as dead.
What's dead may never die, it seems
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BrainEx pumped an experiment solution into the brain that essentially mimic blood flow. It brought oxygen and nutrients to the tissues, giving brain cells the resources to begin many normal functions. The cells began consuming and metabolizing sugars. The brains' immune systems kicked in. Neuron samples could carry an electrical signal. Some brain cells even responded to drugs.
The researchers have managed to keep some brains alive for up to 36 hours, and currently do not know if BrainEx can have sustained the brains longer. "It is conceivable we are just preventing the inevitable, and the brain won't be able to recover," said Nenad Sestan, Yale neuroscientist and the lead researcher.
As a control, other brains received either a fake solution or no solution at all. None revived brain activity and deteriorated as normal.
The researchers hope the technology can enhance our ability to study the brain and its cellular functions. One of the main avenues of such studies would be brain disorders and diseases. This could point the way to developing new of treatments for the likes of brain injuries, Alzheimer's, Huntington's, and neurodegenerative conditions.
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An ethical gray matter
Before anyone gets an Island of Dr. Moreau vibe, it's worth noting that the brains did not approach neural activity anywhere near consciousness.
The BrainEx solution contained chemicals that prevented neurons from firing. To be extra cautious, the researchers also monitored the brains for any such activity and were prepared to administer an anesthetic should they have seen signs of consciousness.
Even so, the research signals a massive debate to come regarding medical ethics and our definition of death.
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The dilemma is unprecedented.
Setting new boundaries
Another science fiction story that comes to mind when discussing this story is, of course, Frankenstein. As Farahany told National Geographic: "It is definitely has [sic] a good science-fiction element to it, and it is restoring cellular function where we previously thought impossible. But to have Frankenstein, you need some degree of consciousness, some 'there' there. [The researchers] did not recover any form of consciousness in this study, and it is still unclear if we ever could. But we are one step closer to that possibility."
She's right. The researchers undertook their research for the betterment of humanity, and we may one day reap some unimaginable medical benefits from it. The ethical questions, however, remain as unsettling as the stories they remind us of.
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