The Ouija board is an extremely peculiar phenomenon. A children’s manufacturer packages the board, yet it still as a reputation as a tool of the occult. Indeed, before becoming a staple of toy sections, the board’s precursors were a fixture of the 19th-century spiritualist movement. So how exactly did the Ouija board find its way from its first patent in 1890 to today? Unsurprisingly, it’s been a long, strange trip.
A Planchette and a Patent
The Ouija board that we know today is a form of “talking board.” This was a tool used to communicate with the dead or anything in the spiritual realm. Experts have tracked talking boards back to 12th-century China, although there are similar tools in ancient India, Greece, and Rome.
In North America, talking boards became part of the spiritualist movement of the late 19th century. This movement posited that the spirits of the dead could communicate with the living. As a result, mediums worked as conduits between the human world and the spirit world. Different mediums would use different tools, and the talking board as well as automatic writing were popular among this set.
While this was going on, a man named Elijah Bond registered a patent for a parlor game version of the board. After receiving the patent, Bond assigned it to two other men: William H. A. Maupin and Charles W. Kennard. As it happens, Kennard was the founder of the Kennard Novelty Company, which began producing the boards.
Kennard claimed he gave the talking board the name “Ouija” because it meant “good luck” in ancient Egyptian. At some point, however, Kennard left the company and his former employee William Fuld took over. Fuld had some different ideas about the board, and claimed that “Ouija” came from French and German. As he pointed out, “oui” means yes in French and “ja” means the same in German. Fuld also began filing his own patents for the board.
Soon, the board became a sensation, the Kennard Novelty Company became the Ouija Novelty Company, and Fuld quickly began suing competitors who produced lookalike products. He continued this practice until his death in 1927, and trademarked multiple names for different talking boards, including the Oracle board, the Egyptian Luck board, and the WE-JA. Clever, Fuld, real clever.
From Contested Property to the Makers of Monopoly
After his death, Fuld passed the patent down to his family members, who held onto it until the mid-1960s. At that point, there had already been massive outcry by Christian religious groups—specifically, from the Catholic Church—about the boards’ supposed powers. The Church felt that the Ouija board could contribute to demonic possession, and in some places, people even wanted to ban it.
As a result, Ouija has occupied a strange place in the cultural consciousness. Sure, the Church despised it, but many had long regarded it as a light-hearted party game, especially in the post-WWII years. Cashing in on both this goodwill and this infamy, the Parker Brothers (best known for board games like Monopoly, Clue, and Risk) acquired the Ouija Novelty Company in 1966, including the patents for the Ouija board.
Into the Mainstream
Under the ownership of the Parker Brothers, the Ouija board only got more famous. By now, the “game” existed at a nebulous balancing point between its past as a fun hobby for groups and an object of the occult popular with those interested in different forms of spirituality. After all, notorious occultist Aleister Crowley was a fan.
As it turns out, this was just the balancing act the Ouija board needed. In 1973, the blockbuster film The Exorcist used the board to great effect—and success. In it, employing a Ouija board apparently leads to the main character’s demonic possession, and audiences everywhere were rapt. Suddenly, the Ouija became a pop phenomenon for the new generation.
Of course, this is only a cinematic, fictional representation of the Ouija board. There are also multiple real-life examples that only add to the board’s mysterious aura. Throughout the 20th century, tales proliferated of actual seances and purported possessions involving Ouija boards. These possession stories took the Ouija reputation up a notch, moving it from a simple, harmless conduit to an active agent of evil. Of course, this element of danger only stoked more interest in the boards.
The Modern Ouija
The board hasn’t seen quite the same popularity in recent years as it did in the 60s and 70s. Nonetheless, its association with the spiritual, the spooky, and the occult has stuck around for decades. These days, the Ouija patent is under Hasbro games, but the company has shown just as much interest in keeping the frenzy around Ouija alive.
Meanwhile, more recent movies like Paranormal Activity and the Ouija series continue to try to scare our pants off when it comes to the hidden dangers of Ouija. And hey, who’s to say the danger isn’t real? Despite efforts to disprove the mechanisms behind the moving planchette on the board, it seems like people just can’t resist asking, “Is there anyone or anything out there?”