The History Of Ouija Boards, Where They Come From, & Why They’re So Freaking Creepy

There are plenty of horror movies that use Ouija boards, usually involving extremely attractive teenagers who unwittingly summon an unfriendly demon. (Sad!) But the history of the Ouija board itself is more complicated and fascinating than Hollywood makes it out to be. It involves ancient Roman sacrifices, coffin-makers, sister spiritualists, and a murder trial — and that's before you even touch its occult reputation. The popularity of the Ouija board itself dates back to its first introduction onto the American market in the 1890s, but the idea behind it is far older. And it's had a tumultuous time ever since it first arrived.

If you've never used a Ouija, it's a type of "talking board." It has a series of letters and numbers on it, and users put their fingers on a planchette, a small piece of wood or metal. The theory is that spiritual forces will "push" peoples' fingers on the planchette towards particular letters and numbers to spell messages and communicate from the afterlife. Or so they say. Whether you believe in the spiritual world or not, the Ouija board is an incredibly interesting object — and you'll sound deeply cultured if you can talk about 19th century Spiritualism when someone inevitably brings one out at Halloween.

The Idea Behind "Talking Boards" Is Extremely Ancient

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The Ouija board itself isn't even 130 years old, according to Smithsonian Magazine, but the idea of using "talking boards" to communicate with spirits or ghosts is very ancient. Attempting to divine the will of the gods or spirits through earthly interpretation was common among many civilizations. The ancient Romans used augury, in which specially trained "augurs" watched the patterns of bird flight, the ways in which sacred chickens pecked the ground, and the entrails of sacrificed animals to determine the right thing to do. The practice of literomancy, or deciphering characters, also has a strong history in Chinese tradition for telling the future. However, the rumor that Pythagoras had a "talking board" is, in fact, not supported by any historical evidence, according to the Museum of Talking Boards.

Talking Boards In America Could Have Come From Spiritualist Sisters

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The specific characteristics of modern talking boards, in which letters on a table were used as a way for spirits to communicate, may have originated with the Fox sisters, three famous 19th century American mediums. They used table-turning and rapping as signs that ghosts were "talking" to them, and also employed "automatic writing," in which they wrote whatever came into their heads while ghosts "controlled" them. It may have been their idea to use letters to produce more defined messages. But spiritualism was so popular in 19th century America that it's hard to narrow down the idea's exact origin.

The Ouija Board Was First Marketed By A Coffin-Maker

"Talking boards" were actually pretty common in the 19th century in the United Sates, but none were as popular as the Ouija. J. Edward Cornelius, in his history of the Ouija board, explains that the first modern Ouija was marketed in the United States in 1890, as the country was gripped by interest in spirits and mediums. While details are scant, it appears to have been invented by a man named E.C. Reiche, a coffin-maker in Maryland with a strong interest in spiritualism. The name "Ouija" was first applied to the board at this time, and it was marketed as "Ouija, The Wonderful Talking Board".

A patent was filed by Reiche's business partner Elijah Bond in 1892, though it's not clear exactly who came up with the idea and who took it onto the market. (Smithsonian Magazine reports that the patent officer only allowed them to get a patent if the device spelled out his name correctly, which it did, but we don't have any proof of that.) Cornelius notes that the design was further refined in 1910, when the device had a circle added to its planchette to see the letters underneath, as we still see today.

The Name Came From A Seance

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The name "Ouija," it seems, doesn't come from the French and German words for "yes", as the myth goes. According to a history of the Ouija board by Jeremy Gans, a criminal justice historian — you'll learn why the justice system was interested in the ouija board later — the name came from Elijah Bond's seance with his sister-in-law. Apparently Bond held a session on the board in the late 1890s to ask the spirit world for a name for his new product: "It spelled out O-U-I-J-A. When I asked the meaning of the word it said Good Luck."

Gans concludes that whether this was true or not, the name was a success, distinguishing the board from other products through a "combination of luck, catchiness and canny marketing."

It Quickly Acquired A Pretty Bad Reputation

The board started to acquire a sinister reputation almost immediately after its production. In 1919, J.G. Raupert published a book called The New Black Magic & The Truth About The Ouija-Board, in which he reported that doctors had told him about three people for whom "the use of the ouija-board has brought about a state of dementia."

It was even the subject of a court case in the mid-1920s to determine whether it counted as a "toy," and should therefore be subject to the 10 percent tax levied on U.S. toy sales. Judges battled over the question, with one arguing that it "is unique, in a class by itself." In the end, it was judged to be a toy because it was "used mostly as a means of social entertainment or play," even if people also used it as a serious means of communicating with spirits.

Then, It Played A Crucial Role In A Murder Trial In The Mid-'90s

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In 1994, the English Court of Appeals had to answer a crucial question: were jurors in a murder trial allowed to use a Oujia board? Stephen Young, 35, was initially convicted of murdering Harry and Nicola Fuller, but the order for a retrial was given after it was revealed that several of the jurors in his case had used a Ouija board to attempt to contact the souls of the deceased and make their verdict. The court decided that wasn't admissible, and Young got a retrial. (Even without a Ouija board, he was convicted of murder a second time.)

If you bring out a Ouija board to entertain yourself on a dull night, you're tapping into a very long history of spiritual communication. Even if you don't manage to get any friendly ghosts to take your call, that's pretty cool.