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The Fraught & Chilling True History Of Ouija

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    Ouija is a great conjurer. The name alone elicits responses ranging from fear and suspicion to curiosity and amusement.

    For each generation, the Ouija board’s reputation has varied. Some believe it's a serious spiritual communication device, and others use it as a party game. More still think it's an instrument of evil. And, the new Ouija movie, which premieres on October 24, looks to play into all of that.

    Sort of like Jumanji for the horror crowd, this flick for Halloween season taps into almost 125 years of brand recognition for 90 minutes of scares. But, where did the Ouija board come from, and how did it get its reputation?

    Almost anyone who’s attended a middle-school slumber party is familiar with Hasbro's modern form of the Ouija board. You might have used the board and its triangular planchette to spell out mystery messages from on “ghosts” from the “other side.” In my experience, the communication was usually creepy, but sometimes it was silly, too — like that time the "ghost" knew my crush. At some point in the night, someone was inevitably accused of pushing the planchette in order to the get the messages to fit their agenda.

    What is that “other side” anyway? Our own imagination? A spirit world where the dead roam, waiting for a call from the board? Perhaps the other side is something darker, an evil realm where a summoning is enough to give demons permission to torment, possess, or worse.

    Whatever it does, or doesn’t do, the Ouija board has been a symbol of spiritual communication for more than a century. But, before the product was called “Ouija,” it was simply a talking board.

    Talking boards were popular among practitioners of Spiritualism, a religion that gained popularity in the early 19th century. This was thanks in part to the Fox sisters of upstate New York, who supposedly began communicating with the spirit “Mr. Splitfoot” in 1848. Followers were encouraged to speak to the dead in a positive pursuit to understanding life and the physical world. Following the Civil War, and throughout the 1920s, the Spiritualism movement swept the United States and United Kingdom. It also continues today in the paranormal community of ghost hunters.

    The early Spiritualist method of talking to the dead that the Fox Sisters used involved speaking the alphabet, or pointing to letters on cards, and waiting for spirit to "knock" to indicate the appropriate one. In the early 1850s, other forms of communication emerged — table tipping, pointing devices, automatic writing planchettes — and by 1886 the talking board began transitioning from Spiritualist circles to parlors across America.

    Using this new device, which was considered easier to use by the spiritually untrained, people would place their forefinger and thumb on a tiny table that would then move on its own across a rectangular board that included letters and numbers. It’s unclear if the W.S. Reed Toy Company’s “Witch Board” was the first commercially available talking board, or if the company was just tapping into a similar craze that was sweeping Ohio at the time.

    But, this is where the Ouija story — and controversy — truly begins.

    We spoke with the world’s foremost talking board expert, Robert Murch, who has consulted on the use of boards for shows such as Supernatural and Ouija. With his help, we’ve chronicled the top moments of the Ouija story. To proceed on a journey of mystery, murder, and the mundane, simply place your index finger on your electronic planchette, and click ahead.

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  2. Photo: Courtesy of Bob Murch.

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