The Wildly Spooky History Of Your Favorite Sleepover Game

Photographed by Stephanie Gonot.

The all-powerful Ouija board has been a staple of American culture since the 1800s, but chances are your first experience with it was at a sleepover.

“I think my friends and I talked to a three-legged cat a few times, and then I got grounded because my dad said it's not okay to ‘communicate with the devil,’” Lindsay Arakawa, 26, says with a laugh. While many of us have similar sleepover stories involving more popcorn than poltergeists, some true believers remain convinced they contacted things they shouldn’t have in between episodes of Dawson’s Creek.

“I used a Ouija board once and then never used it again because it was terrifying,” adds Samantha Sasso, 22. “I was trying to contact Heath Ledger, but the experience turned really sour and apparently a 'bad spirit' — what it spelled out — got in contact. I got nauseous immediately and ended the conversation. Since then, I made my mom hide the board so we could never use it again.”

Whether your own Ouija Board memories involve friendly or not-so-friendly ghosts, there's no denying that this toy, which is now sold by the same company that manufactures Nerf Guns and Play-Doh, has made an impact. But, honestly, who came up with this thing in the first place?

The origins of the Ouija Board can actually be traced all the way back to the American Spiritualism movement, which peaked in the mid- to late-1800s. During that time, the Fox sisters — Margaret, Katie, and Lea, who claimed they could communicate with the dead — became super popular. These sisters started touring the country, demonstrating their "powers" for audiences at live shows. Then, with stories about the Fox sisters and their fans appearing regularly in the newspapers, "talking boards” began popping up as more expedient ways for people to talk to spirits in their own home, according to Smithsonian Magazine.

When a man named Charles Kennard learned of these DIY boards being used in Ohio, he decided to trademark and mass-produce the first Ouija board. Kennard got his patent for the board in 1891 and began producing them under the umbrella of his Kennard Novelty Company. By 1919, the board was so popular that Norman Rockwell painted a scene of a man and a woman trying to contact the spirit world with it.

By 1967, when Parker Brothers (which was eventually acquired by Hasbro) bought the rights to the Ouija Board, it had become a treasured, even wholesome, mainstay of American culture, having been used for generations by people trying to make a connection with loved ones lost.

It wasn't until the second half of the 20th century that the Ouija board became more of a bogeyman in pop culture, when it started making appearances in the scariest movies of our time. For example, the head-spinning, priest-killing demon only takes residence in The Exorcist’s protagonist after she plays with a Ouija board. And 2007’s Paranormal Activity, one of the most successful horror movies of the past decade, features a Ouija board being controlled by an unseen ghost. In spite of, or perhaps because of the creepy rep it earned in these movies, the Ouija board definitely resonated with kids who grew up on witchy shows and movies like The Craft, Sabrina the Teenage Witch, and Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

Today, at over 100 years old, the Ouija board remains just as relevant. Now, it's marketed as harmless fun — though some, like Sasso, remain convinced that it's evil. “You’ve got questions, and the spirit world has answers, and the uncanny Ouija board is your way to get them!” reads the toy's description on the Hasbro website. “Ask your question with a friend using the planchard that comes with the board, but be patient and concentrate because the spirits can’t be rushed.”

Ouija board enthusiasts are now using social media to connect with fellow spirit-seekers. “Who would like to use the Ouija Board & Skype with me at the same time?” reads a recent post on a Ouija Board community Facebook page. “I am from Florida & a few days ago I Skyped with my friend from India & my board worked as if he was here with me in the room.”

And if you're looking for a piece of history (or what might just be a true window into the spirit world), look no further than your favorite online haunts. Those looking for vintage versions can check out eBay, while Etsy shoppers can find handmade boards obviously crafted by true believers. One hand-carved version can be yours for a whopping $338.75, but let it be known that the item does come with a warning — “no kids, no novices, no anxious or fearsome people.”

Now that you know the history of your favorite sleepover game, please don't be shy. Share your spookiest Ouija Board memory with us in the comments.
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