Dear Straight Dope:
Can you please explain exactly how a Ouija board works? I know some people say it's because of spirits, and others say it's because of involuntary movements, but most people would agree that it's really not explainable. If that's the case, then how can Parker Brothers manufacture a game which process can't be explained?
Heather and Mark
SDStaff DavidB replies:
To answer your last question first — it is, as you said, a game. They don’t need to explain it; they just need to know that people will buy it so they can make money.
Going back to your first question, yes, we can explain how the Ouija board works. In fact, you mentioned it in your question — involuntary movements. Evidently you didn’t find that persuasive, so let me take another stab.
For those who don’t know what a Oiuja board is, let’s start from the beginning, with some help from the Museum of Talking Boards at http://www.museumoftalkingboards.com (only on the net, not a museum you can visit in person). The Ouija board was invented by E.C. Reiche, Elijah Bond, and Charles Kennard in the early 1890’s, and then improved upon and mass marketed by William Fuld. Before the Ouija board, spirit mediums used, among other things, a dial plate talking board, which had a letter indicator joined by a spindle to the center of the board. This rotated to pick different letters. Another way of bringing forth supposed messages from the dead was the planchette, which was generally heart-shaped, with a hole for a pencil in the tip of the heart. The medium put his/her hands on the two lobes of the heart and either moved it on a piece of paper to do “automatic writing” (writing with the pencil that supposedly came from the dead) or on a pre-printed chart to point to letters, statements, etc. The inventors of the Ouija board combined these two items.
Even back in the 1880s, the planchette was being sold as a novelty item and parlor game. The Ouija board was in the same vein — an important point. The board didn’t originate with swamis, emanate from the mysterious East, or anything like that. It was invented and marketed by American businessmen hoping to make a buck.
The Ouija board has the letters of the alphabet and the numbers 0-9 printed on it, along with YES, NO, GOODBYE, and sometimes a few other things. Copycat versions of the game may incorporate astrological, Tarot, or other New Age symbols. The idea is that you ask the spirit world a question and then rest your hand(s) on the pointer while the spirits answer you.
You may have heard that the name Oiuja (pronounced WEE-ja) is a combination of oui (French for “yes”) and ja (German for “yes’). Alas, that was made up by Mr. Fuld. Another story is that Mr. Kennard thought Ouija was Egyptian for “good luck.” It isn’t really, but the board itself supposedly told him, so who was he to argue?
After Kennard came up with the name, the Kennard Novelty Company advertised the first Ouija board as follows:
A WONDERFUL TALKING BOARD
Interesting and mysterious; surpasses in its results second sight, mind reading, clairvoyance;
will give intelligent answer to any question.
Proven at patent office before patent was allowed.
I particularly like the part about having to prove that it works at the patent office. Be interesting to see how they did that.
Having taken over Kennard, Fuld and later his family ran the Ouija board company for many years, finally selling the game to Parker Brothers in 1966. Early last year, Parker Brothers introduced a smaller glow-in-the-dark version of the game.
How does the Ouija board work? New-Agey folks think you get messages from spirits or ghosts or Invisible Pink Unicorns or something. Yeah, sure. Here’s the real explanation, from the Skeptic’s Dictionary (http://skepdic.com/ouija.html): “those using the board either consciously or unconsciously select what is read.” If you want to prove it to yourself, follow the advice of that same site: “simply try it blindfolded for some time, having an innocent bystander take notes on what letters are selected. Usually, the result will be unintelligible nonsense.”
What makes the pointer move? An effect similar to that which occurs in dowsing, known as the ideomotor effect. This is a fancy name for involuntary/unconscious movement, such as a dowser’s hand flicking enough to move his stick when he passes over an area he knows has water. (In fact, Cecil has discussed this very subject.) The basic point is that your muscles can move without your consciously thinking, “move to the word YES.” As the Skeptic”s Dictionary says, “suggestions can be made to the mind by others or by observations. Those suggestions can influence the mind and affect motor behavior. What is purely physiological, however, appears to some to be paranormal.” In other words, if you believe this stuff and are trying to get the spirits to answer questions proving that they are all-knowing, and you ask a question that you already know the answer to (for example, “What’s my father’s name?”), odds are that your own hands will do the rest by spelling out your answer. That’s where trying it blindfolded comes in (provided you haven’t memorized the board, obviously). If it’s spirits, they should be able to guide your hands no matter whether you can see or not. But if it’s you doing it unconsciously, the blindfold will screw things up.
Of course, this assumes you’re the one operating the pointer. If a medium is doing it instead, there’s always the possibility that s/he is simply faking it as part of the show.
The point is, the Ouija board is easily explainable. Whether you’ll accept that I don’t know. Shall we consult the Ouija board?
SDStaff DavidB, Straight Dope Science Advisory Board
Send questions to Cecil via firstname.lastname@example.org.
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