The Ouija Board Experiment

By Ken Biddle
With Assistance From PIRA Members


The Ouija Board, whether we like it or not, is a part of our culture. You would be hard-pressed to find someone who didn’t know what the Ouija Board is, though the actual definitions will vary. Ouija is the belief that on can receive messages from the deceased by use of a Ouija Board during a séance (Wikipedia, 2007). Some true believers claim that a spirit is contacted, which then spells out messages. Skeptics hold the belief that those using the board are either consciously or unconsciously moving the pointer to the desired answer (Robert Todd Carroll, 2007). Religious fanatics claim that the Ouija Board (as well as Tarot, Crystal Balls, Psychics, etc) are of the devil and are evil (David J. Stewart, 2007). Some believe that the Ouij Board really does work, but only evil spirits can be contacted (Joel S. Peters, 2005) These devices have also been known as “Talking Boards, witch boards, oracle boards, spirit boards, and most recently, channeling boards.”(Museum of Talking Boards, 1996).

The “board” usually consists of a simple design in which all the letters of the alphabet are listed. In addition, numbers from “0” to “9”, and the words “Yes” and “No” are also included. These simple designs can be found on the vastly popular game produced by Hasbro, or extremely elaborate designs made by custom designers. The designs really have no bearing on the activity, just how the board looks. The basic use of a Ouija Board is as follows; volunteers (also known as Users) sit around a table on which a Ouija Board is placed. The Users place their fingers lightly on the planchette and begin moving it around the board in a circular motion. This act “warms up” the board (Steve Wagner, 2007). The Users can begin asking questions with the assumption that a spirit will make contact, spelling out messages by manipulating the planchette.

There is debate about whether the messages come from supernatural entities or are some form of psychological phenomenon originating from the players (MTB, 1996). A controlled experiment would help us to settle the dispute of whether the reputation of a Talking Board is from years and years of false claims or if there actually is something to it. The only way to do this, for us, would be to set up a controlled experiment, document the results and come to a logical conclusion.

The History

The first Ouija, or Talking Board was invented...well, no one seems to really know the answer to that one. Some sites and experts claim that the Ouija Board has been around since the time of the Roman Emperor Valens, back in the fourth century. It's also thought to have been used by the Greeks since before the time of Christ (Ellie Crystal, 1997). The first historical mention of a device that matches the description of a Ouija Board can be found in China sometime around 1200 BC. It was a method of divination called Fu Ji (Wikipedia, 2007) Others claim the device is much younger than that (Dan Whitaker, 1999).

The roots of the modern Ouija Board can really be traced back to year 1848, when two sisters named Kate and Margaret Fox made headlines and would change the world as we know it. They were the infamous Fox Sisters, which anyone with an interest in the paranormal should be aware of (to some degree). It was inside a small cabin in Hydesville , New York that an event took place that would soon become a world-wide movement (MTB, 1997). They claimed to have contacted the spirit of a deceased peddler by the name of Charles Hayne (Church of Living Truth, 1999). It was not long before word spread of their communication with the other side. The Fox sisters became famous practically overnight, showing off their powers in public forums. And so began an obsession that spread all across the United States and Europe . This obsession was what is now considered the birth of modern Spiritualism (S. Darroch, 2000)

The sisters used a series of knocks and raps that answered “yes” and “no”. Eventually they assigned a code that corresponded with the letters of the alphabet. Using this code, they were able to spell out longer and more detailed messages (Wikipedia, 2007). The code was soon developed into a technique called Table Turning (also called Table Tilting) by other mediums, which were now popping up everywhere. The medium, along with the attending sitters, would lightly rest their fingers on top of a table. Before long, the table would begin to tilt and move, knocking on the floor to spell out messages from the other side (Nandor Fodor, 2007). This form of communication was further developed into an easier (and less noisy) form of communication with a primitive planchette, which was made of a small basket with a pencil through the middle. The Medium would place their hand on the basket and make contact with a disembodied spirit. The basket would begin moving, using the pencil to spell out messages (Ask Yahoo, 2002). The basket gave way to other devices in an attempt to make communication between the spirits and the living much easier. Eventually, the devices actually became a burden, and so it was simply dropped from use by many mediums in favor of the “trance” state (MTB, 2007). However, there were still many out there who were determined to build new and “improved” devices. Things got out of control for a while, with devices that were much too complicated to be used in a practical sense.

The earliest known patent for a talking board is located in the patent offices of London , England . The patent was filed on January 23, 1854 by Adolphus Wagner, who was a professor of music and resident of Berlin of the Kingdom of Prussia . Mr. Wagner described his device as a “Psychograph, or apparatus for indicating person’s thoughts by the agent of nervous electricity”. The patent plainly identifies the device as a “Taking Board”.  However, Mr. Wagner, by the full description he submitted for the patent, clearly believes that it was the unintentional movements of the participants, and not the spirits of the dead, that created the messages spelled out on the board (AAC, 2007).

The Ouija board was first introduced to the American public in 1890 as a parlor game sold in novelty shops. In 1891, U.S. Patent 446054 was granted to Elijah J. Bond and Charles Kennard for the first “modern” Ouija Board. With the help of E.C. Reiche, the three men had created an entirely new alphanumeric design. They sold their “novelty” as a package, a planchette and printed board together (Wikipedia, 2007). This gave the Board it’s classic double arcs of letters. Numbers from 0 to 9 were in a line below the letters, and the words “YES” and “NO” were placed in the upper corners. The word “Goodbye” was at the bottom of the board, and used when the spirit was finished delivering messages. Mr. Kennard eventually lost his company and it was taken over by his former foreman, William Fuld, in 1892. William reinvented the history of the Ouija Board, making himself the actual inventor of the Board. He claimed that the name came from the French word "oui" for yes, and the German "ja" for yes. Whether he believed these claims himself or was simply amused by his “stories” is lost to history (Spirited Ventures, 2002)

In 1966 the Parker Brothers purchased the rights to the Ouija Board and shifted its manufacturing facilities to Salem , Massachusetts . The Ouija Board ended up outselling the game of Monopoly in its first full year at Salem . Over two million copies of the Ouija Board were shipped (MTB, 1996). Today, these boards can be found in a variety of different shapes, sizes and colors. You can find ones printed on the back covers of certain books, or in antique shops and everywhere in between. The Ouija Board has been fused into our culture, and it doesn't look like it'll fade away any time soon.

Method

Participants

There were eight participants included in executing this experiment. Two participants are deemed the “Experimenters”, as they were charge with setting the guidelines. Six volunteers were chosen by their willingness to participate under the guidelines set forth, as well as their individual beliefs on the validity of whether the Ouija Board is actually a communication device.

Experimenter #1 is a 35 year old Male who was in charge of the experiment.
Experimenter #2 is a 25 year old Female, chosen to assist

Volunteer #1 is a 34 year old Female
Volunteer #2 is a 39 year old Female
Volunteer #3 is a 24 year old Female
Each member of the Female team held a belief that these devices worked, in varying degrees, as the reputation states they do. All had related stories of how the boards “worked” when they were young.

Volunteer #4 is a 26 year old Male
Volunteer #5 is a 41 year old Male
Volunteer #6 is a 32 year old Male
Each member of the Male team expressed serious doubt in the validity of the board’s claim as a communication device between the living and the deceased.

Ok, let's go over the details of the experiment. Several members of PIRA set up in a location where activity has been documented on several investigations conducted by my team. The name and exact location of the site must remain anonymous, out of respect for the owners who allowed the experiment to take place. Documented activity from this site includes apparition sightings, EVP recordings, objects moving on their own and unexplained alarm triggers. The site was chosen due to this activity, under the assumption that this would be our best chance of having the Board function as it is expected.

Procedure

1- The Board we used was made specifically for this experiment. Kenny (the author) made the board himself, using a design that was unique. After much research, the design does not resemble anything used in the past or the present. Kenny also made the planchette that was to be used. The purpose was so that none of the participants working “on the board” could have had any prior knowledge of what the board looked like or even a general layout of the letters, numbers and words (additional words were included on our board that had a significant connection to the site).

 

2- The volunteers, when seated, were blindfolded during the entire time the board was out. This was done to prevent anyone from manipulating the planchette, either voluntarily or involuntarily. Aside from those who whole-heartedly believe these devices work, there are just as many who believe that the movements that appear to be "from a spirit" are really the participants moving the planchette themselves...just on an unconscious level. Absolutely no prior knowledge of the layout prevented unconscious manipulation.

3- The board was not shown to anyone who volunteered to “work the board” itself. In other words, if they were sitting there with their hands on the planchette, they never got to see the board until the entire experiment was officially over.

4- There were two participants designated to ask the questions, both of which were NOT working on the board. They stood near the board or sat at the table, but did not put their hands on the board itself. This was to prevent the volunteers (working on the board) from manipulating the experiment with questions to which they already knew the answers.

5- For this experiment, I used two teams of three participants. The teams were further divided up by gender. Upon review of interview notes taken prior to testing, it was found that the females in the experiment shared a belief that these devices really worked, even relating past incidents to back up their belief. The male on the second team had shared a belief of neutrality. They were not convinced one way or another if the Ouija Board is a genuine tool for communicating with the deceased. Future testing will include mixed teams of different gender and beliefs.

6- The entire experiment would be documented by photography, video and audio recordings. This would not only allow us to go back and review the experiment with greater detail, but would also allow us document any other activity that might be going on at that time.

7- Questions during each session include general interview types, as well as site-specific types. Site-specific questions made use of the vast amount of research that was done on the building and the significant people who had been involved in its history. The idea behind such questions was to increase the chances that the device might yield positive results.

 

Brief Transcript of Questions;

We’ve left a chair open, would anyone like to join us?

Can you spell out your name?

What is your age?

Where are you from?

Can you tell us the number of people sitting at the table?

Were you employed by this establishment?

What was your occupation?

How long were you employed here?

Are you a man? A woman? A child?

Were you present during the fire which partially destroyed the building?

Are you the little girl that’s been seen on the balcony?

My name is Kenny; can you spell my name out on the board? (I called out the letters of my name)

Of the colors listed on the board, what would be your favorite?

There are two names listed on the board, do you know either one?

Which name do you know?

Did you work for either of these people?

What faith do you follow?

Are you married?

What is the name of your spouse?

What year do you believe it is?

Are you able to control the planchette? (the planchette was introduced prior to questioning)

 

Experiment

The teams were separated and the experiment began with the female team. They gathered around a table, took a seat and got comfortable. The blindfolds were put in place and they were checked to be sure that the participants could not see anything. After all seemed secure, the board was brought out and placed between the ladies. We started by having them simply rest their fingers on the planchette. They did the customary few circles around the board to "warm it up", then stopped. The Experimenter spoke up, announcing the name of each participant, than began asking simple questions.

We attempted several types of questions, along with different ways of working the board. Research into how the Ouija Board is supposed to be operated shows that techniques vary depending on the person or team you consult. We tried the most popular methods during the several sessions conducted by the women.

After several minutes of questioning, the only thing the happened was that the planchette would stop moving. The girls had begun moving the planchette in a figure “8” as the questions were being asked. At times, it would simply stop moving. Unfortunately, it never landed over any letter, number or word. Being able to view the scene from outside the "circle", it simply appeared that the girl's arms were getting tired from holding them up off the table for so long.

Next, we had the male team come in. They set up in much the same fashion that the ladies had done; they were seated, blindfolded and checked. The board was brought out of hiding again and placed between the guys. The rules were again explained to them and we began. We went through more questions, even having the guys ask some questions themselves. The results were basically the same as the session with the women. The only difference was that the planchette was not stopping at random. The guys kept the planchette moving in a circle until they were asked to stop. They also did the figure “8” motion and even had it sitting still...all with no effect.

The Results

We spent about 45 minutes on each session, altogether lasting a little over an hour and a half. We took every precaution we could think off in order to prevent any possibility of human manipulation. We held the experiment at a known, haunted location. We asked approximately 35 questions during each session, which were a mix of general and site-specific. We tried various methods in setting up, delivery of questions and manipulation of the planchette. After the more popular methods were used, we continued with any and every technique we could recall.

However, even being in a location to which I am convinced there was activity, the board displayed absolutely no mystical powers. None of the participants reported feeling the planchette attempting to move on its own at any time during the sessions. In fact, the participants didn’t report anything out of the ordinary, even though other teams were reporting activity in other sections of the site.

Now, some may argue that because we blindfolded the participants, we actually hindered the spirit's ability to use the "mediums" to get the message across. In fact, the majority of those we interviewed, who shared a total belief that these devices are genuine, claim that the spirits must use the medium’s eyes to see the board and manipulate the planchette in the proper manner. However, if we stick with this train of thought, there would be no way to determine whether a spirit was the cause, or if it was actually the medium. In order to verify that the “messages from beyond” are actually from the other side, the participant variable must be controlled. If you can see the board, and you have even the slightest amount of imagination, you can develop a decent “spirit” and an entire background. Who would be the wiser?

It may be questioned why I have not attempted a similar experiment at a location without any reported activity. This condition will take place during a future experiment. However, I find this to be counter-productive to the purpose of the experiment. It was our intention to verify if the board could relay messages from “the other side”. Setting up in a location with no known activity would be fuel for “true believers”, allowing them to state that there simply were no entities present during our experiment. By setting up the experiment in a location where I have confirmed (in my own opinion) paranormal activity, this at least provides the best possible situation in favor for this device to work.

Discussion

My experience with this device, both during the experiments and playing with them in my youth, have shown me that they are simply toys; nothing more than a flat piece of wood and a plastic slider with a hole in the middle. There is nothing mystical about them in any sense, save for the power they have to easily convince the gullible that a spirit is present. Many years ago, I sat down on the floor with several friends to play with one. For the first few minutes, nothing was going on. I became board, and so decided to spice up the night. With gentle pressure, I was easily able to manipulate the planchette across the entire board. I spelled out the name of a spirit - Jesdin – and proceed to spin a tale that shocked my audience. “Jesdin” described himself as an older man who passed away due to a heart attack. He had come forward to warn my friend “John” that he would soon die as well, if he did not do something about his lifestyle. “Jesdin” also mentioned that John would die because of his heart. My friends were completely convinced that we were speaking with a spirit. They would jump back and inhale sharply when bad news would be spelled out…frightened to continue, but they did. We all left that night, all convinced that they had made contact with the other side. I never told them it was me, and my buddy John became a Paramedic.

The power that this toy has over the human psyche is amazing, even bordering on “mystical”. However, the cause of the power has nothing to do with the supernatural; it’s purely the product of either of two conditions. The first condition is the need that certain individuals have; a need to believe in something. This “need” over-rides rational thinking, allowing one to disregard facts and common sense in order to make what they want to believe... true. The second condition pertains to the Frauds; those people who attempt to gain your money by pretending that their Ouija Board is communicating with the dead. These people spin wild tales about “spirits” in the house that “explain” why a house may be haunted.

I had posted on several message boards asking for anyone who had had a Séance at their house, conducted by an outside medium, that made use of an Ouija Board. I received 23 e-mails from individuals with very similar stories; they all were having activity in their houses and had called on a psychic, Medium or other individual to help. These individuals arrived and set up their Ouija Board in order to make contact with entities that were thought to be residing in the residence. All 23 contacts related to me similar stories, in which “contact with a spirit was made” and the cause of the entity’s presence had been identified and resolved. Each house was declared free of spirits. All 23 accounts reported no change in the amount activity.

Now, I did receive reports of these boards working fantastic conversations and helping lost souls to cross over. However, these reports were from those who made a business of using these boards to “contact the other side”. These reports could not be used for my survey, since there was an obvious bias involved. Of course, 23 accounts does not cover the world-wide use of these devices, but I was unable to obtain any further personal stories (I only accepted first-hand accounts).

The bottom line is that the Ouija Board is a tool, but not one for speaking with spirits of any kind. It’s a tool for people who desperately need to believe in something. It’s a tool for relieving gullible people of their hard-earned money. The only power this toy has is what people give it…nothing more. Decades of trickery, gullibility and consumer promotion has ingrained the Ouija Board into our culture and imagination as a device of the dead.

Sources;

1- Wikipedia website, 2007

2- “Ouija Boards- Just a Game?” Jeff Belanger 1999

3- All About the Occult website, 2007

2- Museum of Taking Boards , 1996 (Also refered to as MTB)

3- Robert Todd Carroll, 2007, The Skeptics Dictionary, http://skeptic.com/ouija.html

4- Steve Wagner, Paranormal.About.com, 2007

5- Joel S. Peters, 2005, Catholic Answers
 www.catholic.com

6- David J. Stewart, “Ouija Boards are of the Devil”, 2007

7- Dan Whitaker, 1999, “History of the Ouija Board”

8- Ellie Crystal, 1997, “Ouija Boards”

9- The Church of the Living Truth, 1999, “The Fox Sisters and the Spiritualism Movement”

10- S. Darroch, 2000, “The Birth of Spiritualism – The Story of the Fox Sisters”, www.pararesearchers.org/Psychic/fox/fox.html

11- Nandor Fodor, DATE, Encyclopedia of Psychic Science

12- Ask Yahoo, 2002, “What is the History of the Ouija Board”
http://ask.yahoo.com/20020715.html

13- Spirited Ventures, Cryptique website, 2002
http://www.cryptique.com/history.html


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