American history is littered with bizarre and obscure stories, many of which I am absolutely obsessed with. There was the Ford Pinto and its tendency to burst into flames. There was the great Kentucky meat shower of 1876, where mysterious chunks of meat fell from the sky with no obvious explanation. And there was, of course, that time a riot broke out at West Point over eggnog.
The thing is, oftentimes history is more strange than we could even imagine it to be. Over time, many of these outlandish events are sometimes forgotten entirely. Look at the vaguely homoerotic rivalry between paleontologists Edward Drinker Cope and Othniel Charles Marsh during the Great Dinosaur Rush of 1877. Sure, we hear about the Gold Rush that happened only a few decades before, but does anyone talk about these two paleontologists trying to one-up each other with better bones to the point where the entire field was greatly disrupted? The two were so intent on trying to outdo each other, that they combined random bones into skeletons of dinosaurs that never even existed, just to prove that they had discovered a new species. It would take years to undo the damage they’d done.
But sometimes, stories aren’t forgotten, rather the stories are twisted to the point where their origin is almost unrecognizable. My personal favorite example of this is none other than the Ouija board.
From a children’s toy to a beacon of evil, the history of this board is strange and complicated and mostly forgotten. Coming from a Christian upbringing, the only thing I ever knew about the Ouija board was that I should avoid it at any cost because it could only lead to evil — but it didn’t start out that way.
The first thing that must be understood about the Ouija board is that spiritualism had an incredibly strong hold on American society during the time that led up to its creation. Spiritualism is the belief that the dead can communicate with the living in some capacity. In the United States, it reached its peak during the late part of the 19th century into the early part of the 20th century.
It was popularized largely in part due to the Fox sisters, Kate and Maggie. Starting by performing shows in their house, the two girls claimed they could communicate with spirits through a series of knocks against a wall. They would knock first, asking a spirit a question, and the spirit would respond through knocks as well.
The two women would tour the country, giving demonstrations of their uncanny abilities to communicate with the dead. They performed in major cities including New York, Cleveland, Cincinnati, Philadelphia and St. Louis. They drew crowds that sometimes tried to disprove them, but were never able to find a good enough argument.
Maggie, however, eventually distanced herself from Spiritualism due to the beliefs of her Presbyterian husband. When her husband tragically died not long after, she converted to Catholicism and abandoned the practice entirely. She would go on to publicly denounce spiritualism. However, she mostly turned away from her guilt of the deceit she and her sister incited for years, rather than religious conviction.
It should also be noted that spiritualism and Christianity were not, in fact, enemies. Many evangelicals incorporated aspects of spiritualism into their own religion, seeing it as concrete evidence to support their beliefs. The Catholic church did end up condemning spiritualism in 1898, but it continued to thrive in American society nonetheless.
Where does the Ouija board fit into this narrative?
With the Fox sisters claiming to show evidence for communicating with the dead, and life expectancies very low, average American citizens became obsessed with the idea of communicating with their relatives beyond the grave. The problem was that the methods the Fox sisters used were not quick — they later refined their shows from simple yes or no questions to assigning a certain number of knocks to every letter. This allowed spirits to communicate more complexly. It was intriguing to watch but didn’t exactly make for the most efficient seance.
Enter the Kennard Novelty Company. Now long out of business due to former locations being destroyed by fire, this was the first company to trademark and sell the “Wonderful Talking Board.” When it became obvious that the investors of the company wouldn’t be able to patent the board without proof that it could communicate with the dead, they changed direction. The Ouija board was patented as a children’s toy and game.
It was not born out of some nefarious plan to communicate with the devil or to conjure up demons and evil spirits. It was thought up by four businessmen who wanted to capitalize on a trend that was spreading across the country. They wanted to get rich and were willing to take advantage of the country’s most recent obsession.
In the decades that followed the initial surge of spiritualism, newspapers started reporting scattered cases of mysterious or “evil” occurrences associated with the board. Accounts of possession after a session with the board, murders adjacently connected, people leaving money to ghosts after the board said it was the right thing to do. Though the cases were few and far between, it was enough to stir up both skepticism and fear.
Horror movies have a certain grip on culture. Audiences like the rush of being afraid. We crave the hit of dopamine it will give us. But they are also incredibly important in terms of changing our perceptions, particularly of the supernatural.
If we look back several hundred years, we can see how greatly Dante’s Inferno informed modern ideas of hell and eternal punishment. In the same way, the 1973 movie, “The Exorcist” had a similar impact on American spiritualism.
Even though the initial craze of American spiritualism was mostly over, it was still seen as a generally harmless belief that some people still practiced. But the entire plot of this incredibly successful film revolved around a child who is possessed after playing with an Ouija board.
Here was the turning point. One moment the Ouija board was a mysterious and intriguing children’s toy, the next it became a beacon for evil. Christians, though only somewhat wary before, now completely condemn the board.
In the eyes of white Christian America, the Ouija board was no longer a harmless toy. It was no longer a tool used to communicate with lost loved ones — not when it had the ability to conjure demons and cause possessions. Instead, the children’s board game was now only capable of chaos and destruction.
History is especially important to remember, as separate points of analysis remind us that sometimes movements start out drastically different than where they end up. Any items of the occult — think Ouija board, or tarot cards, or even something as innocent as astrology — have been branded demonic by many. Evil, even.
Every time I go to give someone a tarot reading, I can’t help but think about how my eighth-grade teacher told our whole class that we might go to hell if we even dipped our toes into the occult. We would be tempted by Satan and led down a dark path that we wouldn’t be able to come back from. We would be sinning. We would be actively working against God’s wishes for us. This message was constant, and it certainly did its job if I still think about it nearly eight years later.
I remember when I first asked my mother her thoughts on if I learned to read tarot. Knowing my family history and everything I had been taught at my Christian school, I assumed she was about to condemn me as well. She was skeptical but did not tell me I would go to hell. Even though she says that it’s probably not demonic, she still hasn’t let me give her a reading. Many of my friends have also denied a reading, not because they’re religious in any way, but because of societal ideas about the occult.
History is complicated — I don’t think anyone would disagree with that. But it is the nuance that comes out of the complication that we sometimes overlook. We want everything to be black and white, especially our pasts. Reality, though, will never be that clean and easy.
The story of the creation, marketing and eventual demonization of the Ouija board is a perfect example of this. I first heard the story while listening to an episode of the podcast “The Dollop with Dave Anthony and Gareth Reynolds” titled, “The Talk Board” and I was shocked. How could something I had feared my whole life have such an innocent beginning? Why doesn’t anyone talk about how utterly bizarre American spiritualism was, or how it never intended to be an enemy of Christianity?
We bury these stories. We forget about them or twist them. Sometimes deliberately, sometimes just by the passing of time and the changing of ideology.
Statement columnist Mackenzie Hubbard can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org