the talking dead

A brief look at spirit boards, the spooky Victorian board game

31st October 2018

Most normal people tend to keep their unusual beliefs to themselves, but there is no quicker way of discovering what someone really believes about the afterlife than asking if they want to try a Ouija board.

For the believer in life after death, it can be a terrifying prospect of dealing with something better left alone. While in the eyes of the sceptic, it can be a gleeful and impish suggestion, promising the opportunity to torment their friends. You can get the same response minus the metaphysical quandary by proposing a game of Monopoly.

Which is fitting, considering former Monopoly manufacturers Parker Brothers — of Salem, Massachusetts no less — once held the trademark for “Ouija”. In fact, Ouija is actually a brand. The game itself is a type of spirit or talking board. Ouija just happens to be the most popular and synonymous version. It’s like when people say “Hoover” for vacuum cleaner or, as Alan Partridge points out, “Tannoy” instead of public address system.

But Ouija isn’t owned by Parker Brothers nowi. It’s owned by Hasbro, the company in charge of Transformers and Barbie. It seems odd that a company which mostly sells delightful children’s toys — and now Monopoly, which is not delightful and only played by the most boring adults — would also sell a product that can commune with the dead.

The Overtake reached out to Hasbro repeatedly, but received only this ominous message: “Hi Rik. Thanks for thinking of Hasbro, but we will pass on this opportunity as we do not carry the game in the UK.”

Do not carry the game in the UK? How can that be? Are the ghosts of Britain uninterested in being mithered by the living? It’s not the case that we Brits are entirely secular. There is a demand for spirit boards. Hasbro must be hiding something, but what? Perhaps history can provide the answers.

The Ouija boards I sell are pretty much just images I’ve found on t’internet

While we have been talking to the dead in some form or another for centuries, the do-it-yourself method only really became popular in the 19th century. The Fox sisters, Leah, Margaret and Kate, went on the road with their show, claiming to speak with the vitality disadvantaged. They inspired medium and magician alike and helped to galvanise the fledgeling Spiritualist religion.

The history of talking boards is tied up with spiritualism, and its hard to see clearly whether they were fun and games considered important by spiritualists, or something important considered a bit of fun by bored Victorians. Then, as today, believers saw the boards as a useful tool in chatting with spirits, while the doubtful enjoyed it as a simple parlour game. It’s not dissimilar to eating a wafer and drinking wine. For some, it’s a meagre and unusual snack. For others, it’s the blood and flesh of a friendly, Middle Eastern carpenter who lived 2,000 years ago. Who is to say who is right?

ouija

What we can say with certainty, is that with the spiritualist boom, talking boards starting selling like hot cakes. Savvy businessman William Fuld eventually ended up with the patent on a talking board, turning it into Ouija and making a killing.

He was known to be highly protective of his patent and enjoyed suing his competitors, but what’s uncertain is whether he would believe that his cash cow was a miraculous device that touched the afterlife. We made attempts to contact Fuld but received no answer. Admittedly, he had died in 1927 and, thanks to Hasbro, there aren’t any official Oujia Boards available to buy in the UK. Fuld’s Ouija Novelties passed to his brother, then to the Parker Brothers and finally to Hasbro.

If history couldn’t answer the question of the legitimacy of talking boards, perhaps Fuld’s modern-day competitors could reveal some of the secrets of them? There must be something special about talking boards that makes the dead want to start mouthing off — otherwise we could use anything featuring letters and numbers to speak to them.

The Overtake contacted a number of contact board crafters to see if there are any supernatural machinations behind the manufacturing.

“The Ouija boards I sell are pretty much just images I’ve found on t’internet, which I make look kinda old then pop in a frame. Not much of a backstory or behind the scenes scoop!” writes Clive Jones, purveyor of the unusual and macabre, and owner of The Emporium Obscura.

“The only magical items I use are copious amounts of coffee and weed,” he adds.

We had a number of different conversations with manufacturers, but that is as exciting as they get. Most manufacturers simply described the process of putting the letters on some wood while taking no supernatural precautions whatsoever. That could be considered irresponsible — but none reported any ethereal attempts at litigations, so they’re probably alright.

Some did say that their boards definitely worked — as in, the planchette, the device you hold during a game of Ouija, does move as if controlled by a spirit.

But could it really be that there is a rational explanation for it? So far, the investigation into spirit boards had only demonstrated that a) something does happen when you play with them and b) people who already believe in communication with the dead believe it’s communication with the dead.

When a group of people have their fingers on the planchette, they tend to make tiny, unconscious movements

If it’s not ghosts, what the hell is happening? Richard Wiseman, professor of psychology, magician and author of Paranormality: Why We See What Isn’t There, explains: “The movement is the result of what psychologists call ‘ideomotor action’ — that is, when a group of people have their fingers on the planchette, they tend to make tiny, unconscious movementsa, and so push it towards certain letters. Of course, some people can get bored and also consciously give it a little push!”

He adds: “While fun and interesting from a psychological standpoint, spirit boards are not proof of communication with the dead.”

Ideomotor action? You might be thinking that sounds like spurious half-science in the vein of phrenology, homoeopathy or trickle-down economics. But the prof offers up an experiment to demonstrate these micro, mind-influenced muscle motions.

If you get a weight on the end of a string — or something equivalent that a real person might actually have, like a necklace — hold it out in front of you, suspended in the air — you can make it swing in any direction you like, just by thinking about it swinging in that direction.

Of course, he’s a scientist, so he would say that. What if it’s a ghost pushing the string?

So, if on this spookiest of nights you’re looking for some fun, a spirit board might be the way. It’s probably safer, and certainly more fun, than the accursed Monopoly. Seriously, what kind of person would enjoy something like that?

31st October 2018