The Science (and Non-Science) of the Ouija

Ouija, the mysterious oracle, has mystified many for decades, apparently contacting the dead. How does it work? Continue reading →

The new supernatural horror film "Ouija" hits theaters soon, and is expected to scare up big numbers at the box office this weekend.

The Oujia board, also known as a witch board or spirit board, is simple and elegant. The board itself is printed with letters and numbers, while a roughly heart-shaped device called a planchette slides over the board. The game was created in the 1890s and sold to Hasbro in 1966. It began as a parlor game with no association with ghosts until much later, and today many people believe it can contact spirits.

"Ouija" is only the most recent in a long line of movies featuring the board. Since the Oujia board's film debut in the 1920 Max Fleischer film "The Ouija Board," it has appeared in hundreds of films including "The Uninvited" (1944);"The Changeling" (1980); "Witchboard" (1986); and "Paranormal Activity" (2007).

Video: What Makes Ouija Boards Move?

Speaking to the Dead People in all cultures have long believed that communication with the dead is possible, and throughout the ages many people have claimed to speak to the dear departed. Ghosts and spirit communication shows up often in classic literature, including in mythology, the Bible, and Shakespeare's plays.

In Victorian England it was fashionable in many circles to conduct séances; Ouija boards, three-legged tables, and candles were used to try to contact the dead. A century ago mediums "in touch with the spirit" during séances would write pages and pages of "automatic writing," the psychic's hands allegedly guided by ghosts to convey lengthy handwritten messages.

Since that time ghosts seem to have lost their will (or ability) to write-or even communicate effectively. These days the spirits (as channeled through mediums) seem to prefer a guessing game and instead offer only ambiguous, vague information: "I'm getting a presence with the letter M, or J in the name? A father, or father figure perhaps? Did he give you something special to remember him by, something small?" The Ouija board seems to cut out the middleman and let you communicate directly with the dead.

Fearing the Ouija There's a reason that scary movies are based on the Ouija game and not, for example, Monopoly or Scrabble. Many evangelical groups believe that playing with Ouija boards can lead to demonic possession. The Bible is pretty clear about its position on the occult (Exodus 22:18 commands that "Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live"), and because witchcraft is seen as an abomination in the eyes of God, anything associated with it, like the Ouija board, is by association evil. Obviously not every person who buys, owns, or uses a Ouija board is thought to practice evil, but many believe it's a clear invitation to demonic temptation and children are especially vulnerable.

As the mythology and folklore of the Ouija board evolved over time, so did its representation in entertainment. Horror films began to reflect the public's belief and concern that Ouija boards could not only contact the dead, but invite possession by evil spirits. In the 1973 classic "The Exorcist," for example, twelve-year-old Regan MacNeil is first contacted through a seemingly innocent encounter with a Ouija board. The entity she thought she was communicating with (and whom her mother chalked up to as an imaginary friend) called himself Captain Howdy but is later revealed as the demon Pazuzu that would soon possess her (and terrify millions).

Real-life 'Paranormal Activity': Are Ghosts Real?

Many supposedly haunted locations forbid the use of Ouija boards on the premises. For example at the St. James Hotel, said to be among New Mexico's most haunted buildings and a very popular destination with ghost hunters features a sign from the hotel management explicitly prohibiting the spirit board.

Others fear the Ouija board not because they believe that there's anything demonic about it, but instead because it seems so mysterious. After all, something moves the planchette around the board, giving answers and spelling out phrases. If it's not the people touching the planchette-and they often swear it's not-then what could possibly be doing it, if not some unknown and possibly supernatural force?

Psychology of the Ouija There's no real mystery to how the Ouija board works: it is a psychological process called the ideomotor effect. What happens is that the people touching the planchette unconsciously move it around the board without knowing they're doing it. Since they don't know that they're moving it (and believe others aren't either) they assume that some unknown force must be at work. So how does the planchette give accurate answers if it's just being moved unconsciously by one or more of the participants?

It doesn't. The problem is that little if any of the information from the board can be verified. For example let's say that a group of college kids plays with a Ouija board one night and asks if there are any spirits around. The planchette slowly moves over to Yes; they then ask the spirit's name and, after some stuttering, it spells out "Tom" (a more likely name to appear like than, say, "Benedict Timothy Carlton Cumberbatch"), and after someone asks how old Tom was at his death the board indicates 54.

Ghost Stories: The Science Behind Sightings

Does that mean that the group truly contacted the dead spirit of a man named Tom who died at age 54? It might-if much more specific, detailed information was revealed and recorded, and then compared with historical records that confirmed the validity of the information. Otherwise it's just a few random bits of information which may or may not have anything to do with anything; the board might have just as easily spelled out "Tim" and slid over to 183 when asked his name and age at death.

The fact that people must be touching the board for it to work offers an obvious clue: if ghosts or spirits (instead of people) are moving the planchette to spell out messages, there would be no reason anyone would need to touch it. Anyone can test the Ouija board to see whether the messages it spells out are real or not: Simply put blindfolds on the participants, or block their view of the board with a cloth or piece of cardboard. The results become gibberish.

Talking to the dead or asking them questions requires no special abilities; the real trick is getting meaningful answers back. Unfortunately the vast majority of "information" from beyond the grave (whether the source is a Ouija board or a psychic) consists of reassuring messages from deceased family members, such as "Grandma is happy now," or "Your mother is watching over you." These banal messages are harmless, but the dead never seem to convey any useful, accurate, or previously unknown information.

If Ouija boards truly contact ghosts, why haven't psychics contacted the spirit of Albert Einstein and made giant advances in physics with his genius? Why haven't police used Ouija boards to contact the ghosts of unsolved homicide victims and identify their killers and locate important evidence? You don't need to consult a Ouija board to divine the answer. Despite what you see in scary movies and hear in fiery sermons there's nothing demonic or supernatural about the spirit board.

Photo: ThinkStock

In an example of early trick photography, a ghost appears to visit a young girl beside her bed (Photo circa 1860-1869, London, England).