Updated: Apr 25
The talking board or “Ouija” named after the word it spelt out at an 1890’s séance, has been around for thousands of years with its origins dating back to ancient China, but automatic writing techniques were also used by the ancient Greeks.
The board that we are familiar with today gained popularity in the Victorian era when spiritual communication and occult practices were fashionable and enjoyed (in some form) by all levels of society.
But why did the Victorians have such an interest in the paranormal?
As scientific knowledge and understanding grew, natural explanations and discoveries pushed away religious beliefs and threatened the Christian view of miracles, life after death and the eternal soul. Contrary to popular belief, the early mediums, ghost hunters and occultists were actually religious folk, searching for evidence to support the afterlife and the existence of heaven & hell. The Victorian fascination with spiritualism, ghost stories and contacting the dead, gave people hope and supported their belief system in an afterlife.
Believing that females were more in tune with the spirit world than males, mediumship was predominantly a female role, and many flocked to them to receive messages from loved ones or advice from the world beyond.
Epidemics such as TB and Cholera devastated families and the loss of loved ones through war, especially the American Civil War, denied families a proper goodbye, so people were desperate to reconnect and gain closure, something that the Victorian séance gladly offered them.
Cashing in on emotion and desperation
As the appeal and fascination with séances grew, just like today, opportunists and charlatans were quick to get involved and exploit the situation. Despite some freely believing in the words and instructions of a medium, many sought proof to substantiate the experience, especially if money was exchanged!
To help convince the curious and cynical, many mediums introduced tricks and techniques to add an element of show and incorporated ways to include the attendees in the supernatural encounter. The types of tricks varied, but skilfully played on heightened fear and were so convincing that some continue to be used today:
Spirit rapping – No, not the smack my bitch up style, the Victorians were a prudish bunch in public, so didn’t rhyme about sex, money or shootings! This was the art of creating spirit knocks in response to questions or projecting bangs and noises (perceived as supernatural), around the building. It was actually one of the easiest cons to pull and mediums such as the American Fox Sisters, made their fortune from this technique.
Surprisingly, knocks and bangs convince some ghost hunters today and many still try to use this old system for spirit communication. When we already know that spirit activity includes moving objects, disembodied voices or screams, physical contact, electrical interference, writing on walls and full body spirit manifestation…It seems odd that people still ask them to bang like a performing horse in order to make contact? If a ghost really wanted to make contact, would they choose a knock or bang in another location of the building over a disembodied voice, shove, or appearance in the same room?
Table tipping – An old but effective trick which caused immediate shock during a séance, but rarely had any supernatural influence behind it. Some used long concealed knives or bits of metal in their sleeves to slip into table draws and lift or shake, others would rig tables with advanced mechanics or tools and release at the appropriate time.
It also helped that Victorian séances took place in the dark, as many tricks could be hidden or easily accomplished.
Nowadays, if you attend a séance or reading and they ask to turn the lights off, alarm bells start ringing!
Describing an item in a locked box – Participants would be asked to bring an object or personal item to the séance which would be placed in a locked box. The medium would then use their spiritual insight to describe the items in detail without ever looking inside. This was an effective con and even fooled paranormal enthusiast Sir Arthur Conan Doyle!
How did they do this? An assistant (often disguised as a participant) would collect the items and switch the box with a replica. The real box would then be passed to another assistant outside the room, who would describe the contents to the medium via an earpiece.
Wireless radio and earpieces were modern tech back then, so many fell for this trick and couldn't even imagine the possibility to raise suspicion.
Earpiece technology still fools audiences today and some so called mediums have been known to use it during performances. Having a background in the events industry, I have spoken with event organisers and technicians at various venues around the country. They have told me stories about hidden wires, speakers, backroom assistants, and earpieces, so it is still happening right under our noses!
Ectoplasm – At the height of its popularity, many mediums would produce strange ectoplasm from their bodies, a supernatural substance to prove that they were channelling a spirit inside them. Famous mediums such as Marthe Béraud, were able to deceive witnesses using this so-called ectoplasm. Often told not to touch it for fear of illness or death, the ectoplasm was often a piece of muslin, rag or a chemical concoction, released by the medium under the cover of darkness.
Channelling messages in a trance – Real mediums can hear/see or tune in on the residual energy and emotion of a spirit, and they use this to form a link of communication. The strength of that link and the information gained, depends on the cooperation of the spirit and the ability of the medium, so it is rare to get a ‘clear line’ to the spirit world and have all of your questions answered at once. This is why many mediums provide snippets of information and can’t always answer your direct questions, it’s an ability that’s never completely in their control.
The channelling that we’re referring to for this article is the ‘showman’ trance, when mediums appear to take on the personality of the spirit or become possessed and add theatrics to the process.
The Victorians knew the power of a good performance and mediums used this to scare, convince or absorb their audience in the proceedings. Some mediums would use disguised assistants to work the room before the séance, talking to attendees and gaining what personal information they could to pass on before the performance. Others would start the séance with general statements that could apply to anyone, then use people’s body language to dig deeper or rely on an over enthusiastic/open participant to fill in the blanks for them.
Which brings us to the Ouija board…
As a tool to convince in the paranormal, the Ouija board does an exceptional job.
How many of us have heard scary stories or strange occurrences linked to using a board?
Quite often, those telling the stories haven’t even used one themselves and it tends to be a friend of a friend or story passed down, yet the fear is so strong and the stories so well established, that it now has a reputation that stops people from ever trying it!
Now, I’ve only ever taken part in a Ouija board session once.
That’s not because it scared me or led to anything nasty but (as others have also mentioned) it’s just not reliable. The session was led by a ‘spiritually sensitive’ member of a ghost hunting group. The YES/NO questions obviously gave answers (although not always landing directly on YES/NO) and it confirmed 3 as the number of spirits present. But the problems started when we asked more detailed questions…
The name of the spirit took multiple attempts, as the answers were a jumble of letters – The sensitive reassured us that this can happen and was probably down to more than one spirit trying to answer, which was fair enough, so we progressed.
Finally, we got a recognisable name through – Tom Jones. Not to miss an opportunity, I asked if that was unusual…people were in the zone, the joke fell flat.
We continued by asking how they died but were unable to get an eligible answer, we asked for the year that they died, it answered with ‘2376’. At this point, the sensitive suggested that the spirits were toying with us and decided to end the session. To be honest, they were already toying with me on Tom Jones, but we ended it there.
One of the participants later said that something followed them back to their house, but nothing credible was gained from the session.
How Ouija Boards work
The concept is a straightforward one. The board contains letters, numbers, yes, no & goodbye (no greeting, but the spirit world isn’t known for its pleasantries).
The participants lightly place their hands on a triangular pointer called a planchette, and once the spirits are invited in, the planchette moves around the board to answer the participant’s questions.
The belief is that the spirits channel through the participants and take control of the planchette to spell out the answers to any questions. It naturally has its limitations – the literacy skill of the spirit may cause some problems, as not everyone could read and write before 1900. We must also remember that pre-Tudor English becomes unreadable and hard for the average person to translate.
But there is also a simple scientific explanation for how the Ouija board works and unfortunately, it’s not supernatural.
The ideomotor effect is the term used to describe how our body communicates with itself on a day-to-day basis and plays a big role in moving the planchette around the board.
Examples of the ideomotor effect include involuntary movements such as twitches or leg jerks, which are basically when our brain instructs a body part to move without us being consciously aware of the command. These responses are usually more noticeable as we drift in and out of sleep but happen on a small scale throughout the day.
During a Ouija board session, the participants are sitting upright and alert but their body is in an unnatural position (particularly the arms and hands) for a long period of time.
As the group ask the board questions, your brain may unconsciously respond through your body movements, causing the muscles in your hands and arms to move the pointer to the answers that you (unconsciously) want to see.
This isn’t to say that spirits in the room won’t participate, those aware of Ouija boards from their time on Earth may be instantly drawn to it as a communication method, but it does explain some of the nonsense responses.
Our advice on boards – if you want to communicate with a spirit properly...
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