Ouija: Origin of Evil hits theaters this coming Friday, October 21st. It is a prequel to 2014’s Ouija, exploring the origins of the antagonist that haunted a small group of teens who were attempting to contact their deceased friend. With the release of the prequel and the coming of Halloween in just a few weeks, the mystery and haunting allure of the Ouija board will undoubtedly be the subject of many a spooky sleepover or party, complete with plenty of freak-outs and goosebumps. Yet the history of the board itself is more mundane than mysterious. Far from an ancient device with magical properties, it is the result of modern invention.
Spiritualism was a mainstay of 19th century American culture. In short, it was the belief that individuals could converse with the dearly departed through various means, mostly through mediums that employed such techniques as automatic writing and wall rapping. This belief wasn’t just adopted by fringe society members, but such notables as First Lady Mary Todd Lincoln. In those days, spiritualism and religion went hand in hand; at the very least, it was not looked down upon by any noted members of clergy from any faith.
For all its mysticism and adherents, however, the problem with mediums and their methods of communicating with the dead was that it was very slow with results. For instance, with wall rapping, the medium would sit and say letters of the alphabet. The “ghost” would rap on the wall when the appropriate letter was reached, and so folks would have to sit and wait while sentences were tapped out. A quicker method was needed.
It isn’t really known who devised the idea of the “talking board.” Newspaper articles of the time don’t give any hint; instead, they merely report of the existence of the board in the spiritualist camps of Ohio. Businessman Charles Kennard acted on this news, gathering a small group of investors to create the Kennard Novelty Company with the sole purpose of manufacturing and selling the boards. Legend has it they consulted the board itself for what to name it; historians generally agree, however, that it was likely a derivative of the name Ouida, a women’s rights activist and author that the sister-in-law of one of the investors deeply admired.
With the board created and properly named, all that remained was to file a patent, and then the money would roll in. If you believe the mythology surrounding the board, the creators had to demonstrate its abilities before being granted the patent. With everything on the line, they sat down with the patent officer and proceeded to use the board to answer the question he posed: how to accurately spell his name, something only he supposedly knew. Let’s forget the fact that Peters, one of the investors, was a patent attorney himself and likely already knew the answer to this question.
So began an era of mass production of the board, now known as the Ouija board. Though the original investors would later squabble about the rights to the device, it grew in such popularity that, when Parker Brothers bought out the company in 1967, it outsold Monopoly. From its original inception in 1891, all the way to 1973 – just over 80 years – the Ouija board was seen as an innocuous toy or, at most, a device that spiritualists used to grant people a bit of peace by allowing them to converse with their loved ones. The news rarely carried a case of anything untoward happening due to the use of the board… at least until the release of The Exorcist.
The Ouija board is a central plot devise in the movie, as the main character, Regan, uses it to communicate with her “friends.” Thus begins the narrative that has blemished the board ever since that, especially if used alone, the device can open a gateway to Hell, allowing spirits into this world that can possess the user. It’s happened in countless movies since, including the aforementioned Ouija and its soon-to-be-released prequel, Ouija: Origin of Evil.
So disturbing was The Exorcist that public opinion was soon swayed to view the board as something devilish. No longer would a Norman Rockwell-esque artist consider including it in a painting. Families rid themselves of the instrument, and soon most religious faiths had their say, buying into the hype and decrying the board as an instrument of evil. Horror writers and directors did little to detract from this sentiment, using it as a demonic plot device ever since. In fact, perhaps because of its overuse, the Ouija board is now becoming more accepted again and can be found everywhere from toy stores to phone apps.
Religious authorities still cling to their post-Exorcist view. Regardless of which way you lean, whether more toward the spiritualist or scientific, be sure you adhere to the cardinal rule: never use the Ouija board alone!