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Yes, No, Goodbye

I have long been interested in Spiritualism. I credit this interest to Richard Peck and his Blossom Culp book series. You may have followed the adventures of the Hardy Boys, but was buried under the covers with a flashlight, following every supernatural twist as Blossom combated those who falsely claimed power, with, perhaps, the help of friendly spirits on the other side. I share this with you because I was surprised to learn that one of my childhood fascinations, Spiritualism, is the origin for one of my childhood terrors, the Ouija board.

My fear of the Ouija board is something I learned from my father. I did not grow up in a particularly religious household and not one that gave credence to a belief in ghosts and the like, but I was told never, ever to touch a Ouija board. No board could ever enter the house, and periodically, my dad would make me promise to never play with a board, even instructing me to leave any gathering where one was being used. I never questioned this ban; my father was insistent on this with the same vehemence used to warn us against accepting candy and rides from strangers. Ouija boards were like windowless vans, to be avoided at all costs; a failure to do so would lead to tragedy.

I never questioned my fear of Ouija boards until people began inviting me to seances as Gothic Milwaukee. I always declined politely, but thinking I had no intention of being there when the gates of hell were opened. I decided to do a little research on the Ouija board to better understand my fears.

I had always assumed Ouija boards were an ancient form of conjuring, but the tool was actual born of modern impatience. Before the Ouija board, Spiritualist received otherworldly messages in ways that were rife with problems. Table-turning, popularized by the well-known Fox Sisters, was the act of having a spirit knock on a table or wall to spell out a message. Counting the knocks to get a letter (1 knock for A, 26 for Z) was a tedious process, particularly in a world where cross-county telegraph messages were commonplace. Planchette writing was a bit more exciting, but the messages written by spirits using this method were often illegible. Mediums, wanting to delight and engage their audiences, developed the board. It did the job of table turning, but more quickly, and had the group participation element of planchette writing, but with a more accessible message. It is largely believed the origin of the board used today was developed in Ohio in the 1880s.

This American invention got a wide audience when it was patented in 1891 and marketed as a toy. People by the millions brought the boards into their homes. At that time, the board was not linked to anything sinister. Most spiritualists were also Christians and believed contacting deceased loved ones was a safe, even wholesome, activity. Spiritualism flourished at a time with high mortality rates for all citizens and when few families remained untouched by the losses of war. Far from being dangerous, Ouija boards offered the bereaved an opportunity to connected directly with those they lost, without having to rely on someone who may be feigning the gift to exploit the grieving.

Since it has been introduced, Ouija boards have never fallen out of favor with the American public. It appears that the boards experience surges in sales during turbulent times in social history, enjoying increased popularity during wartimes and eras of economic despair. Ouija boards were considered a reasonable group activity, albeit perhaps a kooky one, until 1973.

The Exorcist, released in 1973, changed the image of the Ouija board forever. In the movie the 12 year old protagonist, Regan, becomes possessed by the devil after playing with a Ouija board. From that moment on, our ideas of Ouija boards were forever changed.

Learning this, it seemed like a puzzle finally fell into place. I know my parents saw The Exorcist, in fact, my mother still cites it as the most terrifying film she has ever seen. Just babies when it was released, my mom has confessed that on more than one occasion she stood fearfully outside the door of our bedrooms, listening to us make noises in our cribs that were reminiscent of the sounds associated with demonic possession. Before doing my research I had no idea the movie even had a Ouija board in it, much less caused an entire cultural shift in the way the boards were viewed. Knowing the impact this film had on my parents and understanding the cultural wave that surrounded it, I fully understand, and am able to dismiss the fear of the board.

I think Blossom Culp would be glad to know I no longer fear the Ouija board. She knew you had to be brave to explore the spiritual world and unnecessary fears will always trip you up. Now that I have exorcised (see what I did there?) this fear, will I be going to a séance anytime soon?

No. I am of the mind that if spirits want to talk to you, they will come to you. Otherwise, it is just bad manners, but that is a thought for another time.

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