by Roger Clarke
One thing I never really covered in my book Ghosts: A Natural History was my early experiences with ouija boards. Really, it reads like the script of an as-yet unwritten horror movie: teenagers in an unsupervised summer house-party, in Spain, deciding it was a good idea to dabble in the occult (or play a dumb Hasbro board game, depending on your disposition) – subsequently encountering frightening, dark and inexplicable events in the isolated home of the former dictator of Cuba, Fulgencio Batista. But before I get to that let me tell you a little of the surprisingly optimistic and smoothly capitalistic history of the Ouija Board.
On the back of the spiritualist craze the first ‘Wonderful Talking Board’ was created by a Maryland business called The Kennard Novelty Company in 1890. Its founder, Charles Kennard, had read about the brand-new phenomenon in Ohio Spiritualist churches where members had developed what reads to us now like a prototype of the Ouija – some kind of arrangement of letters on a flat surface, and a device, or planchette, with which the spirits contrived to deliver messages. The actual name ‘Ouija’ was, the story goes, suggested by the Ouija board itself during one of the early experiments with it hosted by medium Helen Peters. It’s thought it might refer to a then famous author and early proponent of women’s rights, Ouida, and that the people recording the session simply misreported not a spiritual message but a feminist one.
By the end of 1891 the Ouija Board proved so popular that a second factory was opened in Baltimore, but a boardroom coup got rid of Charles Kennard from the helm (he set up a rival company making the ‘Volo’ Board). The man who continued to head the manufacture of the Ouija Board, William Fuld, is most commonly associated with the success of the business and the ubiquity of the product. However he never claimed to be the inventor. By 1892, the Kennard Novelty Company went from one factory two in New York, two in Chicago and one in London.
‘During the Great Depression,’ writes Linda Rodriguez McRobbie on the Smithsonian website, ‘the Fuld Company opened new factories to meet demand for the boards; over five months in 1944, a single New York department store sold 50,000 of them. In 1967, the year after Parker Brothers bought the game from the Fuld Company, 2 million boards were sold, outselling Monopoly’. Its current owners, Hasbro, acquired Parker brothers and the Ouija Board in 1991.
I remember an Ouija session on British TV, a series called Randal and Hopkirk Deceased, called ‘Who Killed Cock Robin’ and first broadcast near Christmas in 1969 (a traditional time for ghost stories in the UK). The thing that changed it from a relatively benign parlor game into the somewhat hair-raising reputation it has these days was entirely owing to the success of The Exorcist book and film, with the implication that 12 year-old Regan become possessed after dabbling with the board. There’s really been no greater modifier of paranormal belief since the demise of the Roman Catholic Church in Protestant Europe – and it’s all down to The Exorcist (which incidentally also vividly renewed a largely faded American belief in possession).
So it was a summer evening in 1982, an evening that became a warm and violet-shadowed summer night. There were about 15 or so people in this house-party going on over a long weekend. We were in the library of Batista’s summer house ‘Anero’ near Santander in Northern Spain. What happened next chilled our blood. I’m not going to go into too much detail but let’s just say whatever it was moving that planchette told us we’d all be dead by the early hours of the morning. When we asked it to make a noise the first thing that happened was a book fell off the shelf. The second thing that happened was that the lights for the entire house fused and we heard the fuse switch off quite loudly.
I can’t really offer a rational explanation to any of this, and it was a house full of teenagers after all, but at the time it all seemed very real indeed. I did try it one more time when I went to Magdalen College Oxford in 1983. One of the people there, who later received a doctorate in Egyptology, recognised some garbled messages as ‘transliterated hieroglyphs’ from standard Egyptian tomb inscriptions. I was on this occasion making some effort to guard against fraud, and we took turns to take our hands off the glass. It spelt out something like ‘from out of the mouths of our ancestors’. On this occasion, no death was promised. I decided never to try the Ouija board again, and I never have.
ROGER CLARKE is best known as a film-writer for the Independent newspaper and more recently Sight & Sound. Inspired by a childhood spent in two haunted houses, Roger Clarke has spent much of his life trying to see a ghost. He was the youngest person ever to join the Society for Psychical Research in the 1980s and was getting his ghost stories published by The Pan & Fontana series of horror books at just 15, when Roald Dahl asked his agent to take him on as a client. His latest book is Ghosts A Natural History: 500 Years of Searching for Proof
1. Folklorists might argue this was more pseudo-ostension but the story seems a medley of pre-existing stories, adaptations of pre-existing stories, and new stories specific to the Lutz family pathology.↩