A friend of mine recently told me about how he was helping with a church fundraiser where they were selling second-hand toys. Somebody dropped off a Ouija board, and one of the church ladies freaked out – claiming it was a tool of Satan.
To calm her down, they dumped it in a trash can and that was the end of it.
Here’s my question. Why do people still worry about Ouija boards?
I’m not going to get into the feasibility of an afterlife, ghosts, or contact with the departed. That could be – and has been – the subject of many books. (I recommend “Spook” by Mary Roach. Come to think of it, I recommend anything by Mary Roach.)
I’ve got friends who believe very firmly in the validity of spirit communication and séances. I’ve got other friends who believe just as firmly in the principles of rational skepticism. Call me a vacillating chickenshit, but I’d like to remain friends with both camps.
So let’s just sum up all of the aforementioned topics in two words – it’s debatable.
But the Ouija Board, which Elijah Bond introduced in 1890, was a product of a particular movement calling itself spiritualism that originated in late 19th Century America, peaked in the early 20th Century, and unfathomably still persists in some forms to this day.
I say “unfathomably” because there’s literally no credible historic or scientific debate over the fact that this particular movement was total bullshit.
Though people have claimed to be able to communicate with spirits throughout history, the movement I’m talking about started with the Fox sisters of New York in the late 1840s. This was the movement that incorporated techniques such as table rapping, medium cabinets, and … yes … Ouija Boards.
Harry Houdini, of course, made a second career out of exposing these spiritualists. But in retrospect, he hardly needed to. Virtually every practicing spiritualist eventually confessed to running a scam, including the Fox sisters. Many of them subsequently published books meticulously detailing the techniques they used to produce those bogus spiritual manifestations.
And significantly, those techniques are easily reproducible. A particular type of magicians’ act is even based on recreating old-timey séances using the spiritualists’ techniques. (I’ve attended a couple. If you ever get a chance, go to one. They’re a lot of fun.)
Hey, don’t take my word for it. The picture accompanying this post shows one of the séances that used to take place at a spiritualist retreat in Ephrata, Pa., featuring the spirit of an Indian woman named “Silver Belle.”
Let’s leave aside the fact that in terms of authentic Indian names, “Silver Belle” ranks about equal with “Moe Hican” from the old Warner Brothers cartoon. Look at that picture of her. I mean, just look at it! Gee. THAT doesn’t look fake, does it?
To be fair to the followers of spiritualism at the time, journalist Deborah Blum goes into some reasons in her very good book “Ghost Hunters: William James and the Search for Scientific Proof of Life After Death” as to why the movement may have caught on to the extent it did.
First of all, it was a time when the telegraph and then the radio were both relatively new.
These days, we tend to forget what a big deal the radio in particular was for a previous generation. The idea of hearing a conversation taking place across an entire ocean seemed nothing short of miraculous.
If that was possible, the concept of communicating with the recently deceased didn’t seem that big a stretch for the average person.
Factor in the emotional need, as well.
Spiritualism reached its first big peak of widespread popularity as people throughout the country mourned loved ones lost in the Civil War. The next big peak came after two even more deadly events – the worldwide flu epidemic of 1918 and World War I.
People then, as now, tended to believe what they wanted to believe.
For the record, I can’t present myself as a paragon of calm and objective rationality here, because … well … I actually believe in an afterlife. Why? Because I just do. How’s that for rational?
Just settle down if you happen to be working a church white elephant sale and a Ouija Board shows up. It’s not a tool of Satan. It’s just a relic of a long-discredited pseudo-religion that Hasbro managed to repackage as a toy, and it’s harmless.
That used “Candyland” board game on the other hand? EVIL!