October 18, 2013
Ouija Believe It? How Do Ouija Boards Work?
Like a lot of people, I am open to the idea of some kind of otherworldliness. I am basically in favor of science and reason and a burden of proof approach to belief, but I don’t coldly and cynically rule out the possibility of anything that can’t be demonstrated in a science lab.
I’m not really talking about religion; I am not religious. Here I am talking about spooky stuff – it is Halloween time, after all. Ouija boards are something that have always interested me. It’s exciting to feel scared, and it’s a fascinating concept: communicating with the spirit world. Ouija boards, communication devices in which a glass moves around letters on a board to spell out what the spirit is ‘saying’, supposedly offer such an opportunity.
My personal experience with Ouija boards is limited. A friend told me that she did one when she was fourteen, with a few friends. The board told her that she would die on her 16th birthday. Pretty unpleasant to hear. For the next year or more, she lived in constant fear, and as the day of her sixteenth birthday approached she became even more anxious. At the stroke of the midnight hour as she turned sixteen, all the lights went out for a few seconds. She shrieked in terror, before they came back on and she continued with her life, more respectful (and fearful) of the spirit world than she had been before.
The only time I tried a Ouija board, I thought I had an incredible experience. After answering a few questions, we asked our ‘spirit’ where it had lived when it was alive. The four of us were in Leeds in the UK at the time, and the answer came: L-E- (we all thought we knew what was coming) O-D-I-S. The three of us actually from Leeds gasped in terror. The one who was not, didn’t. She didn’t know that the ancient, Roman name for Leeds was Leodis. It seemed a sure sign of an ancient spirit. What it was actually a sign of was that my friend to the right, an enthusiastic amateur dramatist in high school, had fabricated the whole thing. It was fun while it lasted, though.
Is that the explanation for all Ouija boards? That when the glass moves from letter to letter it is either because someone at the table is goofing around, or a sort of collective, non-deliberate moving of the glass by the perfectly alive humans playing the game; not spirits? The involuntary control of the board by the players seems to be the best explanation. The scientific term is the ‘ideomotor phenomenon,’ where a particular set of circumstances causes the body to physically behave in a certain way, even if a person did not consciously choose the behavior, or is sometimes even convinced that they are not in control of their own body. Crying is a simple of example of the phenomenon. We usually don’t choose to cry, we are just moved to by circumstances.
The Ouija board concept is nothing new. Similar devices were used in ancient China, as well as in ancient Greece and Rome and in medieval Europe. All faced opposition as being the work of evil. The modern version began as a toy introduced in the late 19th century, but were used in a more serious manner during WWI, when people particularly wanted to communicate with the dead.
It is that desire, manifested in the ideomotor phenomenon, that is probably the driving force behind working Ouija boards. For some, it is a desire to believe, to speak to dead relatives, or to hear what their future holds. For others, like me, it is a desire for new and thrilling experiences. But to hell with it, it’s Halloween, so let’s say it’s the ghosties.
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