Tuesday, October 11, 2016

The Spirits Come Forward: The Ouija Board in Films and Television

It is farfetched to expect a flat square of pressed cardboard to be a magical threshold into the afterlife.  Look at it.  It has no transmitter, no speaker, no motor, no knobs, no liquid crystal display.  Yet, this is supposed to allow a person to summon a departed loved one from the spirit world for an elucidating conversation.  All that a person has to do, say believers, is to place their fingertips on the planchette and allow their hands to be guided by spiritual vibrations to spell out messages.  Of course, while believers see it as a display of spiritual vibrations, nonbelievers see it simply as a display of involuntary muscle movements.

In ancient Rome, an augur looked for signs from divine forces when he spread corn around a chicken coop and watched for the chickens' response.
The Ouija board advanced a longstanding pursuit by the living to communicate with the dead.  Spiritualists introduced other forms of communication prior to the Ouija board.  Gypsy Beth, the host of the Dragon Oak website, wrote, "Divination and spirit communication involving various forms of automatic writing have been used for millennia in many cultures and have their origins in ancient shamanic and magical practices."

Wikipedia went into further detail on the subject.  The site reported:
Early references to the automatic writing method used in the Ouija board is found in China around 1100 AD, in historical documents of the Song Dynasty.  The method was known as fuji (扶乩), "planchette writing."  The use of planchette writing as an ostensible means of contacting the dead and the spirit-world continued, and, albeit under special rituals and supervisions, was a central practice of the Quanzhen School, until it was forbidden by the Qing Dynasty.  Several entire scriptures of the Daozang are supposedly works of automatic planchette writing.  Similar methods of mediumistic spirit writing have been practiced in ancient India, Greece, Rome, and medieval Europe.
People who attended the séances of Nahum Koons swore that, during the automatic writing sessions, they saw a glowing disembodied hand touch their own hand.

The Hare device was developed to communicate with spirits.
Here is an interesting video on the subject.

Then, we had spiritualists claim that spirits could communicate by rapping on tables at a séance.  At first, the raps would signal "yes" or "no" in a simple binary code.  But, in time, those who attended séances demanded more elaborate communication with the spirits.  This prompted spiritualists to find more creative methods.  The spiritualists, who were not lacking in creativity, came up with a number of ideas.  Brandon Hodge, an authority on spirit communication devices, said, "A medium would call the alphabet out to the air, and when the proper letter was arrived upon, a knock would ring out, she would confirm it and then write it down.  In this way, sentences, words, or phrases could be formed and communication established.  But that gets awfully tedious.  A lot of mediums would lay down a board or a card with an alphabet written on it.  Instead of calling out the letters, they would have a pencil and would sweep it over the letters until the raps told them to stop."  A great deal of rapping went on in the séances conducted by the Fox sisters.  One of the sisters later confessed that they created the rapping sounds by cracking their toes, knuckles and knee joints.
The best of the spiritualists were highly entertaining fellows.  Try to imagine one of their sessions.  The spiritualist runs through the alphabet until he calls out a letter that prompts a rapping from an alleged spirit.  That was exciting stuff at the time.  It was a supernatural version of Wheel of Fortune.  I'd like to buy a vowel, Dead Pat Sajak.  Say "Bloody Vanna" three times and the appropriate letters would quickly be revealed.

The Ouija board was the creation of American lawyer and inventor Elijah Bond.  Bond and his chief investor, Colonel Washington Bowie, were called upon by the chief patent officer to present a demonstration of their invention.  Linda Rodriguez McRobbie, a contributor to the Smithsonian website, wrote:
[I]f the board could accurately spell out his name, which was supposed to be unknown to Bond and Peters, he'd allow the patent application to proceed.  They all sat down, communed with the spirits, and the planchette faithfully spelled out the patent officer's name. . . [O]n February 10, 1891, a white-faced and visibly shaken patent officer awarded Bond a patent. . . The first patent offers no explanation as to how the device works, just asserts that it does.
It was, without a doubt, an improvement over séance participants figuring out what a spirit had on its mind by deciphering various rapping noises. 

Ouija board patent (1891)

The Ouija board made a séance something a family could conduct in their parlor.  Reportedly, sales of the Ouija board surged during uncertain or dangerous times, particularly during periods of war.  McRobbie wrote, "[D]uring the Civil War, spiritualism gained adherents in droves, people desperate to connect with loved ones who'd gone away to war and never come home."

The Ouija board was used by an extraordinary number of people as death reached peak numbers during World War I.  The interest in the Ouija board was reflected in American entertainment.  You might have guessed already that we are not on a movie blog to talk about the Qing Dynasty or the Babylonians.  Our objective today is to examine the impact that the Ouija board had on filmmakers. 

In an article that appeared on the Los Angeles Daily Mirror website, Mary Mallory examined the effect that Ouija boards had on the residents of Hollywood in 1919.  She wrote:
[The] Los Angeles Times described an increase in the occult, seances, and playing of the game because "so many splendid men and women have recently crossed the vale which the faithful believe leads from life to life."  Playing the game allowed participants to communicate one last time with dear departed loved ones, allowing some solace.
Christians believed that a vast number of spirits inhabit the afterlife.  What was wrong in inviting one of these spirits to a party on a Saturday night?  But the fad brought on attacks from religious leaders, who saw the Ouija board as an evil instrument that could turn users into devil worshipers.  Dr. Herbert Booth Smith of Immanuel Presbyterian expressed his concern that the homes of university students contained more Ouija boards than Bibles.  Did the Ouija board deliver evil forces into our world?  William Fuld, the president of the Ouija company, died under eerie circumstances in 1927.  McRobbie wrote that Fuld's death occurred "after a freak fall from the roof of his new factory — a factory he said the Ouija board told him to build."

We know nothing about the 1918 Vitagraph film A Little Ouija Work, but it may have been the first film to feature a Ouija board.  The earliest film that we know for sure showed a Ouija board was a Douglas Fairbanks comedy, When the Clouds Roll By (1919).  David Bordwell wrote, "[O]ur hero is neurotically superstitious.  He will climb over a building to avoid letting a black cat cross his path."  As a firm believer in supernatural forces, Fairbanks is more than willing to consult a Ouija board for advice.

Douglas Fairbanks and Kathleen Clifford in When the Clouds Roll By (1919)
The Ouija board turned up in more films in 1920.  The Hallroom Boys satirized the fad in Tell Us, Ouija.  The Film Daily said of this send-up, "Many of the incidents are funny, the Ouija Board stuff being certain to register. . . In view of the popularity of spirit theories just at present, this should get over in good style."  The Film Daily said of A Fool and His Money, "[T]here's some Quija board stuff dragged in for a laugh that has nothing to do with the story."  Johnny Hines revealed a Ouija board in his den in Torchy In High.  Max Fleischer's 1920 animated cartoon Ouija Board, which can easily been found on YouTube, shows the havoc created when an animator and a janitor take a break from work to play with a Ouija board. 

Mallory wrote:
Early in January 1920, composers William Jerome and Harry Von Tilzer took advantage of the national craze for the game to create the first song about it, "Wee Gee, Wee Gee, Tell Me Do," which soon became a major hit, which their publishing company, owned by Von Tilzer, called "The craze of the country, the Great Ouija Board Song."  The patter of the second verse stated, "This little board is the ruler of the nation now," which appeared to be the case in many places."

The craze took off in other forms of entertainment as well, with the one-act play "Ask Ouija" and Crane Wilbur's successful play "The Ouija Board" employing it as both title and theme.
Motion Picture Classic said of "The Ouija Board," "Crane Wilbur's thriller [is] built around spiritism.  Real spooks invade a fake seance, solve a murder mystery and provide plenty of surprises.  Guaranteed to keep you on edge."
Ruth Hammond and Crane Wilbur  in "The Ouija Board."
This was a change.  Before Wilbur's thriller, it clear that filmmakers and songwriters only saw humor and frivolity in the Ouija board.
Gladys Leslie and Matt Moore in Straight is the Way (1921)
Three films addressed the Ouija craze in 1921.  Bobby Vernon attempted to make contact with forces beyond the grave in Ouija Did It!, a lighthearted Christie comedy that likely featured plenty of false frights and not a single trace of a real spook.  Straight is the Way, which was based on the story "The Manifestations of Henry Orth," involves a young women who uses a Ouija board to contact her departed uncle, who secreted away his fortune without confiding its whereabouts to anyone.  In The Devil's Confession, Harold Foshay (Neil Drake) manages while playing with a Ouija board to inadvertently confess to a murder.  But it was soon after the release of these films that interest in the Ouija board faded.

For the next thirty years, it was wealthy old women that retained the greatest fascination with the Ouija board.  This was clearly depicted by filmmakers in The Bat Whispers (1930) and Charlie Chan's Secret (1936).

Grayce Hampton and Maude Eburne consult a Ouija board in The Bat Whispers.

Mrs. Lowell (Henrietta Crosman) has one of her nightly sessions with a Ouija board in Charlie Chan's Secret.

The spookiness of the Ouija board reached new heights with The Uninvited (1944).

But, then, the television sitcom came along and, for a time, the Ouija board became silly again.  Lucille Ball gets her hands on a Ouija board on I Love Lucy ("The Séance," 1951). 


Gale Storm learns from a Ouija board that she will meet three bearded men on Oh! Susanna ("The Ouija Board," 1958).

Jay North uses a Ouija board to help him win a raffle on Dennis the Menace ("The Raffle Ticket," 1960).

 A chimpanzee figures how to use a Ouija board on The Hathaways ("Swami Chimp," 1962).

The Ouija board got back much of its horror cred with 13 Ghosts (1960).


Interesting use of the Ouija board was made in a plotline on One Step Beyond ("Signal Received," 1961).  Two sailors, George Breed (Terry Palmer) and Johnny Watson (Mark Eden), both receive premonitions that their ship, the HMS Hood, will be sunk on its next voyage and its crew will perish.  A shipmate, Robin Hughes (Richard Gale), is assured by a Ouija board and then a fortune teller that he will live a long life.  Hughes tells Breed and Watson that, if he won't die, they won't die either.  But Hughes is reassigned to another ship minutes before the Hood is scheduled to sail.  Later, he hears on the radio that the Hood was sunk by the German battleship Bismarck and its crew was lost at sea.  The story introduces the intriguing idea that the Ouija board has the power to predict the future.

Lost in Space ("Ghost in Space," 1966)


Bewitched ("Double Split," 1966)

Tales From the Crypt (1972)


The Exorcist (1973)

Robert Murch, Chairman of the Board at the Talking Board Historical Society, has said that it was The Exorcist that made the Ouija board scary.  He remarked, "It's kind of like Psycho — no one was afraid of showers until that scene."  But this is not exactly true.  As we have seen, the spooky nature of the Ouija board was made evident by filmmakers in earlier films, including The Uninvited and 13 Ghosts.

Down and Dirty Duck (1974)

An unlikely source of a Ouija board story was The Waltons ("The Ghost Story," 1974).  The Walton children become obsessed with a Ouija board.  Olivia (Michael Learned) and Grandma (Ellen Corby) believe that it is wrong to disturb the dead.  John-Boy (Richard Thomas) comes to believe that he has made contact with his mother's friend Allison, who died from influenza five years earlier.  Allison's ghost appears to be manipulating the Ouija board to send a warning to her young son, Luke.  As the family rides in their truck to get Luke to a train station, the truck mysteriously swerves off the road and gets stuck in the dirt.  This delay causes the family to miss the train, which proves to be fortunate as the train becomes involved in a fatal accident.  The episode ends with a comforting message that our loved ones persist after death to look after our well-being.  The story's supernatural theme caused the episode to be removed from the series' syndication package for many years.


In Satan's Blood (1978), a young couple has no idea that playing with a Ouija board can stir up forces of black magic and open the gates of Hell.


This set a trend.  In the coming years, the standard plot of a Ouija board movie would begin with a group of friends conducting a séance for a laugh.  The group gathers happily around a Ouija board and manages with incredible ease to establish contact with a spirit.  The spirit sometimes lures the group into a false state of security by pretending to be a benign entity.  In The Exorcist, the vile demon Pazuzu pretends at first to be the friendly Captain Howdy.  The spirit will behave in a polite manner to gain the trust of the person who has made contact with it.  In Witchboard (1986), a spirit pretends to be a dead ten-year-old boy.  The spooky little visitor proves itself to be helpful by telling Tawny Kitaen where she can find her lost diamond engagement ring.

A person is less likely to be afraid of a spirit that identifies itself as a little girl named Maddy, which happens in the film Is Anybody There? (2002).  In the end, the spirit will be unleashed from the portal unlocked by the Ouija board, possess the first available person in the room, and manage in its new corporeal form to murder anyone within reach.  Horror comedies have played around with this possession idea.  The spirits will typically possess one of the people who summoned them, but they have also possessed a doll (Black Devil Doll, 2007), a robot (And You Thought Your Parents Were Weird!, 1991), a mechanical monkey (The Devil's Gift, 1984) and a hamster (Night of the Hell Hamsters, 2006).  Let us take a look at the hamster possession.

These films have established rules for communicating with spirits.  To start, you never ask the spirit its name.  This somehow gives the spirit a connection to you, gives the spirit power and influence outside of its own astral plane, and allows it to fully cross over into our world.  Second, you do not ever end a Ouija session without moving the planchette to the word "goodbye."  This closes the session and sends the spirit back to the place from which it came.

The Ouija board was a versatile little device, which allowed it to play a crucial role in a film inspired by Carrie, a film inspired by The Blair Witch Project, and a film inspired by The Ring.  Whenever a writer had to bring evil forces into a situation, the Ouija board provided an all-too-ready portal. 

Ouija board films became commonplace at this point.  Let us take a long look at this trend in films.  Beware, foolish mortals, Ouija board tropes have been conjured up with a mind-numbing repetition.  After going through a couple of dozen scenes, you may not want to see another Ouija board movie again.  I will go as far as to say you may not want to see another candle again as the efforts to summon spirits by Ouija board almost always have to be done by candlelight.  Now, everyone, gather together in a circle, light a candle, and place your fingers on the planchette.

Alison's Birthday (1979, Australia)

Amityville 3-D (1983)

The Devil's Gift (1984)

Spookies (1985)

Deadly Messages (1985)

Newhart ("Much Ado About Mitch," 1985)

Michael (Peter Scolari) and Stephanie (Julia Duffy) think it would be fun to play with a Ouija board.  Michael jokingly asks the Ouija board if Julia will ever be unfaithful.  He becomes distressed when the Ouija board answers, "Yes."

Girls' School Screamers (1986)

Witchboard (1986)

Don't Panic (1988)

Robin Williams tries using a Ouija board to communicate with catatonic Robert DeNiro in Awakenings (1990).  

Repossessed (1990)

And You Thought Your Parents Were Weird! (1991)

Radio Flyer (1991)

Sorority House Massacre 2 (1992)

Witchboard 2: The Devil's Doorway (1993)

Only You (1994)

An eleven-year-old girl, Faith, asks a Ouija board who her future husband will be.  The planchette spells out "D-A-M-O-N-B-R-A-D-L-E-Y."  Faith still remembers the Ouija board's message as an adult.  Now, while making preparations to marry, she is astonished to hear that one of his fiancé's friends knows someone in Italy named Damon Bradley.  She immediately calls off the wedding so that she can board a plane to Italy and finally unite with the man she believes is her destined soulmate.

Witchboard III: The Possession (1995)

Grim (1995)

The Ouija board was featured regularly on the television series Charmed, which aired from 1998 to 2006 on The WB.


What Lies Beneath (2000)

Eugene Orlando, host of the online Museum of Talking Boards, wrote, "This is the first movie ever to feature the séance in the bathroom."

Sugar and Spice (2001)

Long Time Dead (2002)

Is Anybody There? (2002)

Ouija (2003, Spain)

The Ouija Board Movies provides the following description of the film:
Clara decides to spend her vacation in a charming little town.  There, she meets Victor and his friends, who like to spend their time playing with a Ouija board.  Together, they conduct a séance and manage to establish contact with a spirit called "Audscias." After an initially fun conversation with the invisible guest, scary phenomena starts unfolding around them and soon the true nature of the entity starts showing.
That is all the plot that any of these films need.

In Bunshinsaba (2004, Korea), a girl uses a Ouija board to put a curse on the girls who have been bullying her in school.  The curse is established by writing the names of the bullies on the board, which is something new to the Ouija board mythology.  The girls understand that it would be dangerous to open their eyes before the spell is completed, but one of the girls is so curious that she cannot resist opening her eyes as the spell is taking effect.  She is shocked to see a pale ghost-like girl standing beside her.  After the 1998 Japanese horror Ringu and its 2002 American remake The Ring, it was the vengeful spirit of a murdered girl that was usually conjured up by the Ouija board.  

In Dead Friend (2004), a group of high school students conduct a séance.  The séance is interrupted before they can send back a ghost that they summoned.

Spirit of the Glass (2004, Philippines)

Vem Är Du? (2005, Sweden)

Spirit Trap (2005)

Kyle XY ("Blame It on the Rain," 2006)


Night of the Hell Hamsters (2006)

Satanic (2006)

Ouija (2006, Egypt)

Séance (2006, German)

Séance (2006)

Left in Darkness (2006)

Greetings (2007)

Ouija (2007, Philippines) was released internationally under the title Séance.  Two sisters try to use a Ouija board to contact their dead grandmother.  Instead, they bring forth a malign paranormal entity that exploits the sisters' fears and conflicts in its effort to pass into the physical world.

Black Devil Doll (2007)

Paranormal Activity (2007)

Credo (2008)

Ouija Board (2009) reworks the plot of Girls' School Screamers.  A group of friends are driving on a dark rural road when, suddenly, a blood-soaked woman appears in the middle of the road.  The driver doesn't have enough time to stop the car and the woman is struck and killed by the car.  The group later arrive at their destination, a cottage in the remote Scottish countryside.  When they realize the cottage is being haunted by the dead girl, the group try to use a Ouija board to communicate with the girl and learn who she is, but the Ouija board releases the tormented spirit into the world to take vengeance on her killers. 

Necromentia (2009)

A man has had a Ouija board tattooed to his back.

The Myth of the American Sleepover (2010)

Ouija (2010, Brazil)

Castle ("He's Dead, She's Dead," 2010)

A Ouija board turns up unexpectedly in Breaking Bad ("Caballo Sin Nombre," 2010).  We already saw the Ouija board used as a tool to communicate with the disabled in Awakenings.  Now, a pair of hitmen see a similar use for the Ouija board when they consult a drug lord incapacitated by a motor neuron disease.

Downton Abbey ("Christmas at Downton Abbey," 2011)

Rizzoli & Isles ("Bloodlines," 2011)

The Unleashed (2011, Canada)

My Babysitter's A Vampire ("Three Geeks and a Demon," 2011)

Supernatural ("The Mentalists," 2011)

Seance: The Summoning (2011)

The Ouija Experiment (2011)

Ouija (2012, Denmark)

Grave Encounters 2 (2012, Canadian-American)

The Pact (2012)

I Am ZoZo (2012)

A Haunted House (2013)

Don't Move (2013)

American Horror ("The Axeman Cometh," 2013)

The Ouija Experiment 2: Theatre of Death (2014)

Ouija (2014)


Inherent Vice (2014)

Ouija Summoning (2015)

The Conjuring 2 (2016)

Satanic (2016)

Ouija: Origin of Evil (2016)

Ghost Team (2016)

An important reference source to this article was http://ouijaboardmovies.com.

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