Each of the age-old methods of divination that I explore in this series demonstrates a set of universal archetypes and patterns through symbols that can lead to self-knowledge. In my last column I delved into runes, the pictographic alphabet that the tribal peoples of Northern Europe relied on for similar guidance. This week I turn to the Ouija board, a tool used to communicate with the spirit world. As with all methods of divination, there are no “good” or “bad” readings, and one should not be apprehensive about the Ouija board foretelling a “sealed” future. Rather, it presents situations in which one may understand one’s role in life better, and act in a conscious way to make the best of it.

Today, many consider the Ouija board a harmless parlor game in which players seek to communicate with the dead, a form of DIY spiritualism. But many others believe the Ouija board is a powerful and potentially dangerous way to contact spirits and those who have passed to “the other side.”

The Ouija board was first developed in the late-19th century, and quickly caught on. The board was unique in that it was said to communicate through automatic writing and séances rather than cryptic scripts and mediums. But this very accessibility was what made the practice seem risky; during a séance, the medium would become possessed by a spirit and protect others from the potentially harmful side effects of contact with the other world; without the medium, things can get ugly.  

The surface of the board, or planchette, is printed with the letters of the alphabet, numbers, YES, NO, and other words, along with specific instructions for usage. Two people sit facing each other with the typically heart-shaped piece of wood resting on their knees or a flat surface and the tips of their fingers resting on the board. A question is asked, and the board moves on its own accord over the letters, spelling out a sentence or landing on the YES or NO to answer the question. 

Ouija skeptics abound. Some say the messages are the result of muscle tension and unconscious direction of the hands, and others claim the board is a dangerous tool inviting spirits to manifest. (For an example of the latter, look no further than The Exorcist.) 

But the board has its fans as well. Poets James Merrill, Sylvia Plath, and Ted Hughes used the Ouija to write poems. And novelist Emily Grant Hutchins claims that her entire novel, Jap Herron, was transmitted to her by the ghost of Mark Twain through the Ouija board. And e.e. cummings may have had his finger on the pulse as well. After all, he’s the one who wrote: “Listen: there’s a hell of a good universe next door; let’s go.” 

Further Reading:
Aleister Crowley and the Ouija Board, by J. Edward Cornelius (Feral House, 2005). Gives a detailed history of the Ouija board as a toy from the perspective of the board as a serious divination tool.

How to Communicate with Spirits: Séances, Ouija Boards and Summoning (a Nook book), by Angela Kaelin