Halloween Haunts: When Captain Howdy Visits on Halloween: The History of the Ouija Board
By Lisa Morton
Whenever I tell people that I’ve written a book about séances, the subject of the Ouija board usually comes up very soon. Ouija boards have fascinated us for almost 130 years now; for the price of a board game, they offer us the promise of communicating with spirits in the comfort of our own living rooms. Unlike a more traditional séance, which must be guided by a medium with some experience or skill, anyone with fingers can use a Ouija board.
Ouija boards connect with Halloween in the idea of easing contact with ethereal spirits. Halloween is based on the ancient Celtic holiday of Samhain, when it was believed that the veil between worlds was at its thinnest and all manner of entities could cross over from the Otherworld into our realm. Given what the Ouija board offers, it seems only natural that it would have become especially popular around Halloween.
Although the Ouija board has been around since the late nineteenth-century, it took one movie in 1973 to raise it to fresh heights of popularity: The Exorcist. In the book (by William Peter Blatty) and the film based on it, young Regan MacNeil opens the door to her demonic possession by playing with a board that she finds in the basement of a house she and her mother are renting; she calls her spirit guide “Captain Howdy”. Note that the film version of The Exorcist also references Halloween: shortly before Regan’s mother finds her dallying with spirit communication, there’s a scene of carousing trick or treaters.
So what’s the history of the Ouija board, and what does that strange name mean? Here’s an excerpt from my book Calling the Spirits: A History of Seances (released in September by Reaktion Books) that talks about the beginnings of the Ouija board.
Happy spirit-calling this October, everyone!
On February 10, 1891, the U.S. Patent Office granted Patent No. 446,054 to inventor Elijah J. Bond of Baltimore. The second paragraph of the patent laid out the basics: ‘…improvements in toys or games, which I designate as an “Ouija or Egyptian luck-board;” and the objects of the invention are to produce a toy or game by which two or more persons can amuse themselves by asking questions of any kind and having them answered by the device used and operated by the touch of the hand, so that the answers are designated by letters on a board.’ The unusual name was supplied by Bond’s sister-in-law, medium Helen Peters, who asked the board for a name and watched as it spelled O-U-I-J-A (although there’s also been speculation that the name is a combination of the French and German words for ‘yes’).
Nowhere in that patent is there even the slightest whiff of spirit communication. In fact, ‘the touch of the hand’ is the only mention of what’s powering the device.
Bond’s patent was filed as an ‘improvement’, and indeed ‘witch boards’ or ‘talking boards’ had already been in use in Spiritualist circles for around thirty years. Although the writer Lewis Spence would claim, in his 1920 Encyclopedia of Occultism, that Pythagoras had used a device similar to a Ouija board about 540 B.C., this appears to have been pure fiction created by Spence to lend classicism to the board’s history (Spence also claimed the planchette was named for a well-known French Spiritualist, when it actually is a French word meaning ‘little plank’).
In reality, the first popular mention of a similar device came in 1868, when a book called Planchette’s Diary was published. With no author listed, but editor Kate Field named on the title page, the book describes the adventures of a young lady who purchases a ‘planchette’, which is ‘a little board of varnished wood, fashioned in the shape of a heart, seven inches long and five inches wide, that formed a sort of table by means of two pentagraph wheels at the broad end of the heart, and a lead-pencil inserted in a socket, one inch and a quarter from the point of the heart.’ When the planchette was placed atop paper and had a suitably magnetic operator, it wrote messages from the spirit world (the narrator of the book initially chalks the messages up to unconscious impulses, but she’s soon convinced otherwise).
Other similar methods would be used over the next few decades, but many involved paraphernalia that was too clunky and complicated to be of easy use and of interest to any outside of the most dedicated Spiritualists. Planchettes were produced by a number of companies and were popular, but the scrawled messages were frequently difficult to read. Talking-boards, with letters already neatly laid out in a printed board, were introduced in the late 1880s, immediately supplanting the planchette. When Bond patented his board in 1891, there’d been a few similar devices produced, but it was the Ouija that would take off. In 1897, William Fuld acquired control of what had by then become the Ouija Novelty Company; he ran the company for twenty-six years, acquiring in the process the title of ‘the father of the Ouija board’. Fuld died in an accident in 1927, leaving his children to run the company until 1966, when it was sold to Parker Brothers.
For the first two decades of its existence, the Ouija board was essentially considered a parlor game (albeit a very popular one). Spiritualists didn’t seem to be immediately taken with it; an 1898 guide to mediumship notes that better results will likely be achieved by automatic writing. That all changed, though, on the evening of 8 July 1913, when a thirty-year-old St. Louis housewife named Pearl Curran and her friend Emily Grant Hutchings received a visitation via the Ouija board from a seventeenth-century British woman named Patience Worth. Patience, it seemed, was a writer who’d been looking for the perfect medium for nearly three centuries, and over the next twenty-four years, Patience – via Pearl and Pearl’s husband John, who transcribed as Pearl dictated – would produce nearly four million words of novels, poems, and plays. Patience’s seven novels, many written in seventeenth-century English, included words that John had to sometimes look up in an encyclopedia (Pearl had dropped out of school at 13). Her first novel, The Sorry Tale, released in 1917, received rave reviews, and Pearl/Patience became a celebrity, writing spontaneous poems in front of large groups of the curious. Psychologists (with whom Pearl refused to cooperate) suggested multiple personality; Spiritualists wrote books about Patience and went to England searching for any hint of the spirit’s earthly existence, finding only places that matched descriptions Patience had provided but nothing more concrete.
After her husband John died, Pearl toured the country, offering up visits with Patience via her board. She finally settled in Los Angeles, where she died from pneumonia in 1937, only a week after her last communication from Patience.
Today’s Giveaway: Lisa Morton is giving away a signed copy of the print edition of Calling the Spirits: A History of Seances. Comment below or email HalloweenHaunts2020@gmail.com with the subject title HH Contest Entry for a chance to win.
Bio: Lisa Morton is a screenwriter, author of non-fiction books, and prose writer whose work was described by the American Library Association’s Readers’ Advisory Guide to Horror as “consistently dark, unsettling, and frightening.” She is a six-time winner of the Bram Stoker Award®, the author of four novels and over 150 short stories, and a world-class Halloween expert. Her recent releases include Weird Women: Classic Supernatural Fiction from Groundbreaking Female Writers 1852-1923 (co-edited with Leslie S. Klinger) and Calling the Spirits: A History of Seances; forthcoming in 2021 is the collection Night Terrors and Other Stories. See more at www.lisamorton.com .
Calling the Spirits investigates the eerie history of our conversations with the dead, from necromancy in Homer’s Odyssey to the emergence of Spiritualism – when Victorians were entranced by mediums and the seance was born.
Among our cast are the Fox sisters, teenagers surrounded by ‘spirit rappings’; Daniel Dunglas Home, the ‘greatest medium of all time’; Houdini and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, whose unlikely friendship was forged, then riven, by the afterlife; and Helen Duncan, the medium whose trial in 1944 for witchcraft proved more popular to the public than news about the war. The book also considers Ouija boards, modern psychics and paranormal investigations, and is illustrated with engravings, fine art (from beyond) and photographs. Hugely entertaining, it begs the question: is anybody there . . .?
Signed copies of Calling the Spirits: A History of Seances are available from Dark Delicacies at http://www.darkdel.com .