DEBORAH CONTESSA looks at the history of Ouija boards and her own experiences with the mysterious communication tool
The name ‘Ouija’ conjures up images of necromancy, seances, mystery and haunting. What began as a conduit between the material and immaterial, was by the 1960’s, being marketed as a board game for all the family.
The Victorians were enormous fans of talking boards. At a time when infectious diseases were prevalent, most often incurable, and no respecter of social class, seances became a commonplace way of sustaining contact with deceased loved ones.
The origins of spirit boards can be traced back as far as Imperial China, however, the Ouija board as we have come to know it, was patented in 1890 as an ‘Egyptian Luck Board’.
When The West’s fascination with egyptomania began to diminish, a new eponym was required for the talking oracle.
Rather fortuitously, one of the stockholders investing in the talking board enterprise (Elijah Bond) had a female relative with the reputation of being a talented medium.
Helen Peters sat around the board with the investors, as they tentatively rested their fingers upon the planchette. The wooden pointer purportedly spelled out O U I J A …
Like many others, I always bought into the explanation the name was formed from the French and German words for yes (Oui + Ja).
However, the mystic tool itself, upon being questioned, claimed the name was derived from an antiquated Egyptian word which translated as ‘Good Luck.’
So, does this supernatural oracle genuinely allow us to facilitate the spiritual realm? Or, is your body actually just communicating with itself?
When we attempt to hold ourselves stock still, our bodies can exhibit ideomotor responses. Although seemingly oblivious to them, these minute, involuntary, physical movements are a result of a signal to move, without our conscious awareness.
Could these tiny reflexive twitches be enough to spell out words, or even coherent phrases on a game board, or a table edged with torn paper, bearing letters of the alphabet?
My first experience with a Ouija board
Whether you concede to the science or the supernatural, the physics or the psychics, allow me to regale you with this unsettling tale, when my school friends and I decided to dabble with the unexplained.
“What we should do, is go to my house,” suggested Debbie thoughtfully.
The rest of us took little convincing to take that fateful Friday afternoon off from school. We were all sixteen years old that summer and were ready for an adventure, so when the bell rang signaling the end of lunch break we headed out of the gate to freedom.
As is usually the case in these sorts of situations we quickly became bored, we could watch the television anytime, no one fancied a snack and we’d decided against raiding the drinks cabinet as that wasn’t the kind of fun we were after, but we dared not venture outside for fear of being spotted during what should have been a school day.
Somebody, I don’t recall who, suggested playing ‘Ouija’ most of the group were unfamiliar with the practice so after giving a brief explanation I took it upon myself to gather the necessary apparatus. I repositioned the coffee table, whilst instructing Debbie to search for pen and paper, and found us a glass tumbler to use.
With varying degrees of anticipation, we each placed a finger on the glass, furtively glancing around the circle. As no one seemed keen on taking the lead, I myself asked the infamous question… ‘Is there anybody there?’
The room erupted into stifled giggles, some girls were hiding behind cushions or had covered their faces with their palms, others looked ready to cry – although the two boys present put on a adequate show of false bravado.
Undeterred, I continued my questioning of the spirits, and those who wanted to, re joined the circle. After a short while the glass began to slowly orbit the letters, you could have cut the tension with a knife as we watched it travel past the alphabet, searching for the characters it required to convey its unearthly message.
A lot of the communication was such utter gibberish the lads in our midst began to act the fool . . .asking ridiculous questions; which girls might grant them sexual favours? Who in the room was still a virgin? Displaying the kind of rashness adolescent boys so often do.
But some one, or something, was in the room with us that day, the beaker picked up speed and quickly spelled out SILLY – BOY – ACCIDENT and although the boys brushed off the comment, it was evident their courage was waning.
Subsequently, we received further garbled messages, but the only other which had any significance was the final communication of the day, for just as we were thinking of packing up and returning to our own homes the glass was off again. We all stared in trepidation as the phrase NANNA BURN PAN was revealed!
Not unduly upset by this latest proclamation we all parted the ways, leaving Debbie to tidy up before her parents returned from work, but not before arranging to meet up at the local recreation ground later that evening.
Once safely back at home all thoughts of the Ouija session were gone from my mind, I ate with my family before changing out of my school uniform and heading to the park. Upon arrival I noticed Susan, one of the girls who’d been present that afternoon, appeared to be genuinely distressed. It transpired that earlier in the day her grandma (nanna] had scalded (burn) her arm quite badly on the kettle (pan?) and was currently in the local accident and emergency department awaiting treatment.
Understandably we all became a little hysterical upon hearing such news, we were terrified to think one of the Ouija predictions had come to fruition.
By eight o’clock almost all of the kids who had been at Debbie’s that day had regrouped, we were just awaiting the arrival of Kevin and Jason.
Just when we thought they weren’t coming, a figure on a bicycle became apparent in the distance, pedaling so fast it seemed the devil was chasing him. As he skidded to a halt we realised it was Jason, he was as white as a sheet and his face appeared snot streaked and tearstained. As we had all secretly feared, further misfortune had transpired. Kevin had also become a casualty of our ill-considered dalliance with spirit.
His words punctuated by gasps and sobs, Jason explained what had happened; as they travelled to the park together, Kevin who was on his skateboard, began riding recklessly, there were some girls on the opposite side of the street and he was showing off trying to impress them, suddenly he lost his footing and his board slipped from beneath him.
Then, as though propelled by unseen hands, Kevin was thrown into the path of an oncoming car!
Although he sustained a fractured femur and a broken wrist you’ll be pleased to know Kevin made a full recovery. The rest of us vowed never to use a Ouija board again…
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