We can all agree on one thing: Ouija boards are fucking awesome. At some point in our lives (yeah, I’m talking to all of you, you wonderfully awesome lovers of horror), our curiosity gets the best of us and we engage in some Ouija action. Why? Because it is interesting. I’ve definitely taken part in my share of Ouija experiences and some of them left me pretty shaken up. Along with Icons of Fright EIC Jerry Smith, who was there for Fangoria, I recently attended the DVD/Bluray launch of Blumhouse’s film that dealt with all things talking board-related, an experience which led me to later reach out to the expert of all things Ouija and Talking Board, Robert Murch. Not only is he packed full of knowledge in the history of the board, but he also worked as an adviser for that little film released this year called,…well, you guessed it, OUIJA!
From my understanding, the Ouija board was originally known as the talking board. Can you give our readers a brief history on why the name has changed, and the origins of the talking board?
Of course. So the Ouija board, talking board, spirit board…whatever you call it has its origins from the spiritualist movement. Which started in America, in 1848, in Hydesville, New York. With the infamous Fox sisters. And these girls claimed to hear knocks in their cabin. They would ask a question, and hear knocks. Things like “If you can hear me, knock once for yes, twice for no.” Then they started getting intelligent responses. So the early associated press covered that story, and it blew up. All over the world, especially In America. Within a week of that story hitting, Americans from coast to coast were talking to spirits. Immediately what happens is people started thinking of different ways to do it. So the Fox sisters at first, did it through alphabet calling where they’d say “A..B…C…” and then they would hear a knock. It would take so long to get any real answers. Another thing that came up, was alphabet cards and alphabet pointing. Where they would take cards and write numbers on them, then use picks or their fingers to point at each one, so when the spirit picked the right one…you would hear a knock. There were all kinds of devices starting. The planchette, is what we think of as the message indicator to the talking board, but it actually didn’t start till much later. It’s a small heart shaped plastic thing today, but back in the day, instead of legs, they would have two short casters. And today where there is a big hole to view the letter, there used to be a very small hole where they would put a pencil through to become a third leg. You could put your entire hand on it, cause it was much bigger. You would ask a question, and the spirits would write the answer. Many different devices also came out and pointed to letters, but in 1886, someone had the idea to take the planchette, but some letters and numbers on the board. Back in Ohio in 1886, something similar happened, and a story broke out that completely agitated northern Ohio. They had a drawing of exactly what you think of as a Ouija board, little table on top, pointing out the letters and numbers, and that was 1886. They called it a talking board, and immediately there were other names for it. One article called it a devil board. Also in 1886, we have a toy company, from Massachusetts, they send President Cleveland what they called a witchboard. They send it to him as a wedding gift, the president writes back and says “Thank you so much for the gift, but I don’t think I will be testing out it’s powers anytime soon.” So we don’t know if it ever got used in the Whitehouse, but we know it got there. Another think happened in 1886, and this is where we coined Ouija, two men from Winchester, Maryland Charles Kennard And E.C Reiche, both claimed to invent the board that would then become Ouija. He claimed he did it in his house, that his mind was blank, he was sitting there with a blank board in front of him with a tea cup. So he turned over the tea cup and it started moving around without him moving it. So he put some letters and numbers on it, and it started spelling things out. He claims that he then wrote to EC Reiche, who was a cabin maker, coffin maker, instrument maker…he made everything. His office was right next door to Charles. He claims he went up to EC and said “Hey, I got this new thing, could you help me make some?” So they make a few dozen and they sell them around to neighbors and they become pretty popular. Charles says “We should go into business together, these things will sell.” EC doesn’t really think they will sell because it was something people could make themselves.
(laughs) Very true! I’ve made my own before.
Exactly! It is so simple, why would you pay for it? So Charles in 1890 meets a man named Elijah Bond And they both see a future in the board. They both believe in capitalism and that they could make a board that people would buy. In April of 1890, 125 years ago this year, they were in Elijah Bond’s boarding house with Elijah’s sister in law, Helen Peters who is considered to be a medium. They ask the board what it wants to be called, and it spells out O-U-I-J-A. They ask it what that means, and the board answers “good luck.” So Ouija was born. There were many names, but none of them stuck. Ouija crushed the competition. They went from having one factory in Baltimore, to two factories in Baltimore, two factories in New York, two factories in Chicago, and a factory in London. Ouija takes off like no other spiritual communication device ever has. Because it crosses into pop culture in a way that nothing had before. Planchettes had been bought by the public, but Ouija falls way out of the spiritualist movement…and smack right into everyone’s living room. Everyone was playing the Ouija board, and talking to the dead. You have to think in your head that in 1890, 1920, 1940, to the 1960s, Ouija wasn’t seen as a fright night, but as a family fun night. That is what people did. Because we have a much different view of death today, than people did back then. As a historian, you always have to look back at these things, and the time that they happened. Not how we think things were. The Ouija board has a really unique path. At the time, what we were coming off of was the Civil War. Massive…massive death toll in our country. Unlike anything this country has ever seen before, or has seen since. More people died in that war than any other war in America. Everyone could relate to this. Everyone lost a father, or a brother, son, or uncle. They didn’t just wonder “are they dead?” they wanted to know what happened to them. They didn’t have 24 hour news, there certainly wasn’t internet, or even electricity. They were wondering what happened to them, since they went away. So it’s not just loss…it’s what happened. Back then, if you had twelve children, you likely lost six of them. And when they died, you took photographs of them, with the live children…and put those pictures on the wall. Death was so present in their lives, you lost more than you gained. People back then were incredibly comfortable with death. Today, with technology, and how far we have come, we do everything we can not to die. We exercise, we take vitamins, we know what is good and bad to eat. We just don’t want to die. Now, we are very uncomfortable with death. It is seen as scary, evil, and creepy. The Ouija board hasn’t changed at all in 125 years, but people are still uncomfortable with it.
I was wanting to see if you could settle an argument between Jerry Smith and I, because he’s an adamant bastard. He says Ouija is pronounced “wee-jah” but I think it is “wee-jee.” Is there a wrong or right way to pronounce it?
(laughs) Well, when it was first made, it was pronounced “wee-jah.” In 1920, when you were playing, you were “wee-jeeing.” Then it got cut short into “wee-jee.” So, the makers really saw the change in the script, so on the back of the box, written was “You can pronounce it wee-jee, or wee-jah.” Like every good capitalist, they didn’t care what you call it, as long as you buy it. (laughs)
I know! I remember being a kid, and seeing them in pink and thinking “What is up with that?” I guess anything to get people interested and spending money.
It is surprising because the board has been sold in children’s toy stores for many, many years. So people get upset and say “Why are these being sold to children?!” Kids experience death just like anyone else, but not as much anymore. We don’t even let them go to funerals, we have invented childhood. Back then, You were unfortunate, you probably didn’t have a lot of things to play with. With the Ouija board, what is unique about it during that spiritualist movement, most spiritualist people were using these talking boards. So in 1890 when Ouija just explodes all over the world, they don’t like it so much. So why do you think that is? Because someone who is using it, and truly believes in it…doesn’t like when everyone else is using it. It starts to hurt the entire business. The business for mediums. Up till then, you paid mediums to go to their place, or the would come to yours, and do a séance. Suddenly, for 1 dollar or a dollar fifty, everyone could have a small séance. It was expensive at the time, but also a great investment. You know, hey, if you wanted to talk to your Aunt Maude anytime you could. It started many of the things we hear today. Many articles from then had quotes from mediums saying things like “You’re opening doors you can’t close.” Or “you need someone experienced to guide you through this, someone like me.” Those things are still around today, but they all started from “Don’t take my money.” And Ouija made a lot of money.
That makes a lot of sense. I mean, my entire life I have heard nothing by negative comments regarding the Ouija, so that is interesting that they all pretty much started from mediums not wanting to lose out on money.
Exactly. Just like when the internet came out, people were freaking out and saying it was the tool of the devil because people were online all the time, not eating, or sleeping. Humans have very addictive behaviors. With Ouija, people were thinking they were really talking to the dearly departed, and they wouldn’t stop. I mean, think about it, it doesn’t make rational sense to think you’re talking to the dead. But it makes rational sense to know we want to believe we could talk to the dead. You get to say that last goodbye, you know, maybe you got into a horrible fight right before death happened to them, and you never got to say sorry. They offered that hope and answers to questions, people were desperate to have. The modern spiritualist movement started in 1848, but people have been trying to talk to the dead since the beginning of time. As soon as people realized “Wow, this person died, and never came back…what happens?” I make this joke all the time, people ask why is the Ouija board so popular today? After 125 years? The answer is this: because you’re able to contact the other side. It’s the want to believe. The Ouija board does something really interesting to people, it offers them the potential to make contact with the dead. It also reminds them of their mortality. Not only do we not want to die, we want to know what happens. Death is a great equalizer. It doesn’t matter if you’re rich or poor, healthy or not healthy, you’re going to die. The minute you are born, you start dying. Subconsciously, we all know this. Playing with the Ouija board is a reminder. Someday, we might be on the other side of that board. And that is a lot for a board game to do. It is a unique thing to do. There are people who hate capitalism, and think Monopoly is evil. (laughs)
Actually, it is. Have you ever gotten in a huge fight with friends or family members over Monopoly?
It is so much fun in the beginning, things going great and then you land on a huge property and get knocked out early.
While playing with the Ouija, have you ever had an odd or unsettling experience?
I guess you have to define what would be odd, or unsettling. Some people have said they would never play with a Ouija board because they had a horrible experience. It’s like, oh my gosh that is traumatic, what happened? They said “The board told me when, and how I was going to die.” I said “Really? Wow. That is specific, well what did you ask the board?” They said “I asked when and how I was going to die.” Of course I laugh. My Mom would always tell me, “Never ask a question, if you don’t want to know the answer.” I want to ask the Ouija board the lottery numbers, that’s what I’m going for. (Laughs) People have told me they had the planchette fly across the room. Hell, if that was me I’d say “Give that planchette back, this thing is working.” That would be proof. I wouldn’t be traumatized. But again, people give the Ouija board an incredible power. Power they don’t give any other tool. When you build a house with a hammer, you don’t credit the hammer. It is just the tool you are using. With the Ouija board, we forget that. Here is an example, if you have a fight over the phone, you don’t throw the phone out the window and say “I’m never having an iphone in my house ever again!“ If you have that experience with a Ouija board, that is exactly what happens. Because to some people, it is the board’s fault. The Board did it. Meanwhile, It’s just the telephone you used to communicate with your subconscious, or potentially a spirit or entity. It doesn’t matter if it is rational, it is what you believe. Belief is key with the Ouija board. What you believe, has a direct impact with the results you have. And I know this works, because I have done it in huge groups. I was really, really lucky last year, I got invited to go to Australians Paracon. I was one of three Americans who were asked to go. And the Ouija board, culturally, never took off there. It was always just seen as not ok. Many different cultures aren’t like Americans, who believe that talking to spirits can be fun. They are like “Oh, well…we talk to the spirits when we want to put a curse on someone. Not ask hey, how are you doing?” So for whatever reason, it just didn’t take off. The Parker Bros bought the Ouija board in 1966, in 1967 lots of countries all over the world licensed it to make. But it never really took off in Australia. What made it so unique, is I was in a country where it had not been a huge part of pop culture like it is here in America. It was really cool to see people listening to my lecture, and the place was packed, it was unbelievable. There they had only heard bad things about the Ouija board, they never heard the history. Part of the experiment was, we got about 78 people together to all play the Ouija board at the same time. So I mean, if we were going to open a portal to hell, we definitely had all the ingredients. (laughs) And we were playing in this haunted jail, and we set up a table that looked like the last supper for the Ouija board. Of course, no one had a bad experience.
You also worked as an advisor for the film, OUIJA. Can you tell us about your experience working on the film, and how that all came about?
Yeah, of course! It’s a funny story actually. I went to a party, with my husband. I didn’t have to drive, so I was pretty wrecked by the time I got home. I felt like I had to stay up for a while, and drink water and stuff, so I turned on the television. Mtv was on, and this was 2009 so of course there were no music videos…but there was an interview going on with Brian Goldner, and I didn’t know who he was, or what he looked like. I was about to change the channel, and he mentioned he was the CEO of Hasbro, and he was talking about his vision for Hasbro. He was listing things that were household names, that didn’t really need to be advertised, but weren’t really using their potential. One of them, which was his favorite, was Ouija. He was talking about how you don’t need to really advertise it, everyone knew what it was, and how it was so embedded in pop culture. He said, “I’d really like to make a movie about it.” And I was still buzzed, and said “Hell yeah, you should make a movie about it…and I should work with you on this!” So I looked up online, and found their email address, so I sent an email introducing myself, which is something I totally wouldn’t have done if I were sober. I mean, who writes the CEO of a company because they think they are so smart, they should be involved in their projects? (laughs) The spirits were in me. So I went to bed, and at 4 am my Phone buzzed. I checked and it was an email from Brian Goldner. He said “Hey, thanks for reaching out, I really appreciate it. Let’s put you in touch with Stephen J. Davis, who is the head of Hasbro entertainment in LA, movie division. So we started conversations that have lasted to this day. We talked about how you could make a successful movie about the Ouija board? What would it need? Of course, you would have to bring up predecessor or the one that made the first impact. Which is Kevin Tenny’s 1986 WITCHBOARD. it’s a cult classic, you have to see it. It is brilliant, because it was a huge hit for the time. And it was the first movie to really make the Ouija board it’s own character….and that is exactly what happens in a Ouija session. So I told them “If you can capture the tense moment of playing it, you don’t know who is pushing it, and you can’t believe someone isn’t pushing it, and what people believe while playing the Ouija board like always say goodbye or the spirit can get out, or not leaving the planchette on the board.” They weren’t original for the Ouija board. They were just things that were brought up over time. My biggest advice for the movie was not to make it not what it is, don‘t try and make it about something else. Just explore the experience. That’s what’s scary. It went through many different scripts, directors, and writers. The film ended up getting scrapped. Originally, it had a very large budget. And I remember thinking “Holy crap, what kind of movie can you make with a huge budget around a Ouija board?” You know, the Ouija board is so intimate. It is not a blockbuster movie type. But sure enough, after renegotiation, they went back to that basic, small movie. The movie cost $5 million dollars to make, It has made $100 million dollars worldwide, and that is before the DVD release. That is a pretty good turn on an investment. I was really excited when I watched the movie, and saw things that I had suggested. Plus they added some new things which I love! One of my favorite Ouija suspicions which has never been shown before to my knowledge, which is the hole in the plancette with the eye to the other side. Like, you could see the ghost if you look through. Brilliant! Brilliant! I wish I had thought of that. I totally didn’t, but I wish I did. It added another legend, and that’s how they live on. The movie did well enough to do OUIJA 2, and I’m excited to hear about the project. I hope that I could play a small role in it again. It was amazing, to have a passion, be called upon to help a movie, to be asked by Universal to be filmed for the extras, and of course to be flown to LA to help promote the DVD release. That’s a dream come true for someone like me. Its like holy crap! I got to promote the thing I like. And Universal, and Hasbro, what those people did, is bring a whole new generation to the board, and that is pretty spectacular. I’m really interested to see what this generation does with it. It’s really cool, and very exciting to me.
And may I add, it is pretty awesome that it all kind of started from you drinking. So, to those people that say drinking never gets you anywhere in life, or does anything good…it usually does. (laughs)
(laughs) I don’t know if you know this, but it is rumored that the 12 steps from AA, came from the Ouija board. But, who knows if that’s true. Alice Cooper, they claim that name came up on the Ouija board when they asked who they were talking to. Cheap Trick says they were asking the board what they should name their band and it told them Cheap Trick. They are always great stories. If they are true or not, but again, it doesn’t matter. I never try to correct peoples beliefs. What you believe, is your reality. If you believe you talk to ghosts, then guess what? You talk to ghosts. How am I going to change your mind? And why would I want to? I want to believe it’s true. Earlier you asked me a question, and I was wanting to get back to it. What’s my belief? Do I believe the Ouija board could talk to the other side? And my answer is, I desperately want to believe it’s possible. The real question is, can you talk to the dead? I don’t know. I’ve had experiences where I swore to god they were real and then later on I rationalize it away. I want to believe that there is more than this short life we get on this earth. That we get to go on into something great after this. And that’s why I still do this after all these years. But I don’t know, I don’t have any proof. I haven’t had an experience that has made me realize it. You also asked if I have ever had an unsettling experience. Never. I’ve been playing with people where the board has said really nasty things. But It doesn’t scare me, I tell people “I live in Boston. I take the subway. I know what to be afraid of.” I am way more afraid of people than the Ouija board.
I believe there is a convention that is being held in Baltimore, Maryland this April called Ouijacon. Of course, you will be there. So for all our readers who are lucky enough to be able to attend this event, can you tell us anything about it?
(laughs) Well, we hope to see everybody there. It is going to be really unique. There has never been anything like this before, and the timing is perfect. In April, the Ouija board turns 125 years old. And in Baltimore, is where the board was named Ouija. We are going to have a plaque in the building where it got it’s name. That building still stands. And we worked with the people there to get a plaque that says “This is where the Ouija board was named.” So that will kick off things, then we will have the actual event where we will have people lecture, I’ll be there, there will be people from the Talking Board historical society doing different things, and a lot of speakers from all different angles. We will have someone there who believes he had a horror experience with the Ouija board with a demon known as Zozo. We will also have Rosemary Ellen Guiley, who is a writer of the paranormal, she wrote a book called “Ouija gone wild.” It is awesome! I love the book, because it is really a collection of stories that people believe. Also, Shawn ?? He is from the haunted collector, he deals a lot with attachments and bad stuff. Everyone’s beliefs will be presented. Chip Coffey, is a good friend, and a TV psychic medium. He has been in a lot of shows. He is going to lead a séance, where 125 years later, we are going to try and come in contact with what named the board. It is going to be pretty neat, and a lot of fun. We will get to hear about a lot of experiences, and we will probably see a Ouija fashion show because today, Ouija is a brand. There are shirts, underwear, bras…all kinds of cool stuff. So we will see some cool things. Who can rock their Ouija wear…it will be cool.
For more info about Murch, the Talking Board Historical Society and on OUIJACON, feel free to visit the following: