In 1986, Robert Murch was 13 years old and his grandmother snuck him in to see a movie called Witchboard—the experience changed his life.
Witchboard features the Ouija board, an American game that enables players to ask profound questions into the abyss. This gives spirits from the other realm a chance to provide answers by moving a player’s hands, placed on a heart-shaped pointer device called a planchette, toward specific letters, numbers, or yes and no replies.
“Ouija has become part of the American fabric,” says Murch. And for him, it has also become a career. Murch purchased his first antique Ouija board in 1992 and has spent much of his time since researching the game’s history, and also explaining its phenomenon. Murch has spoken at conferences around the world, consulted on Ouija movies, and is Chairman of the Board of the Talking Board Historical Society, a Massachusetts-based group with the mission to research, preserve, and celebrate the history of talking boards such as Ouija, and the men and women behind them, and the people who use them. Not surprisingly, death comes up a lot when you have devoted your career to understanding a game that enables people to talk to the dead.
Digital Dying sat down for a special interview with Robert Murch to understand the Ouija board, its history, and just how the game serves as a reflection of the American way of death. Enter if you dare! But really, as Murch says, there is nothing to fear about Ouija. Well, for most people that is.
Give us a typical story of how someone encounters the Ouija board?
You play it at a party and something happens. Maybe the lights go out for some reason and that causes people to say, okay we need to stop. But you are not done with the Ouija board. You go home and suddenly you see shadows on the wall, you hear creaks. Those shadows may have always been there, those creaks might be normal noises in your house, but now your mind turns that off. Think about when you were little and you lay on the ground outside and looked up at the sky and saw faces and animals. We make things up to fill in the gaps, and it’s like our rational brain cannot override the design we see in the sky. We cannot unsee the elephant once we see it. This ability of humans is part of us, and we take that way of thinking to a Ouija board, and suddenly the story has begun.
Wait, are you telling me that you, as perhaps the world’s foremost Ouija expert, don’t believe in the power of the Ouija to enable a person to communicate with the dead!?
The ironic thing about the paranormal and the Ouija board is it is really all about the living and has very little to do with the dead. I will give you some numbers. Between 1967, the first full year Parker Brothers made the Ouija board, and in 2004, 13 million Ouija boards were made. So if we extrapolate that from 1890 to 2021, you are talking hundreds of millions of Ouija boards made and sold, and who is buying them? Not the dead.
The Ouija board used to be a piece of wood, today it is cardboard and plastic. There is nothing mystical about cardboard and plastic. But we forgive that. There is something in psychology called an ideomotor response, you want something to happen therefore you make it happen unbeknownst to you. And they have proved this. You can plant something in a person’s subconscious and then pull it right out. For some people, there is some psychic telepathy link made. Others believe that when you sit at the Ouija and you conjure you do open up a portal, but the portal is inside you. What is dangerous is when people believe the tool has more power than they do.
Say you get mad at your phone you don’t throw it away, but if you get mad at a Ouija board you do throw it away. Now you are giving power to an inanimate object and that is never good. If you believe that the board itself holds power you are in trouble because you have handed your power to something else. As long as people remember that they retain the power and that the Ouija board is just a tool, then it is all okay and there is a lot to explore. But if you are in that space where you believe it has some sort of mystical power then that truth is going to play out, and you need to be careful because it might get scary.
Okay, maybe the idea of the Ouija board creating an instant portal for a spirit to walk through is the wrong way of thinking about Ouija. It sounds like it’s more complicated than that?
I think people need to remember why someone would pick up and use a Ouija board in the first place. Maybe they lost someone they loved and they never got to tell them they loved them one more time. Or maybe they got in a huge fight then someone walked outside and got hit by a bus and the other person never got to say I’m sorry. Humans don’t like change and death is this huge change you don’t come back from. We don’t want to die, and that struggle comes out through the Ouija board. The lure of the Ouija board is, what if this one time it works, and you can see to the other side of that change, and you get an answer.
I will give you an example. In 2015 we were at Ouijacon in Baltimore with the mayor. It was an event celebrating the 125th anniversary of Ouija, it was awesome and amazing, and people are set up all over the place playing Ouija, and all of a sudden these three girls come in screaming. And it was like calm down, take a deep breath, what happened. They were like, we were playing the Ouija board and it told us how and when we were going to die. And I was like, that is very specific information, what did you ask? And they were like we asked how and when we were going to die. Now of course, with a question like that you are asking for trouble. For example, say the board told the girl she was going to die in a red car. Well, she could avoid red cars her whole life, but she could also be driving a silver car and a red car crashes into her. So, you can’t do this. You cannot hand over your power to this board. There is a hang-up button built right into the bottom, Goodbye. It is there for a reason.
Let’s go back to the beginning, how did we get to the Ouija board of today?
Back in the 1800s, when someone died you would be laid out in your home parlor. It was your house, your parlor. You would help change the ice, you might even touch the body. But something happens in the Civil War, they create embalming fluid and so what is new is death leaves the house, and the modern funeral parlor is born. So now we not only get rid of the funeral parlor part of our own house, because parlor has become stained by the word funeral, we now call that place that once held the dead body, the living room.
I tend to use the Ouija board as a marker, and I view our relationship with death through the Ouija board. In each decade the Ouija board can be used to show how close or far we feel from death. With the Civil War, massive death. Everyone lost a grandfather, son, nephew. When death is all around you, you want to talk to the dead. Because it is so overwhelming. A mother could have twelve kids and lose six. I mean, you would see these pictures where people used to dress up their dead kids and take photos of them and put them on the wall. Today you walk into a house and see that and you’re like, ‘I am out of here!’ But in those times those photos were customary, and the Ouija board and other spiritual devices came up in that time. These talking boards are answering questions no one else could.
Okay, so talking boards existed before the Ouija board, tell us more about that?
Right. The Fox Sisters are these three sisters from upstate New York who are credited with starting the Spiritualist Movement. They lived in a supposedly haunted house and in 1848 the Fox Sisters described hearing these rappings on the floor which could communicate with them and answer their questions. Now the Fox Sisters are pretty close to what would become Ouija. The sisters start saying things like bang once for yes, and twice for no, and what if I said make a knock for every letter of the alphabet?
From this, in about 1850ish, a device called the planchette is invented in Paris. This is a heart-shaped piece that you place your hands on and there is a pencil and the pencil writes down what the spirits tell you. And then people start making these boards themselves, and they take the pencil and made it a pointer and slowly add to the game. These were called witch boards and spirit boards and these are all different types of what we call talking boards, and they really were a homemade thing. They enable a user to communicate with the other side. And these are the precursors to Ouija.
Then in 1886 something crazy happened. Talking boards make the Associated Press with the headline, “The Talking Board is Greatly Agitating Northern Ohio.” The story is that this guy goes away, comes home, and says no one is doing anything at his house anymore but using the talking board. No one is doing housework, none of the chores are getting none, all anyone is doing is using the talking board. And this news story goes out everywhere, Sidney, France, London. This thing explodes. So now it has really leaked out, and even more people know about these talking boards, and even more people start making them themselves. What happens with Ouija is in 1866 two other men start playing around with these boards, and these people are businessmen, and they see there is something here to market. What they are trying to do is make it simpler, faster, easier, and more accessible, and that becomes Ouija.
Okay, a long and helpful run-up, thank you! Now to the Ouija board itself, when exactly was it invented?
The board that would become Ouija was born in Chestertown, a really nice little town on the eastern shore of Maryland. Charles Kennard was a businessman and always looking for new things and E.C. Reiche was a funeral casket maker and their offices were right next to each other. Somehow, maybe from that 1886 Associated Press article, this talking board enters Charles Kennard’s mind, and he asks E.C. Reiche to make a dozen of these, and he does. They loan them around town and people really like them, and Kennard goes to E.C. Reiche and asks him if he would like to go into business making these boards, and according to Kennard, Reiche says something to the effect of, “I am really busy making my caskets and I am not going to be able to do this with you.”
Well, Kennard moves his office to Baltimore and there he meets another man named Elijah Bond, who is a patent attorney. Elijah sees the future in this device. He says I think we can make something out of this, we can clean this up, change the design of the board a bit, change the design of the planchette a bit. You don’t want the same game you got last Christmas, right. So they are using this witch board they have created but it doesn’t have a name, and they decide to ask the board itself. Elijah Bond’s family was staying in town, including his sister-in-law, Helen Peters. And what we know from letters is Elijah Bond calls her a strong medium, but she is not listed in various records of mediums we have at that time. What we do know is her husband was a medium from Europe and his mother was a very strong medium in Manchester. So, sitting there in Charles Kennard’s office at 529 North Charles Street in Baltimore, a building that is still standing, and with Helen Peters at the board, they ask the board what it would like to be called. And the board works well for Helen. And it spells out O, U, I, J, A. And they ask what that means, and it spells out, G, O, O, D, L, U, C, K. And that is how Ouija got its name. And this thing takes off like nothing anyone has ever seen before in the talking board world, it just explodes.
Wow, so Ouija is really also a lesson in good marketing techniques?
Talking boards were devices created to aid people who don’t have the gift, like mediums do, of directly communicating with spirits. And creating these things in the United States brings about an interesting thing, capitalism meets mysticism. And then it meets pop culture. And suddenly you have a story, and stories are always the beginning. The guys behind Ouija are different than the makers of past spirit communication devices. They are very into this product but they also think it is going to make them millionaires. They are capitalists. They file for a patent and the patent office writes back and says, what is it you are patenting here and does this really work? And the patent office tells them they are going to need to have a demonstration.
The patent office has a long history of declining spirit communication devices. And being savvy businessmen, they decide they are going to go down to Washington DC and go to the patent office themselves. So in 1890, Elijah Bond takes Helen Peters and they go to Washington and they go into a room at the patent office and a patent clerk comes in, and then another comes in, and another, and none of the patent clerks are comfortable demonstrating this device. And so up and up and up it goes, until they get to the chief clerk of the patent office who gets annoyed. He says, “Look, I don’t know you and you don’t know me, but if the board will spell out my name, you have your patent.” And with Helen Peters at the board, it spells out his name. In 1891, the patent was granted.
Amazing! And we are still playing Ouija more than 130 years later, how has the game survived for so long?
What is interesting about the Ouija board is I have always wondered, would it survive in the digital decade, would it work? But what is funny is because so many people live in a world of tap, swipe, click, Ouija takes on a different meaning in this age. You sit at the Ouija board, you put your fingers on the planchette, and you are quiet. And you ask a question. And during Covid times Ouija has enjoyed another surge in popularity. There was so much of people re-thinking their lives and how they act and what they do and why, and that has been a really neat thing. And especially during the pandemic, we saw a lot of new horror films come out with Ouija boards. Because that is what we are confronted with. With the pandemic, all of these spiritual devices have really taken off for the same reasons they have been popular in the past because they are answering questions no one else can. I try to watch every Ouija movie that comes out and what you realize is the Ouija board is sneaky, it is a chameleon. It takes on and reflects the decade it is in because every generation rediscovers the Ouija board. They take it and they make it their own, and they put their own little twist on it.
What do you mean by that, how has Ouija changed from generation to generation?
What happens in 1973 is the film The Exorcist comes out. The Ouija board was getting darker and darker because people were portraying it more that way, and people were using it more that way. And with the Exorcist the Ouija board becomes a portal for demonic possession. Well, that opens up a whole different door. Go back and check out The Exorcist, the scene with the Ouija board is very small, only two minutes long. All you know is she has used the Ouija board alone, and the next thing she has become possessed. This is the big pop-cultural moment for Ouija.
What happens after that is the Ouija board changes overnight. Everyone had these Ouija boards in their house and suddenly people felt like they had to get rid of them because they involved demonic possession and people were scared to use them. Like Hitchcock with the shower scene in the movie Psycho, a common and harmless activity has become something scary. But older people, I mean people in their 90s and 100s, still recall the Ouija fondly because they used to play it all the time growing up. They knew it before The Exorcist, and that is still the Ouija they remember. The point here is that the Ouija board never changes, our relationship with death changes, and we change. The Ouija board is the same thing it always was, born out of the Spiritualist Movement, born out of talking to the dead, a capitalist tool to talk to the masses.
Do other cultures have boards similar to Ouija?
The talking board is distinctly American. The idea of oracles has been around for a long time. In very early China they would use a basket with a stick through it and it would draw in the sand. But it’s not the same. In Japan, there is a game called Kokkuri and they use a coin on a sheet of paper with tons of characters and words. Cambodia has its own version. Vietnam has a different version and they only use it to communicate with their family.
What does Ouija tell us about the American way of death?
Today every channel in the United States has a paranormal show, including Animal Planet. It is big business. I speak at a lot of these conventions. There are a lot of people looking for answers. And they are fun, that is the other thing to remember. A lot of people looking for the exact same thing you are. The way I look at it is there was a time when we didn’t understand the way fire worked, or how we could harness it. And that is just one example of a gazillion scientific breakthroughs we have made. And we as humans are still trying to understand something we cannot yet understand. And whether we are going to be right or way off-base, who knows.
The Ouija board is an interesting thing because it is not complicated until you add a human sitting in front of it. And then all of a sudden a million things can happen, depending on how they are feeling that day, depending on how their subconscious can leak into their conscious. We are all searching for the same thing, we are all talking about trying to wrap our brains around the same thing. There are two questions that sum up every question in human existence, where do we come from, and where are we going? If you can answer those questions then there is nothing left to ask, that’s it. The problem that arises with Ouija is you are putting humans with their deep questions in front of this board that has been granted significant powers and telling them that the board can answer all of their questions. We understand a very small part of how the human brain works and what it does. And what is unlocked when we use the Ouija board is really fascinating. There is a group of researchers in Vancouver that have done quite a few clinical studies on how your brain waves change around Ouija.
Do you have any final Ouija thoughts for us Murch?
Throughout human history, we create these things to explain what at the time is unexplainable, and the Ouija board falls into this category. What is unique about death is we are no closer to knowing what happens when you die than a caveman. We have crossed oceans of knowledge for cancer research and technology and yet here we are no closer on death. What happens? Where do you go? Death is not what divides us, death is the great equalizer. And the Ouija can help with our struggles to answer these questions. But the Ouija is not scary. What is scary about the Ouija board is you. The Ouija Board is a reflection of our relationship with death, but it is also a reflection of us.