Ouija board and planchette, via wikimedia (cc)

October: the month for general spookiness.  Halloween ghosts, tombstones, skeletons, etc, have been popping up in my yard/neighborhood, and probably in yours, too.

Even in my historical mystery-writing, it’s been all about the spooky lately.  I’ve been elbow-deep in a scene where my spirit medium character, Madame Durand, attempts to get answers from the spirit world.

When?  All Hallow’s Eve, 1896.  Madame puts on quite a show for the occasion.  19th century mediums used lots of devices in their seances and stage performances, from trumpets to tables to tablets.  For more info, check out these posts: female spirit mediums and fakers and fakery.

In my novel (working title: Unseemly Pursuits), Madame employs one tool in particular to great effect:  the planchette.

In the picture above, you see the little heart-shaped thing next to the Ouija board?  That’s the planchette.  When used in tandem with a Ouija board, it acts as a pointer, coming to rest on the various pre-printed letters and words to convey a message.

However, in the late 19th century, the Ouija board wasn’t widely available yet (Elijah Bond and Charles Kennard applied for the patent in 1890), so the planchette – or “talking board” as it was also called –  was used alone.  In its stand-alone form it was much larger, with a hole for a pencil at its pointed end (instead of a viewing window) and tiny wheels on its base.  Paper was placed on the table beneath the board, and the pencil could then trace out “spirit writing” in answer to questions.  The sketch in the advertisement below gives a better idea of what a 19th century planchette was like:

image via wikimedia.org (cc)

Even though mediums and psychics of the time employed such “spirit devices,” they were also sold in toy shops as harmless parlor entertainment.

As far as parlor entertainment goes, I suppose things don’t change very much; Ouija boards were a sleepover staple when I was a kid, being more interactive than a “Magic 8 ball” and less scary than a seance.  Unless you watch a horror movie where one is featured; then, using a Ouija board is a really bad idea.  (By the way, don’t you feel like slapping those stupid teen characters who appear in horror films?  “Don’t open that door, can’t you hear the creepy music?” “Oh, come on, don’t split up and look for your missing friends!”  “Don’t unleash the forces of the Underworld by using the Ouija board!”)

Oh, well.

Want to learn more?

Museum of Talking Boards

Mysterious Planchette

Devices | Museum of the Macabre.

Do you remember Ouija boards?  How about stupid teens in bad horror movies?  I’d love to hear from you!

Until next time,


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