Retro-future: Ouija boards

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 (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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26 thoughts on “Retro-future: Ouija boards”

  1. Reetta RaitanenReetta Raitanen

    Thanks for sharing the origins of Ouija. Me and my friends tried it as teenagers with a board marked with alphabets and a glass. It was a creepy feeling when the glass moved and all of us swore they didn’t move it.
    And gosh, the teens in most horror movies deserve Darwin Awards for removing their silly genes from reproduction pool. Cheap thrills.

  2. Julie GloverJulie Glover

    This is a perfect line, Kathy: “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.” How true, how very true. I didn’t know about the planchette. Interesting! I did enjoy reading a Molly Murphy mystery (In Like Flynn, I think) by Rhys Bowen that dealt with spiritualists around this time.

  3. PatriciaPatricia

    Oh I so remember those silly “horror” movies with the stupid teen-agers, especially girls.

    Never had me a Quija board, but I did “play” one time. It was sort of weird.

    Very interesting post about the panchette.

    Patricia Rickrode
    w/a Jansen Schmidt

  4. Zack KullisZack Kullis

    Kathy, I loved this post. I’m a huge fan of all things dark and creepy. Things that go bump in the night excite me.

    Ouija boards, yes, I remember them. The boards and seance attempts were always creepy. But the creepiness seemed to increase as I became older.

    I lived for some time in Brazil, and being exposed to belief systems such as Macumba, Candomblé and Santeria allowed me to become more accepting and open-minded towards beliefs that I might have otherwise laughed at. I saw things that are best left in stories.

    Having an open mind (as an adult) to other possibilities, to the outré, can make for a very interesting Ouija board experience.

    Try it out for Halloween this year, and see if it doesn’t raise your hackles! 😉


  5. August McLaughlinAugust McLaughlin

    My grandma claimed to have seen a ouija board-topped table rise up in the air and move across the room in India. My mom told me that story as a kid, so I was completely freaked out by them. I tinkered with one once at a slumber party. Simply believing them haunted is enough to freak me out of my mind. LOL

  6. Kassandra LambKassandra Lamb

    Ah, yes, Ouija boards. They were so much fun at slumber parties. Why didn’t I ever get suspicious when the board always spelled out my current boyfriend’s name in response to the question, “Who will I marry?” Loved this look into the origins and uses of its predecessor, the planchette.

  7. Renee Schuls-JacobsonRenee Schuls-Jacobson

    Remember? I swear that thing totally works. I can’t talk about it. Sooooo creepy. I’m just going to say my friend Mary’s Ouija board predicted that I would marry a person whose name started with an “M.”

    Thirty years later, I married Mark!

    Wait, Mary is gay. Do you think she was trying to tell me something? Hmmm. Might have to rethink that whole “spooky” thing and go with funny. Or coincidental.


    I’m sticking with spooky! 😉

  8. Paul OwenPaul Owen

    I remember the one party I went to where we used a Ouija board. I think I was nine years old at the time. It spelled out the names of everyone in the room, then said, “VERY MAD. GO AWAY. Goodbye.” Totally freaked me out. My Mom had to reassure me that none of it was real so that I could sleep that night.

  9. Debbie JohanssonDebbie Johansson

    I’ve never tried using a Ouija board – that was something that was considered too spooky. Instead we tried the glass when we were kids, which ended up being a very lame attempt! A while ago I read ‘Ghost Hunters’ by Deborah Blum about spiritualism in the 19th century. Such a fascinating read. Interesting post on a great subject!

  10. Perry Block (@PerryBlock)Perry Block (@PerryBlock)

    Do I remember Ouija boards?

    Many people are still trying to communicate with me through them!

  11. Gloria RichardGloria Richard

    Slumber parties? Ouija boards? One wasn’t complete without the other. But, I never got freaked out by the boards ability to answer.


    Because I was one of those sneaky ones who “thought” it into going to the letters I wanted. I stop short of saying I cheated. Who’s to say I don’t have psychic powers. Right? [Cue Twilight Zone music.]

    Despite the above youthful shenanigans, I agree with Zack. I choose not to disbelieve in things just because I haven’t yet experienced them. Not everything is based on logic and science.

    Side note to K.B. — LOVED your comments on Nat’s site yesterday. I HAD to KA-SNORT at some of them when I read comments this morning. And, if you aren’t going to use your Bladder Diary idea for a character, can I steal it? I have an inept middle-aged character who might actually purchase one of those “thingies.” There are comedic scenes roiling around in my noggin over the the possibilities.

  12. florence foisflorence fois

    Have to agree with Gloria on this one … or at least admit … we used it at slumber parties, but I was a total non-believer. Fast forward to now and what do I think? I still think we move it around the board with what is commonly known as “bio-feedback.” Ever hold a small weight attached to a thin line and concentrate until it moves first counter clock-wise or from right to left?? Psychic energy moves the board the same way. And yeah, I can get that little ball to move faster and better than anyone … Ooops … does that mean I have special powers ??

  13. Natalie HartfordNatalie Hartford

    Love the Ouija board!! Growing up, it was a staple at our sleepovers and parties. Such fun!! And I had no idea the origin. How cool is that…fabulous post Kathy. Makes me want to head out, pick up a new board and plan a seance! 🙂


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