Possession or Reflex? Ouija Boards Explained

 Photo credit: cultofweird.com

Photo credit: cultofweird.com

When it comes to exploring and communicating with the paranormal, one device has stood out amongst the rest for years: the Ouija board. Commercialized in 1890, the Ouija board has fascinated and terrified people all over the world. But can it really bridge the gap between our reality and another, or is it just a simple parlour game designed to deceive gullible players?

If you happen to be unfamiliar with the concept, a Ouija board is a flat board, often made of wood, marked with the digits 0-9, the alphabet, and the words “yes,” “no,” “hello,” and “goodbye” in its corners. Participants place a small heart or triangle-shaped piece of wood or plastic with a hole in its centre (a planchette) on the board, touching it only with their fingertips. They then address a spirit or entity, and the planchette seems to magically move around the board to spell out an answer. This typically requires two or more people so that no one can take the blame for moving the planchette themselves to spell out their desired answer. 

But how does it really work? There are two main opposing theories about Ouija boards: the spiritualist theory vs. the ideomotor effect. 

The spiritualist theory is fairly straightforward, but obviously bears much more of a ghostly appeal than its adversary. Mediums and psychics often use ouija boards to communicate with the dead. The idea is that the spirit itself is controlling the planchette, and using the many hands of the participants as its vehicle for a message from the beyond. If all participants are honest, and maintain only a light touch on the planchette, it’s very easy to believe that it is being controlled by a disembodied power. People can find comfort in the fact that a passed loved one is communicating with them from the afterlife, while ghost hunters and amateurs alike can use Ouija boards to enhance their exploration of haunted places, or even pursue contact with demons or other ethereal visitors. 

The second theory behind the mystery of the Ouija board is based on scientific research. While much less spooky than our other topics discussed on this blog, it is still extremely interesting (and perhaps reassuring) to learn of the psychological phenomenon that is the ideomotor effect. The ideomotor effect is essentially your body communicating with itself, without your mind consciously being aware of it. When it comes to using a Ouija board, your mind is subconsciously taking in suggestions, and producing the answers on its own through tiny, reflexive movements. This is also why the Ouija board seems to work much better in larger groups. With the lack of responsibility for who is moving the planchette, everyone’s minds become free to generate a strange and ominous message. The planchette itself further helps this process, as it points to and directs the flow of a sentence, prompting your muscles to form something coherent. If Ouija board users were to, for example, roll a marble randomly across the board, the effects would most likely be much more disjointed. In several studies, researchers had participants control the planchette on their own, or use the ouija board blindfolded. They were not able to find any messages. 

Whether you believe that Ouija boards are a portal to communication from the beyond, or just a big fat hoax, they will always remain an important and fascinating cornerstone of occult and supernatural history. Why not give it a try with some friends? Just remember, always say Goodbye. If you manage to contact a spirit or demon, it’s best to keep those portals closed when the conversation is over.


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Grace Mahaffy is a 19-year-old Professional Writing Student who has lived in Ottawa virtually forever. She enjoys visual art, music, literature, and spending quality time with her dog. She also has a healthy enthusiasm for exploring unsolved crimes and all things eerie and mysterious.

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Grace Mahaffy

Grace Mahaffy is a 19-year-old Professional Writing Student who has lived in Ottawa virtually forever. She enjoys visual art, music, literature, and spending quality time with her dog. She also has a healthy enthusiasm for exploring unsolved crimes and all things eerie and mysterious.