On its website this week -- just in time for Halloween -- the
Smithsonian posted a fascinating article on the "strange and
mysterious" Ouija board.
In the article, freelance journalist Linda Rodriguez McRobbie
traces the sometimes bizarre history of this 120-year-old "talking
board" -- how it evolved from the 19th-century obsession with
spiritualism (the belief that the dead could communicate with the
living), how its popularity increased during periods of fear and
uncertainty (the 1930s and 1960s, for example -- and, yes, today),
and how the 1973 movie "The Exorcist," which featured a Ouija board,
led religious groups to denounce the game (it is, after all, sold by
a toy company) as "Satan's preferred method of communication."
For decades, writes McRobbie, spiritualism was generally
considered "compatible with Christian dogma, meaning one could hold
a seance on Saturday night and have no qualms about going to church
the next day."
But after "The Exorcist," Ouija boards became viewed by
conservative religious leaders as dangerous unleashers of demons. As
recently as 2001, boards were being tossed on bonfires along with
copies of Harry Potter books and Snow White videos. (Although,
apparently, some people believe that burning a Ouija board will
cause its owner to become possessed by demons.)
The psychology behind the boards
All that history is intriguing, of course, but McRobbie also
devotes a significant part of her article to the psychology of Ouija
boards, specifically how they work and what they tell us about the
Psychologists have actually used the game to gain insight into
how the mind processes different levels of information.
In terms of how the boards work, well, that phenomenon was
identified by scientists 160 years ago, and it has nothing to do
with demons or the dead. It's called the ideometer effect -- the
automatic movement of muscles that takes place without the
individual being consciously aware of it. The ideometer effect
explains, for example why we cry in response to a sad scene in a
movie or why we pull our hand away from a hot stove.
When the effect occurs during a Ouija-board seance, it can be
very convincing, even spine-chillingly so (to those unfamiliar with
the science behind it). Writes McRobbie:
As Dr. Chris French, professor of psychology and anomalistic
psychology at Goldsmiths, University of London, explains, "It can
generate a very strong impression that the movement is being caused
by some outside agency, but it's not." Other devices, such as
dowsing rods, or more recently, the fake bomb detection kits that
deceived scores of international governments and armed services,
work on the same principal of non-conscious movement.
"The thing about all these mechanisms we're talking about,
dowsing rods, Ouija boards, pendulums, these small tables, they're
all devices whereby quite a small muscular movement can cause quite
a large effect," he says. …