The Ouija board speaks; Dare we listen? Maybe we're the ones making it talk!

This story originally appeared in the Wednesday, October 27, 2004 edition of The Kansas City Star

You're supposed to use your Ouija board to contact the dearly departed, like Elvis or Marilyn Monroe or Millard Fillmore. Right?

Thing is, some of us never got that memo. Some of us were 10 years old and playing Ouija with our gray-haired grandmas, asking deep questions like: "Will it snow enough tonight so school will be canceled tomorrow?"

And we swore we weren't moving the pointer thing across the board, and Grandma claimed she wasn't, either.

How the heck do those things work?

This being a few days before Halloween, it seemed like a good time to look into this. It may surprise you to learn that even some hard-core skeptics, people who don't necessarily believe in poltergeists or angels or an afterlife, think the Ouija board pointer can appear to move on its own. But they do have an explanation - and it doesn't involve the spirit world.

There are also those who think that the devil is in the Ouija board and that people - kids especially - should never mess around with them.

So who's right? Who's wrong? Here (and on Page F-8) we've conjured some information.

Ouija: Say it "wee-gee" or "wee-ja."

Yes: "Ouija" is a combination of the French and German words for "yes." So you could call it a "Yes Yes" board. Even if it tells you "No No."

A: Before Ouija boards became popular in this country, some spiritualists practiced "automatic writing." While the medium sat in a trance, her hand would write out messages.

B: Most any baby boomer knows what a Ouija board is. Anecdotal evidence suggests, however, that Ouija's heyday is over. The Parker Brothers version is hard to come by these days; the Wal-Marts and Targets we checked don't carry it. (Hasbro doesn't divulge sales information.)

D: The Parker Brothers disclaimer on this board's box: "Ouija talking board is a great mystery, and we do not claim that at all times and under all circumstances it will work equally well, but we do claim that with reasonable patience and judgment it will satisfy your greatest expectations."

E: Supposedly, the teenage boy who inspired "The Exorcist" was obsessed with his Ouija board.

I: Some say it's "ideomotor," or automatic, response that makes your hands move the Ouija pointer. You don't even realize you're pushing it.

K: In 1935, a Ouija board informed Mrs. Nellie Hurd of Kansas City that her 77-year-old husband, Herbert, had given $15,000 to a woman with whom he was having an affair. Nellie beat, burned and tortured her husband, but he never persuaded her the Ouija was lying. Finally, in desperation, he killed her.

O: The Ouija board is old. Various ancient cultures, including American Indians, employed versions of it. The philosopher Pythagoras, back in 540 B.C., used a "mystic table" on wheels that moved toward signs, which were interpreted as communications from the unseen world.

P: That heart-shaped thingie that moves across the Ouija board and spells out words? That's the planchette, aka pointer or "mysterious message indicator." The original mid-19th century planchette was similar to the modern version, except one of its three legs was a pencil that wrote messages or drew pictures.

R: The Raphael hotel in KC offers a "Girlfriends Getaway" package that includes use of a Ouija board, that slumber-party staple.

S: Ouija boards became popular in the mid-19th century during the spiritualism movement. National Ouija crazes were later reported in the 1930s,'40s, '60s and '70s. In 1967, Parker Brothers reportedly sold 2 million Ouija boards, besting the company's perennial top seller, the Monopoly game.

2: The Parker Brothers directions: "Place Ouija talking board upon the laps of two persons facing each other, lady and gentleman preferred. Place Ouija mysterious message indicator in center of Ouija talking board resting fingers with the least possible pressure upon the mysterious message indicator, allowing it to move freely over Ouija talking board in all directions ..." Then start asking questions.

4: Here's a good Ouija story: Four college girls were playing with a Ouija board and asked it when each would die. For three of them, the pointer gave dates from 40 to 60 years in the future. But for the fourth, the date was later that same year. Sure enough, on that day, the young woman died in a car crash. (This story is told in Edmond C. Gruss' book The Ouija Board: A Doorway to the Occult.)

Bye: More than 30 percent of Ouija board users try to communicate with the dead, according to a 1983 survey by author Stoker Hunt. Almost as many try to reach living people. Others attempt to contact spirits, angels, pets, etc., or find lost objects. Some ask the board for guidance.

Salem, Mass.: Oooooh, home of the Salem Witch Trials. Parker Brothers bought the Ouija rights in 1966 and moved the company William Fuld founded from Baltimore to Salem. This board has a copyright date of 1972, a year before the movie "The Exorcist" came out.

William Fuld: He didn't actually invent the American version of Ouija, but in 1892 he bought out the guy who did. His company became known as the Baltimore Talking Board Co. Fuld also gave his spirit board the name "Ouija."