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October 24, 2014

Consulting the Oracle

Filed under: Our Favorite Things — Lori Williamson @ 3:12 pm

I do not consider myself a person who scares easily. That being said, when I came across a Ouija board and planchette in the storage space at the Minnesota History Center, under the watchful glass eyes of a Great Horned Owl and around the corner from the collection of death masks, it gave me pause.

The Ouija board is one of the most iconic board games in America. The first patented game was created by the Kennard Novelty Company of Baltimore, Maryland, in 1891 in response to a growing fascination with spiritualism and the paranormal. To play, participants place their fingertips on the planchette and watch as messages are spelled out on the board, allegedly by the influence of spirits.

During most of the 20th Century the Ouija board was little more than an intriguing novelty toy, frequently played at parties and gatherings across the country. The game was mass produced in various styles, such as this board created by Parker Brothers, Inc., circa 1967. While there were certainly people who took it more seriously than others, the game was generally considered harmless fun.

That changed with the release of horror movies in the 1970’s and 80’s that portrayed Ouija boards at instruments of evil spirits and demons, such as The Exorcist in 1973 (this is also the year the board was donated to the Minnesota Historical Society). People began to view the game as frightening, while religious groups across the country condemned it as in tool of the devil, a practice that has continued even into the 21st Century.

These days, Ouija boards remain popular everywhere from slumber parties to pop culture, and there are all sorts of stories floating around about chilling experiences and revelations from using them. And even though scientists have established that the messages are created by the unconscious movements of the participants and not spiritual interference, the mysterious nature of the Ouija board lives on.

Seeing the board in the museum certainly makes me wonder…what stories would it tell?

Stephanie Olson
Collections Assistant

Learn more about the history and science of the Ouija board in the Smithsonian Magazine.

Follow-up: this was caught happening this morning in Collections storage! Happy Halloween everyone!

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