Story at a glance
- The Ouija Board was patented in 1891 by lawyer Elijah Bond.
- In 2007, Bond’s grave in Baltimore was marked with a headstone based on a Ouija Board.
- The game is based on involuntary muscle movement and plays on our fears of the unknown.
- The game really took off after it was criticized by the Catholic Church and remains popular today.
If you have the Addams Family gene, finding joy in what’s conventionally considered morbid or creepy or just bad juju, you should have a stroll through Baltimore’s Green Mount Cemetery. No need to magnify your experience by bringing a Ouija board. There’s already one there…forever. And ever.
Green Mount is the burial site of Elijah Bond, who patented the Ouija Board on Feb. 10, 1891 and whose headstone is a replica of the uniquely named, ever-spooky toy through which we — the living — can allegedly commune with the dead.
Bond wasn’t a spiritualist — he was a lawyer — but in the late 1800s, a craze for talking to the dead was sweeping America. There were numerous devices contrived to bridge the communication gap between us and the deceased.
For the first talking boards “they basically turned a basket upside down and stuffed a pencil through it and then wrote on pieces of paper underneath it,” says Frank McAndrew, a social psychologist at Knox College who writes about our relationship with the paranormal.
The Museum of Talking Boards lists myriad ways people tried to facilitate communication, including one that was a board with lettering on it. People would put their hands on a “little table,” and the spirits would spell out messages.
The force that makes that little table, or planchette, seem like it’s moving, aside from spirits or someone doing it on purpose, is called the ideomotor effect. Aja Romano describes it on Vox as involuntary muscle movement, kind of like when you jerk yourself awake, but much smaller.
Bond was part of a group of businessmen who had gone in on the project together and is listed as the inventor on the 1891 patent. He and Charles Kennard manufactured the board as the Kennard Novelty Company.
After only a year promoting and getting patents for the board in other countries the board didn’t take off in England and Bond was forced out.
Bond was initially buried in an unmarked grave, but in 2007 a group of Ouija enthusiasts, led by founder and Chairman of the Talking Board Historical Society and world renowned Ouija collector Robert Murch, worked with the cemetery to put the new stone up in Bond’s honor.
“It sometimes happens that a group that has some connection with the deceased will contact descendants for permission to install a headstone,” when a grave was unmarked, says Tammi Prysiazny, manager of Green Mount Cemetery, via email, who was there when the new stone was installed.
“We do have a substantial number of visitors who ask to see Elijah Bond's grave,” Prysiazny says.
Green Mount Cemetery spans 68 acres and is home to other famous grave sites — including John Wilkes Booth and Johns Hopkins — and grand, gothic monuments. It was perfect to visit on a sodden, gray day in October, which is when I got to visit last year.
At the cemetery entrance you can get a map highlighting whatever grave you’re looking for, but even with that it was hard to finding Bond in area J, lot 20. We wandered in search for a good ten minutes, like planchettes on a Ouija board that haven’t tapped into the spirits yet. They eventually favored my friend Susan, who found the tombstone somewhat close to the pathway and now seemingly hard to miss. It looks newly minted and will likely look that way for a long time, though it will only gain in character as it gets weathered.
That vibe of the Ouija, as something slightly spooky, creepy, even terrifying hasn’t always been the case.
America in the late 19th century was reeling from the carnage of the Civil War. Joseph Laycock, associate professor of religious studies at Texas State University, writes in The Conversation that communing with those lost in the war was part of the popularity of the Spiritualist movement, an optimistic, progressive philosophy that promoted talking with the dead and which eventually spawned the talking boards.
“It was just kind of a harmless parlor game that nobody worried about,” McAndrew says.
Then “the Catholic church got wind of it,” McAndrew says and decided it was dangerous because you could think you’re communicating with your dead relatives, but it could really be evil spirits. You could be demonically catfished. It happens on the web all the time.
In 1919, a church-authorized book called “The New Black Magic and the Truth About the Ouija Board” warned against Christians having the talking boards in their homes.
“So, once the Catholic church came out in full force against it, it became immensely popular,” McAndrew says. It had “this whole aura around it,” of dark mystery. By 1967, one year after Parker Brothers acquired the Ouija Board, it outsold Monopoly.
The 2016 horror film “Ouija: Origin of Evil” is set in 1967, and a portable portal to hell must have seemed like a gift from the gods to the horror movie genre. It goes all the way back to a 1920 Max Fleischer short, “Out of the Inkwell: Koko and the Haunted House,” in which an animator and a janitor playing with a Ouija board seem to conjure ghosts from a Haunted House drawn for Koko the clown (Warning, this film contains imagery that is racist by today’s standards.)
The best was certainly “The Exorcist,” in 1973. Little Regan McNeil is in the basement playing with her Ouija board and talking to a spirit named Captain Howdy, which may well be the devil himself finding a way to possess the child (Awesome trivia: Captain Howdy is the name of the distinctive font used on the board).
From a social psychology perspective “creepiness is all about uncertainty,” McAndrew says. Things aren’t as they should be, and you don’t know what to expect.
If you get attacked by a bear, for example, that’s terrifying, but it’s not creepy because the danger is clear.
Creepiness is when you’re not sure if there’s something to be afraid of or not, McAndrew says.
“You go into this spooky place and you hear sounds, wind whistling through the cracks in the wall. Is there someone else here? Or something else here? Or not?” That’s what creepy feels like, he says.
That makes the Ouija experience creepy by default because “even if you don’t really believe in it, you’re surrounded by other people that do, and if you believe there’s such things as spirits, well,” the uncertainty of what will happen can get right under your skin.
When I ask my friend Susan if she played Ouija as a kid she said no — it was too creepy.
“Someone would always move the planchette and it would scare me to death,” she said.
Full disclosure: I was always the kid who moved the planchette.