Yes/No/Goodbye: Ouija Board Tales of the '90s
You're moving it! Or...are you?
Welcome back to *Cash Register Alert*, a ‘90s and ‘00s newsletter named after the greatest sound on AIM. It’s officially Spooky Szn, and what better way to celebrate than with a trip down memory lane straight to a sleepover with your BFFs where you gathered around a Ouija board to conjure some spirits or, y’know, find out if your crush liked you back. But before we get into it, a friendly reminder that the year is actually 2020, not 1995 (sigh) and the presidential election is less than a month away (!!!). Visit vote.org for all the resources you need to make your voting plan, and talk to your friends & family to make sure they have theirs too. And now, let’s talk about some ghosts!
Ask any millennial if they ever played with a Ouija board as a kid, and you’re likely to hear some eerie anecdote. But despite the game’s widespread popularity in the ‘90s, very little is known about the true origin of the Ouija board — though plenty have tried to figure it out.
According to historian Robert Murch, who has spent decades researching this subject, the board’s existence can be traced back to the 1800s, when people turned to devices like the Ouija in order to feel connected with loved ones who had died. Its name was created in 1890 by a medium known as Helen Peters. As the story goes, she asked the board what she should call it, and the planchette supposedly spelled out O-U-I-J-A, which is said to mean “good luck.”
As noted by The Guardian, Murch explains that the Ouija’s commercial success is often attributed to businessman William Fuld, although there are many others who have been tied to the Ouija’s history, along with several investors who played a key role in the game we know today. Fuld eventually died after experiencing a fatal — and pretty mysterious — accident in 1927, and the Ouija business was operated by his family until the 1960s, after which it was sold to Parker Brothers. Today, the Ouija board is available from Hasbro.
Obviously that’s a very condensed history lesson (for additional reading, try here, here, or here) and there’s plenty more to be said about the Ouija’s creepy legacy (like the story of the Fox sisters, two girls living in the mid-1800s who claimed they were communicating with spirits who would knock on the walls to answer their questions). And if you feel like finding a really big ghost, you can always check out the world’s largest Ouija board in Salem, MA.
The Ouija board was a constant presence at ‘90s sleepovers.
For the average ‘90s kid, our relationship with the Ouija board was an interesting one. My friends and I could often be found huddled around one at sleepovers, all our hands gently resting atop the planchette while we accused each other of “moving it” in whispered voices. (In reality, it probably wasn’t a ghost as much as it was the ideomotor effect, or unconscious, involuntary bodily movements — but ghosts are way more fun.)
To be sure, my friends and I were more likely to ask the Ouija board about our crushes as opposed to conjuring any spirits, but that’s not to say we didn’t occasionally dabble in the supernatural. (Bloody Mary and Light as a Feather, Stiff as a Board were other popular pastimes.) One friend of mine even convinced me that she knew how to talk to ghosts, and we often spent afternoons with the lights off and curtains drawn, trying to get a glimpse of something, anything to affirm that spirits were real.
While practical folks might use logic and science to dismiss the Ouija board, there are enough chilling stories out there that should give even the biggest skeptic pause. In working on this issue, I chatted with a few millennials who told me some pretty wild Ouija experiences — here are a few of my favorites:
“In 7th grade, I asked the Ouija board to tell me the initials of the person I would marry. The planchette said R and then wouldn’t move anymore. But now I’m married to someone whose first name starts with R….and her last name also starts with R. We didn’t meet until after college.” —Jessica, 33
“At a sleepover once, we asked the Ouija board if there was a spirit in the room and it said Yes. We then asked if they were nice, and it said No. Immediately after that, the power went out. Could have been a coincidence (it was thunderstorming lol)...but we didn’t use the Ouija board anymore after that!” —Heather, 29
“My aunt’s house was clearly haunted; weird stuff would happen all the time when growing up. Lights would be on when you knew you turned them off, there would be cold spots in rooms and hot spots in others, that kind of thing. When I was in 5th grade, I brought a Ouija board to her house when we came over for dinner and tried to contact a ghost. None of those weird things ever happened again after that day. It was like the ghost knew we knew and decided to leave.” —Chris, 34
“I don’t really believe in ghosts, but my best friend and I did ask the Ouija board once where we would go to college. We were like 12 or 13 at the time so we weren’t even thinking about schools but we were excited about college as an idea. For me, the board spelled out AU and for my best friend it said WS. We still talk about this and I tell this story all the time, because I ended up at UT Austin and she went to Washington State University. You can’t tell me the Ouija board doesn’t work!” —Dana, 36
TBH, the Ouija board answered more than we might think.
Sleepover memories and icebreaker stories aside, the Ouija has been around for centuries because it’s clearly more than just a fun game or a party trick. The board’s popularity, which has sliced through generations, speaks to our very human curiosity about death and the spiritual world. For some, ghosts are scary, the things of horror movies and nightmares. To others, they’re comforting: a reminder that what once was still is, that our worlds can overlap, that loved ones are still with us, that, as they say in The Haunting of Bly Manor (AKA my current Netflix obsession), “dead doesn’t mean gone.”
The Ouija board may have told us who we’d dance with at the next middle school dance. It may have told us spirits were real. And even when it didn’t say anything at all, it still told us something: there are some things that can’t be explained, and even when logic is present, sometimes it’s just more fun to believe in the alternative.