A Ouija board is the name generally used to refer to a device which is also known as a spirit board or a talking board. It consists of a heart shaped pointer, called a planchette, and a flat board with the letters A to Z, the numbers zero to nine and the word "good-bye" printed on it. The word "hello" is sometimes printed on the board also, as well as decorative images. The board is intended to be used by a group of people who each place one finger on the planchette. The planchette is then supposed to move around the board and spell out messages. The messages are supposed to come from spirits of the dead, although scientists hold that the participants are really moving the planchette themselves, unconsciously and involuntarily, making it spell out what they are already thinking. Of course, there have been many occasions on which one participant has sought to play a trick on the others and has consciously and deliberately moved the planchette and the others have simply followed his or her lead.
Although the name "Ouija" is normally used to refer to all talking boards, the word is in fact a registered trade mark of Hasbro Inc., which markets Ouija as part of its line of board games. Consequently, talking boards made by other manufacturers are sold under different names. People have also created their own homemade versions of the board by writing numbers, letters and simple phrases on scraps of paper and placing the paper scraps in a circle. An upturned drinking glass is often used instead of a planchette with homemade boards.
People may use Ouija boards to ask about the future, to ask how to solve a difficult problem, to contact loved ones who have passed on or to ask other spirits about their lives and deaths out of mere curiosity. The Pulitzer Prize winning poet James Merrill claimed that his works The Changing Light at Sandover, Mirabell: Book of Numbers and Scripts for the Pageant were dictated to him via a Ouija board. However, many people who have used a Ouija board have reported receiving deeply disturbing and offensive messaages and have regreted ever using the device.
Ouija boards evolved out of an earlier occult art known as automatic writing. For more than nine centuries, people have been trying to contact spirits and to learn the future by placing a writing implement inside a planchette. The earliest reference to automatic writing comes from China in the year 1100.
The American businessmen Elijah Bond and Charles Kennard first had the idea of combining a planchette with a pre-prepared board in the late 19th century, applying for a patent for their design on February 10, 1891. Kennard claimed that the name "Ouija' was supplied to him by using the board itself and that it was an ancient Egyptian word for "good luck".
In 1901, William Fuld, who had been one of Charles Kennard's employees, took over production of the board. Fuld claimed that the word "Ouija" simply came from the French word "oui' and the German word "ja" which both mean "yes' in English, this is the generally accepted origin of the name today. Fuld vigorously protected the copyright of the board's name and design until his death in 1927, frequenetly suing imitators.
In 1966, William Fuld's heirs sold the rights to Ouija to the game manufacturers Parker Brothers. In 1991, Parker Brothers was taken over by the toy company Hasbro inc., which holds the copyright to Ouija today.
The boards were not originally associated with ghosts in the popular mind, until the American Spiritualist Pearl Curran began to tout them as a means of contacting the dead during the First World War. Originally, the boards were simply seen as harmless, if somewhat mysterious, fun.
Religious groups from around the world have criticized Ouija boards as being potentially dangerous, although the strongest criticism has been from Evangelical Christians in the United States. Such groups have said that it is impossible to contact the dead and that Ouija users are really communicating with demons. Christian groups have also claimed that, by telling users about the future, Ouija boards are giving people information which should be known only to God, meaning that they must be tools of the Devil. In October 2001, Ouija boards were publicly burned by Fundamentalist Christians in Alamogordo, New Mexico as symbols of witchcraft.
At the same time and for partially-similar reasons, paranormal researchers often pan the use of the boards as, while they generally believe spirits can be reached through them, consensus holds that demons can be as well and the risk is too great for the untrained.
At the other end of the spectrum, Ouija boards have been criticized as a hoax, a con and a means of parting gullible people from their money.
Regardless of their true origins, messages conveyed via Ouija boards are often frightening, upsetting or insulting and cause a great deal of distress to those who read them.