I acquired a Ouija board this summer for the “Science Vs. Pseudoscience” class. (It belonged to my staunchly Methodist grandmother, of all people. I have no idea why she had it.) When I started talking about my plans to use it in the course, I mostly got responses on the “sounds cool” spectrum, but a few people reacted very strongly in a fearful way. Of all the topics in this course, I honestly didn’t expect this one to be a controversial one, so the strong reactions as usual started me thinking.
I have the board in front of me now. My guess is it’s 1960s vintage, based on the appearance and the artwork on it. The board itself is Masonite, with a printed paper facing. The specific model is the “William Fuld Talking Board Set” by the Parker Brothers company. The description hedges all bets by pitching the board simultaneously as “[t]he latest and most scientific method of fortune telling” and “never failing amusement and recreation for the entire family”. The pointer (or “message indicator”) is cheap flimsy plastic with what looks like an ordinary upholstery tack to do the actual pointing. The word “Ouija” (pronounced WEE-GEE or WE-JA) itself is a registered trademark of Parker Brothers, or was at the time of manufacture.
I’m a physicist, so I tend to look for causation: if there is anything to fear in a Ouija board, it simply can’t be inherent in the board itself. Many things are made with Masonite and plastic and upholstery tacks, and Parker Brothers publishes a huge variety of games and other products. In other words, if there is anything to be frightened about a Ouija board, it must be in its use.
I’m pretty skeptical of psychic claims, Ouija, Tarot, and the like. Since I don’t believe in them, I don’t traffic in them. I wouldn’t use a Ouija board for fun any more than I would for divining, not because I fear them, but because I’m sure they have no access to any deep truth. (For that matter, I wouldn’t go to a psychic for similar reasons.) I have trouble believing they can tell the future or subject me to evil influences because I simply can’t see how it would happen. It’s not exactly a reassuring thought, but it does mean I don’t see any reason for concern that I have this Ouija board sitting on my bookshelf.
So here’s where the issue becomes sticky: some who think there is reason to fear Ouija boards, Tarot decks, and the like are genuinely concerned for my safety, sanity, or soul, in much the same way I would be concerned if someone was engaging in physically risky behavior like driving on icy roads or working while extremely sleep-deprived. It’s no consolation to them that I don’t believe any of it. After all, if evolution or gravity or quantum mechanics are correct whether or not we believe in them, why should Ouija be any different? If it’s true, it’s true whether I’m receptive or not. (I won’t get into the question right now of whether skepticism influences the results of psychic experiments, as is sometimes claimed. Maybe another day!)
The question is how I, as a scientist and educator, can address these concerns without belittling genuine fears I happen to think are unfounded. I have no desire to attack people when I take on ideas. I think it is exceedingly important to separate things from people. Ultimately, the problem with Ouija and the like is not communication with the dead, but with the living.
Further resources on how Ouija boards actually “work”: