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Ouija: How Does It Work?

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Your fingertips lightly touch the edge of the planchette. Your friend does the same on the opposite side. You consciously move the planchette in circles around the board to get it "warmed up." Then you ask your question. No response at first. Then slowly the planchette begins to move, seemingly on its own - at least you're not trying to move it. Sliding from one letter to the next, the planchette spells out its answer. And it seems to fit. More questions are asked, and with increasing speed the Ouija provides its responses, letter by letter. Seemingly with significance. Sometimes with dark significance.

What's behind the Ouija? How does it work? Is it, as the manufacturer suggests, a harmless game? Or is something more sinister involved? In a poll of readers conducted at this site, 65 percent believed the Ouija to be a dangerous tool. While a majority of respondents (41 percent) believed that the board was controlled by the users' subconscious, 37 percent believed it was controlled by spirits, and 14 percent feared that it was under the influence of demonic spirits.

THE FASCINATING "GAME"

The Ouija board as we know it dates back to the late 1800s when at the height of the spiritualist movement it was a popular parlor game. Over the years, many manufacturers have marketed Ouijas and other "talking boards." At The Museum of Talking Boards - one of the best websites about the Ouija - you can see and read about the many incarnations of the board. Currently, apart from the familiar Ouija board marketed by Parker Brothers (now part of Hasbro), there are about eight other styles of talking boards that all work in pretty much the same way - with a pair of hands resting on a planchette that points to words or spells out answers to questions asked.

Why to many people believe that spirits make the Ouija's plastic planchette move? For one, because they cannot understand how their subconscious might be doing it. For another, the Ouija itself often tells them so. It's not uncommon for users to ask during a session, "Who is controlling this board?" And very often the Ouija will oblige the users, spelling out a name unknown to the users. Further inquiries sometimes reveal that the controlling spirit died recently, or some other such drama, and can provide cryptic messages and even warnings to the users. Too often, however, users take these messages at face value, never considering that they could be coming from their own imaginations.

GHOSTS OR MUSCLES?

So which is it? Are we controlling the Ouija or not? The Museum of Talking Boards articulates the two prevailing theories on how the Ouija works - the spiritualist theory and the automatism theory:

The Spiritualist Theory - Ouija messages obviously come from forces beyond our control. You contact or "channel" these entities through the board. They are discarnate spirits, ghosts, or other ethereal beings who have a purpose for contacting the living. Many advocates of the Spiritualist Theory think that there is no harm in contacting the other realm because most spirits are basically benign and have important information to share. A few of these same advocates will perform elaborate cleansing rituals before using the board, just in case they run into a stinker. Other Spiritualist Theory supporters believe that no one should ever use the Ouija board. Malevolent forces can masquerade as good and cause emotional damage, even death to the user of the board. They offer as proof the many accounts of spirit possession reported by "experts" on the occult and demonology.

The Automatism Theory - The clinical term is "ideomotor response." You may not know that you are moving the message indicator, but you are. This is similar to automatic writing, also know as automatism, a well-understood phenomenon. Mediums in years past, would hold a pencil in one hand and pay no attention as it wrote furiously. Some believed that these written messages came from the spirits. Others felt that the messages came from a clever medium. At any rate, most proponents of the Automatism Theory generally accept that it is very possible to move the planchette unconsciously. They claim that the Ouija board opens a kind of shortcut from the conscious to the subconscious mind. Collective automatism occurs when more than one person is operating the board.

THE IDEOMOTOR EFFECT

The Skeptic's Dictionary says: "The ideomotor effect refers to involuntary and unconscious motor behavior. The term "ideomotor action" was coined by William Carpenter in 1882 in his explanation for the movements of dowsing rods and pendulums by dowsers, and table turning by spirit mediums. The movement of pointers on Ouija boards is also due to the ideomotor effect.

"Carpenter argued that muscular movement can be initiated by the mind independently of volition or emotions. We may not be aware of it, but suggestions can be made to the mind by others or by observations. Those suggestions can influence the mind and affect motor behavior. What is purely physiological, however, appears to some to be paranormal."

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