A Ouija board is a flat board marked with letters, numbers, and other symbols, theoretically used to communicate with spirits. It uses a planchette or movable indicator to indicate the spirit’s message by spelling it out on the board during a seance. The fingers of the seance participants are placed on the planchette, which then moves about the board to spell out messages.
Users subconsciously direct the path of the triangle to produce a word that is in that person’s subconscious thought process. This subconscious behavior is known as ideomotor action, a term coined by William Carpenter in 1882. It is also known as automatism. Some people may be convinced that the powers of the ouija board are real because they are unaware that they are in fact moving the piece and therefore assume that the piece must be moving due to some other spiritual force.
The subconscious thought process may produce an answer that is different from what the user expected in their conscious thought process, thus perpetuating the idea that the board has mystical powers. One experiment was conducted using unbiased participants. Questions were asked of the late William Frawley with very strong answers. The participants were then blindfolded and the board was turned 180 degrees without their knowledge. With continued questioning, the planchette then traveled to bare areas of the board where the participants believed the Yes and No marks were located.
The first historical mention of a Ouija board is found in China around 1100 B.C., with a divination method known as fuji or planchette writing. Other sources claim that according to a Greek historical account of the philosopher Pythagoras, in 540 B.C. his sect would conduct seances at a mystic table, moving on wheels, moved towards signs, which the philosopher and his pupil, Philolaus, interpreted to the audience as being revelations supposedly from an unseen world.
There are several theories about the origin of the term Ouija. The Oxford English Dictionary states that the origin is unknown, but mentions three possibilities. According to one of these, the word is derived from the French oui and the German ja, both meaning yes. An alternative story suggests that the name was revealed to inventor Charles Kennard during a Ouija seance and was claimed to be an Ancient Egyptian word meaning good luck. It has also been suggested that the word was inspired by the name of the Moroccan city Oujda.