by Alan Murdie

Depending upon your point of view, the ouija board is either a parlour game which taps into the unconscious mind, a legitimate way of contacting the spirit world or a dangerous practice that exposes users to malevolent discarnate entities. Those sharing the third of these perspectives will doubtless feel vindicated by the example  of three young Americans in Mexico who developed classic signs of possession after playing with a ouija board.

The three affected were all visiting family in the village of San Juan Tlacotenco in south-West Mexico. Within minutes of beginning their session with the board, Alexandra Huerta, 22, went into a trance and started growling and thrashing around. Her distress was soon shared by her brother Sergio, 23, and their cousin Fernando Cuevas, 18, both of whom experienced twitching muscles and hallucinations. Their frightened relatives called a local priest who declined to intervene (allegedly because the trio were not regular church-goers) forcing their family to seek medical help for them.

Paramedics who duly arrived reported that the stricken trio ‘… had involuntary movements and it was difficult to transfer them to the nearest hospital because they were so erratic’.  A clip of film showing Alexandra lying on a stretcher, growling and giggling maniacally was released to the press and can be viewed on the internet. On entering hospital, the three were given pain-killers with Victor Demesa, 46, the director of public safety in the nearby town of Tepoztlan, confirming: ‘The medical rescue of these three young people was very complicated’.

And indeed it might be, for although many similar cases have been recorded over the centuries, possession states – however occasioned  – can be hard to distinguish from a range of other recognised medical and psychiatric disorders, not to mention occasional frauds.

(Source: ‘Three American friends hospitalised after becoming ‘possessed’ following Ouija board game in Mexican village’  Daily Mail June 23 2014)

For a clip of this incident on You Tube see:

A variety of explanations may be postulated for this incident. One thing we can do is acquit the ouija board itself of blame. It is not the board that causes such problems per se, but more the mentality of those using it. Patented twice in the USA between 1891-92 ouija boards typically consist of no more than a flat wooden or cardboard  surface marked with the letters of the alphabet, numbers and the words “yes” and “no”, with a pointer fixed in the centre, which can be moved when the users’ fingers are placed lightly on top. Millions of such boards have been produced commercially, with the American courts having ruled ouija boards a game rather than a religious or spiritual tool, at least for taxation purposes, in 1921. Many users improvise with home-made boards, adapting an upturned wine glass or tumbler as a pointer. (See Ouija:The Most Dangerous Game (1976) by Stoker Hunt).

Although there were certainly many concerns expressed about spiritualism by mainstream religions prior to the Second World War, no-one really paid much attention to the ouija board in the beginning. Early views were that it was basically a form of automatic writing or planchette that involved laboriously spelling the letters rather than writing them, with many of the messages arising from the subconscious mind. In 1895 the psychical researcher Frederic Myers stated:

“Let me once more point out that there is nothing superstitious in experiments of this kind. We are not asking for such messages as authoritative revelations from the spirit world but rather as indications of what is going on in ourselves beneath the threshold of our consciousness.”

(See Journal of the SPR Vol 7 1895-96 p.31). The following year another practitioner, Ada Goodrich-Freer noted such messages, “….were often at best much on a level with nonsense dreams, suggested and aided by some subjective perceptions,” a view partly shared by the better-read theologians of the day, such as Dr John Nevius, author of Demon Possession and Allied Themes (1896) (See also The Science of Spirit Possession: A 21st century approach for research & intervention within the conceptual framework of F.W.H. Myers (2014)  by Terence Palmer).

Indeed, the ouija board was eclipsed by the much more impressive spirit channelling undertaken by many intellectuals during the 19th and early 20th century. These included Victor Hugo and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle who engaged in numerous experiments without any harm (save to their reputations) though they were often disappointed by the supposed “spirit” messages. Cambridge classicist Margaret Verrall and her daughter Helen Verrall used automatic writing for many years and never suffered; nor arguably did poet W.B. Yeats or his wife who channelled thousands of pages of material. If automatic writing and ouija channelling in particular were inherently dangerous activities then more evidence should date from this period. Just how widely known the ouija board was is shown by the true story from World War I of canny British soldiers in a Turkish Prisoner of War camp using one to trick their captors in an audacious escape plan. (See ‘The Road to En-dor’ (1920) by E.H. Jones, one of the soldiers involved).

The view that ouija boards are in some way especially dangerous only really developed when other forms of mediumship went into comparative decline. During the “occult explosion” of the 1960s there was much personal experimentation with ouija boards across North America, with sales of boards rivalling those of Monopoly by 1966. Stories of harmful ouija séances spread during this time, since irresponsible experimenting often unnerved and traumatised sensitive and unstable people.

There is no doubt that young people often succeed in scaring themselves by fooling with ouija boards. A notorious example from Britain occurred in March 1970 when eight public schoolboys who had formed an “Occult Society” at Arnold School, Blackpool terrified themselves with ouija messages obtained during a ghost hunt. Peter Roscoe, 16, and eight companions had been given the backing of their headmaster, Mr O.C. Wigmore, to hold a ghost hunt  in the cellar of a building at the school. During their vigil they held a ouija  séance and contacted the spirit of a woman murdered with an axe in 1854 and who claimed she was haunting the school for revenge; the spirit of an executed sailor also supposedly came through. The boys described the cellar becoming icy cold, and all suffered extreme fear and shock. Their trauma received widespread coverage in The Times, the Daily Telegraph and a host of regional newspapers (Source ‘Schoolboys Terrified at Séance’ Evening News 17 March 1970 and many others).

For sceptical psychologists of the time, such as Dr William Sargent, extreme states of  fear, trances and nervous breakdown that arose from such dabbling were identical to the physical and mental symptoms associated with nervous collapse or “shell-shock” that occurred among combatants during both World Wars. Following studies of brainwashing in the Korean War, Sargent maintained the power of suggestion could easily trigger emotional and mental collapses, with his studies identifying similar ‘possession’ symptoms amongst religious revivalists, voodoo practitioners and screaming teenage girls enraptured by The Beatles and The Osmonds during the 1960s and 1970s. (see The Mind Possessed: A physiology of possession, mysticism and faith healing (1973) by William Sargent ).

Of course, there are other views, including those of certain psychical researchers and some spiritualists (though spiritualism is the only religion to back the use of the ouija board) who believe boards open one up to invasion by malevolent spirits.   Victor Zammit author of ‘A Lawyer Presents the Evidence for the Afterlife’  argues:

“….no skeptic has been able to explain how groups of normal decent people have elicited horrible blasphemies, curses and all kind of terrifying threats from the Ouija board in a way that they certainly did not from other methods which supposedly projected the unconscious”

Emphasising the obscene and offensive material sometimes emerging in ouija communications, Zammit suggests malicious spirit entities are at work, an idea traceable back to the French spiritist philosopher Allan Kardec. (See Certain ghosts and poltergeists have been known for vile and sulphurous language. Utterances by the Enfield poltergeist 1977-79 were often offensive – though the robust investigators Maurice Gross  and Guy Playfair took them in their stride.

Indeed in England in June 2014  ‘a foul-mouthed phantom’ haunting Oadby and Wigston Town Hall featured in a Channel 4 TV show entitled Man vs Weird (though judging by its typical output, swearing, cursing and obscenity is commonplace on Channel 4 – no need for unclean spirits). Nonetheless, the perceived novelty of ‘a foul-mouthed phantom’ swearing at spiritualist Don Philips, who runs his own team of “ghostbusters”, called GSI Paranormal UK, became a news item in its own right. Don was called in to investigate the voices and cries of children heard in the Leicestershire building which dates from 1850.

Filmed on a night-time investigation at the Council HQ,  Don, 48, was later to be seen telling viewers that after the vigil  he has received a message from beyond the grave containing a very strong swear word and a threat to kill him.

In an article Channelling: Sick or Scientific? published in 1999, the author J.M. Decupypere provides a possible explanation for such profanity:

“…unfortunately many an adolescent has been given the creeps and as a matter of fact some of the company might be very undesirable indeed. However, not all of the bad language that occasionally emerges should be regarded as ‘coming through’ a lower entity: coarse language is typical of the adolescent, and the séance offers a perfect opportunity for its covert use….This is why some authors (over)emphasize the danger of Ouija board experiments.”(Journal of the SPR Vol 63 No. 856).

With ouija channelling it is perhaps a case of you get back what you give out, since if it is the unconscious mind at work,  you are effectively engaged in an exercise in talking to yourself (or selves). Releasing a flow of information from the subconscious can be very disturbing, given what some people contain in their deeper selves. Thus, whilst clever, literary individuals such as Hugo and Yeats obtained messages from equally erudite communicators, less educated and more uncultured mediums generate more basic and coarser material.  In some cases, secondary personalities may become very developed, posing as a variety of different channelled guides and communicators. Occasionally powers of telepathy, precognition and clairvoyance or psychokinetic effects may be demonstrated. also originating within the living human mind, and it has been proposed the ouija board could be a way of studying them. (See ‘Some Alternative Approaches to Investigations in Telepathy’ by   D. J. Whitten,  Journal of the SPR 49,1977, pp. 644-7).

Dr Nandor Fodor,  a spiritualist who became a Freudian psychoanalyst (See On the Trail of the Poltergeist (1958)) believed deeper secondary personalities might even separate from their originating minds (a kind of psychic ‘lobotomy’) and create effects independently. This is an extraordinary idea, but in light of the famous ‘Philip Experiment’ in Toronto in the 1970s it is arguably no stranger than the concept of discarnate spirits. In passing, one cannot help but note the difference between spirits and channelled alien entities regarding foul language; non-human entities from other planets or stellar systems seem remarkably free of swearing and offensive vocabulary, perhaps because they are deemed more culturally advanced, and not prey to human emotions. (This  also applies with extraterrestrials in fiction; one thinks the Daleks of Dr Who would rather lose much of their aura of inhuman malevolence if their metallic speech regularly featured four-letter expletives).

There can also be personal confusion amongst alleged communicators themselves as to personal identity, for example, in the records and book compiled by Hester Travers Smith, who believed she communicated with Oscar Wilde through ouija boards, over a lengthy period. Her book Psychic Messages from Oscar Wilde (1924) had a foreword from the physicist Sir William Barrett and received a great deal of attention. During sittings it emerged ‘Oscar Wilde’ was contacting two different people simultaneously, prompting the following exchange:

Question : What do you mean ? Surely there are not two Oscar Wildes ?;  Answer : Does that cause you to wonder ? Yes, it really is so. Quite possibly our name is legion. The soul is no indivisible unity, no solitary shadow seated in its house of sin. It is a thing, highly complex, built up, layer upon layer….” (Proceedings of the SPR Volume 34, 1924).

Of course, the hypothesis of the unconscious mind is largely behind ouija messages could be wrong or only partial; it may be that spirit communication does occur and the possibility ultimately cannot be excluded. As T. Arthur Hill wrote when discussing ouija experiments in 1919, “We need to guard against using the subliminal self [an old term for the unconscious] with a comfortable feeling that we have thereby explained things”.

For believers the spiritual aspect of the ouija board it attracts low-level entities; the late Professor Archie Roy in Archives of the Mind (1996) compared it to casually picking up strangers in a bar. Even the humanist parapsychologist Hans Bender (1907-1991) warned against ‘mediumistic psychosis’ which could result from the irresponsible use of the board.(See  Stoker Hunt, op cit )

Just as there are some people who should never touch a drop of alcohol or a single peanut, certain vulnerable people should never try ouija boards or channelling.

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