I’m sorry to disappoint you, but spirits don’t move the pointer on a Ouija board – well, not directly, anyway. We’ll get to that shortly.
Ouija boards come in a wide variety of styles, classic and modern. They all have letters, probably numbers, and maybe words and symbols too. Here’s mine, based on the familiar William Fuld design:
You’ll see that this one was marketed by the games manufacturers Waddingtons. It was sold in high street shops as a toy, in the late Sixties, and got them into a great deal of trouble, mainly from religious groups. It was quickly withdrawn from sale. I’ve blanked out the central window of the pointer (it originally had a nail in the hole in the middle) because the design is otherwise ambiguous; do you look through the window or at the tip of the pointer?
The pointer is referred to in the instructions as a “mysterious message indicator”. Sometimes the term planchette is used, but strictly that refers to an earlier device of a similar shape, with a pencil at the tip and castors at the rear corners.
Spiritualism began with the Fox sisters, whose spirits communicated by raps. This was a slow process, so later Spiritualists used automatic writing, either by directly holding a pencil or with a planchette. Unless a medium is particularly gifted, automatic writing is likely to produce illegible gibberish, so mediums moved on to using an upturned wine glass with paper letters on a smooth table and eventually marketed Ouija boards especially designed for the purpose.
As I said at the beginning, spirits do not directly move the pointer, wine glass or planchette. All the above techniques are automatisms; they work through what is now known as ideomotor responses – automatic, involuntary muscular movements which are controlled by the unconscious mind (“UCM”). Dowsing instruments such as pendulums are also automatisms and work in a similar way.
This is not, however, a full explanation. Automatisms certainly reveal information from the UCM, but this leaves open the question of how that information entered the UCM. There are several possibilities, which I’ll discuss with specific reference to the Ouija board.
This is the conventional explanation – the UCM is communicating symbolically, either by making up a story from its contents, or by regurgitating or modifying one previously read or heard but forgotten – cryptomnesia. Jung’s idea of the Collective Unconscious could be brought in too. This type of explanation certainly accounts for many cases – but not all of them.
A more promising explanation is that information enters the UCM through telepathy – direct mind-to-mind communication without the use of the known senses. This could be from other sitters at the table working the pointer, from onlookers – or it could be from spirits.
The board could conceivably be communicating details of the past life of one of the sitters, or one of the onlookers through telepathy. I don’t want to go into past life theories in any depth here, but the main explanations for a genuine past life would have to be either reincarnation or genetic memory.
This is the sceptic’s get-out-of-jail-free card. When faced with communications giving information which can’t be explained away by cryptomnesia or through other “normal” (i.e. non-paranormal) channels, a sceptic who rejects the idea that human consciousness can survive bodily death will resort to the “Super-ESP” hypothesis. He will argue that the information has entered the UCM through Extrasensory Perception – not just telepathy from someone in the room, but from a living person anywhere in the world, or from a book or other object (clairvoyance) – also anywhere in the world. He could also argue that this information could come from the future (precognition), the past (retrocognition) or from some universal memory bank. Many modern psychical researchers feel that this sort of explanation is more far-fetched than the simpler one of belief in spirit communication, and in any case there is no evidence that ESP is this powerful.
Whether or not a Ouija board is communicating with spirits – evil or otherwise – or simply with the contents with our unconscious minds, great care should be taken when using one. Our UCMs contain some pretty unpleasant material. Sessions should always begin with a prayer to an appropriate deity or by setting up another form of psychic protection, and any entities summoned need to be properly dismissed at the end – treat them as “real” even if they may not be. Also take any information or advice received with a very large pinch of salt – you don’t know where it’s coming from.
So, how does a Ouija board work? Well, the pointer is certainly moved by ideomotor responses from the sitters – but does it spell out messages from spirits? The answer is clearly “no” in some cases – but in others it may be “perhaps”. I don’t think we’ll ever be able to “prove” that spirit communication exists, because the sceptic can always fall back on the Super-ESP hypothesis (however unlikely) – but there’s strong evidence in some published cases of automatic writing. In the end it’s going to be subjective – is the evidence strong enough to satisfy you?