Skeptophilia (skep-to-fil-i-a) (n.) - the love of logical thought, skepticism, and thinking critically. Being an exploration of the applications of skeptical thinking to the world at large, with periodic excursions into linguistics, music, politics, cryptozoology, and why people keep seeing the face of Jesus on grilled cheese sandwiches.

Friday, May 4, 2012

Ouija wisdom

It's interesting how woo-woo trends come and go.  Conspiracy theories are currently all the rage, especially amongst people who think our government is way more evil, and also way more intelligent, than it actually is.  On the other hand, interest  in Bigfoot and other cryptids seems to be on the wane, with the current spate of television shows about monster hunters ("squatchers") now played more for laughs than anything else.

Of course, interest can rekindle, and that seems to be the case with the Ouija board.  I remember these things from when I was a kid -- a flat board, with letters and numbers and a few words ("yes," "no," and sometimes "goodbye"), and a little piece of lightweight wood resting on three legs called a "planchette" that had a pointer.  The players lightly rest their fingers on the planchette, and "invite the spirit world to communicate with them," and if the spirits are in an obliging mood they shove the planchette around to spell out messages.

Ouija boards kind of went out of fashion for a while, but they're coming back... in fact, Universal Studios has a movie (creatively called Ouija) in production, and if it's halfway successful, you can expect a sudden upsurge in interest in the divination tool.  Not to mention a sudden upsurge in religious folks telling you how dangerous it is, how it is the handiwork of the devil and not to be taken lightly.

All of this is pretty funny, because the Ouija board is a fairly recent invention, and not by Aleister Crowley or anyone of that ilk -- it was invented in 1890 by a trio of parlor game designers, E. C. Reiche, Elijah Bond, and Charles Kennard.  Of course, they wanted it to appear mystical; they said, for example, that the word "Ouija" is the Egyptian word for "good luck," which is patently false.  When Kennard lost control of the company to his foreman, William Fuld, Fuld was interviewed and admitted that the whole mystique around the board was his own creation-- there was nothing occult about it, and in fact the name "Ouija" was coined simply by splicing together the French and German words for "yes."  And the ability of the board to spell out messages is adequately explained by the ideomotor effect, the ability of the mind to subconsciously guide actions such as small motions of the fingers.  Controlled studies of Ouija boards using blindfolded people resulted in the production of gibberish -- given that it wasn't the spirits wearing the blindfolds, you'd think it wouldn't matter.  (Actually, if there really were spirits making people's hands move, you have to wonder why the spirits can't just make the planchette itself move, and eliminate the middle man.)

Of course, a rational explanation doesn't discourage most woo-woos, and there are lots of alleged psychics who still love the Ouija board, and lots of conservative Christians who still think it's a tool of Satan.  Hasbro, who has the marketing rights for the game, is the recipient of frequent requests from church leaders to discontinue sales of Ouija boards, because they're "encouraging children to call up demons."  In 2001, a bunch of religious folks got together in Alamogordo, New Mexico and burned a pile of Ouija boards -- but they also added a bunch of Harry Potter books to the bonfire, so I'm not sure their ability to discriminate fact from fiction was all that sharp to begin with.

I remember messing with a Ouija board once when I was a kid -- a neighbor of mine had one.  We sat there, lights turned down, fingertips on the board, trying to get into a mystical frame of mind... and then... suddenly... nothing happened.  We waited for a while, but evidently most of the more helpful spirits were vacationing in Maui that day, because neither of us felt any ice-cold fingers pushing our hands around.  Eventually the planchette did move a little (I still suspect the neighbor kid may have had something to do with it.)  But after spelling out some highly important messages from the Other Side, such as "You smell bad," the spirits became balky and refused to cooperate, and we got bored and went outside to play.  And the latter, frankly, is what both the psychics and the Christians should do.

Myself, I think as divination tools go, we should go back to the tried-and-true Magic Eight Ball.  It's simple, direct, and gives you answers to any question you might have.  But of course, you have to ask yourself, is it accurate?  Is it actually accessing hidden knowledge to give you wisdom, or is it just random?  Let's see what it has to say about that.

*shakes up Magic Eight Ball*

Um... "Reply hazy, try again later."  Okay, I'll have to get back to you on that one.

1 comment:

  1. I went a year or two back to a filming session of the hit show Britain's Most Haunted. It was very revealing.