This week: Ouija Boards, Spiritualism, & SéancesEdited by: Angus
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“A friend comes over with a Ouija board.
It spells out: Bourbon. Where’s the band?
Just because you’re dead doesn’t mean you can’t
~ Kelli Russell Agodon, Hourglass Museum ~
“If anyone ever reported my death incorrectly, I'd confirm it was true on Twitter and that I was tweeting through a Ouija board.”
~ Stewart Stafford ~
Maybe it’s because I’ve been around a lot of death in my lifetime (then again, I am getting older, so that’s to be expected, right?), maybe it’s because I’m just naturally curious, or maybe it’s because I’m just plain nuts*, but I have to confess to having a mild interest in Spiritualism, which is basically the belief that the spirits of the dead can interact and communicate with the living.
When I was ten years old Santa Claus gave me a Ouija board for Christmas. Some of my friends and I experimented with it a few times. Perhaps we weren’t doing it ‘ritualistically correct’ (late at night? with a candle?), or we just didn’t have enough belief (for lack of a better word), but nothing ever happened. That’s probably for the best, since it’s been said that EVIL spirits can be summoned if the Ouija board isn’t used correctly.
So am I superstitious? Yeah, probably to a point. But if I’m going to err, I’d rather err on the side of caution.
Spiritualism dates back centuries. When it was hitting its peak in the late 19th century, more than 8 million Americans claimed they believed in at least some principle of it. Seeing an opportunity, an enterprising businessman by the name of Elija Bonds created and patented the first Ouija Board in 1891. Sales were average for the first few years, but by the end of World War I and, ironically, the last pandemic in 1918, sales really took off with people wanting to contact their lost friends and family members.
Séances are also considered to be an integral part of Spiritualism, and they too gained popularity during this time. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, creator of Sherlock Holmes, was a famous proponent of séances. He lost his younger brother to the pandemic, as well as his son to pneumonia, which was likely brought on by the pandemic. In a 1922 interview with a reporter, he said, “I have many times spoken with my son,” and that he remained happy. Four years earlier he claimed to know of 13 mothers who were maintaining contact with their dead sons.
Whereas Doyle was a steadfast believer in séances, the famous magician Harry Houdini was just the opposite. After his mother passed away in 1920, he had several mediums try to contact her spirit, none of whom were successful. After realizing they were frauds, he used his celebrity status to publicly debunk their claims during his performances, even offering $10,000 to any medium or psychic who could show supernatural phenomena that he couldn’t replicate. Many tried, none succeeded.
Houdini didn’t stop there. Before he died on October 31st, 1926, he made a pact with his friends and family that he would tell his wife, Bess, a secret word that would only be known to them and which he would send back to a medium from the ‘other side.’ After his death, Bess spent the next 10 years challenging mediums across the country to contact her husband and reveal his secret word. And like before, many tried, but none succeeded.
However, to this day believers all around the world still attend séances on the anniversary of Houdini’s death with hopes that he might reveal himself some other way.
Ouija boards and mediums might be the two most common ways people have used to try to communicate with the dead, but they’re not the only ones. Some say coins, aromas, dreams, wind chimes, birds, songs, photos, feathers, stones, symbols, numbers, and electricity have all been ways spirits have tried to communicate with us!
*A side note about Ouija Boards
In the early 20th century, many people still thought of the Ouija board as a simple toy, but others considered it something much more ominous. According to newspapers across the country, obsessive users were being committed to mental hospitals at an alarming rate. The medical director of the New Jersey State Hospital for the Insane even said, “It would be difficult to imagine conditions more favorable for the development of psychosis than those furnished by the Ouija board and other mediums.”
And Harry Houdini said of the Ouija Board, “the first step towards insanity.”
See you next month, readers, but until then, night night, sleep tight, and don’t let the nightmares bite!
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This month's question: Have you ever tried to communicate with the other side?
Last NL question: What do you think is the most important element in a good horror story? The plot? The characters? The way it's written? Something else?
Great NL, Angus, and not just cos you included my short story - one of the first horror/scary stories I wrote! I'm honestly not a good reader (or watcher) of horror, terror, gross-out but if I had to pick the most important element it'd be the atmosphere/suspense (is that the 'something else?' you mention?). Doesn't matter what creates that atmosphere/suspense - could be any of the senses - but it'll be what gives me the frights. Almost three decades ago I watched a show where the murderer was discovered by his walk - a sort of limp/drag combination. I still remember the sound and it still freaks me out - can do even if I'm on my own in a field full of flowers!! (So - maybe the most important element is the reader and their own imagination!)
Thanks for the story plug!
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