The Big Brother 2 houseguests have been given a Ouija board to play with, and some of them are taking it very seriously. Should they? What is a Ouija board, where did it come from, and how does it work? And how does this all come together for the BB2 contestants?
News from the live feeds indicates that Big Brother has given the houseguests an interesting toy to play with: a Ouija board. Several of them apparently are taking it seriously (certainly Nicole, and several others say they do as well). Jeez, first we have a self-proclaimed psychic in Britain claiming to help one of the BB contestants there (who was, amusingly, the next person nominated and voted off overwhelmingly). Now we have the BB here encouraging this nonsense.
Well, the houseguests can’t see this (until they’re voted off, and then it’s doubtful they’ll be terribly concerned about it), but at least viewers can. Let’s take a look at the history of the Ouija board and how it actually “works.”
For those who don't know what a Oiuja board is, let's start from the beginning, with some help from the Museum of Talking Boards (only on the net, not a museum you can go visit in person). The Ouija board was invented by E.C. Reiche, Elijah Bond, and Charles Kennard in the early 1890s, and then improved upon and mass marketed by William Fuld. Before the Ouija board, spirit mediums used, among other things, a dial plate talking board, which had a letter indicator joined by a spindle to the center of the board. This rotated around to pick the different letters. Another way of bringing forth supposed messages from the dead was the planchette, which was generally heart-shaped, with a hole for a pencil in the tip of the heart. The medium put his/her hands on the two lobes of the heart and either moved it on a piece of paper to do "automatic writing" or on a pre-printed chart to point to letters, statements, etc. The inventors of the Ouija board combined these two items.
It is interesting to note that even back in the 1880s, the planchette was being sold as a novelty item and parlor game. So this sort of thing has been thought of as both a game and a "spiritualist" tool for quite some time.
The Ouija board has all the letters of the alphabet printed on it, along with "yes," "no," "goodbye," and "maybe" (and sometimes a few others). Copycat versions of the game may incorporate astrological, Tarot, or other New Age symbols. The idea is that you ask the spirit world a question and then rest your hand(s) on the pointer while the spirits answer you.
You may have heard that the name, "Oiuja" is a combination of "oui" (French for "yes") and "ja" (German for "yes"). Alas, that was made up by Mr. Fuld when he took over marketing the game/tool. It is possible that the name came from what Mr. Kennard thought was Egyptian for "good luck." Now, it could be pointed out that it doesn't actually mean that in Egyptian, but the board itself supposedly told him, so who was he to argue? Whether or not this story is true or not is up in the air.
After Kennard came up with the name, the Kennard Novelty Company advertised the first Ouija board as follows:
OUIJA A WONDERFUL TALKING BOARD Interesting and mysterious; surpasses in its results second sight, mind reading, clairvoyance; will give intelligent answer to any question. Proven at patent office before patent was allowed. Price $1.50.
I particularly like the part about his having had to prove that it works at the patent office. It makes one wonder how stringent these tests were or, alternatively, how strictly laws against false advertising were enforced at the time.
In any event, Kennard's company was taken over and Fuld was put in charge. His children took over when he died and eventually sold the game to Parker Brothers in 1966. Early last year, Parker Brothers switched to a smaller glow in the dark version of the game.
Enough with the history, let's talk some more about how it works. Obviously, some folks (like Nicole) think you get messages from spirits or ghosts or Invisible Pink Unicorns or something. But that’s simply not going to cut it without further investigation.
As the Skeptic's Dictionary entry on Ouija says, "those using the board either consciously or unconsciously select what is read." If you want to prove it to yourself, follow the advice of that same site: "simply try it blindfolded for some time, having an innocent bystander take notes on what letters are selected. Usually, the result will be unintelligible nonsense."
Then again, if you are a True Believer, unintelligible nonsense might not be enough to show that it doesn’t work. At one point, the BB2 houseguests asked how the spirit, “Jim,” died. The indicator pointed to the letters L, U, J. Nicole asked if that meant he jumped. Jumped? How do you get jumping out of LUJ? At another point Nicole made the excuse that spirits are bad spellers. You’ve got to be kidding me. I thought you were smarter than that, Nicole.
So what makes the pointer move? An effect similar to that which occurs in dowsing, known as the ideomotor effect. This is a fancy name for involuntary/unconscious movement, such as a dowser's hand flicking enough to move his stick when he passes over an area he knows to have water. The basic point is that your muscles can move without you thinking, "move to the word 'yes.'" As the Skeptic's Dictionary says, "suggestions can be made to the mind by others or by observations. Those suggestions can influence the mind and affect motor behavior. What is purely physiological, however, appears to some to be paranormal."
In other words, if you believe this stuff and are trying to get the spirits to answer questions proving that they are all-knowing, and you ask a question to which you already know the answer (for example, "What's my father's name?"), odds are that your own hands will do the rest by spelling out your answer. That's where trying it blindfolded comes in (provided you haven't memorized the board or you aren’t prone to making excuses, obviously). If it's spirits, they should be able to guide your hands no matter whether you can see or not. But if it's you doing it unconsciously, the blindfold will screw things up.
Reading through the BB live feeds, nothing that was “provided by” the Ouija board was unknown – at least nothing verifiable. And the verifiable things only came to light when somebody who knew the information already was one of the people with his or her hand on the pointer. (For example, Mike might not have known Krista’s mother’s name and how she died – information that supposedly came up on the board – but Hardy did, as we could see by his reaction when it appeared.)
Of course, this assumes you're the one operating the pointer. If you go to a medium and s/he does it, there is always the possibility that s/he is simply faking it as part of the show dedicated to separating you from your money. Or in the BB house, it’s quite possible that one or more of the contestants were purposely manipulating it for their own ends. After all, several of them have tried to manipulate everything else, so why not a little game board, too?
I’m sure this all will be broadcast on Tuesday’s episode. After all, producers know that the paranormal sells (hence the proliferation of shows like Sightings over the years, or the recent Fox episodes of Million Dollar Mysteries that included such topics as UFOs). But if you want to see more on what was said and done, you can check out the live feed logs at The Clubhouse. It started around 10:45 pm on the 28th.
As an aside, after the Ouija board incident, Nicole talked about Nostradamus and relayed the common story that when they opened his tomb, they found inside a piece of paper that had that exact date of the tomb opening on it. For more on this myth (yes, myth), you can see my article addressing this very story at The Straight Dope online. (In fact, this article was based on information from one I originally wrote for The Straight Dope online as well.)
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