People have been scared of this supernatural board since the turn of the 20th century, but there may be a simple explanation as to why it appears to move all on its own.

By Zee Krstic
October 30, 2019

Believe it or not, Ouija boards weren't always seen as a terrifying piece of supernatural paraphernalia linked to necromancy. Americans first began using Ouija boards in the 1800s to simply connect with their lost loved ones: It was a "telephone to the afterlife where you could talk to dead people," Frank McAndrew, a professor of psychology at Knox College, shared with NBC's Today. How did it become associated with pure evil in many different cultures, you might wonder? For most, it starts with the fact that the planchette—the tool that scatters across the board to spell out messages—seems to move all on its own. But a report from Today may finally put your qualms about Ouija boards to rest, as multiple psychology professors and experts shared their thoughts about why the so-called phenomena is nothing more than a psychological side effect. 

If you've ever gathered round a Ouija board with friends, you'll swear that you can actually feel the planchette move across its surface—and you're not wrong. "It is moving. And even if you just had four people putting their hands on it and trying not to move it, it is going to slide around the board naturally," McAndrew told Today. "When you feel that happening, you feel creeped out. Then when you see other people having the same reaction, it really makes it real." 

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The more you feel scared, the more the group as a whole gets jittery, McAndrew says, which can only exacerbate the feeling that you may actually be in paranormal danger. And there's a clinical explanation for the rapid change in mood, Dr. Anjan Chatterjee, a neurologist and director of the Penn Center for Neuroaesthetics, told Today. "In psychology, it's known as emotional contagion," he says. "If you are in a group, especially if you are close, you start empathizing, and you start experiencing the same thing. You pick up on each other's fear and anxiety." When the planchette moves, McAndrew says, the mood in the room might push you to "hoodwink" yourself into believing it's actually moving. 

In the 1940s, a few murder cases supposedly involved a Ouija board—which then caused the Catholic Church to condemn them outright, Today reports. "They said this was a way for demons and devils to get ahold of people," McAndrew said. "That made it instantly more popular. It changed from a toy or possibly a way to communicate with the dead to a gateway to hell." The board later appeared as a nefarious tool in 1971's The Exorcist, catapulting it to cultural prominence and a general association with spooky, evil spirits today.

Whether you choose to break out the Ouija board this Halloween—or are more interested in trick-or-treating and watching scary movies—Chatterjee says you shouldn't be terrified of the board outright. Ouija boards can provide a fun outlet for thrills on Halloween, but they may also help you create emotional skills to deal with uncertainty down the road. "You feel safe and to some extent that you are in control; you are scared by what you are watching, but at the same time, you know you are safe," Chatterjee said. "It allows you to almost emulate scary experiences and learn how to adapt to those and react to those emotionally."

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