Book of secrets: Ouija and its history


How this American Anomaly Became More than Just Fun and Games

Mitch Horowitz
19 min readMay 12, 2020

(This article was among my first forays into chronicling occult history. Originally published in 2006 in the arts journal Esopus, OUIJA! has been widely reprinted, though in adapted forms, and appears here in its unexpurgated creepiness. — MH)

Ouija. For some the rectangular board evokes memories of late-night sleepover parties, shrieks of laughter, and toy shelves brimming with Magic Eight Balls, Frisbees, and Barbie dolls.

For others, Ouija boards — known more generally as talking boards or spirit boards — have darker associations. Stories abound of fearsome entities making threats, dire predictions, and even physical assaults on innocent users after a night of Ouija experimentation.

And the fantastic claims don’t stop there: Pulitzer Prize-winning poet James Merrill vowed until his death in 1995 that his most celebrated work was written with the use of a homemade Ouija board.

For my part, I first discovered the mysterious workings of Ouija nearly twenty years ago during a typically freezing-cold winter on eastern Long Island. While heaters clanked and hummed within the institutional-white walls of my college dormitory, friends allayed boredom with a Parker Brothers Ouija board.

As is often the case with Ouija, one young woman became the ringleader of board readings. She reprised the role of spirit medium that had typically fallen to women in past eras, when the respectable clergy was a male-only affair. Under the gaze of her dark eyes — which others said gave them chills — the late-night Ouija sessions came into vogue.

Most of my evenings were given over to editing the college newspaper, but I often arrived home at the dorm to frightening stories: The board, one night, kept spelling out the name “Seth,” which my friends associated with evil. (Probably connecting it with the rebellious Egyptian god Set, who is seen as a Satan prototype.) When asked, “Who’s Seth?” the board directed its attention to a member of the group, and repeatedly replied: “Ask Carlos.” A visibly shaken Carlos began breathing heavily and refused to answer.

Consumed as I was with exposing scandals within the campus food service, I never took the opportunity to…



Mitch Horowitz

"Treats esoteric ideas & movements with an even-handed intellectual studiousness"-Washington Post | PEN Award-winning historian | Censored in China