I grew up in the throes of the Satanic Panic of the 80s with a baptist preacher for a father, meaning no He-Man, no Dungeons & Dragons, and definitely no Ouija boards. To be honest, the only real loss I felt was over the He-Man and D&D ban. In my mind, Ouija was always aligned with seances, superstition, and big-haired mediums from Long Island.
I’ve never been able to make myself believe in ghosts. The idea of dead spinsters sticking around their old houses with unfinished business just seems boring to me. Demon possession, on the other hand, is something I can totally dig. It’s sexy, exciting, and it spooks people in a way that ghosts never could. I decided to finally try out the Ouija, if only to get back at my folks for not letting me watch Masters of the Universe. But before I did, I wanted to find out what this mysterious board was all about.
The Ouija board was first made available commercially by Elijah Bond and Charles Kennard in July of 1890, but was by no means the first of its kind. The Spiritualism movement in the United States had been in full swing since the 1850s, and tools facilitating communication with the dead were in high demand.
One tedious technique from the early days of Spiritualism was “table tapping,” where a group of mediums would place their hands either above or on top of a light table and ask questions of nearby spirits. The table would then begin to jump, tapping out answers according to a predetermined code, such as one tap for the letter A, two for B, and so on. As you can imagine, receiving messages in this form could take hours, and the constant noise of the table banging on the floor was probably the perfect recipe for a headache.
A less annoying method was using a planchette to produce written messages, which was invented by Allen Kardec in 1853 (although some claim that the device is just a later version of the sieve used in the practice of fuji in twelfth century China). The planchette was a simple, pointed, flat piece of wood, with two rollers on its underside and a pencil attached at the end. The operator would rest their fingertips on the device, and it would spell out messages. It was basically a tool that helped to complicate the practice known as “automatic writing,” where the writer allows the hand to freely produce material supposedly without interference from the conscious mind. Spirits were often said to take control of the hand and produce statements while its owner was in a trance state. These messages were often messy and unreliable as communications go.
In March 1886, an article in the New York Daily Tribune entitled, “The New Planchette. A Mysterious Talking Board and Table Over Which Northern Ohio is Agitated,” illustrates a talking board that is easily recognizable as the prototype of the modern Ouija. In 1890, Elijah Bond, a businessman from Baltimore, Maryland, along with Charles Kennard applied and were granted a patent for the Ouija Board, which they began to sell as a novelty through Kennard’s toy company.
Criticism of the Ouija has been widespread over the years, coming from both secular and religious sources. One of the most convincing being that the messages are not the result of communication with spirits, but an effect of what is called the “ideomotor response,” a reflexive physical movement made in response to some inner stimulus. Flinching at the sound of one’s name, poker tells, and salivation at the thought of tasting something sour are examples of the effect. The argument here is that the operator’s fingers are moving the planchette unconsciously, meaning that the conversation is actually taking place between the conscious mind and the unconscious mind. Evidence from a study conducted by Hélène Gauchou of the University of British Columbia in Canada seems to back this theory.
Which brings me back to Zozo. There’s a good amount of fear-tinged articles about the dangers of communicating with him, including poltergeist activity, bad luck, and even death. According to Darren Evans, prominent Zozologist (his term, not mine) and star of the upcoming film, I Am Zozo, the demon has been experienced by hundreds of people all over the world through pendulums, automatic writing, and, of course, the Ouija board. All of these experiences have ended badly.
With all of the excitement surrounding this supposed phenomenon, I just had to give ol’ Zozo a ride around the block. Armed with my homemade talking board, a shot glass in place of a planchette, and a bellyful of tequila, I lit some candles and tried drumming up a conversation. I had promised my editor an interview with a demon, and I’d be damned if I let him down.
Isla: Are you there, Zozo?
Thanks for speaking with me. A horror film based on your exploits will be released soon. How do you feel about it?
There are many YouTube videos out there claiming to document your possession of different people. Are these real?
I was starting to doubt that the shot glass was moving on its own, and wondered if these answers weren’t actually coming from my unconscious mind. I tried shutting my eyes while the shot glass found its own way, resulting in some perplexing answers.
How do you feel about the internet?
Are demons unfairly… well.. demonized in our culture?
Is the Brony phenomenon a sign of the end times?
(planchette moves to ‘Goodbye’)
In my mind, the experiment was a complete failure, but with so many reported experiences throughout the last century, I’m uncomfortable completely dismissing the authenticity of the Ouija board. It does seem that the ideomotor effect may have something to do with these supposed communications, since the most sensible answers occurred as I was looking at the letters, but I don’t know if that really matters, considering the popularity in recent years of the psychological model of magic as described by occultist, Ralph Tegtmeier (aka Frater U.’.D.’.).
The Zozo phenomenon, on the other hand, looks to me like just another internet legend. Outside of the paranoid rantings of Ouija enthusiasts and unoriginal horror stories found in YouTube comments, I have yet to see any convincing evidence that the entity even exists, much less that he’s roaming the board game aisles of toy stores, waiting to pounce on unsuspecting victims.