Ouija Boards in Movies
In horror movies, the use of an ouija board is a well-known cliché. An ouija board is a wooden board with letters written on it. This board is usually used in groups, where everyone in the room holds onto a wooden planchette, which usually has a glass hole near the tip, which allows people to see the letter that the piece is over. The idea is that the spirit will guide the planchette to create a message from the letters. Ouija boards have their set of superstitions associated with them, and often in movies, they are portrayed as potentially dangerous tools used by unwitting people.
It’s like a window into the afterlife
Ouija boards are a novelty item that can be found in any supermarket. Horror novelist HP Lovecraft once said that “The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown.”
Ouija boards take advantage of the fear of death. No one knows what happens in the afterlife. The ouija boards have the supernatural ability to take information from the place where no one goes. However, unlike those on the other side of the grave, the ouija board users operate blind. They can’t see the spirits around them or their intentions. This asymmetry in perception creates the sense of dread during seances.
The atmosphere around the board creates a sense that there are malevolent forces waiting in the shadows. The Uninvited, an early horror film depicts the users of the board inside a haunted mansion, which is a horror trope similar to one striking oil in the middle of the desert. The potential for disaster is amplified by danger presented by the surroundings.
Unlike most horror tropes, ouija boards are commonplace in real life
In the early twentieth century, ouija boards (then known as talking boards or spirit boards prior to Elijah Bond’s patent of the ouija board), grew in popularity. One example is that of famous author GK Chesterton who experimented with boards in his youth. It was the Bloody Mary of the time, something even a stupid teenager would do. Most horror movies involve tropes that are far removed from reality, like supernatural monsters, undead creatures, supernatural abilities, etc, not often present in the real world. One can’t see a vampire or zombie in real life.
This shows in the way they are depicted in early film. While one might think of movies like The Ouija Experiment, ouija boards often take their place in the background. The vampire, the werewolf, or the haunted house often act as the main attraction in a film. In one example, the Bat Whispers, a black and white film from the 1930s, a ouija board appears as the two main characters perform a seance with a ouija board after a mysterious figure known as “The Bat” appears to harass the residents in the mansion. Even though it is a non-horror movie, this scene works. The board serves as a way to depict the superstitious attitudes of the women. The idea of a werewolf walking on the set and trying to comfort the ladies sounds absurd, because it is. There is no real world werewolf, but there is a real world ouija board, albeit one whose powers are probably exaggerated.
Ouija boards are the modern Pandora’s box
The idea of a demon being accidentally released into the world through a ouija board is probably the most common depiction of the ouija board. The Exorcist is more or less the basic template of this idea. It’s a trope that goes back to ancient times. If one imagines the ouija board as a box, and imagine Regan as a young woman living in ancient Greece, then we have Pandora’s box. Her use of the board, out of a sense of curiosity is what leads to the release of evil, in this case, the Christian devil.
In another variation of the trope, sometimes the ouija is used for positive means, but ends up causing more harm than good. In American Horror Story: Coven, a witch named Zoe Benson attempts to contact her friend Madison through a board, but instead of contacting the intended spirit, she awakens the New Orleans Axeman, who then goes on a rampage. Often the spirit that makes contact with the users of the board are ancient demonic entities.
Ouija board’s cousin: automatic writing
While ouija boards have broken into the mainstream, automatic writing has not. Automatic writing is based on a similar principle as ouija boards except that, rather than guide a planchette on a board to create a message, the message is written on a piece of paper below the planchette. It has appeared numerous times in literature, but has yet to make the same impression in the minds of horror aficionados as the ouija board.
One major problem with automatic writing in the modern horror genre is that it resembles ordinary typewriting and digital documents. What may have horrified people in the nineteenth century would probably be laughable in the world of print dominated media. While this may not be the cause of the lack of awareness of automatic writing, it certainly is a problem when trying to convince the viewer that a person writing an “automatic” message on a scrap of paper isn’t just using a keyboard hidden under the desk.
Ouija boards are able to evoke our deepest fears about death and the unknown. It’s no wonder then that movies like The Exorcist have the power they do. They expose some of our deepest existential fears about the unknown, about things that we can’t see. It’s likely that ouija boards will never stop being the horror trope that they are. It’s too human to wonder what happens to the spirit after death.
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