Several friends have asked me what I think of ouija boards upon hearing I’m into tarot. To many folks, ouija and tarot seem the same, and it surprises people to hear that I adore one and shrink from the other.
I don’t do ouija boards, or any other kind of casual spirit communication. Not in jest, or just for kicks, or in a box, or with a fox. I’d like to tell you all why.
I don’t intend to sensationalize and spookify mass-produced bits of printed cardboard. Game marketers, pop culture, and urban legends have done a job and a half of that already. I have no religious agenda. I don’t think ouija is of the devil, and I don’t have any personal horror stories. I’ve never even touched a ouija board. My gut response against them exceeds any rational distaste. They’re simply not my cup of tea, and I’ve never seen them as similar to tarot, although I can see why others do. Let’s dig into that.
Ouija boards, also known as talking boards and spirit boards, emerged from the mid-nineteenth century Spiritualist movement in America. They were first developed and marketed as tools of mediumship, easy ways for anyone with or without psychic gifts to contact ghosts and spirits from home. Many of their earliest users were believers, seeking contact from spirit and fishing for reasons to uphold their beliefs. Today toy companies sell ouija boards as children’s games.
Tarot cards date back to the Middle Ages, and were used as playing cards long before they were repurposed for divination. Modern tarot owes plenty to the late-nineteenth, early-twentieth century occult boom in the west, which overlapped with the Spiritualist movement. The influential tarot authors and deck creators A.E. Waite, Pamela Coleman Smith, and Aleister Crowley were all occultists of the era. For more history, check out the links at the end of this article.
Popularized around the same time, sometimes by the the same people, tarot and ouija are both objects of entertainment and divination. They’re both hyped as mystical and mysterious, and they both cameo in horror novels and movies. It’s easy to see why people might view them as the same. In fact, they can be used in similar ways, to positive or negative ends, but there are some key differences between them.
Who Are You Talking To?
When I turn to tarot, I aim to communicate with myself, my subconscious, and the inspired, creative parts of my imagination. More than anything else, I see tarot as a tool for introspection and creative brainstorming. Ouija’s main purpose is to connect with spirits outside the self.
Exceptions exist on both sides. Tarot can be used for spirit communication. Many readers use tarot to ask questions of spirit guides, angels, and departed loved ones. On the flip side, ouija often taps into the subconscious leanings of a group or individual at the board, or produces random gibberish.
How Does The Message Come Through?
Tarot readers actively interpret throughout their sessions. Some readers memorize symbols and keywords to weave stories directly from the cards that fall. Others read intuitively, letting the cards’ images prompt a flow of information through thought-streams and psychic senses. Either way, the reader’s interpretation and personality shape the message. When you get a reading from someone else, messages come through that person’s filter first, and you re-interpret them through your own filter as you listen and digest. When you read tarot for yourself, messages come through and from you. You use your own mind, gut, and wisdom to make tarot work for you.
With spirit boards, multiple operators place their hands on a movable planchette, which points to letters and numbers to spell out messages. In theory, no one purposely moves the planchette, masking the origins of any movement, and leaving space for spirits to enter and direct the pointer. Messages from a ouija board could come from a spirit, or from any one or more of the individuals operating the board. A message may seem to have a clear meaning depending on what the board spells, but that message’s source is murky by nature of the setup.
Marketing and Perception
My biggest beef with spirit boards is that they’re marketed as children’s toys by sellers who hype up the spooky, horror angle. Spirit communication is no game and it should never be attempted by unsupervised kiddos.
Sitting on a shelf, tarot cards and spirit boards are just ink and paper. Any power they have comes from the people who use them, but that power is not to be taken lightly. When you use aids like tarot cards and ouija boards, you come with your own intentions, and you tap into the collective spirit and expectation surrounding the tool. You bring along any cultural emotions, superstitions, or fears lurking in your conscious or subconscious mind. That cultural baggage can effect the experience you have. When you open yourself up to any emotionally or spiritually charged experience from a place of fear or negative expectation, you risk attracting or creating what you fear.
To me, tarot cards always had a low spook factor, and ouija boards always had high spook factor. The mere fact that I find them creepy and associate them with horror stories indicates that I shouldn’t use them. If you find tarot cards creepy and associate them with horror, put down the damn tarot cards. You don’t need them, and won’t get anywhere good with them.
Ouija boards are things of campfires and slumber parties, cheap vehicles for middle school pranks, and staples of drunken college gatherings. They appeal to those who are young, inexperienced with the occult, skeptical but open, and looking to get scared for fun. Undereducated, unprotected, mocking, pranking, intoxicated, nervous, and cruising for a fright. That is the polar opposite of where and how you want to be should you choose to reach out to the unseen. Mischief begets mischief. Again, you don’t want to approach tarot that way, either. The tools are more or less neutral. The goals, the mindsets, and the interpretations can be trouble.
My hardest reservations here are clearly based on a belief that spirits do exist and do interact with us. (I’ve worked in too many creaky, old, haunted New England buildings to lean otherwise.) That’s a subjective worldview, and not everyone shares it. Regardless of personal beliefs, we have to acknowledge the mundane risks of the average ouija mindset. Unprotected creep-seeking opens you to the suggestions of false friends, and randomly generated self-fulfilling prophecies. It leaves you vulnerable not just to unsavory spooks, but to people you know who might want to scare you or manipulate you into doing something they think is funny, but might not be in your best interest. (If a ouija board “tells you” to do anything, btw, think long and hard before you act in any way that you might regret later.)
Before you touch a Ouija board, ask yourself some hard questions: How well do I know and trust the people I’m with right now? If I get a response from the board, how will I know who it’s coming from? Can I trust it? (Hint: probs not. And no, getting a name does not necessarily tell you anything about who you’re talking to.) If I do stir up spirit activity, do I know how to deal with it? How would I get rid of it? What questions do I want to ask here? Do I really want them answered? Do I want the whole group to hear those answers?
The Spirit World
I’ve heard positive accounts of spirit board sessions, and I’m not against all spirit communication. I am against half-assedly mucking about in the spirit world and cavalierly inviting who knows what that you don’t understand into your home. It’s not wise to pick up any tool, be it a ouija board, a deck of cards, a bible, or a humble spork, and holler out to any old spirit who might be present. When you pick up your phone, do you want to dial grandma, or do you want to dial some random number and leave a message with your home address and directions to the spare key? Extend an open invitation, and you might get a taker.
If you don’t believe in spirits at all, ouija is unlikely to appeal to you. If you do believe in spirits, show respect, and conduct yourself with responsibility and good sense. If you’re not sure, and you’re curious in the face of the unknown, be careful what you wish for. You may want to know if spirits are out there, but how do you want to find out? Isn’t it best to tread with a little caution?
May your Halloween season be full of magic, spirit, and spooky fun, and safety, and good ideas prevailing over crap ones. May you find yourselves haunted only in the most desirable, serene, and pleasant ways.
For a pro-ouija perspective from someone who knows how to use the boards well, check out Nicole Dauch's article, Ouija Board Divining.
For more reading, check out these rad links:
History of The Talking Board. MusuemOfTalkingBoards.com
The Psychology of Spiritualism: Science and Seances. David Derbyshire. TheGuardian.com. Oct. 19, 2013.
Spook: Science tackles The Afterlife. Mary Roach. W. W. Norton & Company. 2006.
The Strange and Mysterious History of the Ouija Board. Linda Rodriguez McRobbie. Smithsonian.com. Oct. 27, 2013.
Tarot Mythology: The Surprising Origins of the World’s Most Misunderstood Cards. Hunter Oatman-Stanford. Collector’s Weekly. June 18, 2014.
Dr. Jayne's Expectorant.
Fortune Telling By Cards. Robert George Sims. 1902.
A Pathetic Ballad. C.E. Brock. 1893.
Three Skeletons at the Piano. 1893.