One of the first mentions of the use of talking boards to communicate with the dead and the spirit world was in China around 1100 AD, around the rule of the Song Dynasty. The method was known as fuji (扶乩), “planchette writing”.
When spiritualism came very much in fashion in the eighteenth century in America the potential use of talking boards to provide an accessible and mass producible means of individuals to attempt this communication promised great profit. Businessman Elijah Bond seized the opportunity to patent a talking board for wide scale sale and production. In 1901 William Fuld took over the enterprise; he started production under the name “Ouija”. Deriving either from the old Egyptian word for good luck; or alternatively an amalgamation of the French and German words for yes and no. It became particularly popular during the first world war as a means of divining with the dead; very much driven by American spiritualist Pearl Curran. Fuld’s estate sold the entire business to Parker Brothers, which was then sold to Hasbro in 1991, which continues to hold the patent and to produce the board.
Of course most mainstream knowledge of the Ouija board comes from film; the critically acclaimed best horror film ever; The Exorcist involves a young girl becoming possessed by a demon and the repeated use of a Ouija board to interact with this demon. So how can this occult practise be interpreted in terms of the need of popular society? Of course as a way to communicate with dead loved ones; perhaps therefore becoming more potent in the modern age with the decline of religion and spiritualism coming into fashion. The western adoption of many such Ancient Asian forms of Animism perhaps exposes an inadequacy of modern Christianity to provide for these more ritualistic and spiritual beliefs. Perhaps we just want to scare ourselves for the kick.
In conclusion this adoption of ancient Chinese spiritualism represents a wider return of many in the Western world to folklore and what some would describe as paganism. Those on the fringe of society who can’t identify with the strict practise of organised religion or the emptiness of a world dictated by science, or those attempting to create alternate terrifying realities to experience extreme emotion. Ultimately the popularity of the Ouija board represented a mechanism of coping with the new world as it became defined and categorised; as superstition was replaced with fact many weren’t and are still unable to embrace the idea of a world which is entirely predictable and formed by equations.