Kaia Preus received her MFA from Hollins University and was a 2019 Author Fellow through the Martha’s Vineyard Institute of Creative Writing. Her first book, The War Requiem (Essay Press), was a finalist for the 2021 Minnesota Book Award and won the 2018 Essay Press and University of Washington Bothell MFA in Creative Writing and Poetics Book Contest. Her work has appeared in The Drum, Pleiades, and elsewhere. She teaches and coaches writing at Augsburg University, St. Olaf College, and the Loft Literary Center in Minneapolis. Kaia is currently at work on a collection of essays about Halloween.
Ouija Board: What We Ask of the Dead
Because I attended Catholic school from Kindergarten through twelfth grade (though my family was not Catholic), I was used to adults telling me not to do things. Father Dosh, very grave and very quiet, showed up unannounced in our fifth grade classroom one day. “You must not read Harry Potter or The DaVinci Code,” he said.
Too late, I thought.
In high school, the pronouncements about what we should and should not do and believe continued. I was used to taking notes on things I didn’t agree with during theology classes. Women should not and could not be priests (disagree). Queer people should not get married (disagree). Everyone should be pro-life (I’d been pro-choice since the fourth grade). But there are two theology classes that didn’t fade into a hazy, frustration-filled blur in my memory: Death and Dying, and Spirituality.
In Death and Dying, we made rubbings of gravestones, planned our own funerals, and watched the movie Alive, which we discussed for weeks. When we tried to imagine ourselves in a similar situation as the people in the movie, whose airplane had crashed in the freezing Andes Mountains with no ability to radio for help, the class was fairly split on whether or not they would resort to eating the flesh of the dead passengers in order to survive (I would).
Our Spirituality class took place in a square, windowless room in the basement of our high school.There were blankets that we could use during meditation or whenever we felt chilly. Our teacher led us in meditation frequently. Sometimes she made us sit at our desks, but most of the time she let us roll up on the floor for the entire class period, a few errant snores floating above the sound of our rising and falling breaths. We also spent time coloring with crayons and telling stories. Our teacher told us the best stories. Once, she told us about a woman who went to see a fortune teller. The fortune teller told her that she would be committed to a psychiatric hospital and die before her fiftieth birthday. The woman grew so anxious about her purported future, that she did end up in a psychiatric hospital and died there before she turned fifty. Our teacher wouldn’t say that the fortune teller could see the future, but rather that the made-up fortune impacted the way the woman viewed herself and her life, thus making her fulfill the prophecy. I’m sure our teacher told us this story to frighten us out of visiting fortune tellers, but instead, the story gave me delicious shivers.
The best stories, though, were the ones about Ouija boards. The one that stands out most in my mind was about a young girl who found a Ouija board and started playing with it by herself in her closet. Soon, she began conversing with a demon, who eventually possessed her. She couldn’t stop screaming, crying, flailing around, so her parents called Catholic priests to exorcize her. Eventually, my teacher said, the priests managed to get the demon out of her, but the lesson was clear: Don’t play with Ouija Boards, and definitely do not play with Ouija Boards alone.
Every spring, our school hosted a giant garage sale in our gym called the “Treasure Hunt.” Clothes, books, golf clubs, bikes, kitchen wares, board games, furniture––everything!––were for sale, donated by the families and community members of our school. My friends and I would race to the Treasure Hunt on the first day it opened and look for vintage clothing. One year, my friend Amy and I were looking at a table heaped with a random assortment of vases, games, jewelry, and books. And it was there I spotted it: A vintage Ouija Board. For 10¢.
I bought it without a moment’s hesitation.
We brought it to my house and immediately opened it up. The board featured a fake wood background and was covered with black letters spelling out the alphabet, numbers, Yes, No, and Goodbye. We sat across from one another and placed our fingers lightly on the plastic planchette. “Hello,” we said. “Spirit, are you there?” Nothing happened. We tried again. And again. Still nothing.
We grabbed the board and brought it into the kitchen.
“Mom, the Ouija isn’t working,” I called.
My mom, though raised by very religious parents, had played with Ouija boards many times. She helped us cleanse the board and then handed us a candle and sent us to the basement, where it was dark and quiet.
As soon as we asked if a spirit was there, the planchette zoomed to Yes. “What is your name?” we asked.
“Who will we marry?”
Josephine told us that I would marry someone named Andy Simon (I didn’t) and that Amy would marry a man named John Robertson (she hasn’t). We asked more questions, but the spirit seemed to become agitated. The planchette pulled us from letter to letter in forceful zig zags and then finally flung itself off the board. Amy and I put the Ouija away.
Later that evening, I got a text from an unknown number: You coming to the bonfire?
Who is this? I typed back.
Unable to help myself, I typed back in a rush: A Ouija board just told me that I’m going to marry
someone named Andy Simon. Coincidence?
A few minutes later he responded: I have a girlfriend, sorry.
All throughout high school, my friends and I played with Ouija boards, at parties and in pairs. Once, at our friend Amelia’s house, a glow-in-the-dark, newfangled Ouija board told our friend Mike that he would die at age twenty-four (he didn’t). The board also correctly stated our friend Ian’s bowling score from earlier in the day, information, he said, that he hadn’t shared with anyone. The board also predicted that Ian would marry Hannah, his high school sweetheart (he did). My friend Elin, who also attended my Catholic school, and I brought my Ouija board to a summer music camp at St. Olaf College and played every night after rehearsals with whomever was hanging around in our dorm. The Ouija told us that I would attend St. Olaf for college (I did) and that Elin wouldn’t (she didn’t). Somehow, I lost the planchette at music camp, and the Ouija board sat in its box in my parent’s mudroom for almost a decade.
The questions a person asks a Ouija board certainly reflect what’s on the person’s mind. When Ouija boards, or, as they were referred to at the time of their creation, spirit boards or talking boards, rose to prominence in the mid 1860s, people were clamoring for a chance to speak with their loved ones who had recently died in the Civil War. The first known talking boards came out of Spiritualists’ camps in Ohio in 1886, but Spiritualism as a religious movement largely started in upstate New York in the late 1840s due to three young women: the Fox sisters. The Fox sisters became famous mediums who could communicate with the dead by inviting them to make rapping noises to answer questions. They held public seances for hundreds of people and many private ones for famous people, and they became known as founders, of a sort, of Spiritualism––the belief that the spirits of those who have died can communicate important information to the living. Eventually, the sisters confessed to training themselves to crack the knuckles of their toes on command, and even went so far as to denounce Spiritualism, but even so, the movement had spread across America and overseas, becoming quite popular in England, and lasting to today.
The rise of the Ouija Board is due in large part to a man named Charles Kennard, who saw the talking boards in action in Ohio and decided to monetize them. He joined with a few other investors and secured a patent to the board. One of these investors asked his sister-in-law, a medium named Helen Peters, to help name the board. Apparently, when they were sitting around the board, she asked it what it would like to be called. It spelled out O-U-I-J-A and then floated to “Good Luck.” Perhaps coincidentally, perhaps not, Peters acknowledged that she had been wearing a pendant at the time with a famous English novelist’s photograph on it, her pseudonym spelled across the top: Ouida. A famous mistake? Millions of Ouija Boards have sold across the United States since they were patented, ending up in many dusty attics, or closets full of board games, or, as I discovered, discarded in a Catholic high school’s Treasure Hunt.
This past summer, Amy, Elin and her husband, my little brother and his girlfriend, and my husband and I all found ourselves sitting outside on my parent’s deck. My childhood home sits at the end of a long driveway and is surrounded by woods. As dusk fell, we poured wine and cracked open beers, and then I had the idea to get out the Ouija board. Elin suggested we use an overturned whiskey glass in place of the planchette we’d lost long ago. I grabbed the glass, some candles, and a bottle of rose water to cleanse the board. Because it was during the height of the coronavirus epidemic, Elin, her husband, Amy, and I all sat around the Ouija board with our masks on, even though we were outside. It felt particularly spooky that way, as we sat knee to knee, our masks hiding all but our eyes, our fingers poised on the bottom of the whiskey glass. Darkness started gathering in the tree branches and the candles cast flickering glows across the board. “Spirit, are you there?” Elin asked.
The whiskey glass was heavy, we worried that it wouldn’t work, but slowly it lurched forward a millimeter, and then a millimeter more, and soon it was sliding across the board. Yes, it said.
“What is your name?”
We kept asking her questions: Fannie, how did you die? Were you married? What happened to your husband? She answered them all, swiftly. She died quite young, at 24, because of something wrong with her heart, a year after her husband died. “Fannie, where are you now?” Elin asked.
We didn’t understand. We tried again. Again:
“What does ‘orb’ mean?”
We tried something simpler. “Fannie, what was your favorite food?” I asked.
We laughed in surprise. We asked more questions, about her and about ourselves, though we all avoided the topic of death. Fannie, will we be happy in the future? Will we all stay friends?
We slowly pieced together that when Fannie didn’t know something or didn’t want to or couldn’t answer, she spelled out the word “orb.” Of course, there is no way to know for sure, but to us it seemed like a delineation between her world and ours; because she was in the orb, whatever or where ever that was, certain information could not pass to us.
Scientists have performed numerous experiments with subjects using Ouija boards and have found that the planchette moves across the board because of something known as “the ideomotor effect.” This is the body’s subconscious and involuntary movement. When we all place our fingers on the planchette, our body creates minute movements that may be connected to memories or images in our minds. It makes perfect sense that widows, mothers, and friends of those who had died in the Civil War would try to contact their loved ones and learn what they could. Humans live and find meaning in relation to others; it makes sense that when a relationship ends because of death, the person left living would search for a way to rekindle that connection, that love. I can easily imagine a widow sitting down to a talking board and asking how it was that her beloved died. How is he doing now? Where is he? How comforting it would be to receive the answers one most wanted to hear: I died quickly, painlessly; I’m fine; I’m in heaven. I’m with God. Most of all, the people left behind craved closure.
As we kept playing with Fannie on that summer night, the woods grew darker, a chill entered the air, and whenever I looked up from the board I saw my friends’ eyes flashing from the board to me in the dim candlelight, their noses and mouths hidden behind their fabric masks. Around the country, deaths from Covid-19 kept rising, climbing quickly toward the 200,000 mark. Grief hung like heavy clouds around countless families we both knew and didn’t know. Fear impacted every daily decision. Anger coursed through people because they knew that so many could have survived if our country had tackled the coronavirus with more severity. Thousands and thousands of Americans had died all alone, surrounded by plastic and plexiglass, their image transported to their loved ones through the pixelated screen of a phone. If given the opportunity to communicate with those who died, we would say so many of the same things those Civil War widows told their husbands. I’m sorry I couldn’t be there. I love you. Tell me, have you found peace?
Fannie told us that she had died over two hundred yearsago, but she felt present. She felt real. We wanted to believe in her, so we did. Eventually, the whiskey glass grew sluggish, heavy beneath our fingertips. Finally, the glass slowly slid down the board to Goodbye, and we lifted off our fingers.