The Secret History of the Ouija Board

ouijaA Talk and Visual Presentation by Mitch Horowitz
Date: Friday, February 4th
Time: 8pm
Admission: $5
Presented by: Phantasmaphile

Ouija! For some it evokes memories of late-night sleepover parties and shrieks of laughter as friends huddled with flashlights over the rectangular board. For others, Ouija Boards – known more generally as talking boards or spirit boards – have darker associations: Stories abound of fearsome entities making dire predictions, threats, and even physical assaults on innocent users after a night of Ouija experimentation. Yet Ouija has a history that goes beyond bumps in the night: Pulitzer Prize-winning poet James Merrill vowed until his death in 1995 that his most celebrated work was written with the use of a homemade Ouija board. Ouija has also helped inspire our most significant fright fiction, from The Exorcist to Paranormal Activity. Now, Mitch Horowitz, author of the acclaimed history book, Occult America, explores how Ouija boards emerged from America’s atmosphere of séances and spirit raps in the nineteenth century, to become the most recognizable – and oddly influential – occult object of all time.

Highlights include:

  • How talking boards went from being a homemade sensation among nineteenth-century American occultists to become a staple of toy-cluttered basements and playrooms.
  • How Ouija inspired one of the largest religions practiced today in the nation of Vietnam.
  • How artists Sylvia Plath, Ted Hughes, and James Merrill used the board – and the works of literature that have come through Ouija.
  • A visual presentation that traces the strange beauty of talking boards across the generations.
  • The weird mythology and urban legendary that have sprung up around Ouija.
  • Who really “invented” the board and how Ouija forms an indelible link between today’s pop culture and the Spiritualist movement of the nineteenth century.

Mitch Horowitz is the editor-in-chief of Tarcher/Penguin and the author of Occult America (Bantam), which The Washington Post Book World called: “Fascinating…a serious, wide-ranging study of all the magical, mystical, and spiritual movements that have arisen and influenced American history in often-surprising ways.” The book received the 2010 PEN Oakland/Josephine Miles Award for literary excellence. Time Out magazine has called his Occult New York Walking Tours – produced by Observatory / Phantasmaphile – a “can’t-miss event” featuring “seldom-told stories of New York’s mystical history.” He has written for U.S. News & World Report, The Washington Post, Big Think, and Boing Boing, and has appeared on CBS Sunday Morning, Dateline NBC, and All Things Considered. You can visit him online at

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