The Ouija board, in fact, came straight out of the American 19th century obsession with spiritualism, the belief that the dead are able to communicate with the living. Spiritualism, which had been around for years in Europe, hit America hard in 1848 with the sudden prominence of the Fox sisters of upstate New York; the Foxes claimed to receive messages from spirits who rapped on the walls in answer to questions, recreating this feat of channeling in parlors across the state. Aided by the stories about the celebrity sisters and other spiritualists in the new national press, spiritualism reached millions of adherents at its peak in the second half of the 19th century. Spiritualism worked for Americans: it was compatible with Christian dogma, meaning one could hold a séance on Saturday night and have no qualms about going to church the next day. It was an acceptable, even wholesome activity to contact spirits at séances, through automatic writing, or table turning parties, in which participants would place their hands on a small table and watch it begin shake and rattle, while they all declared that they weren’t moving it.
The turning point for the device was in 1973:
In that year, The Exorcist scared the pants off people in theaters, with all that pea soup and head-spinning and supposedly based on a true story business; and the implication that 12-year-old Regan was possessed by a demon after playing with a Ouija board by herself changed how people saw the board. “It’s kind of like Psycho—no one was afraid showers until that scene… It’s a clear line,” says [historian Robert] Murch, explaining that before The Exorcist, film and TV depictions of the Ouija board were usually jokey, hokey, and silly—“I Love Lucy,” for example, featured a 1951 episode in which Lucy and Ethel host a séance using the Ouija board. “But for at least 10 years afterwards, it’s no joke… [The Exorcist] actually changed the fabric of pop culture.”