So, here you are in a relaxed and receptive state sitting with your Ouija board. Your fingers lightly touch the message indicator. The planchette first circles aimlessly but then pauses at one letter followed by several more in quick succession. You string the letters together in your mind as you try to make sense of what you are witnessing. The word is B-A-L-R-T. BALRT? What does that mean? Then it hits you. Oh, it says: "be a lert." Is the Ouija asking you to be a lert? What is a lert? Is this nonsensical gibberish, or is the Ouija trying to give you some deep, insightful message? What is going on, and where did that strange communication come from? Did you move that planchette yourself, perhaps unknowingly, or did some mysterious entity "out there" do it?
There are two opposing beliefs about what happens when you operate the Ouija board. We could call it the Skeptics versus the Believers, but we prefer something a little less confrontational. Besides, some people adopt ideas from both arguments confusing the issue considerably. So, to make things easy, we call it the Automatism versus Spiritualist Theory of Ouija.
The clinical term is "ideomotor response." You may not realize that you are moving the message indicator, but you are. This is similar to automatic writing, also known as automatism, a well-understood psychological phenomenon. A spirit medium, in years past, would hold a pencil in one hand and pay no attention as it wrote furiously. Some believed that these written messages came from the spirits. Others felt that the messages came from a clever medium. At any rate, most proponents of the Automatism Theory think that it is very possible to move the planchette unconsciously. They claim that the Ouija board opens a kind of shortcut from the conscious to the subconscious mind. Collective automatism occurs when more than one person is operating the board. Automatists sometimes use the Ouija board as a tool for special humanistic psychotherapies as a way to foster growth by releasing ideas from the depths of the inner mind. This was particularly popular during the human-potential movement of the 1960s and 1970s.
Ouija messages obviously come from forces beyond our control. You contact or "channel" these entities through the board. They are discarnate spirits, ghosts, or other ethereal beings who have a purpose for contacting the living. Many advocates of the Spiritualist Theory think that there is no harm in contacting the other realm because most spirits are basically benign and have important information to share. A few of these same advocates will perform elaborate cleansing rituals before using the board, just in case they run into a stinker. Other Spiritualist Theory supporters, often religious fundamentalists, believe that no one should ever use the Ouija board. Malevolent forces may masquerade as good and cause emotional damage, even death to the user of the board. They offer as proof the many accounts of spirit possession reported by "experts" on the occult and demonology. The absence of any actual emergency room admissions for these Ouija board tragedies does not discourage this kind of thinking.
In the end, debates are not likely to settle the matter in favor of either theory. Science will continue to press for conclusive evidence in what is, essentially, a faith-based state of affairs. For every argument one way, there is a counter to the contrary. For example, skeptics think that blindfolding or handcuffing a medium so that the board cannot operate proves the Automatism Theory. Spiritualists point out that this simply indicates that the board will not work if the medium is handicapped, not whether the messages originate from the medium or the spirits. That the spirits need human eyes to see the letters, and human hands to touch the message indicator, is blatantly obvious, they will say. The planchette does not move unaided. The spirits guide it through the medium. The board has no power of its own but is just a tool to facilitate spiritual communication. And so it goes.