|Ouija Summoning A History of the Occult on the Silver Screen
The occult, and items that are usually closely associated with it, have been Hollywood staples for decades.
People are fascinated with them, even if they also find them rather unnerving and even scary. Two such 'items'
are tarot cards and Ouija boards, both of which have made numerous appearances in the movies over the
Before we begin to discuss the silver screen history of these recognizably 'weird' things however we should
take a look at just what they really are and their 'real life' history.
Tarot Cards - Playing Cards That Took on a New Meaning
The history of Tarot cards, and how they became well-known and in some circles, widely accepted, tools of
divination is far from clear and is, in actual fact tainted with questionable myths and outright falsehoods that
were spread to, well, help sell a certain deck of Tarot or to discredit their use altogether.
What is clear to most who have studied the history of the Tarot seriously is that they are not quite as old as
many assume and they began life in completely innocuous ways. The mysticism, the aura of the occult that
often surrounds them, now came later.
According to the most popular and credible account of the forerunner of the divinational Tarot deck the
concept is just five or six hundred years old, not the thousands of years some claim. The tarot actually
originated as standard playing cards, with nothing mystical about them at all.
Playing cards were in use in the West as recreational tools from the early 14th century onwards, brought
back from the Crusades by returning soldiers who had learned how to make use of them while amusing
themselves between battles and assaults.
Playing cards - and card games - quickly became very popular with the aristocracy, and in the 15th century
an Italian duke requested that a special set of 'triumph ‘cards be created for his personal use. He intended to
use them to play a game that was somewhat similar to bridge and his deck was pretty much standard,
although a little on the flowery side. So in the beginning, tarot cards were not mystical at all, they were little
more playing cards for the rich and famous. And although tarot games as simple card games still exist today,
all of that is really not what we are interested in here; we want to discuss how things all got, well, a bit weird.
|The Tarot Evolves
It was a series of European courtiers, and, oddly enough a couple of clergymen, who were the first to attach
deeper meanings to the colorful decks of 'triumph cards' that were popping up in the homes of the wealthy
throughout the 16th century.
Possibly the very first to begin claiming that these cards had a mystical origin was a French clergyman named
Court de Gebelin. After spending some time watching the ladies of the court to which he ministered play he
began formulating what was a very interesting theory, if a bit far-fetched.
These cards he decided (with no actual evidence) were relics of Ancient Egyptian practices. They had, he
said, great divine significance and the card which is today referred to as the Priestess was actually the
Egyptian goddess Isis. And he gave them their modern name, based on a combination of two Ancient
Egyptian words; tar, "path" or "road", and the word Ro, Ros or Rog, meaning "King" or "royal", meaning
that tarot was supposed to be 'The Royal Road of Life'.
A number of others expanded on the theory - again with absolutely no evidence - and like de Gebelin made
plenty of money from the books they wrote about it - but it would be some 50 years before someone
actually began assigning meanings to each card and formulating instructions for their divinational use.
This was another religious chap - although he was a bit of a failure as he had dropped out of seminary -
named Eliphas Levi and he claimed that the Tarot held the key not only to knowledge about the present but
also of the future, and that by interpreting the meanings of the cards people picked from a deck their
questions about the direction their life was about to take could be answered.
Levi also claimed that the tarot granted those who understood it some rather extraordinary powers, writing
"An imprisoned person with no other book than the Tarot, if he knew how to use it, could in a few years
acquire universal knowledge, and would be able to speak on all subjects with unequaled learning and
The Tarot Gets Creepy
After Levi had attached so much significance to a simple deck of cards the first man to see their occult - and
money-making potential - was a French occultist, Jean-Baptiste Alliette. Working under the name Etteilla he
began, using a set of cards he had designed himself that boasted a decidedly Egyptian theme, to both offer
tarot 'divinations' to wealthy clients and to teach the 'art of the Tarot' to students.
Following his success, over the next couple of decades more and more tarot readers emerged, and with
them more and more forms of the deck as well as new ideas about how the cards should be read and
But most of this was little more than harmless, fortune-telling fun, so how did the Tarot card gain its slightly
frightening reputation? Perhaps most responsible for that was the notorious Aleister Crowley.
Crowley was, for those unfamiliar with him, a magnetic, enigmatic figure who fancied himself as an artist, an
author, a master occultist and even a prophet. To accompany a book he had written, The Book of Thoth, he
commissioned a friend, Lady Frieda Harris, to create a new tarot deck, one still known as the Thoth Tarot
Deck that remains wildly popular to this day. There was actually very little that was evil about the Crowley
'method' of Tarot reading but his reputation certainly gave the whole concept a darker edge.
Tarot reading remains popular to this day, although thanks to the rise of Internet astrology its meaning - and
the physical reading of cards - has become rather distorted. However, they still hold a place in pop culture,
including on the silver screen, as we shall see later...
How the Tarot Works
Now that you understand a little more about how the Tarot came to be it might be helpful to learn a little
more about how the whole thing actually works, right?
If you ask any experienced Tarot reader about the 'rules' of Tarot divination they will tell you that there really
are none. And that is perhaps because there have been so many books, essays and guides written that the
'rules' are very unclear, especially as so many different theories abound about the significance of the 'art' in
the first place.
In very basic terms though every deck is made up of 78 cards, each of which has its own unique meaning.
These are further broken down into groups off 22 Major Arcana cards, 40 Minor Arcana cards and 16
No matter which deck you choose to work with the basic cards are the same:
The Major Arcana
II High Priestess
V The Hierophant
X Wheel of Fortune
XII The Hanged Man
XVII The Star
XVIII The Moon
XIX The Sun
XXI The World
Reading the list you no doubt noted that Death, The Hanged Man, and the Devil seem rather ominous. In
standard tarot divination however they are rarely interrupted literally (in the movies it's a different story
The 40 Minor Arcana cards consist of four suits, each numbered Ace through ten. The suits are Cups,
Pentacles (there's that scary occult stuff again) Swords and Rods. Each of them governs an aspect of life;
Pentacles for practical career and finance related matters, Cups for emotional matters, Swords for
communications and Rods for spiritual matters.
Finally there are the Court Cards, Kings, Queens, Knights and Pages for each suit in the Minor Arcana.
Reading the Cards
So, how does a basic reading work? The cards are separated and one is chosen from the Major Arcana.
This is the important card, the one that represents the person 'being read'. Then three cards are chosen from
the Minor Arcana. In a very basic reading the Court Cards aren't touched, they are left for 'deeper' reading.
How each reader interprets the cards really does depend on which guide they've been reading, so the
'results' really can vary, something that has proved very convenient for those who want to include them in a
scary story or screenplay...
Types of Tarot Cards
If you were to search the Internet today for a Tarot deck to purchase to begin learning the art of tarot card
reading then you would quickly find that there are literally hundreds to choose from, making shopping for a
deck rather hard. There is, of course, a great deal of argument over just what 'the right' or 'the best' of these
many decks is. A large number of serious tarot afficionados tend to prefer the Ryder-Waite deck and usually
recommend it for newbies.
The Ryder-Waite tarot deck was commissioned by the Rider publishing company in 1910. This was - and
still is - a 'mystical' themed imprint of the larger Penguin Random House company. It was created by Arthur
Waite, a well known occultist author, and an artist, Pamela Colman-Smith who had studied both art and
mysticism as a child in Jamaica.
Colman-Smith's illustrations and bright, colorful and simplistic, but at the same time, extremely effective. It is,
for example, her interpretations of The Magician, Death and The Hanged Man are those that come most
readily to many people's minds when they think about Tarot in general, as they have been so extensively
used in pop culture ever since. The deck also came packaged with an instruction booklet, penned by Waite,
designed as a primer for the new tarot card reader.
A Tarot Rivalry for the Ages
At around the same time as Waite and Smith were working on their tarot deck, Aleister Crowley began
thinking about doing the same. Waite and Crowley were known to each other and were bitter enemies, with
Crowley not only denouncing the American born Waite as a fraud and an idiot but casting a thinly veiled
version of him as the villain in a number of his literary works. Crowley however, was not good at sticking to
any one project and did not get around to creating his 'rival' tarot deck until 1944, by which time the Rider
deck had cornered the market and Waite had died a wealthy man courtesy of the deck and the fame it
The Thoth tarot that Crowley created with Lady Freida Harris is considerably more ornate and the images
are far darker and sexually charged in nature, a good reflection of the differences in character between the
two men in fact. It is also still widely used to this day, although the unsavory nature of Crowley's practices
and beliefs in general give the deck - and its accompanying instruction book - a 'black magic' edge.
These two decks aside there are, as we mentioned, many more. The cards do lend themselves rather well to
artistic interpretation and you'll find decks that feature fairies, demons, robots and stars as well as steam
punk and even superhero themed decks. There are also replicas of card sets that were created for the
movies, but more about those later.
The Ouija Board
Unlike the Tarot the Ouija board has never had an alternative 'benign' use, it has always been a 'tool of the
occult' and has always had a single purpose; to communicate with the dead.
The Ouija Board proper is actually a toy, the term was copyrighted by Hasbro in the early 1900s. It has its
origins however in the ‘talking boards’ and 'automatic writing' that came centuries before.
The Ancient Chinese and Automatic Writing
The 'automatic writing' that the Ouija board makes use of first appears in recorded history during the reign of
the Chinese Song Dynasty, in around 1100 AD. Back then it was known as fuji, and was formally practiced
as a means of speaking with - and learning from - the dead by the Taoist monks of the revered Quanzhen
A number of spiritual works of the time were said to have been transcribed, rather than authored by the
monks, from what they were 'told' by the spirits who contacted them via their 'talking boards'. These voices
however were silenced when the practice was outlawed by the incoming Qing Dynasty in the 1200s who
decreed it was evil, dark magic.
Another group of ancients who made use of a similar idea were the Ancient Romans. The Romans were, of
course, fascinated and awed by the occult in all of its different forms and so were prepared to believe that
this 'planchette writing' as they referred to it was a legitimate and useful tool. And thanks to the expansion of
the Roman Empire across the globe, by the 1400s the practice of communicating with the dead via 'spirit
boards' was rather widespread.
The Commercialization of the Talking Board
The talking, and spirit, boards of Europe made their way to America with the first settlers, and the practice
continued in the new world. It really came into its own however just after the Civil War.
During the Civil War, as you might remember from history class, an estimated 620,000 men lost their lives,
as well as an uncounted number of civilian casualties. With more than 3% of the population dead, many of
them young men who left behind grieving mothers, sisters, wives and girlfriends, there was a definite business
opportunity for spiritualists who could claim to be able to put these poor folks in touch with their lost loved
ones. And, making great use of the 'spirit board ‘hundreds cashed in, travelling from state to state offering
By the late 1880s, spirit boards were even being used by the wealthy, as an amusing, if slightly scary, party
pastime. Seeing a great business opportunity for himself businessman Elijah Bond, a Baltimore based
inventor and lawyer took out a patent on the name 'Ouija Board' and marketed it as a fun and harmless
parlor game, one that was even suitable for young people. His original board was very similar to those sold
today; a board bearing the letters of the alphabet in the rows, as well as the words 'yes' and 'no'. The
planchette used to guide the communications was also the same heart-shaped device that most of us have at
least seen if not used.
Bond's board, the patent to which is now owned by Hasbro Toys, quickly became a hit, but almost as
quickly began to gain itself a reputation as something that could potentially bring harm, as a number of people
came forward claiming to have had chilling, unnerving conversations making use of it. However, Bond was
so pleased to be credited as its inventor (which he really wasn't of course) that he commissioned a Ouija
themed gravestone to be buried under.
The Ouija Board, and many similar, 'knock off' versions are still sold as toys today, but very few people,
even those who tend not to believe in things like ghosts, would be likely to recommend that children play
with them in the same way as they might their Lego sets or Barbie dolls.
|Ouija Boards as Literary Inspiration
Remember the Taoist monks who claimed that the sprints they contacted had helped them write their
books? They are far from the only ones who have made such claims. In fact there are a number of notable
examples of 'Ouija board authoring'.
For example, Emily Grant Hutchings, a woman from Hutchings, Missouri who had a keen interest in the use
of Ouija boards to contact spirits, published a novel, Japp Heron, in 1916. Except she claimed that it was
not she who was the author but the spirit who reached out to her via the board, one “Sam L. Clemens, lazy
Sam,” aka Mark Twain. Twain had died seven years previously but according to Hutchings he was an
unhappy chap as he had not finished his final work before passing away. So, she said, Jap Herron was in
fact his final work.
This backfired in a couple of ways. As she used an independent publisher to publish what she said was a
Twain work, his publishers, Simon and Schuster, to whom he had long been contracted, sued for damages
and Twain's daughter Clara sued merely because it was an insult to her father's legacy and a fraud.
The lawsuits led to the book being taken of the market and all remaining unsold copies destroyed. Although,
if you really wanted to you can find photocopies online to read, it really wasn't up to Twain's usual high
standard, with the New York Times pointing out in a 1917 review "If this is the best that 'Mark Twain' can
do by reaching across the barrier, the army of admirers that his works have won for him will all hope that he
will hereafter respect that boundary.”
Emily Hutchings was not the only Hutchings, Missouri resident to have a go at spirit dictation though. Her
close friend, Pearl Lenore Curran, claimed that while her bestie had hit it off with Twain she had
encountered a young woman called Patience Worth via the board.
This was, she claimed, a young aspiring writer who had met a tragic end in an Indian raid 'someplace' in
'about 1715'. As Patience, she published all kinds of works - poetry, novellas, and social commentaries -
and even got herself a gig as an essayist for the noted Atlantic Monthly.
Once again though, the critics were not kind, with her fellow AM writer Agnes Repplier declaring the Worth
pieces “as silly as they are dull.”
And then there was another return for Mark Twain. Apparently miffed that his earlier attempt to publish
from the grave had been thwarted, he contacted one Mildred Swanson of Independence, Missouri, or so
she said, via a Ouija board to have her transcribe some 'more' of his posthumous work.
This was all published as a memoir, ‘God Bless U, Daughter' by Swanson in 1968. The title, she said, came
from the way Twain ended each of their Ouija board sessions, during which, apart from dictating a number
of political essays, Twain also predicted Swanson's mother's near fatal fall and also offered to put her touch
with fellow authors Edgar Rice Burroughs and Robert Louis Stevenson, although she never did seem to
All of this is rather silly of course, but as recently as the 1980s one author who made similar claims actually
won national book prizes for his work. Poet James Merrill, who to be fair garnered most of his fame for his
own stellar work, was given the National Book Critics Circle Award in 1983 for his epic poem 'The
Changing Light at Sandover', which was, he said, drawn from 20 years of Ouija board conversations he and
his partner David Jackson had had with a number of spirits.
The Ouija Board, Religion and Science
As it is a tool with which you can, purportedly, contact the dead, it is little surprise that the Ouija board has
got plenty of attention from both the religious and the scientific communities.
For the most part modern religion has dismissed the Ouija board as a tool of evil, with the Catholic Church
calling for them to be banned as they were tools of evil. Several criminals have also even used that idea in
their defenses, most notably in 2007 by teen killers Joshua Tucker and Donald Schalchlin who claimed a
spirit from the Ouija board they were using told them to kill Donald's little sister, which they did, and by
famed killer Gary Gilmore who claimed an evil spirit his mother had 'released' from a Ouija board had
possessed him and led him to kill.
Scientists, on the other hand, are interested in what might be behind the claims that the planchette really
moves on its own when the Ouija board is used. Although even after study most dismiss it as nonsense one
Professor of Neurology, Dr Terence Hines did state in his book Pseudoscience and the Paranormal:
"The planchette is guided by unconscious muscular exertions like those responsible for table movement.
Nonetheless, in both cases, the illusion that the object (table or planchette) is moving under its own control
is often extremely powerful and sufficient to convince many people that spirits are truly at work... The
unconscious muscle movements responsible for the moving tables and Ouija board phenomena seen at
séances are examples of a class of phenomena due to what psychologists call a dissociative state. A
dissociative state is one in which consciousness is somehow divided or cut off from some aspects of the
individual's normal cognitive, motor, or sensory functions.", offering possibly the clearest scientific
explanation yet for the Ouija board's apparent functioning.
Going to the Movies - Tarot Cards and Ouija Boards on the Silver Screen
Thanks to the mysticism and sense of the occult that surrounds them both tarot cards and the Ouija board
have provided fodder for the creative imaginations of many a movie screenwriter. And while many of those
films have had, as would only seem natural, a horror or suspense theme others have simply used the objects
as a rather interesting plot device to move the action forward in silver screen offerings from other, less
expected genres. Let's now take the time to look at some of the most memorable examples.
The Tarot in the Movies
Although a deck of Tarot cards - or a Tarot reading - have literally shown up in dozens and dozens of films
over the years these have been chosen for closer examination as the Tarot is used as more than a mere
prop, its presence actually drives the narrative forward, or effects it in a significant way.
Nightmare Alley (1947)
By 1946 Tyrone Power had established himself in Hollywood as a go to choice if a director was looking for
a handsome, swashbuckling, romantic hero. And he was, the story goes, rather bored by it. So, he actively
campaigned for the male lead in this film noir offering, that of the rather unpleasant, "The Great Stanton", a
scheming carnival barker.
The Tarot plays a significant part in the storyline as the female lead, Joan Blondell, plays "Mademoiselle
Zeena", a carnival fortune teller whose living greatly depends on her ability - or seeming ability anyway - to
read Tarot cards.
The deck used in the film was specially created using descriptions of its imagery from the book on which the
film was based, which actually made use of the name of each of the 22 cards in the Major Arcana as
chapter titles and as the story progresses each major character is affected - often in a bad way - by the card
Zeena draws for them. Overall it's a very clever way to add the mysticism of the Tarot into what is already a
dark and bleak plot and when you add the fact that the acting is pretty decent the film is well worth a watch.
Night Tide (1961)
This movie was not a huge success but its plot is a fascinating, if very odd one. A sailor, as played by a very
young Dennis Hopper, falls in love with a carnival performer who, apart from playing a mermaid in a
sideshow, actually believes she is one, and a murderous one at that.
The film is notable for Tarot lovers though as the reading that Hopper's character seeks from the carnival's
fortune teller, Madame Romanovitch, to help him decide about his future with his lady love is both detailed
and fairly realistic, thanks to the fact that actress Marjorie Eaton spent several days with real life tarot
readers to perfect her silver screen reading.
Dr. Terror’s House of Horrors (1965)
This is one of a number of British horror movies that cemented the late Peter Cushing as an iconic figure in
the genre during the earlier part of his career. Cushing plays Doctor Schreck, or, if you translate from the
German, Dr Terror.
The action begins on a train, with Cushing's character engaging five bored men in conversation. He takes out
a deck of tarot, which he terms his 'House of Horrors ‘and claims he will use them to foretell the fate of his
travelling companions. This sets up an anthology of five separate horror stories based on the Doctor's
This is scary enough, in a great, shlocky way, but there is a big twist at the end, involving both the not so
good Doctor and his Tarot cards that we won't spoil here but does make sitting through the film worthwhile.
Live and Let Die (1973)
If you ask the average movie fan to name a movie that features the Tarot this is often the first one that will
come to their mind.
In it, Jane Seymour plays Solitaire, a psychic who works for the film's assigned big villain (and there must
always be one of those in a Bond movie), Dr. Kananga. She is a skilled Tarot reader on whose predictions
the politician/drug lord bases many of his major decisions. She is also, however beautiful, a virgin, as she
believes that if she was not her ability to read tarot so well would be taken from her.
Ever the clever chappie, Bond, as played by Roger Moore here, offers HER a reading using a 'stacked'
deck of tarot cards. Drawing 'The Lovers' card, Solitaire is convinced that her fate is sealed, she must sleep
with Bond and end her tarot reading days and her association with Kananga.
The whole reading is actually nonsense as far as traditional Tarot wisdom is concerned, but that mattered
little to film fans. The deck that was especially created for the film was reproduced for limited public sale
and is to this day a sought after movie collectible. And, sometimes to her annoyance, forever associated
with Jane Seymour, despite the fact that she has played a number of other famous roles since.
Dead Alive (also known as Braindead) (1992)
Before he became a legendary, Oscar winning director thanks to The Lord of the Rings Peter Jackson
wrote and directed this zombie splatter romp that, being objective, owes an awful lot to Sam Raimi's Evil
The tarot comes into play here as the hero Lionel's love interest really only ever agrees to go on a date with
him as her Grandmother's tarot reading seems to have foretold he is her destined true love for life.
However, Lionel's happiness with the lovely Paquita is cut short when his meddling mother follows the pair
on a zoo date and is somehow bitten by a diseased monkey and dies. Sort of. She actually becomes a
zombie and promptly begins eating and converting the remainder of the local population.
It is then up to Lionel, guided in part by Paquita's granny's ever bleaker tarot readings, to defeat the zombie
menace and get the girl. Silly, gory but worth a watch for Evil Dead fans at the very least. And for tarot fans
the deck, which again was created especially for the film, is interesting as it was a repainted version of
Crowley's Thoth deck that features the movie's characters as card images.
The Red Violin (1998)
Although a violin is named in the title of this French Canadian drama, tarot cards are featured as plot
devices just as prominently.
Essentially the film centers around the stories of five different owners of a mysterious red violin. Each tale
also revolves, however, around a specific tarot card that becomes associated with each story based on a
single reading the violin-maker's wife received during its creation sometime in the 15th century.
The cards featured are all Major Arcana cards; the moon, the hanged man, justice, the Devil and death. The
filmmakers did actually do their Tarot homework though, as the meanings assigned to each card are not
literal or silly, but properly aligned with the way the cards are usually interpreted.
Tenacious D in the Pick of Destiny (2006)
As half of the duo that is Tenacious D is one Jack Black then even if you’ve never seen this film then you’ll
know that the use of the tarot is for comedic, rather than serious or scary reasons. Centering around two
heavy metal musicians who are literally fighting the Devil.
The tarot cards appear in animated form the beginning of each ‘chapter’ of the movie. Only eight cards are
used, they are all fictional and very silly, but a limited edition replica of the ‘card set’ that was released with
the film’s soundtrack sold out quickly and is a prize now for movie collectors and tarot fans alike. And Jack
Black fans in general, as his image is worked into them all.
The Other Boleyn Girl (2008)
Unless you have seen the Director's Cut DVD of this Scarlett Johansson/ Natalie Portman vehicle you won't
have seen the tarot appear in the torrid tale of sisters who seduced a king. That's because it was cut from
the original theater release as its historical plausibility was questioned in the editing process.
In the scene, Portman's Anne Boleyn is seen performing a tarot reading for a fascinated King Henry VII.
However, as the deck used is a slightly fanciful medieval version of a Tarot deck known as the Charles VI
deck, referring to the 14th century King of France of the same name.
Now technically, a form of Tarot was around in Tudor times and Anne Boleyn had spent most of her youth
in the French court, making the author of the book on which the film is based, Philippa Gregory's idea that
Anne may have been a tarot reader reasonably plausible. However, as there is no historical mention of her
ever having done so, or anyone for that matter,despite her later reputation a witch, it was cut. Still, the idea
that the doomed Queen influenced her own fate using Tarot is a very interesting one.
This Filipino horror flick is notable here as it not only features Tarot cards but actually makes them one of
the forces of evil plaguing a beautiful young girl.
The plot of the film, which was primarily created as a career vehicle for Filipino model and soap actress
Marian Rivera, is a loose and muddled one. Rivera is a tarot enthusiast, inspired by her grandmother, who
had enjoyed a reputation in life as a talented fortune teller and accurate card reader. Making use of her
inherited deck however causes the heroine nothing but trouble.
While the film may be very flawed, the way the tarot is used is intriguing. The cards, at various points, ‘come
alive’ with monsters and destructive forces emerging from them to cause violent havoc, and the overall
imagery is effective and a great way to cash in on the tarot card’s occult reputation.
The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus (2009)
Tarot references abound in this 2009 Terry Gilliam offering. As it centers around a performing troupe of
theater and carnival performers this is almost to be expected but the link goes further than that. Heath
Ledger’s Tony – who is also played by Jude Law, Johnny Depp and Colin Farrell as the film was
interrupted by Ledger’s untimely death - was figuratively and literally representing the ‘hanged man’ and its
traditional meaning in Tarot and there are several other references to character being represented by cards –
including The Devil and The Lovers – as well as several scenes of actual tarot card reads.
The Ouija Board on the Silver Screen
As it has no other real purpose other than to try to make contact with ‘the other side’, the Ouija board is
even more of an obvious choice for a movie inspiration than the tarot cards, especially when it comes to
horror and suspense. Therefore it is not that surprising to find that there are plenty of cinematic appearances
The Ouija Board (1920)
Oddly enough, one of the first appearances of the Ouija board in a Hollywood movie was as the central plot
device for this cartoon tale. It's the story of an illustrator, Max, who is trying to finish an animation short
before his boss gets back. The trouble is that his assistant keeps neglecting his work to go and play with the
Ouija board that the studio janitor has just purchased.
Having just finished drawing a clown, Koko, in a haunted house, Max goes to see just what is so exciting
about the janitor's new toy, and quickly gets drawn into a discussion about how it might work. As was
common in th twenties, Max's drawing comes to life, with all kinds of spooky stuff ensuing, including Koko
getting trapped in the Ouija board.
This film isn't meant to scare of course, it was created as a commentary on a big craze of the day, as at the
time sales of the Ouija board as a 'game' were still skyrocketing.
13 Ghosts (1960)
No, this is not the 2001 Matthew Lillard vehicle, but the movie that inspired it. Far less gory, but arguably
better acted than its successor, it is still the story of a Cyrus, this time Cyrus Zorba, but he is a failing
paleontologist who, just as his wife calls him to tell him the bailiffs are at the door and the family are about to
made homeless learns he has unexpectedly inherited a house that belonged to a distant uncle.
The house, as it turns out, is lovely, but, explains the lawyer who is the executor of the will, as Zorba's uncle
was a ghost collector, it is also already inhabited, by 12 ghosts that the eccentric old chap had imprisoned
Zorba and his family, wife Hilda and children Medea and Buck, think the ghost stuff is hilarious, and really
aren't bothered by it as they move into their great new place. They aren't bothered by the Ouija board they
find either, and decide it would be a fun way to pass the evening. That fun ends however when an unnamed
spirit communicates, via the Ouija board, that one of their number is destined to become the thirteenth
Unlike its successor - which did away with the Ouija board altogether - this film is more concerned with the
supernatural rather than gore and the Ouija board, along with a mysterious housekeeper/fortune teller, has a
large role to play, often being the means by which the family discover all kinds of nasty things about their
This version of 13 Ghosts did reasonably well, in terms of box office receipts, and still stands out as one of
the first times that what was still essentially supposed to be a child's toy was featured so prominently in a
decently budgeted Hollywood horror movie.
|Tales from the Crypt (1972)
Long before HBO got their hands on the rights to the name, Tales From the Crypt was a schlocky example
of the melodramatic horror movies that were so popular in the late Sixties and early Seventies. As is the case
for the HBO series though, here the Crypt Keeper is a teller of tales, and he shares five in this film, one of
which features a man driven to madness, and murder, by his attempts to communicate with his dead wife via
a Ouija board and the taunting of a local bully.
The Exorcist (1973)
In case it's been a while since you watched this legendary horror classic, or you are one of the many who
have never quite got up the guts to do so, you may have forgotten that it is in fact the Ouija board that she
finds in a closet that begins all of little Regan's troubles with the supernatural, and, it is implied, perhaps the
very reason she became possessed in the first place..
It's a Hollywood tradition that when a movie is super successful that at least half a dozen more rather like it
be made immediately afterwards in an attempt to cash in on the success of whatever the subject matter might
have been. Seytan is one such movie.
Released a year after The Exorcist, a film that caused a pop culture and medic frenzy like few ever had
before it, Seytan's plot is almost a direct rip-off. The pre-pubescent daughter of a successful working
woman discovers a Ouija board, plays with it while Mother is not about, and then is promptly possessed by
Seytan, a 'faux Satan' that must then be destroyed by an aging priest. There's actually no real reason to go
any further with the plot details here as, with the exception of the fact that the story is set in Istanbul rather
than Georgetown, it is almost an exact ape of William Peter Blatty's tale.
Amityville 3D (1983)
Known to many a horror fan as the chapter of the Amityville Horror saga where things got really silly, the
Ouija board makes an appearance as the strange haunted house is now in the possession an elderly couple
who claim to be mediums, and make use of a Ouija board to conduct a seance in an attempt to fleece a
couple of investigative reporters. The board only gets a brief cameo here, but it is notable for the fact that
the seance is so hokey it's almost downright hilarious.
The Devil's Gift (1984)
Once again, this film is not exactly an example of stellar horror, but it is worth mentioning here as it
introduces the idea that a toy can possess a toy. In this case while a family is playing with an Ouija board - a
nice wholesome pastime while living in what looks like a pretty creepy home - an evil spirit is released 'from
the board' during their seance and possesses a toy monkey that then proceeds to go on a nasty killing spree.
Again, not the best movie by any means, but guaranteed to ensure that anyone who does watch it will
develop a definite dislike for both Ouija boards and stuffed monkey dolls.
In this movie, the Ouija board is more than a gateway for evil entities, it is evil in itself. The tale revolves
around a love triangle involving three teens, Jim, Brandon and Linda, and a Ouija board that Brandon
introduces his ex, Linda, to at a party.
Linda actually becomes more than fascinated with the board, eventually contacting a spirit called David via it
and she begins to see him as a friend, spending all of her time communing with the spirit - a ten year old it
seems - and encouraging her ex Brandon, and current flame Jim, to do the same. At first David's actually
quite useful, he helps Linda find a lost ring and Brandon deal with his troubles at work. He, of course, turns
malevolent however, and can seemingly leave the board to kill.
The plot here is not the best - after a series of gruesome deaths the teens defeat the demon, although poor
Brandon gets killed along the way and live happily ever after - but the idea that the Ouija board can carry a
movie is interesting. At the end of the film it's clear that David the demon was not destroyed at all, he's
simply gone back to his board to await his next victim, as it seems that unless the board is destroyed - which
the intrepid teens forgot to do - he can't be vanquished either.
Repossessed is one of the many spoof movies that were elevated from silly to sublime thanks to the comedic
genius of Leslie Nielsen. It also marked a return to the silver screen for Linda Blair, the former child star
who had caused such controversy playing Regan in The Exorcist.
This is a spoof of many of the popular horror movies of the day but Blair's character Nancy, is an obvious
nod to Regan. Nancy is a modest, approaching middle aged housewife with nice kids, a nice husband and a
nice house. However, when her kids are gifted a Ouija board and begin to play with it Nancy goes berserk.
After calming down she is forced to reveal she was possessed as a child, by a spirit summoned from such a
board, although she does now have a certificate from the Pope stating she's all better now !
Of course though the kids Ouija board session has released a demon, Nancy gets possessed again and she
must track down the now retired priest who helped her out before, one Father Mayii, as played by Neilsen.
Watch this one for fun, not just because a Ouija board makes an appearance.
Once again the board takes center stage and even gets to claim the title credits. This time we have he tale of
a board owned by a teen who has been playing with it since she was a child. Despite this odd fascination
though she's a cheery enough soul so her friends are rather surprised when she hangs herself, apparently
after trying to burn her beloved board.
The concerned friends manage to smuggle the board away from the home of their dead friend and decide to
try to use it to find out what happened to her. And, as any horror movie fan will expect, that turns out to be
a very bad idea, ending in the death of almost everyone, except the lucky few who the board chooses as its
These examples are just a few of the films that have made use of the tarot cards and the Ouija boards to
further their narratives, there are, of course, more than a few more and more to come in the future no doubt.
But let's end with an interesting question to ponder; do the tarot cards and ouija board lend their occult
reputations to these tales or is it these tales that have helped create those reputations for what were
supposed to be benign playthings? We'll leave that one up to you.