If you want to get into divination this Halloween season, check out these alternatives to the game that rhymes with ‘squeegee’
Several writers, including award-winning poet James Merrill, claim they've published works composed with the help of spirits conjured and consulted via Ouija boards. Most of the movies featuring such a board (such as the imaginatively titled Ouija, Hasbro's second attempt at a major motion picture following 2012's Battleship), however, all seem to be based on urban legends about the horrors unleashed by its misuse in the hands of morons.
But there’s a more interesting backstory. Patented in 1890 by Elijah Bond, the Ouija board is a simplification of automatic writing, putting pen to paper and letting the ideomotor effect do its thing. As a divination method, automatic writing is so old it might have once been referred to as “automatic chiseling,” but swapping the pen for a planchette (a rolling pointer weighted to move with slight, even unintentional pressure) and exchanging the paper for a board imprinted with the alphabet, numbers, and common words such as “yes” and “no,” simplifies the process by eliminating a lot of the guesswork. And in making such a powerful tool so easy to use, warns Vicky Adams, owner of Panpipes Magickal Marketplace in Los Angeles, the Ouija board can expose users to hazards they don't have the wherewithal to handle.
“When you start the session you're opening up a door, and you're inviting any random spirit to come and communicate with you,” Adams says. “The danger lies in the fact that they market it like it's a game and they sell it in Toys R Us. … I honestly think the game should come with a disclaimer or a warning.”
The quote above might read like dialogue from that board game-based horror flick, but Adams delivers it with more conviction than anything shrieked in Ouija. She also offers another reason for why she straight up hates using them. “The Ouija board attracts the most low-level energies to it,” she says, “so you get a lot of deceased children, childish adults…that are up to mischief. ... They feel that it's unfair that they're dead and that you're alive. They're really vindictive and resentful.”
If 90 minutes of PG-13 jump-scares and the threat of temper tantrums from beyond the grave (or just the $19.99 suggested retail price) make the Ouija board sound like too much trouble, Adams offers several alternative divination methods, all of which, she says, are safer for beginners and none of which are currently trademarked by a toy company.
Still, she offers a few more words of caution. “All of this stuff should be taken seriously,” she says. “Do some research. Show respect for what you're connecting with.”
What you're connecting in this instance is something, pretty much anything, to the end of a string. “As long as it's got a good weight and it can swing,” Adams says, “in a pinch anything can work as a pendulum.” Though you can buy or make a Ouija-like board over which to dangle your dongle, you can expend even less effort by setting parameters before beginning your inquiries. Ask the pendulum what kind of movement signifies a “yes” response, a “no” response, “rephrase the question,” etc., then ask away. As Magic 8 Ball owners can attest, there are a limited number of responses an inanimate object can realistically offer before it starts to repeat itself, but it’s also a safer bet for the paranormal-averse. “You're not opening a portal,” Adams says of pendulum swinging. “You're working with energies on this plane. You're not working with dead people or things that are forbidden on this plane. You may just be working with your higher self.”
With this method, the biggest danger might just be interference from your lower self.
“If you put your mind to it, you can totally manipulate this tool and get it to swing exactly where you want it to go,” Adams warns, “but if you want honest-to-God real answers, you will allow it to swing where it needs to go.”
“We sure didn't get any butterflies or apples,” Adams says after she pours the dregs from an emptied cup of loose-leaf tea into its saucer. This tea set, designed to introduce the uninitiated to tasseomancy—reading tea leaves or coffee grounds—is embossed with helpful outlines of some of the general forms one might find when scanning their dregs for the shapes of things to come. Guides are available for translating these signs, but Jungians might prefer to develop their own personal symbolism. “It looks like a bunny,” Adams says finally, after studying a particular soggy black clump. “Two ears, little paws and face—and doesn't that look like a boot if you look upside down? It's a bunny in Italy.”
She laughs and dumps it out. “You have to do this with intention,” she says. “We're just mucking about.”
“This is one of the easiest forms of divination to try,” Adams says. “It's a really good intro.” If the cost of tea is too steep, you can water scry as long as you've got a bowl and running faucet. A black bowl is preferable, but you can use a white one if you dump some ink in the water. What you want is a still, dark surface. Turn out the lights and place a candle on either side of the bowl, far enough away to prevent their flames from reflecting on the water. Now just stare at that smooth surface until those swirly white particle things you typically try not to notice in your drinking water begin to materialize. Water filtration execs may call these impurities, but Adams calls them water undines—lighthearted elemental spirits that will answer your questions in the form of abstract shapes and impressionistic images. And unlike those punk ghost kids hanging around Ouija boards, these spirits aren't just looking to crank call you from the sweet hereafter. Adams also says that a column of cold air forms above the bowl after a moment. That doesn't seem to have any impact on the divination, but you gotta admit it's a pretty cool effect.
True Arcade Fire fans won't mind the expense of swapping out the bowl of water for a black mirror. The method is the same, though in this case the images made by the warped reflection of the dim lighting will look more like smoke, Adams says.
Both of these methods are simpler variations on the infinitely more famous crystal ball. Though it's got the brand recognition, Adams cautions beginners against using a clear crystal ball for the simple reason that it isn't as easy to focus on specific shapes in its complex reflective contours.
“It takes a more evolved person to connect to those energies,” she says, but keep on scrying. “Psychic ability is like a muscle that lies dormant. You just have to exercise that muscle.”
Or, as Aleister Crowley himself—who believed our very existence to be irrational and therefore thought our every deliberate action to be an act of wizardry—put it in Magick Without Tears, “Why should you study and practice Magick? Because you can't help doing it, and you had better do it well than badly.”