The Great Poundland Spirit Board Debacle

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The Poundland Board. Image via theargus.co.uk

2020: pandemic, social and political unrest, worldwide protests, economic downturn. We hang on to our love for our families, stronger communities, a deeper understanding and acceptance of our fellow man, hope for a brighter future and…wait. Are Poundland selling a cut-price Ouija board? Better grab our pitch forks, protect the kiddiewinks and alert the local press. The demon apocalypse awaits!

Granted, it’s a facetious statement. For many of us, the journey of 2020 has been one unlike any other, so the sudden arrival of undead armies would just be another blip in the calendar year. While many of us do not believe that the purchase of a £1 spirit board from a discount retailer will result in the arrival of a demon army, there are many who have taken their fiery, and, potentially, sincere opinions to the press. From TV ghost hunters, to local enthusiasts and mothers screaming ‘wont somebody please think of the children?!’ the great discount Ouija debate has been a wild ride.

But when did it begin, and why are so many people outraged?

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Image via The Saturday Evening Post – Norman Rockwell

The ‘Spirit Board’ was originally released as part of Poundland’s ‘Creepy Town’ Halloween range, which features fancy dress accessories, light-up spiderwebs, ‘bleeding skull candles’ and a whole host of cheap seasonal decorations. In amongst the glittery pumpkins and LED stakes was the aforementioned ‘Spirit Board’, which hung, undetected and unchallenged for a few weeks. Marketed as ‘adult novelties’, much like their Christmas and Valentine ranges (where they infamously offered a plastic engagement ring and a package of ‘nothing: exactly what you asked for’ for £1), the – admittedly unusual – product proved very popular and was sold out in many stores before the press outrage began.

As someone who has purchased their fair share of questionable seasonal novelties from Poundland, I can confirm that the age restrictions are policed in stores, where self-service checkouts require an assistant to permit the transaction. Its certainly an interaction I treasure, as being asked for proof of being over 18 is a rare occurrence these days.

A spokesman from Poundland spoke to Hull Live regarding the popularity of the boards, reiterating their adult audience and added:

“While the Spirit Boards were marketed for adults and were blocked from being only sold to children at tills, they were part of our extensive Halloween décor range this year in only around 90 of our 800+ stores.”

While aimed at adults, the primary focus of most online debate remains around the suitability of the novelty for children. However, age restrictions aside, one could argue that theoretically, a child could get a hold of the item. So, what exactly IS a ‘spirit board’ and why are so many people outraged?

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Fuld Planchette. Image via themysteriousplanchette.com

Although the umbrella term for all boards with a ‘yes’, ‘no’ and a printing of the alphabet, is ‘Ouija’, the general name for such divination boards is either a ‘spirit board’ or ‘talking board’. As I’m sure many of us know, the ‘Ouija’ brand name is currently owned by Hasbro, who offer official branded boards on their American webshop for $19.99.

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There is reported evidence of talking boards, via a method named ‘fuji’, being used during the Chinese Song Dynasty, around 1100AD. However, the Ouija board as we know it today caught the western world’s imagination during the Spiritualist movement, which began in the 1840s and remains a recognised belief system today. During Spiritualist séance, mediums would often use a board as a means of contacting the spirit world, after which messages would be dictated or transcribed by sitters. Similar popular methodologies at the time were planchette writing/automatic writing, slate writing and more larger feats such as table tipping and cabinet séance. However, the visual impact of the lettered board has been the sole image to transcend Spiritualist practise and (investigative) paranormal realms, entering the wider public consciousness.

The name ‘Ouija’ was not patented until 1890, with the journey from inception to name and patent being a wild journey in itself. To read more about the early days of Ouija and the medium who named it, click HERE.

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The motif of the spirit board has been incredibly popular in alternative and gothic subcultural scenes for years. Indeed, a cursory search of online alternative retailers will unearth a mass of clothing and homewares, all emblazoned with the familiar motif. All are available to anyone with a bank account, internet access and the inclination to adorn their living space with ‘spooky’ aesthetics.

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I myself am in possession (pun only partially intended) of ‘Spirit Board’ clothing, jewellery, mugs and even a ceramic spirit cheese board. The image of the board has become a fun, novel shorthand in itself and I am as guilty as anyone for buying into its visual appeal.  As for the cheeseboard, the matching knife hasn’t yet flung itself across the room and I’m still waiting for some haunted brie to spin me into a hell dimension.

Traditional, ‘functional’ Ouija and spirit boards are similarly available online, in gift shops, in ‘geek’ shops and all at a very affordable cost.

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However, one point remains, to use a Ouija board – to sit down, and attempt to contact a spirit, you have to have an interest and intention. Quite often, the idea and the visual impact is where our interest (the general public – paranormal investigators notwithstanding) begins and ends. In short, it takes effort!  Which is something a lot of us aren’t too keen on at the minute.

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Scientifically speaking, the results produced via the use of a Spirit Board are attributed to the ideomotor effect. Although the planchette, or pointer, appears to move across the board independently, with only the gentlest of fingertips rested on top, it is indeed, being pushed. Deliberate deception aside, the ideomotor effect explains how the body can make the smallest of involuntary and unconscious movements across the board, causing messages to be produced and spelled out that appear to come from an outside force. The same principle can be applied to pendulum work, where a weight can spin, move or rotate in response to questions. While not quite as spooky, the psychological underpinning of involuntary movement are just as interesting a phenomena.

For £1, you were never going to receive an exquisitely carved wooden board, and what existed within the box was a folded cardboard board with accompanying cardboard planchette. As flimsy as it may be; credit is certainly due to the Poundland graphic design team, as the board indeed is rather striking. The box is also far larger than one would anticipate and for a novelty item, certainly seems to be value for money.

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Image via Kirsty Black

Paranormal believers and dreaded children aside, who else bought the board and why?

After asking on my social media channels, a variety of responses came back. Most simply stated that the board was bought as either a Halloween decoration, as a novelty gift, as placemats (!) or an addition to pre-existing spooky décor.

However, my favourite response was from Kirsty Black, who wrote:

‘I bought it cos I thought it was funny AF to go into Poundland and come out with a spirit board. Bargain.’

And she’s not wrong. By definition, novelties are for short-term amusement, and the board has certainly provided that, and then some.

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Image via Kirsty Black

As much amusement as the boards may have provided for their adult purchasers, the warnings and concerned viewpoints of certain voices within the paranormal community were heard far louder than any others. Similarly, such fire and brimstone dialogue is far more enticing to the tabloid press, rather than those who may offer more nuanced responses.

While not representative of the views of all paranormal enthusiasts, some individuals have come forward to express their concern.

Barri Ghai, paranormal investigator and presenter of ‘Help! My House is Haunted!’ tweeted on September 27th,

“This can’t be true

@Poundland selling spirit boards!

Seriously that’s irresponsible and potentially dangerous. Using boards is not for the inexperienced and should never be played with by children. I really hope this is fake news…? #ouija#spiritboards#poundland

Here, Barri brings up somewhat of a contentious point. In the paranormal, and matters of the ethereal or spiritual, who is an expert?

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The world of paranormal research is not a tightly regulated field – in regard to both methodologies and ethics – but primarily the passion of hobbyists the world over. While the Society for Psychical Research, for example, publishes research papers concerning matters of the paranormal and psychical, they are not dictatorial in their work, and share many viewpoints beneath the same banner.

Considering there are no officially (scientifically) accepted methods of proving the existence of spirits, let alone of contacting them, such claims can never truly be accepted by the world at large. To suggest that someone who does not believe in the existence of ghosts or spirits is morally or intellectually inferior to another is a rather worrying slope to descend.

As an individual who has had substantial involvement in ‘ghost hunts’, Barri’s heart is in the right place; his views are based on his personal interpretations of his personal experiences.

Nonetheless, spirit boards have never been the sole realm of the paranormal enthusiast and to suggest that the purchase of a board (in any incarnation) should be restricted to individuals with enough ‘investigations’ under their belt is a little concerning.

As before, considering that the validity of the equipment/props relate to a belief system, not a material science, one cannot state the firm authenticity of phenomena. Therefore, to address an individual or group and dismiss their own atheistic or non-spiritual views as invalid does little to repair the reputation of the paranormal world at large. To respect others beliefs, we must remember to respect those who do not share them. The use of the Ouija board is not a religious issue, it is one of belief and opinion, and should be treated as such.

Ouija-board
Image via Britannica

I respect Barri’s opinion, and those of individuals who have voiced their concern on paranormal forums. However… let’s have a chat about the man who started all of the scandal, Paul Marsters of ‘True Paranormal Events UK’ who spoke to the Hull Daily Mail on 1stOctober, 2020.

Paul said to the Hull Daily Mail that deadly demons could be released by the boards if they were to fall into the hands of anyone but ‘trained’ professionals. Subsequently, he claimed that spirit activity was proven to be heightened around the time of Halloween.

“Ouija boards are most certainly not a toy and should not be available for kids to buy in pound shops for Halloween – never mind adults that are not trained in how to use them,” said Mr Marsters. 

The issue of one individual claiming to be a self-appointed authority on an unrecognised science is problematic enough. However to assume that the reader, and indeed, any paranormal enthusiast, would come to a common understanding of appropriate Ouija training is simply bizarre. Most interested individuals and paranormal groups approach a board with a ‘have-a-go’ attitude and, to my knowledge, none have put stringent exam conditions into place.

“It does not matter if they are plastic or wood, if the planchette spells the word ‘Zeus’ it is a demon trying to come through and you should not even say the name, never mind continuing to communicate with it.”

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Zeus (Not a demon) Via Britannica.com

When you don’t know where to begin, begin with Zeus. Ancient Greek ruler of all Gods. God of the sky, lightening, thunder and justice, but to name a few. Zeus, now in retirement from his godly duties, has outsourced his powers to Poundland, for reasons known only to himself.

As much as I hope that ‘Zeus’ was not a typo and a very real threat of an ancient God, ‘Zozo’ is the more likely legend attached to the board.

Seemingly popularised in the late 2000s, the supposed demon ‘Zozo’ could be accidentally summoned by any user of a Ouija board. The resulting demon would cause untold destruction, and the idea has spread through the paranormal community like wildfire.  As explained by the Talking Board Historical Society in June 2017:

“As a user passes the planchette over the letters of the board, it’s normal to follow the curve of the alphabet. The lowest letter set is the easiest. You start at one end and stop at the other. The Z and O are at the opposite ends of the lower letters. Since we, as English readers, use vowels in our words we typically form ZOZO not ZNZN. It’s also easy to pick MAMA from the upper letters and newbies sometimes get stuck thinking that they are talking to their mothers. If it’s ZOZO, an Internet search, which used to return nothing, now reveals an evil entity that has purportedly been haunting Ouija users for centuries. This is entirely fictitious, of course, although not without some charm. A shared experience with other sitters is what we are looking for. So to your question, “is ZOZO real or fake,” now you know the answer and can answer responsibly when your friends are freaking out.”[1]

As news outlets across the country picked up on a very click-able headline, paranormal enthusiasts, sceptics and baffled bystanders all offered their two penneth on the strange outrage.

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One paranormal YouTube channel agreed with the unsuitability of the board’s sales, stating sarcastically on their video ‘British Store Poundland sells Ouija board aimed at Kids for £1. How is this a good idea?’:

“You might have a resounding load of paranormal activity in your house, you may be haunted for several years to come, but what’s all that when it comes to a bit of fun?” Similarly, he pursues this train of condescending thought, reiterating his opinions towards those who do not share his beliefs:

“It’s a parlour game, don’t you know, and ghosts simply don’t exist.”[2]

Granted, if we are to take his own views as sincere, his frustration is understandable. Yet his approach is rather representative of many other paranormal outlets, who choose to mock and mimic, rather than calmly share their views. Yet, such is the nature of personal social media and small group outlets, where controversial and aggressive discussion incites a far greater view count.

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The familiar cycle of ‘what about the children’ loops endlessly in these articles and opinion pieces. The welfare of children (regardless of ‘spiritual’ welfare) is a sure-fire way to create dialogue around a topic, and the great Ouija debate is no different. ‘What about the kids?’ incites a visceral sensation across the board, as parents rise to protect their young. However, in this instance, we are incited to protect our young from an unseen, unproven…entity.

Few psychologists or scientific professionals have been contacted in line with these articles, which is relatively unsurprising, as in matters of the spectral and unknown, hearsay makes the finest headlines. With Halloween looming, it seems that beliefs that are regarded as rather left-field or esoteric for 11 months of the year, are suddenly celebrated and accepted as a universal norm. We can enjoy spirit board and ghostly images as a fright trigger from horror films, but the public at large is under no obligation to subscribe to a singular belief system, let alone agree to the legitimacy of the board. The UK is a widely secular country with hundreds of religions celebrated and practised within its borders. I would hope that it was a mutual respect that united the beliefs…not Poundland.

Most importantly – this whole affair has highlighted a very real problem within the paranormal community at large. Enforcement of blanket beliefs, arrogance and a lack of reaction from, or press respect towards, official bodies.

The latter is understandable as the likes of SPR/ASSAP etc. would not provide sensationalist headlines to newspapers. Individuals with no press training – regardless of personal intent – will.

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Image via Smithsonian Mag.

Any item used in personal paranormal investigative efforts will inevitably have more personal meaning than a generic Halloween decoration. Many may see the availability of the board as encroaching into their personal interests; interests that have taken decades to cultivate and defend. Individuals read, absorb, investigate. The field is immersive, particularly with the wide availability of Facebook groups and online events. The paranormal, and its legitimacy becomes a part of one’s personality. But that does not make it a universal interest, nor a science.

Although in initial press releases, Poundland’s representatives said that there was little need to pull the product, as much of the limited stock had sold out, later articles and instore experiences said otherwise. By the 28thSeptember, employees reported being commanded to remove the rest of the stock from shelves. Those stores which retained a small amount of stock found that the barcodes were no longer recognised. The poor cardboard board didn’t even make it to October.

Personally, I believe their decision to be wrong, as much as I appreciate the personal viewpoints of paranormal enthusiasts. While I may share some views on the immortal soul, I do not feel it is ever appropriate to enforce my beliefs upon another, nor try to police their purchasing habits.

I also believe that less savoury elements of outrage within the paranormal community do not to come from concern, but from a sense of gatekeeping. I have seen few arguments for the mental wellbeing of purchasers, but a wider sense of condescending dismissal – namely, ‘you don’t know how to use the board, you fools.’ In truth dear, neither do you.

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Image via Sporcle

Images of Mexican sugar skulls, dia de los Muertos and Sante Muerte are arguably more ubiquitous in high street Halloween display, presented without context or wider education, in bright plastic displays. However, when did any of us last see a mainstream article debating the cultural and religious insensitivity of such items?  Such issues deserve page space at this time of year, they affect people now and reduce cultures and religious beliefs to commodified images of facepaint and sombreros.

Let people have their spirited Halloween display and find a battle worth fighting. I’m off to summon the undead on my cheeseboard.

Footnotes:

[1]https://www.facebook.com/talkingboardhistoricalsociety/posts/so-what-about-that-evil-ouija-demon-zozo-weve-been-hearing-about-those-of-you-wh/1942632372617451/

[2]https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bfvaA2CrIZY&t=930s&ab_channel=ParanormalNow&fbclid=IwAR0mzZ3K-Vrj79bcR7JDhq21OZKXtCsdSVF4LmbOtoKFSyuflYmBxWtbuvc

Accessed Oct 20

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