Say what you want about Hollywood’s baffling enthusiasm for the board-game movie, but the Ouija board was destined to inspire a horror film.
Ouija has attracted an eager audience of players and wannabe mediums ever since Charles Kennard and a band of Victorian entrepreneurs filed a patent rebranding the popular spiritualist toy the "talking board" in 1891. They bought into a game with suspense in its very infrastructure: A player (or multiple) lays his or her hands on a planchette and waits for the moment when it moves across letters and numbers to spell cryptic messages from spirits beyond—or plain gobbledygook, depending on your perspective. In the eras since, this eerie gameplay has had a way of inspiring great works—in the early 1900s, author Emily Grant Hutchings claimed it allowed her to give voice to Mark Twain; the game would later inspire Norman Rockwell and James Merrill would write several epic poems from conversations he conducted via Ouija, including a National Book Award winner.
Ouija has all the elements of a great experimental film that could practically write itself—recruit a few actors to play, introduce a board, record the messages conveyed, and fill out the backstory with fiction or nonfiction. The problem with the actual film version, Ouija, is that it’s pure Hollywood. A product of a corporate alliance between Universal Pictures and Hasbro, the joint forces have presumably given the filmmakers no room to experiment. Or, at least that's the way it looks in this film, where the game of Ouija becomes just another possessed item, an omen in the style of The Ring’s video tape or Annabelle’s Annabelle. While the rote screenwriting doesn’t kill the dark spirit of the world’s creepiest board game, it doesn’t channel it, either.
The cardboard-and-plastic Hasbro version of the board game famously doesn’t provide much instruction. As a result, the writers had to improvise some arbitrary rules to fuel the ensuing hackneyed horror plotline. The film opens with two best friends—children who grow up to be Pretty Little Liars-lookalikes Laine (Olivia Cooke) and Debbie (Shelley Hennig)—preparing to play the game. Debbie sets down the law for Laine: Never play in a graveyard, never play alone, and always say goodbye.
Flash forward to senior year of high school, and grown-up Debbie’s blowing off Laine to play Ouija alone front of her roaring, Victorian-revival fireplace. The board tells her goodbye, screen doors open, the gas stove lights up on their own, and soon Debbie’s strung up from the foyer chandelier by the very Christmas lights that once brightened up her hearth. Cue her close group of attractive, formulaic friends—the Perfect Couple, the Boyfriend, the Hot One—sniffing around and splitting up to determine what happened. The film goes very quickly from amateur homicide investigation to the gang playing Ouija, at night, by candlelight.
And as the movie progresses it takes a side on the age-old debate: Why does Ouija seem to work? There are two modes of thought when it comes to why the planchette moves with apparent intent—either it’s a spiritualistic medium that channels dead people, or it’s an exercise in the ideomotor phenomenon, a scientifically explainable effect in which an individual moves unconsciously as a reflexive response. To keep the horror predictable (as well as to drum up the Ouija myth, apologies to all spiritualists), Ouija favors the former. Since Laine regrets that she wasn’t a better friend to Debbie, she decides Ouija will be her conduit for her feelings, and forces her friends to join her at the house where Debbie died and ghost-reception is apparently greater. They establish contact with a presence that calls them “friend.” Suffice to say, it’s not actually friendly. Before long, each player keeps telling the others the mantra “It’s just a game” with increasingly less conviction.
Of course it’s not just a game, a point that Ouija takes to an absurd level of literalness. Absent a lurking killer with a chainsaw, the wooden game pieces provide the popup scares. With increasing ridiculousness, Ouija appears in strange places—on the bed, in the closet, in a cardboard box of Debbie’s things that Laine takes home (conveniently for the story, but stupidly for her chances of survival). Is this trope supposed to be ominous or funny? Like the experience of playing Ouija itself, it depends on the suspicions of the viewer: You can either believe the conceit up front—in which case the exercise in communal spelling makes total sense as a conduit for the dead—or don’t, at which point everything is hilarious. At least the humor isn’t unconsciously evoked—there are a few moments in which sudden ghost appearances yield a benign teen instead of the expected malevolent spirit, providing a welcome break from the self-seriousness.
The allure of the game’s spiritual lore proves too great to keep up the exploration of Ouija’s true, ambiguous player experience. Ouija falls back on the spooky ghost explanation, even if there are early nods to the automatists. At a moment in the first act, one of Laine’s friends perspicuously muses that the game might be communicating just because Laine’s subconscious craves closure. What might have happened if the movie had seen this idea through? Ouija, after all, remains a pretty compelling mystery for science, which sees it as an expression of the fringes of the unconscious—a 2012 study by researchers at the University of British Columbia found that Ouija responses to fact-based questions are about 15% more accurate than normal vocal responses, suggesting one, we’re smarter than we (consciously) think we are and two, that the game can unleash this hidden intelligence.
Unfortunately, there is no hidden intelligence to be summoned from Ouija. While the spiritualist take on the game is only to be expected from a horror movie, it doesn’t even make the attempt to convert the automatists. Had screenwriting duo Juliet Snowden and Stiles White invested more time in writing authentic characters, or spared a beat to mourn the board game’s victims (as friends fall away, their supposed besties return to their detective work a bit too hastily), it might have converted, or even intrigued, the nonbelievers. If only the film had taken the time to plan shots that conjure scares from a cinematic standpoint, rather than showing the Ouija board as a matter-of-fact horror fetish object—behold, the chill-inducing sight of a beautiful teenage girl playing Ouija on her own! Alas, there is not even a ghost of original scares in the treatment, which leaves behind the overwhelming impression of resting on its logoed laurels.
Regardless, the brand remains intact, the powerful allure of Ouija and its planchette untarnished. Its mythical qualities have survived many low-budget horror films before (see all the titular versions here), and the game’s mystique has never waned, though it has become something of a joke, subject to parodies on I Love Lucy and Friends. But one can’t help but wish the creators had tried letting Ouija write itself. What might the screenplay have looked like had it been the result of a candlelit screenwriter séance, created at the whims of a planchette instead of Box Office Mojo? Rather less like an obvious money magnet, but more befitting of the game’s timeless, ambiguous mystery.