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Ouijacon celebrates 125 years of Ouija, brings it home to Baltimore

Baltimore, home to "The Star-Spangled Banner," Babe Ruth, John Waters and (in spite of what Boston and Richmond may claim) Edgar Allan Poe.

And also the Ouija board, that mysterious oracle whose Charm City origins are being celebrated at this weekend's Ouijacon. This first-ever gathering of talking-board enthusiasts is determined to do for Baltimore what Monopoly has done for Atlantic City.

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Already, there's an elaborate gravestone in Green Mount Cemetery, marking the final resting place of Elijah Bond, who patented the Ouija board in 1891. As part of Ouijacon, city officials will be unveiling a plaque, to be placed on the North Charles Street building where the Ouija board got its name. And while coming up with a game plan to rival Atlantic City's, which revels in its history as home to all the streets that were later incorporated onto the Monopoly board, Ouija aficionados have big ideas.

"Baltimore really has this unique piece of history," says Robert Murch, board chairman of the Talking Board Historical Society. "I'd like to see some kind of sign or recognition on every building, on all 13 factory sites, where Ouija boards were made. I'd like to see an original Ouija walk in Baltimore."

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Bill Gilmore, executive director of the Baltimore Office of Promotion and the Arts, applauded the idea of a Ouija Baltimore walking tour, especially one that might be coupled with a Ouija session before or after. "I think people are really looking for experiential activities," he said. "Experiential tourism is a big draw, people really get into it."

Speaking from his home in Boston, Murch says he's been interested in Ouija boards since he was a kid, when he saw his stepsisters playing with one. But he credits his grandmother with really planting the seeds of his obsession. It was she who, going against his mom's wishes, took young Walter to see the 1986 movie "Witchboard," starring Tawny Kitaen as a young women threatened by an evil spirit who first contacts her through a Ouija board.

"That movie really captured my imagination," says Murch, 41. "That's when my obsession with, or possession by, a Ouija board started."

And Murch is far from alone. "This thing is Americana," says Jeff Belanger, a Massachusetts-based author on the paranormal who is scheduled to host a panel on "Beyond Ouija: Spirit communication from talking boards to modern-day ghost investigations" at 1 p.m. today. "Its history goes back a long ways, 125 years. When I was a kid, I played around with one of those things. The Ouija board played a large part in pointing me toward what I do today."

Any obsession (or possession, which sounds so deliciously diabolical) with the Ouija board leads inevitably to Baltimore. It was here, on April 25, 1890, that the board itself, asked by local medium Helen Peters what it should be called, spelled out the name "O-U-I-J-A." (There's no truth to the story, Murch insists, that "Ouija" was formed by combining the French and German words for "Yes.")

It was also in Baltimore that, a year later, Bond received the patent (after, so the story goes, an official at the D.C. Patent Office asked the board questions that it correctly answered). And it was here, until the 1960s, that the official Ouija board was manufactured, under the auspices of entrepreneur William Fuld and his descendants.

All of this means that, for 125 years now, this Baltimore-born mysterious oracle has been delighting, baffling and sometimes even haunting the public. A Ouija board (and the design has changed little since 1890) contains the 26 letters of the alphabet, the numbers 0 through 9, the words "Yes" and "No" and the phrase "Good Bye." Players place their fingers atop a sliding triangular device known as a "planchette" and ask the board questions; the planchette then moves about the board, spelling out its answer.

(Elijah Bond's gravestone at Green Mount Cemetery has the Ouija board design carved onto it – perhaps one reason it's among the most popular markers there.)

"Baltimore is a city of eccentrics," says Rie Sadler, a paranormal investigator living in Catonsville who plans to check out Ouijacon, provided her University of Baltimore law school schedule has room. "Laying claim to being the city that first started the Ouija board just kind of fits along with the charm of the city. From a historical perspective, how cool is it to have connections with Edgar Allan Poe and something like the Ouija board? It just adds to our weird little history."

Adds BOPA's Gilmore, always happy to see the city shone in a good light, "I have not consulted the Ouija Board since I was about 12, and at that time it was always right. Think dark room and candles.With the anniversary coming up, maybe I should give it another try."

There were talking boards before Ouija, all of them arising from the 19th-century determination to speak with the dead. "There have been thousands," says Murch. "There have been talking boards, general spirit boards, swami boards, witch boards, magic answer boards. … But Ouija is by far the most popular talking board ever created."

How does it do it? Are spirits really at work? Or is the planchette manipulated by involuntary muscle movements, known to scientists as the ideometer effect?

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Who knows for sure? Murch readily admits he doesn't – and says that uncertainty forms the basis for Ouija's continuing popularity. Not too many boards, talking or otherwise, have maintained their popularity for more than a century.

"What made Ouija unique is that they did not tell you how or why it worked — that was the mystery," says Murch. "When many other talking boards would claim, 'This talks to a spirit,' 'This talks to an agent,' 'This talks to our subconscious,' that would box it in. One of the early successes of Ouija was, 'We don't claim to know how or why it works. But we will claim that, if you spend enough time, you'll have a good time with it.'"

Even in this modern age of skeptics, the allure of Ouija remains strong. "For $19.95, you get an unlimited calling plan to the other side," Murch says. "No overages, no roaming. It's a great calling plan."

So, whether you believe the Ouija board gets its power from the other side or from muscle twitches one cannot control, whether you believe Ouija really communicates with the dead or merely spells out what players want it to spell out, Murch promises Ouijacon will show you a good time.

The schedule includes workshops and discussions led by spiritualists, game enthusiasts and others. Topics include "Ghosts in the Machines: a History of Spirit Communication Devices up to talking boards" (9 a.m. today ) and "Practical Ouija: getting the most mileage out of your planchette" (10 a.m. Saturday).

There will also be a room of vendors, and an exhibit of vintage Ouija and other talking boards There's even a seance scheduled for 9 tonight , in which psychic Chip Coffey will attempt to communicate with "what" named Ouija during that spiritualist session 125 years ago.

"Someday, we're all going to die, we're all going to be on the other side of that board," Murch notes, making one last pitch to the skeptical. "So when you sit down to play, whether you say you believe it or not, you are entertaining the fact that, some day, someone might be trying to talk to you."

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If you go

Ouijacon is set to begin at 9 a.m. today and 10 a.m. Saturday at the Baltimore Harbor Hotel, 101 W. Fayette St. Tickets are $79 daily. $125 all-access. Information: tbhs.org

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