Witchboard expert says ‘seeds’ of his obsession were planted in Greene, Maine

Robert L. Murch Jr. clearly remembers the visits to his grandparents’ home in Greene when he was young. The trick-or-treating in costumes made by his paternal grandmother. Going to Lewiston with his family to the movies — he loved horror movies. And watching TV with his maternal grandmother in Portland, who had her own appreciation for the scary and macabre.

“My grandmother, Sarita Shulman, loved horror and science fiction,” said Murch, who still returns to Maine to visit family and friends. “We often spent hours watching ‘Creature Double Feature’ together.”

Murch is pretty sure the trick-or-treating and watching those old black-and-white horror movies “planted the seeds that would grow into a full-fledged obsession” with the supernatural and paranormal.

That obsession has made Murch one of the world’s experts on Ouija, and its predecessors, witchboards and talking boards.

Founder and chairman of the Talking Board Historical Society, the Lewiston-born 41-year-old now living in Massachusetts has traveled the globe to research and talk about the supernatural and Ouija — a board bearing letters used by participants to spell out answers that, some believe, are guided by spirits.

On Oct. 30, Murch was one of the experts on Destination America’s “Exorcism: Live!” speaking on demons, spirits and mediums. During the seance portion of the two-hour live broadcast, Murch discussed the theory that using a Ouija board acts as an invitation to dark entities, which may result in demonic possession.

The episode was filmed in the St. Louis house that inspired the book and movie “The Exorcist.” The house was the site, in 1949, where 12 Jesuit priests spent four months exorcising teenager Roland Doe, who was reportedly possessed. Murch, along with other paranormal reality show celebrities and paranormal experts, also investigated the home during the broadcast.

Murch has become well-known for his obsession-turned-expertise. He’s appeared on Showtime, the Travel Channel, MTV, CBS’s “Sunday Morning,” the BBC, Australian radio and U.S. radio. He has consulted on A&E’s “Paranormal State,” the 2014 Hasbro movie “Ouija,” the movies “What Lies Beneath,” “Sugar & Spice” and “Drive Thru,” and Travel Channel’s “Mysteries at the Museum,” among others. And he recently consulted on a Hasbro-licensed remake of the company’s Ouija board from the 1990s.

The quest for the Ouija knowledge Murch has acquired over the years — and the Ouija boards: he owns hundreds — may go back to his childhood experiences with his grandparents in Maine.

The movie ‘Witchboard’ cast a spell

After living in Greene the first two years of his life, his family moved to Portland until he was 10, and then to the Boston area. But he says that he, his mother and brother would spend weekends and holidays in Greene as often as possible.

“My paternal grandparents, Albert “Bert” and Betty Murch (live in Greene), and lots of cousins live around Thompson Pond (in Casco),” Murch said. “For Halloween, we always did trick-or-treating in Greene. My grandmother, Betty, made us costumes. The best memories I have are of living in a small town.”

But Murch said that it was in 1986, when he was 12, that he became obsessed with Ouija boards after watching the movie “Witchboard.” The movie focuses on a young woman who, despite warnings, uses a Ouija board alone and is harassed and then possessed by an evil spirit wanting to again walk the earth.

Murch’s interest eventually extended well beyond the Ouija game, then owned by Parker Bros., to include the early origins of the board and its predecessors.

“I purchased my first antique Ouija in 1992, when I was attending the University of New Hampshire,” said Murch, a soft spoken, deliberate speaker who now resides in Salem, Mass.

The first purchase led to a second, then a third. Murch now has more than 500 different “talking boards” in his collection, in addition to items related to William Fuld, who is known as the “father of the Ouija board.” The oldest board Murch has was manufactured in upstate New York between 1886 and 1890, which was before the name Ouija was coined.

After purchasing about 10 witchboards, Murch realized there was more than one type of talking board manufactured during the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

“I thought, ‘How can there be more than one witchboard — why aren’t they all the same.’ It was back in the early 1990s when the Internet didn’t have anything other than silly stuff on it. So I had to go to an actual library to do research. When I opened up Funk & Wagnalls or Britannica encyclopedia, they all said the witchboard came from someplace else. I wondered, ‘How can everyone know what a Ouija board is and not know where it came from?’”

That question launched Murch on a quest. After discovering the Ouija board originated in Baltimore, Md., he began tracking down living descendants of the inventors. Using historical documents and interviews with those descendants, he began to develop a clear history of the birth and evolution of talking boards.

“The story is way more fascinating than all the funny stories, which we call Ouijastitions, that have grown up around the board,” said Murch, whose day job is in finance.

Signs say yes, commercial Ouija began in the U.S.

The first commercially manufactured witchboards were made in 1886 by Charles Kennard and E.C. Reiche, Murch said. Contrary to the popular legend that talking boards were used by the ancient Egyptians and other cultures of antiquity, prior to 1886 the only talking boards known to exist were handmade and grew popular within the spiritualist movement, which was founded by sisters Kate and Margaret Fox in Hydesville, N.Y., in 1848, according to Murch.

In 1890, Kennard, Elijah Bond and William H.A. Maupin decided to make another talking board game, which for the first time bore the name Ouija, and they received a patent for the toy in 1891. After Kennard left, the Kennard Novelty Co. name was changed to the Ouija Novelty Co. and was moved to Baltimore, Md., under the leadership of Fuld, an employee of Bond’s.

Another nugget Murch discovered: Ouija, which combines the French and German words for “yes,” was a word stamped on the back of a necklace locket owned by Helen Peters, Bond’s sister-in-law. In 1966, Fuld’s estate was sold to Parker Brothers, which is now owned by Hasbro, he said.

“We discovered the grave site of Helen Peters,” said Murch. “She is buried in Denver, with no gravestone, so we are going to put one there that tells her story.”

Through his research, Murch found the grave sites for Fuld, Bond, Maupin, Kennard, Reiche and others who played roles in the history of the Ouija.

In 2008, in collaboration with Kevin Hemstock, Murch located Charles Kennard’s home in Chestertown, Md., the very house where Kennard claimed to invent the Ouija board. The two men also found the location of the Voshell House, where Kennard also claimed he and Reiche made the very first commercial talking boards in 1886.

In 2015, Murch worked with the corporate headquarters of 7-Eleven to install a plaque in a store located at 529 N. Charles St., in Baltimore, Md., a former boarding house, where the game Ouija was named.

A D-E-S-I-R-E T-O C-O-N-T-A-C-T T-H-E D-E-A-D

And what does Murch — lover of horror movies and sci-fi — think about the Ouija board’s ability to communicate with other worlds?

“Here’s my take on it, and this is what’s great about the Ouija board,” Murch told the International Business Times last year. “We, as a pop culture, the people who play it, give the Ouija board all the power — power we don’t give to any other spirit-communication device.

“Talking boards came out of the spiritualistic movement. They were intended to talk to the other side — no doubt about it — but (the game) Ouija has always been marketed as an amusement. It’s marketed as a game, but there are people who believe it’s not (a game), (that) it’s letting the devil into people’s lives. That’s their belief.”

Asked about his own personal experience asking questions to a Ouija board, Murch replied:

“I’ve played the Ouija board hundreds, if not thousands, of times, but I have never had an experience where I felt I was talking to a spirit,” adding that his lack of ghost-talk may be because he views Ouija as a historical artifact. “But I have witnessed people who have. What has never ceased to amaze me is how badly people want to make contact. That’s why the Ouija board is sold and popular 125 years later.”

Murch and Brandon Hodge are collaborating on a definitive history of spirit communication. The book is scheduled to be published some time in 2016.

For more information about Murch, visit www.robertmurch.com; for more information on the history of the Ouija board, visit the Museum of Talking Boards at www.museumoftalkingboards.com/history.html; for more information on Destination America’s “Exorcism: Live!, visit www.destinationamerica.com/tv-shows/exorcism-live.

Jeffrey B. Roth is a national freelance journalist and fiction writer. One of his recent short stories appears in “Another Left Shoe,” an anthology of short stories and poetry published by Blue Dragon Press. He lives in Pennsylvania.

Ouija weirdness: Readers’ tales

By Mark LaFlamme, Staff Writer

When you get right down to it, a typical commercial Ouija board is not much more than cardboard, plastic and some creative painting — just another mundane plaything, mass manufactured in a farflung country. If you use the pragmatic side of your brain, you’ll quickly come to the conclusion that there’s nothing here to fear at all. Are the restless inhabitants of the afterworld really going to be drawn to a cheap trinket from the Walmart clearance rack? Doubtful.

Oh, but the first time you feel that planchette creeping across the board, seemingly all by itself, it’s hard to ignore the creeping thrill of establishing what appears to be a direct line to the dead. Maybe it’s dear old Grampa nudging that planchette. Or maybe the 300-year-old ghost of a long-dead fellow that no one remembers.

There is an unwritten contract involved every time you sit down for a seance or start messing around with something like Ouija. You can titter and scoff all you want, but if you came willingly, you have to accept that maybe, just maybe, you’re engaging a force that is entirely beyond your control. Is that your stupid little brother nudging the planchette toward an ominous revelation? Or is that message coming from some vast shadow where the dead long to speak?

It’s hard to say when you get right down to it. Our advice to the skeptic: Be careful what you ask of Ouija, because once those answers begin to reveal themselves, you might find that you don’t really want to know.

Not convinced? Our readers may change your mind.

‘Never again’

“Never again, and they’re not allowed in my home. One of the craziest paranormal experiences I’ve had — and I have many. I’m sensitive.

“I was a teenager at a sleepover, of course. Long story short, crucifixes were flipped upside down, two of them. Doors slammed, and HARD. One of my friends passed out for no reason and she had three scratches appear on her arm. Lights went on and off and there was a huge breeze that blasted through the whole house. The only thing spelled out on the board was “dolt,” I swear.”

— Kristen Globensky, Lewiston

‘Hell no’

“My parents and I used our Ouija board for fun just a few times. We never asked it important questions and I don’t remember it working on its own. Back in the day no really spooky stories were known like they are now, so there were no big expectations. I still have that board, but now I’m not brave enough to take it out and use it. Hell no.”

— Barbara Dupee Kazimer, Lisbon

‘Freaked her out’

“We always had one when I was a kid. It scared the crap out of my younger brother and his friends once. He vowed to never use one again. Roch bought me one for Christmas years ago. I used it off and on for a while. I used it with a friend of mine once and it totally freaked her out. I ended up getting rid of it a few years back.”

— Sheila Cosgrove Rousseau, Auburn

‘Things randomly flew off the shelf’

“So, my sister got a Ouija board for Christmas — you know the kind, marketed harmlessly by Parker Brothers or something like that. I’m not sure if she ever used it, but one night, possibly after too much Gallo rose (wine), my mother suggested we give it a shot.

“It always goes the same — ‘You moved it!’ Back and forth the accusations flew as the oracle slid over letters, numbers and the definitive ‘yes’ or ‘no.’ It was a great mother/son trust crisis moment as both of us were utterly convinced the other was screwing with us. Finally, after becoming exasperated, if not slightly angered by each other, we gave up and dumped the thing back in the box.

“Now the box had been kept in its own little catch-all of a room, filled with books, games and other things we were sure we needed and hadn’t the heart to throw away. In mid-August that room with windows opened would never break 55 degrees. The dog, a fun-loving beagle mix, would snarl and fight you before you could make her go into the room. Below that room, my closet and part of the kitchen, also forbidden territory by the dog.

“Things randomly flew off the shelf in my closet, smashing against the doors. One frequent flyer was my Red Sox helmet. I grew so tired of it hitting the doors that I hooked the adjustable inner band over and around one of the coat hooks in the closet. That night (after the contentious Ouija attempt), with a mighty thwack, the helmet popped off the hook and slammed into the door.

“The Ouija stayed with us for some time after that, before getting the heave-ho by yours truly. . . . I never messed with those things again, and see them as less cute and fuzzy than the demented Parker Brothers developer who thought it would be a good Christmas gift all those years ago.”

— Doug McIntire, Auburn

‘It spelled out ‘cancer”

“Years ago one of my sisters was playing with one with my mom. My sister asked how old would she be when she died and the Ouija board went to 22. When my sister asked from what, it spelled out ‘cancer.’ At 22 my sister got cancer but didn’t die.”

— Stacey Bragg, Waterville

‘What a coincidence’

“I was playing with one as a kid. It told us that our house was haunted by a ghost named Norah. This was odd, since that was the same name of the ghost on a plot twist of “Santa Barbara” at the time. What a coincidence, I thought. It also told us that Satan’s true name was Lyndon Baines Johnson. At the time I also thought this was an amazing coincidence since I was writing a report on the 36th president at the same time. It remains to be seen, though, if that was the case.”

— Daniel Coulombe, Lewiston

‘Something dark just waiting’

“I’ve always been uneasy with Ouija boards. I used them as a teen, and always got the feeling that there was something dark just waiting to take over.”

— Tracy Clark Gosselin, Lisbon

‘Freaked themselves out’

“I have a story of one Halloween night, John, myself and two friends went to Riverside Cemetery – you know, to ghoul hunt. So we went to the Libby tomb. . . . We (myself and John Frechette) went around the tomb. There was something on the steps. I took a picture and saw a ‘No Trespassing’ sign; kind of an old-looking wooden sign with red paint. So I asked John to shine the flashlight on it, and that’s when we saw a Ouija board , a black candle and what I assumed was dragon’s blood resin. . . . Both John and I saw the same thing!! I think some kids had messed with it and freaked themselves out, ran off and left it. I swear it’s the truth!

— Bobbi Frechette, Lewiston

‘I was more than happy to move out’

“Many years ago, my (now) ex and I bought a house in Auburn that used to be a school. It had an ‘odd’ feeling about it, but I brushed it off – several families lived there before us. As we were remodeling my daughter’s bedroom, there was a Ouija board hidden under a few loose floorboards. Totally freaked me out! We NEVER used it. . . . I told my (now) ex to get rid of it! We all experienced a few possible paranormal events over the next few years, and whether anyone believes it or not, we know what we sensed. But just so you know, almost everyone who came to our house sensed ‘something’ and didn’t feel comfy/cozy. I was more than happy to move out and let him stay there when we separated! He ended up buying a used camper, put it in the driveway and stayed in it until we sold the house, because he didn’t feel comfortable in that house. I will NEVER take any chances when it comes to a Ouija board!”

— Lori A. Hallett, Auburn

‘The faces of my friends went pale’

“When I was a kid, there was a neighbor boy who died in a fire after sneaking out of his parents’ house late at night. It was a tragedy, of course, but it was also the kind of grisly death that tweaks the imagination of curious children.

“I was 10 or 11 years old when I somehow came into possession of a Ouija board. There was nothing particularly special about it – I suspect it was bought on sale at the local Laverdiere’s or maybe McLellans. But when I crouched down with a pair of friends to give Ouija a try, we were as serious as could be. We turned the lights off and closed the blinds. We set our fingers on the planchette and asked the most troubling question we could summons, reaching out into the netherworld in search of that long-dead neighborhood boy.

“‘Are you out there, Greg? Can you speak to us?’

“The planchette began to move. I remember the feeling of it twitching almost angrily beneath our fingers. Later, we would argue about who was responsible – about who was scared or not scared. In that moment, though, the faces of my friends went pale. The feeling of the planchette moving by its own power caused us to snatch our hands away in fright and disgust. We looked at each other in silence.

“Had the dead boy been trying to reach out to us from beyond the grave? I don’t remember the letters that the planchette sought. We never mustered the courage to summon Greg again. Instead, we asked Ouija to tell us how our team would fare in the Little League championship. We asked about neighborhood girls and who liked who. We asked innocuous questions and gave the dead a wide berth.

“A week later, both my friends were dead.

“Not really, but wouldn’t that make the story pop?”

— Mark LaFlamme, Lewiston


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