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The Jewish Advocate
October 27, 2000
Page 25 & 43

The Kaballa of Ouija?
Robert Murch Finds Meaning in the Mystical

Robert Murch, 27, of Salem, and formerly Peabody, Swampscott, and Maine, laughs when he recalls the wonderful tales his orthodox grandmother, Sarita Shulman of Portland, Maine, used to tell him about the spirit world and science fiction.

Mrs. Shulman confided in Murch, son of Carol and Michael Sapol, of West Peabody, that sometimes she saw apparitions, or had vivid dreams of dead relatives. Witch a twinkle in her eye she told him when she was a teenager, she and two girlfriends pulled out a Ouija board to get rid of a pesky younger sister. They pretended it revealed frightening premonitions of the girl and giggled as she ran away screaming.

Although Murch works as a research coordinator for Fidelity Investments in Boston, he has collected talking, or Ouija, boards for the past seven years. In fact, he’s obsessed with them — not playing them, but having them — and he’s amassed over 300.

For those unaware of what a talking, or Ouija, board is, it is a flat game board generally made of wood. It contains the alphabet, numbers 1-0 (10), the words "yes," "no," and goodbye," and symbols such as full and crescent moons, crosses, mogen dovids, swastika and astrological signs.

The board also contains a hole, into which a separate planchette, or pointer, is placed, for players to collectively rest a finger upon, then wait for a "spirit" to spell out answers to their questions. Ouija is a registered trademark for talking boards that was sold to Parker Brothers in Salem in 1966 and later bought by Hasbro Toy Company.

The word "Ouija" allegedly means oui, or yes, in French, and ja, or yes, in German, but nobody knows its definition for sure, Murch says.

Earlier European versions of talking boards were called needle boards, but few have been found. Other variations, called the wizard, witch, and mystic boards date back to 1891, heightening its occult image.

The talking board hit its pinnacle of popularity during World War I, when the United Sates became immerged in the war and people experienced a resurgence in spirituality. They attended séances and bought boards to ask whether their loved ones serving in the military overseas would return home unharmed. "When the board’s use changed, Ouija board lore began," says Murch.

Because of his Orthodox Jewish background, Murch strongly believes in mysticism and the spirit world, but doesn’t think it’s a talking board that "contacts the dead." He’s amazed, fascinated, with the thousands of people who are convinced the game is able to conjure up souls and demons.

Murch tried playing Ouija, to debunk claims to its frightening power. The first time he played it with others, the planchette moved, but he was convinced a heavy, human touch, not a spirit’s, guided it.

"I’m very open to signs and feelings pushing me to do things, but ouija is an awkward way of doing it," he says.

His grandmother told him, "In America, death is seen as such a horrible event." But she viewed dying as the next, normal step in life, a wonderful place to go, gathering with loved ones who died before her. His first experience with death was traumatic, at his grandmother’s deathbed in his West Peabody home last January. Mrs. Shulman told her family she could see and hear her parents coming for her, then died peacefully.

Although her passing left a gaping hole in his life, Murch says he can "feel her spirit" at times. So does his mother.

Murch says "The Ouija board is some people’s desperate hope that when a loved one passes on, they aren’t really gone…they have been stumped…and are devastated. They use the board to make themselves feel better.

"It amazes me that people also look to the board to find out if there’s meaning in their lives, to give them direction. It’s easier to do what you’re told (by the board), than to make decisions and take responsibility for your own actions." People also seek fortunetellers and psychics for the same purpose, he says, when the answers probably lie within themselves.

He uses Ouija as its originator, William Fuld, created it in 1890 — a parlor game to entertain company, not to spook people. Originally invented and patented by Elijah Bond, Fuld refined and then patented his improvements and went into toy making as a career.

Murch has spent several hours talking with Fuld’s descendants about the boards, have visited the Fuld’s in Maryland many times, and is now considered an expert on Ouija. Kathryn Thomas, Fuld’s granddaughter, contacted Murch in 1997 seeking information about her grandfather who dies before she was born. They have been friends ever since.

Murch created a website for people who collect talking boards, to ensure they weren’t getting "ripped off" buying them. Oftentimes, he includes tongue and cheek comments and history about boards, hoping to dispel the board’s evil reputation, delighting the Fuld family.

Interest in Ouija boards is so phenomenal today, Murch has received thousands of inquiries from people worldwide

Throughout the years, the Fuld family collected thousands of letters from customers, claiming the board had profound effects on them. One letter dated 1920 was written by a woman who claimed the devil "possessed" her after playing it.

"People don’t claim that when playing Monopoly," he cracked.

Of the 300 boards he owns, 200 are different — looking, including a round, green "Kabbalah" board. "The talking board is like a chameleon, taking on the color, looks, and symbols of where it’s produced," he said. Some have Egyptian marking, others have the words "au revoir" inscribed instead of "good bye."

It amazes him that Ouija’s popularity has lasted for over 100 years. "Will Candyland survive that long?" he asks, smiling. "Even Monopoly isn’t that old.

Many individuals claim that they experience disaster after playing Ouija, but it has brought Murch only good luck. In July 1999, a representative of DreamWorks movies, Steven Spieldberg’s company, sought his expertise on talking boards. They also paid him a tidy sum for renting 3o of them to use in the movie "What Lies Beneath," starring Michelle Pfeiffer and Harrison Ford.

Although Ouija has been kind to Murch, he envisions himself as a modern-day Harry Houdini, Jewish magician and escape artist, who spent years exposing séances and mediums as fakery.

He hasn’t used the Ouija board to "contact" his grandmother, either. Knowing her sense of humor, her spirit might just spook him!