Halloween special: G.K. Chesterton and the Ouija Board

Halloween is here – that spooky season which, as a great fan of ghost stories, and the author of several books upon such topics, is one of my favourite times of the year. It is also no doubt one of the favourite times of the year for manufacturers of Ouija Boards, as sales of such allegedly magical necromantic items presumably shoot through the roof for use at teenage fancy-dress costume parties held on the dread and eldritch night of October 31.

The Ouija Board itself is no modern invention – in its commercially available form, the famous ‘Talking Board’ has been on sale in shops for over a century now, whilst home-made versions were also popular during the pan-European Spiritualist craze of the late 1800s.

One man who dabbled with just such a device in his naïve youth was the celebrated English poet, novelist and essayist G.K. Chesterton. Before famously converting to Roman Catholicism in 1922, the Anglican-born writer had endured a period of spiritual languor as a young man, whilst attending the Slade School of Art in London during the 1890s, that dissolute fin de siècle era of the Decadent Movement in European art and literature.

In a chapter of his Autobiography, aptly titled ‘How To Be a Lunatic’, Chesterton spoke of how he had endured a “period of madness” at this time, “a period of drifting and doing nothing, in which I could not settle down to any regular work” – a pretty standard state of affairs for many students down the ages, you might think. Yet, for Chesterton, this particular personal Slough of Despond left imprinted within his mind a permanent “certitude upon the objective solidity of Sin.”

Speaking from the later perspective of Catholicism, the adult Chesterton told his readers that, having left all this youthful depression behind, “I am very proud of my religion; I am especially proud of those parts of it that are most commonly called superstition.”

“But,” he continued, warily, “I am not proud of believing in the Devil.” Why not? Because, “To put it more correctly, I am not proud of knowing the Devil. I made his acquaintance by my own fault; and followed it up along lines which, had they been followed further, might have led me to Devil-worship or the Devil knows what.” Here, Chesterton was talking not only of his brush with falling into the coils of mortal sin as a young man through sheer ennui, like well-known anti-heroes of Decadent literature such as Charles Baudelaire, J.K. Huysmans and Dorian Gray – but also of his alarming student experiences with the Ouija Board. 

Ouija board

The Devil makes work for idle minds to do

A man may reach for many harmful things to dispel lassitude – drink, drugs, women, voting Labour. When Chesterton was bored, however, he reached only for the board. According to him, “I dabbled in Spiritualism without having even the decision to be a Spiritualist”, trying to contact the dead in a mood “detached but indifferent”, in a “mere spirit of play”.

Together with his brother, Chesterton began to “play with planchette” and soon began receiving messages – whether from actual discarnate entities or the experimenters’ own subconscious ideomotor actions when their fingers were placed upon the glass, the siblings never could decide. The only thing Chesterton was certain of was that the Ouija Board lied: “Whether this sort of thing be the pranks of some Puck or Poltergeist, or the jerks of some subliminal sense, or the mockery of demons or anything else, it obviously is not true in the sense of [being] trustworthy. Anybody who had trusted it as true would have landed very near to a lunatic asylum.”

Chesterton felt the true danger of the Ouija was the danger some users might actually believe its messages and act upon them. When asked to provide advice for one of the pair’s friends it advised him bluntly to “Get a divorce.” Why? The planchette never really explained, beyond gabbling, in fluent Cockney, of “Orriblerevelationsinnighlife” – i.e., ‘horrible revelations in his nigh [near future] life’. But there were no such ‘orrible revelations nigh forthcoming, so anyone who had taken the Board at its word would have ruined his own marriage for nothing.

Disappointed in the Ouija Board’s wisdom, or lack of, Chesterton was soon finished with Spiritualism – but Spiritualism was not yet finished with him.

Finding his true vocation actually lay in literature, after leaving art school, Chesterton gained employment with the first publisher he could find – which just happened to be a publisher of Spiritualist, Theosophist and other occult tomes. Amongst their star authors was the late Dr Anna Kingsford, a bizarre vegetarian crank, ghost-whisperer and fairy-seer, who claimed to be able to use the power of her mind to cause vivisectionists to drop dead on the spot – not even Peter Singer has developed the means to do that yet. Also unlike Mr Singer, she felt so strongly about the subject that she seriously offered herself up to scientists to be cut open and studied whilst still alive, instead of the stray dogs and cats they usually captured for such purposes!

Kingsford’s own spiritual journey was the reverse of Chesterton’s; from a mid-life position of Catholicism, she later found Theosophy much more to her liking instead. As Chesterton accurately observed, Ms Kingsford was “mad”, but his employers had just published her posthumous book of spirit-communications and philosophies, and he was required to push it to unsuspecting customers in their in-house shop. One day, a woman came in asking for recommendations about what happy-clappy garbage to read next. Chesterton suggested Kingsford’s book. The woman declined: she had spoken to Ms Kingsford’s spirit that very morning, and been warned not to do so, its content apparently being far too strong for her delicate constitution. “Well,” Chesterton replied, “I hope Dr Kingsford hasn’t been giving that advice to many people; it would be rather bad for business.”

Another time, he heard of one Spiritualist seen sneaking into a pub when he was supposed to have been teetotal. The man explained this was not true. He had been nowhere near the drinking den in question; that had simply been his astral body going into the pub for a swift pint, he explained, something beyond his own conscious control, thus rendering him wholly innocent in the matter. Spiritualism had now become a literal joke for Chesterton – the return of his sense of humour being a key sign he was at last getting better.

In his own little world

Whilst Chesterton never successfully contacted Satan through his Ouija Board, his depression itself did allow him to come into contact with the forces of spiritual evil, he felt: “As [Pilgrim’s Progress author John] Bunyan, in his morbid period, described himself as prompted to utter blasphemies, I had an overpowering impulse to record or draw horrible ideas and images; plunging in deeper and deeper as in a blind spiritual suicide … I dug quite low enough to discover the Devil” – the Devil in question actually being buried deep within his own soul, not down beneath the sod in Hades.

Chesterton linked his post-teenage depression to the popularity of Impressionism during his days at the Slade Art School; trying to paint the world through the prism of your own personal individual perceptions of it, like Whistler or Monet, could, he said, lead almost imperceptibly “to the metaphysical suggestion that things only exist as we perceive them, or that things do not exist at all. The philosophy of Impressionism is necessarily close to the philosophy of illusion.”

Imbibing this Decadent artistic outlook whether he knew it or not drove Chesterton towards wild extremes of ontological solipsism: “It was as if I had myself projected the universe from within, with its trees and stars; and that is so near to the notion of being God that it is manifestly … near to going mad. Yet I was not mad … I was simply carrying the [anti-religious scientific] scepticism of my time as far as it would go … While dull atheists came and explained to me that there was nothing but matter, I listened with a sort of calm horror of detachment, suspecting that there was nothing but mind.” Even the ‘ghosts’ of his Ouija Board, Chesterton began to suspect, were his own accidental creations too, not the genuine departed souls of dead Cockneys, but the subliminal psychic projections of his own brain.     

Did the world around him exist or not? Did he himself even exist or not? One day, the spell of morbidity broke, and Chesterton realised that he did indeed exist, and that this sudden realisation could form the basis of a lasting future happiness: “I invented a rudimentary and makeshift mystical theory of my own … that even mere existence, reduced to its most primary limits, was extraordinary enough to be exciting. Anything was magnificent as compared with nothing … The [true] object of the artistic and spiritual life was to dig for this submerged sunrise of wonder; so that a man sitting in a chair might suddenly understand that he was actually alive, and be happy.”

This was the first step of Chesterton’s later journey back towards the Christianity of his childhood, and later on towards Catholicism itself. He had, he realised, “wandered to a position not very far from the phrase of my Puritan grandfather when he said that he would thank God for his creation [even] if he were a lost soul”, as the gift of being created in the first instance was the greatest gift from God of all, even if that existence took place in the everlasting flames of Hell. In this manner, said Chesterton, he had “hung on to the remains of religion by one thin thread of thanks.”

The scientific spirit

During his early childhood, Chesterton informed his readers, “practically no normal person of education” had believed in any form of ghost beyond a mere “turnip ghost” – i.e., a jack-o’-lantern, or carved turnip-head with a it candle inside (pumpkins were less common in England back then). Nobody reasonable believed in “mediums and moonshine”.

Then, however, things suddenly changed; towards the end of the 19th century, reputable-sounding bodies like the Society for Psychical Research (SPR) were formed, staffed by men of genuine academic, intellectual and scientific standing, in order to examine uncanny topics like ghosts, clairvoyance, poltergeists, precognition and psychokinesis on an organised professional basis: “great men of science like Sir William Crookes and Sir Oliver Lodge claimed to have studied spirits as they might have studied spiders, and discovered ectoplasm exactly as they discovered protoplasm.”

Chesterton was not actually as dismissive of the unexpected late 19th century flourishing of Spiritualism as you might expect, given some of the sentiments he expressed above, however. “Through most of my life, I have defended Spiritualism against scepticism,” he admitted, “though now [I am a convert to Rome] I should naturally defend Catholicism against even Spiritualism.”

Chesterton’s ultimate, somewhat contradictory (he did famously love his paradoxes) attitude towards Spiritualism was that, even though it was 100 percent untrue, it was still less 100 percent untrue than the outright atheism of materialistic scientific scepticism. At least Spiritualists believed in spirits of some kind, even though these were not the Holy Spirit, whereas the early Richard Dawkinses of his day did not even do this.

Thus, counterintuitively, an ultra-credulous Spiritualist attending the séance of an outright fake and fraudulent medium, who believed that the sitters levitated and luminous trumpets played by themselves when really these were just mere conjuring tricks on the medium’s behalf, were actually somehow closer to the ultimate truth about spiritual matters in a general sense than the hard-headed ultra-atheistic non-believer who attended purely to expose the con-men at work.



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The Divine Comedy

In another essay, entitled simply Spiritualism, Chesterton responds to an irate ghost-summoner who wrote in to him to complain about his mocking attitude towards the subject, accusing the author of failing to see the wonderful utility of a faith in which it was routinely possible to talk with the dead, and which therefore provided supposed practical proof of the continued survival of the human soul following death. Chesterton denied he intended to disparage Spiritualism by joking about it, explaining how “It is the test of a good religion whether you can joke about it” (what does this say about Islam, then?) as allegedly proved by the common newspaper typo of printing the word ‘cosmic’ as ‘comic’.

Then, he moved onto a more substantial argument. Truly religious persons – by which Chesterton meant good Catholics like himself – were content simply to believe in supernatural forces, not to actually seek them out on purpose. To do that would be a blasphemous test of unseen spiritual powers, akin to when Satan tried to tempt Jesus to toss Himself off a cliff to see if God’s angels would catch Him during his time fasting in the desert.

Trying to summon ghosts or other such spiritual entities via elaborate occult rituals should be considered as being similarly counterproductive, spiritually speaking, Chesterton argued:

“If a man baits a line for fish, the fish will come, even if he declares there are no such things as fishes. If a man limes a twig for birds, the birds will be caught, even if he thinks it superstitious to believe in birds at all. But a man cannot bait a line for souls. A man cannot lime a twig to catch gods. All wise schools have agreed that this latter capture depends to some extent on the faith of the capturer. So it comes to this: If you have no faith in the spirits your appeal is in vain; and if you have--is it needed? If you do not believe, you cannot. If you do--you will not.”

So, this Hallowe’en, maybe you would be best advised to put away your Ouija Boards, take up your Bibles, and attend a church service instead of a séance – that, at least, is the sound advice the hovering ghost of G.K. Chesterton would like to impart to his still-living readers.  

Steven Tucker is a UK-based writer whose work has appeared in print and online worldwide. The author of over ten books, mostly about fringe-beliefs and eccentrics, his latest title, Hitler’s & Stalin’s Misuse of Science (Pen & Sword/Frontline) is available now, and exposes how the insane and murderous abuses of science perpetrated by the Nazis and the Soviets are being repeated anew today by the woke left who have now captured so many of our institutions of learning.  

Image credit: Bigstock  



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