USC Digital Folklore Archives / Magic
Folk Beliefs

Homemade Ouija Board

Informant Information:
Christine is a 19 year old student currently studying anthropology and human rights at the University of Southern California; she is also on the pre-law track. She was born and raised in Orange, California within a small, yet traditional, Korean family. Christine shared the following story with me after asking her if she had ever encountered a ghost before.

Christine: “I’ve never seen a ghost, but now that you mention it, I think one did kind of mess with my friends and I in middle school.”

Me: “Was your school haunted?”

Christine: “No, the ghost wasn’t in our school; it just happened during middle school. We were messing around with a Ouija Board one day after school because we were all bored and had nothing else to do.”

Me: “Can you explain what happened?”

Christine: “Let me try to remember what happened (paused). It was at my best friend Jacquelyn’s house. It was me, Jacquelyn, and Johanna, and we were sitting on the ground in her room. It was late afternoon-ish but definitely already dark, and Jacquelyn was, like, ‘We should do a Ouija board!’. I don’t remember how it came up, but Ouija boards were kind of popular at the time. But the strangest thing was that we didn’t have a legit Ouija board, so we just drew one out and looked up some chant online to make it real. Then we just used some glass we found as the triangle replacement. Then all three of us put our hands on the glass, and we said the chant to make it start. Then the cup just started moving even though none of us started to push it – and it was weird because the triangle can move easily but this was a glass that you really had to push.”

Me: “Did the glass say anything, or did you ask it any questions?”

Christine: “The first question we asked it was whether or not we were talking to a good or bad spirit. It ended up being a good spirit; it was a girl.”

Me: “Did she say anything about herself?”

Christine: “We asked her a few more questions and found out she was from like the 1900s, but a lot of the other questions she asked her didn’t make sense and were basically gibberish. Then eventually we asked her how many other ghosts and spirits were in the house, and the answer was really high. We got really freaked out and I wanted to stop, so I took my hands off the glass but then all of a sudden the door slammed shut. It was probably just the wind but still the timing was just really freaky. I put my hands back on and we said goodbye. I don’t know if it was a ghost or not, but it was just way too coincidental and specific and we swear to this day that none of us were pushing the glass.”

Me: “Would you ever use a Ouija board again?”

Christine: (Immediately) “No. We used a homemade one and it freaked me out; I wouldn’t go near a real one because I don’t even know what might happen.”

It’s interesting that Christine seemed to bounce back forth between believing that she actually encountered a ghost/spirit and that she just witnessed a series of coincidences. For example, she specifically describes the fact that a ghost “messed with” her and her friends, but at the end of the story she blames the wind for the slamming door instead of the ghost. This can just show that belief—whether it is the belief in ghosts or in something else—is fluid and can therefore changes over time and between different contexts. In this situation, her and her friends were playing with the homemade Ouija board when it was already dark out, which might explain why Christine was so quick to call this experience a ghostly encounter; if they had done this during the day, perhaps Christine would not have been so bold as to start her story stating that a ghost messed with her friends. Another way to look at it would be to look at how Christine immediately dismissed my suggestion of using a real Ouija board. The experience with a fake/homemade board was creepy enough, so she would not want to put herself in a context/situation that involved a real Ouija board that has been used/discussed in other scary stories, movies, or the like. This context, in comparison, is much scarier/creepier.

Folk Beliefs

Evil eye

Subject: Evil eye inoculation


 Haifa grew up in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia to a progressive family. She is a Professor at the King Saud University in Riyadh and conceders herself a religious person, but does not believe in a lot of the superstition behind some of the stories. She grew up, and works, around all different kinds of people that shared with her different traditions and folklore of which she has shared some of her favorite.

Original script: “a lot of Saudi superstition is based around the evil eye. One really prevalent practice is the ingestion of another persons spit…it sounds disgusting but this is how it works. If you have a guest and fear that they may have eye eyed your house or family you take either the water they have drank or you wash the cup they have been drinking coffee or tea from, wash it and drink from the water you wash it with. It is believed that if you do so, you take a trace of that persons essence and therefor inoculate yourself against any evil or malice that comes from them.”

Background Information about the Piece by the informant: Most of Arabic myth and superstition surrounds the evil eye and it’s affects on people and how to protect ones self from its negative affects.

Thoughts about the piece: Saudi’s often employ what would seem to be superstitious practices probably left over from a time before Islam. However, like all good folklore, the myths, practices and superstitions have evolved with the spread of Islam to involve Islamic themes such as using prayer and the name of god to proceed the ritual.

Folk Beliefs
Folk speech


Informant :

Haifa grew up in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia to a progressive family. She is a Professor at the King Saud University in Riyadh and considers herself a religious person, but does not believe in a lot of the superstition behind some of the stories. She grew up, and works, around all different kinds of people that shared with her different traditions and folklore of which she has shared some of her favorite.

Original script:                                                                                                                 

ما شاء الله

Phonetic (Roman) script: Mahsallah

Transliteration: Mashallah

Full translation: As god wills.

Background Information about the Piece by the informant: Mashshallah is said to ward off any bad or evil eye from things. When you say something is nice like “you have nice hair” you have to say mashallah after it of you may unintentionally give someone the evil eye. My mother still yells at me if I don’t say mashallah after I say something nice and will even tell strangers to say mashallah if they are complementary or her kids.

Context of the Performance: Said to ward off the evil eye from a person, home or object and used throughout the Arabic speaking world.

Thoughts about the piece: Like a lot of traditional Arabic saying and myths this blends superstition with religion (Islam). While the saying involved the belief that only god can make something happen, it still is used to ward off evil created by humans.


Folk Beliefs

Kitchen Witches

My informant is an American from Minnesota, who has ancestors from Czech republic and Sweden, back to 1880.

“The other thing that Sweden has, we have the kitchen witches. So hang a witch in the kitchen and they protect the kitchen. I still have kitchen witches, I have several.  It’s like a little figurative witch on a broom, but they go in the kitchen, they’re called kitchen witches. They protect the food in the kitchen. So it’s a very Scandinavian sort of thing. It may have different looks in each family, but it has to be a witch, and you hang it in a kitchen. It keeps you up from messing up your kitchen.”

She is very proud of this specific object that they keep in Sweden culture, even though she has been immigrated to US for a long time. I think it’s very lovely that in many Scandinavian cultures they believe in magic and magical creatures, and sometimes they really work when you believe in them. In this case if you do believe in the kitchen witches can protect you from messing up your kitchen, and hang them there, you may really become more cautious while cooking.


Rituals, festivals, holidays

Red pocket money under pillow

My informant is a student who was originally from China but came to study in US since high school.

“You know, red pocket money is one of the biggest tradition during Spring Festival in China. But in my family, not only we get red pocket money from people much older than us, we also put them under our pillow at night. It’s like really coordinating with the word “压”(push down) in “压(push down)岁(age)钱(money)” (red pocket money). And my grandparents would also put ivy leaves inside there, just for good luck.”

“I know they are many superstitions from Chinese family, especially my family haha. But we still do that, I don’t think the truth matters that much in this case, I like these traditions.”

I think it’s really interesting that in both asian and western culture we have this kind of gift thing for kids during important festivals. Hoping for good luck with ivy leaves inside red pocket money that placed under their pillow to Chinese children, waiting for christmas gift to be put inside the christmas sock for western children, they both serve as a good method to give them hope and believes; as well as for better sleeping quality since they all happen during bed time.


Folk Beliefs

Chopstick in rice bowl

My informant is a student who was originally from China but came to study in US since high school.

“In China we are not allowed to place our chopsticks perpendicularly into rice bowl while eating. It is very inappropriate to do that there, because it would look like you are worshiping dead people.”

This is a common habit that parents always forbid their kids to do on the dining table since their very young age from decades to decades. My informant says that she still keeps that rule in mind every time she eats with chopsticks now, even though she no longer thinks about the reason behind it anymore.

It is quite interesting to me that there are many homeopathic folk beliefs like this in Chinese customs, which I think more or less relates to their hieroglyphic language that allows them to randomly connect two things that share similar features together.

Folk Beliefs
Rituals, festivals, holidays

Salt for bad spirits

My informant is an American from New York, whose family originally came from Poland 100 years ago. His grandfather was a baker and his grandmother was a peasant girl.

“She used to take salt with her when she went to new places, put them at corner and drive away bad spirits.”

“I think it’s their superstition from their peasants’ logic 100 years ago.”

I’ve actually heard this mystic belief of connection between salt and bad spirits in more than one cultures. To me it sounds very random and arbitrary, but if this activity could comfort the people who believe in that from anxiety and insecurity, I don’t think it should be criticized as superstition in a harsh way.

Folk Beliefs

Lead Shapes to Determine Your Luck

Background: A.J. is a 65-year-old woman who was born and raised in Poprad, Slovakia. She relocated to the United States from Slovakia 20 years ago, while her son was attending University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. A.J. holds a degree in child development and since coming to the United States has worked as a nanny. She is married to her lifelong sweetheart and has one son and three grandchildren. She often talks about her home and family in Slovakia – about the beautiful mountains and the culture. Although she is now a US citizen, she incorporates many Slovak traditions into everyday life, and enjoys telling stories about her family and her family traditions.


Main piece:

A.J.: On December 13, we met all girls in one house and we melted PB, how call that – lead – on the stove and was like liquid, we took on the spoon and pour to the bowl cold water.  What kind of shape was made in this water we would decided what was that.  If you have heart you will be happy. You will have good luck. If it was some different shape we always was thinking what it can be. Was like snake, you have bad luck or was some witch or something you were always thinking about your next year how will be look.


Q: So how old were you when you did this?


A.J.: We were 13, 14, 15 like that.


Q: Who did you learn it from?


A.J.: From parents or some other girls or older girls what we have in the village.  Always this oldest girls invite youngest girls and go like tradition you know from one girl to another and then.


Q: Did all the girls in the one village go to one house or were there multiple?


A.J.: Multi – were like 10 girls or 12 girls in one house and other go to other.  We always meet in different houses every year


Performance Context: This ritual would be done in Slovakia on December 13th, St. Lucy’s Day, by a large group of teenage girls.


My Thoughts: I think that it is interesting how many of the traditions done by teenage girls in Slovakia surround their future luck and happiness. Additionally, many of these traditions happen on December 13, or St. Lucy’s Day. This is also known as the “witch day.” It is possible that this day was seen as a day of magic, which is why girls believe that they would be able to predict some of their future on this day.

Folk Beliefs
Folk medicine

Cow Manure as a Medicine

Background: C.M. is a 58-year-old woman living in Franklin Park, IL. She was born in Chicago, and has lived in the Chicagoland area for all of her life. She works as a nurse practitioner at Nye Partners in Women’s Health, and has been working there for 7 years. Before that, she worked at Loyola University Medical Center as a labor and delivery nurse. She is married and has two grown children.


Main piece:

C.M.: I heard this story from my dad. He told me that before he was born, and he was born in 1932, that his mother’s brother, his name was Georgie, but his name was actually just George. His last name was Wilming, W-I-L-M-I… I think? N-G.


Anyway, they lived out in Iowa on a farm, I think in Elizabeth, and they were using dynamite sticks to blow out the tree stumps out of the ground, ya know, to clear the land. One of them blew up and – he was there, he was too close – Georgie, and he got injured. He had wounds, terrible open wounds from the explosion. And in order to heal these wounds, they smeared cow manure on him, and they healed! They used home remedies because there were no doctors at that time, and this one worked.


Q: And how did your dad learn this story?


C.M.: My grandma told my dad, my dad told me, and now I’m telling you!


Q: Did the wounds heal completely?


C.M.: Yup! There apparently was no scarring or anything.


Performance Context: I interviewed the informant over the phone, as I am in California and she lives in Chicago. This remedy would be used out on the farm, especially in the early 1900’s, when someone got terrible wounds and there were no doctors around to prescribe any Western medical treatments.


My Thoughts: I think that it is interesting how, without access to a doctor, people were able to come up with easy home remedies, coming from easily accessible material, to take care of the problem. However, I am curious how someone figured out that cow manure could be used as a healing salve in the first place! Folk medicines are not always superstitions, they can also be founded in fact. Many folk remedies eventually end up being validated in the scientific community, so it is possible that this one might, as well!

Folk Beliefs
Folk medicine
Gestation, birth, and infancy
Life cycle

Hilots in Filipino Culture

Background: Y.G.M. is a 49-year-old Filipino woman who works at Nye Partners in Women’s Health as the office manager. She was born and raised in Quezon City in the Philippines, and lived there until she was 25 years old. Y.G.M. self-identifies as Filipino, and as a result of her upbringing, Filipino culture is very engrained into her personal beliefs. She attended college at Mirian College, and received a bachelor’s degree in Communication Arts. Y.G.M. then immigrated to Chicago, Illinois with her family in 1997, and got her first job working at Citibank in River Forest, Illinois. She now lives with her husband in a suburb of Chicago.


Main piece:

Y.G.M.: So Filipinos also have superstitious beliefs like um a person called Hilot [hee-loht] which is an expert woman who can deliver um deliver a mother in labor so they are supposed to have supernatural powers to just deliver a woman without any problems and they are blessed you know to be in to help women in labor without any problems – kinda like midwives.  So it’s like they have supernatural powers to do that instead of taking women to the hospital.


Q: How are the Hilots chosen?


Y.G.M.: They say, like “oh I have that special gift from above to perform such a miracle,” like a special gift from God.


Q: Is it from a specific God or just all the gods?


Y.G.M.: All the gods. And up to this moment, they still believe in that.


Q: So they just self-proclaim themselves as Hilots?


Y.G.M.: Yes yes – uh huh.


Performance Context: Hilots would be used to help women during childbirth in the Philippines.


My Thoughts: I think that it is interesting how the Filipinos relate childbirth to a religious and magical process with the use of Hilots’ god-given powers to help women in labor. Instead of using “medicine” in the general sense to help with childbirth, this practice shows that Filipino culture believes more in religion and magic to assist with everyday life.