USC Digital Folklore Archives / Magic
Customs
Folk Beliefs
Magic

Henrietta’s Pacing

I’ve always thought of this friend as an interesting guy, but we’ve only ever joked and traded some silly stories from high school. He’s hinted at coming from a large and established family in Texas, although I’ve never really gotten much more than that. This project was a great opportunity for me to find out a bit more, as I, too, share ancestral lineage from the South, and have always been interested in unique little stories of haunted houses and ancient apparitions.

The following was transcribed from a recording taken in class and shared among three or four other classmates. Though the background buzzed with chatter from other students, the spooky nature of this story made me feel very still inside.

“I come from a big ranching family, and we go back – our family history dates back to like 1853 in Texas. So from the early, early days of the state. And our family is still in-tact and everything, very close together, and the ranch is still there. So um, there’s a lot of history to it in South Texas. So with that there comes a lot of ghost stories and whatnot. Um, so there’s a lot of reports of people seeing ghosts in the main house and stuff like that. The house itself is as old as the ranch, so very, very old. It’s a hundred an- we just celebrated it’s a hundred-and-sixty-fifth anniversary. Well actually, excuse myself. The ranch is a hundred-and-sixty-five years old, and the house just turned a hundred. So, yes. Very, very old. I’m a sixth generation out of seven, in terms of family members, so there’s been that many people that have gone through the house. Four generations lived in the house their entire lives, um. So naturally, the ghosts aren’t always the same. The ghost that I saw is… Let’s see. The ghost that I saw or rather heard or believe I heard at least is – I was going to bed in my room which is on the first floor, and uh, the floors are made of wood on the second floor. So my room is right under this room we call Henrietta’s room which is the room of the matriarch of the original generation, the first generation. So in Henrietta’s room – it’s the biggest one in the house. It’s basically like the original one. And it’s also where most of the ghost sightings and experiences are seen is up, up in hers. So my room is right below. And I haven’t had any encounters like visually. But the one I have had is I was going to sleep one night, and I was trying to go to bed. I was the only one in the house, and um, the thing is the house is very, very big, and it’s kind of a rarity to be the only one in the house. Normally there’s at least 2 or 3 other people staying there. And I was the only one there that night, kind of taking care of the house before I left the next day. I was going to bed and I heard this creaking above me, as if someone was walking around on the wood. Um, on the second floor. AKA, Henrietta’s room. And I didn’t think much of it before I realized I was the only one in the house. And I thought, ‘oh, is there an intruder?’. And I got really, really scared, um, cause those things can happen. But there’s also a lot of security. So then again, nothing so much. But I listened really closely, and the footsteps were going in a circle, as if they were just plodding around the room. And they were just going in an endless circle, and the steps were very, very slow too. Like, a very slow walking pace, basically. And I was listening to these footsteps going in an endless circle. I think eventually I fell asleep, but it was interesting that being my first ghost experience. And basically having to accept the fact that there’s a ghost walking around above me. And I just went to sleep comfortable, knowing that it was a ghost and not an intruder. So that was nice for me.”

It is rare for a ghost to be preferred over another human being. However, if the ghost is a loving relative in a lineage that values family and tradition, then it makes sense to prefer its presence to a possibly violent intruder. This piece breaks the American stereotype of all ghosts being malevolent beings hell-bent on revenge and retribution. Instead, it offers a different outlook on the world of the supernatural – that ghosts come out when they think no one is home and simply go about their business. Perhaps Henrietta craves the nostalgia of her old room, and comes back to enjoy the sights and scents whenever she can. Little did she know her great-great-great-great-great grandson slept soundly below.

Customs
Folk Beliefs
Homeopathic
Magic
Protection
Rituals, festivals, holidays

The Whole Image (Soul Stealing and Microphones)

This friend of mine has always been one of the most superstitious people I know. Her childhood was split between two households, each with their own unique beliefs and superstitions. Having been quite close for the past few years, I’ve heard innumerable stories regarding strange folk-beliefs her parents taught her as a little girl. When I asked her about her superstitions and pulled out a microphone, she sealed her lips and wouldn’t explain until I’d turned it off. And first, I was a bit peeved, but by the end of her explanation, it made a lot more sense.

The following was recorded by hand during a group interview with 4 other of our friends in the common area of a 6-person USC Village apartment.

“Okay so the reason I don’t speak into microphones, no actually don’t – no please don’t. I’ll hold it. I’ll explain it to you, it’s completely legitimate! Okay. So… I don’t believe in speaking into a microphone if there’s no image along with it because my personal spiritual beliefs have to do with the reflection and the way that a person is viewed by other people. Kind of like everyone has a projection, so if your projection doesn’t capture the whole picture it’s wrong. I’ll only be in a video if there’s sound and I’ll only speak directly if you can see me doing it. Think about the way people look at Instagram. If I show you Ben’s insta you only get 3% of his personality. As a means of calculating the projections I give off, I don’t get to know people that well, I’m really picky with people I get to know, and I’m picky with how I represent myself, so I’ve deleted my insta, and I don’t like posing for photos. I don’t like artificial projection, because it goes against my spiritual beliefs. Voice overs for movies are different. That’s acting out a character When representing yourself, I only like the whole image. I don’t take pictures.

 “Partly just growing up, a big part of misunderstanding and getting along with people is getting the whole picture. I grew up never getting the whole picture, I feel like it’s important to be as genuine as possible. If you’re allowing someone to see you and know you as a person, and you only give them a partial image, then, intrinsically, you’re setting yourself up to be stereotyped, and like, put into a box.

 “That’s why I hate telling people I’m vegan. It’s like, yeah, I’m fucking vegan, but I like chicken wings sometimes, you know? I hate being put into boxes because no one will ever kno- you don’t even know yourself. No one will ever know anyone. So why make it easier for people to assume that they can? I’m interested in things, but part of my spirituality is just lack of definition. I just think definition is so limiting… And I’ve also tripped on acid a lot, so I’ve felt more things than human existence. I also – I – Identity is complicated. I think people have crossover, but I don’t think – there’s absolutely no way that there’s a carbon copy of me somewhere else. There’s no way that anyone has a carbon copy. I don’t know. Now you get why I don’t like being recorded! I’ve had a lot of problems with this. In high school, I was – me and a couple of people were going to start a band, and then… we didn’t because I wouldn’t record. It was weird.

 “To go back to the question, I am like – I have depersonalization realization. It’s like a mental disorder. Everyone experiences it differently, but I have a separation between myself and what I make. My ankle for example – I just broke it, but I didn’t really process the pain immediately. When I look in the mirror, I don’t see myself, but I see a body that my soul is in. It’s kind of like Freaky Friday. I mean, nobody will ever know you. Your appearance has nothing to do with who you are. I don’t give a shit about my body. I don’t eat. I don’t feel hungry, or like feel anything. I only feel things in my brain. That’s why I live inside my brain. I mean I can feel you, but I’m not – it’s not like I don’t have nerves. I just live inside my brain.”

This superstition is fascinating to me, as it ties together a few more common superstitions and builds upon them while following a strange sort of dream-logic. Perhaps the most famous anecdote regarding soul theft and photography is famed Lakota tribal leader Crazy Horse never having his photograph taken. It’s quite common for many Native American and Australian Aborigines tribes to view photography as a fracturing and subsequent thievery of the soul, as the whole concept of photography is freezing a moment of time. However, my friend puts a whole new spin on this as she adds audio and video recordings to the mix. It’s fascinating to follow her complicated web of spirituality, and it really does make you think about how we define ourselves and those around us.

For more information on soul stealing and photography, check out: http://www.bigbanglife.org/?p=404

For a skeptical view of the same, check out: https://www.csicop.org/sb/show/soul_theft_through_photography

Folk Beliefs
Homeopathic
Legends
Magic
Narrative
Signs
Tales /märchen

Fireball Ghosts

After college, my mom lived in Japan 7 years. She taught English to get by and apprenticed as a potter to gain experience. Growing up, she told me tons and tons of stories from her time there. I was always particularly interested in their spiritual beliefs. Specifically, those regarding ghosts.

Driving home from lunch one sunny afternoon, I ask her and my dad if they have any stories about the inexplicable that I could use for my folklore project. My mom starts:

In Japan in graveyards – because it’s… because everybody’s cremated it’s very common during typhoon season to see fireballs and whatnot. And that’s really because of the seepage of the rainwater into burial urns combining with the phosphorous of the bones and creating fireballs. But some people believe that they’re spirits and that the graveyards are haunted. So, yeah I guess. Some people believe it’s the spirits and other people believe it’s the phosphorous in the bones with the rainwater. It’s also very easy to imagine … you sort of feel different presences in Japan. Especially in subways in Tokyo. Because they’re very old, you can feel lots of spirits.”

This anecdote is particularly interesting, as it includes scientific explanation for a supernatural occurrence. Imagine walking home late one rainy night when you see fireball after fireball erupt out of a graveyard. That would be absolutely terrifying. Thankfully, my mother never told me this story as a kid, as it would have almost undoubtedly caused innumerable nightmares and late nights for her. Though she explains the fireballs, she still admits to feeling a very strong spiritual presence across the country as a whole. A presence no one can account for outright. Though some ghosts are easily explained, others are not.

Folk Beliefs
Magic
Rituals, festivals, holidays

A Tame Sort of Trance

During high-school, my dad studied abroad in Brazil for a year. He stayed with a family of Lebanese immigrants who showed him both Brazilian and Lebanese traditions, and always included him in everything. Growing up, I heard tons of stories from his time there. The Brazilian stories were relatively tame – beaches, clubs, schools, etc. But the Lebanese culture was of particular interest.

Driving home from lunch one sunny afternoon, I ask him and my mom if they have any stories that I could use for my folklore project.

“I was just thinking about my experiences when I was a teenager in Brazil with a family of Lebanese immigrants who were Druze, and had the belief of many paths to the mountaintop. But they also had a uh.. a spiritualist element. And after I’d been there several months, they let me go to a family ceremony which was on a Sunday. One of the uncles would go into a trance and kind of channel spirits and try to get insight into some of the issues facing the family. So he would stand there and close his eyes, and appear to be communing with the spirits. And everybody would be quiet and sitting around, um, and then he would speak to them. But that was all in Arabic so I didn’t understand a word. Um.. But other than that, then they would say he’s asking about some problems we’re having with the business or this or that, and he would get some direction. They…they had these kind of sessions where one or more of them would kind of be in a sort of trance-like state. So I remember viewing that and thinking that was sort of interesting.”

Whenever I think of communing with the spirits, I picture ouji boards or fire-and-brimstone preachers in the deep south flailing around with snakes on their arms. I picture people getting real serious and asking about life’s deeper questions. It’s quite funny to picture this fairly frequent occurrence, where a member of the family would go into a trance and just ask advice for everyday problems. Obviously, the whole thing was treated seriously, as my dad had to earn a certain amount of trust before he was allowed to attend. But even so, there’s a lightness to it that is not normally associated with channeling spirits.

 

Customs
Folk Beliefs
Legends
Magic
Narrative

Commonplace Reincarnation

During high-school, my dad studied abroad in Brazil for a year. He stayed with a family of Lebanese, Druze immigrants who showed him both Brazilian and Lebanese traditions, and always included him in everything. Growing up, I heard tons of stories from his time there. The Brazilian stories were relatively tame – beaches, clubs, schools, etc. But the Lebanese culture was of particular interest.

Driving home from lunch one sunny afternoon, I ask him and my mom if they have any stories that I could use for my folklore project.

“And they also believed in reincarnation. Very strongly. Cause my – the Brazilian father of the family I was with never talked about it, but his wife said as a boy growing up in Lebanon, uh, when he was a young boy he started remembering his death as another person. His life. And he kept remembering more and more about it. And he was a young guy and, uh, a middle aged man or something, and there was a feud going on with another family.  And every year he started to remember more about this past life.  And uh, one day he remembered going to the water and he was bending over, washing his face, and looking up in the water and seeing one of his enemies behind him swinging something down. And he remembered his own murder. And after that he never talked about it. But it was common knowledge in the family, when he was growing up, as a kid he remembered this other life. So they all, they all believed in reincarnation. But it was interesting because, I would never have imagined this serious businessman recounting past life experiences. But he was a boy. But there was some story of him going to the house of the person who had been killed when he was twelve years old. And he knew the family and he told the family. And he knew where things were hidden in a drawer and things like that. Yeah, cause he remembered from his.. from his past life. So, but – the family – I was going, ‘weren’t they amazed’? But when they were telling me this story – it was the old uncle Rashid who was telling me this – and he said, ‘oh no, it happens all the time in the Middle East, it’s no big deal’. Like it’s common. ”

Holy cow this story is incredible. I’ve only ever read about these sorts of reincarnation stories online, but to hear it from my dad was a whole other experience. In America, stories such as these are usually scoffed at and forgotten in a matter of hours The same is true in the Middle East, however their reasoning is the exact opposite of ours. Whereas we think of reincarnation as being wholly impossible, there, it is so commonplace that stories such as this are considered drab and boring. It’s insane to think that there is a whole group of countries that believe in reincarnation so readily that they never really talk about it at all.

Folk Beliefs
Magic

Wealth Mirror: Folk Belief

So in a lot of Asian cultures we believe in Feng Shui -um- which has a lot to do with balancing and good fortune or things that can cause uhh bad luck or harm you and, my family particularly, we have a mirror hanging above our front door from- on the inside side and the point of the mirror is that it reflects all the good wealth or good fortune that could be trying to leave the house and keeps it inside.

 Something really similar to that is we believe that -um- houses that are shaped triangularly, that are built right in front of a window or a room is bad luck so, for example, the house across from me from my bedroom has a triangular roof and my mom put a mirror in my window in the corner to ward off evil spirits. So mirrors can be used both ways, but its more meant to keep out the bad spirits and good spirits in.

The Informant is Vietnamese. She was born in the US and grew up in Garden Grove, a city in Orange County. She is an Economics and Mathematics student at UCLA. The Informant, my girlfriend, taught me about a use for mirrors aside from vanity in many Asian cultures as I distracted her from her own schoolwork on 4/22 at around 2:30am. Her entire house is set up to maximize energy flow. Although she doesn’t believe in the full power of Feng Shui (Qi as the lifeforce), she believes in the power of Qi.

Feng Shui dictates the placement of various items to correctly direct vital energies (Qi) to maximize happiness, health, wealth, etc. There are many directives with Feng Shui and most involve the use of mirrors to either amplify good energies or reject bad energies.

The cardinal sin of mirror placement is to position a mirror facing a door. This reflects Qi that enters right back out the door. The Bagua mirror, an octagon with wooden backing and an individual symbol on all eight sides. The concavity or convexity means the world; a concave mirror will absorb bad energy while a concave mirror will reflect it away. If a Bagua is placed inside the house, it must be concave.

I grew up with light influence of Feng Shui. My mom was always moving furniture around and reorganizing photos on tables to “improve the Feng Shui,” but I always thought it was an aesthetic thing. I’d be hard pressed to believe that a mirror can increase my wealth and good fortune, but if I run a cost-benefit analysis, there’s nothing to lose.

Folk Beliefs
Magic
Protection

Salt Moat: Folk Belief

My dad would frequently get big containers of salt and then her would just open them up and then sprinkle it all around the house, so in essence there’d be an outline of salt around the house and it was more of I guess a superstition of us believing that it could help fend off, like, negative energy or just occurrences that would happen that would be… would just be any sort of negative thing. 

The Informant, my housemate, is an Econ major at USC. He was born and raised in Texas. The Informant told me about his dad’s way of warding off negative energies at around midnight on 4/22 while he played PlayerUnknown’s Battleground, an intensive online battle royale game. He spoke like he was skeptical of the actual powers of this salt border and he admitted he doesn’t truly believe. He says he doesn’t believe in the positive effects, but would be slightly worried about the possibilities if his dad skipped the salt.

Salt seems to be the center of many folk beliefs – from the conversion magic of throwing salt over your left shoulder after a spillage to ward off bad luck, to this border of salt to keep bad energy out of the house.

This folk belief seems odd to me. In my opinion, this sounds more like a story parents tell their children to hide the fact they’re planning on killing all the snails ransacking the garden.

Folk Beliefs
Magic

The Hantus in the Banyan Trees

Informant: There’s these things in Singapore, they’re called Hantus, they’re basically ghosts. So because Singapore was part of Malaysia at some point, a lot of our culture has to do with Malaysian culture. There’s this story about Hantus where, around Singapore, there’s a lot of these trees called Banyan Trees. These trees have huge stems, and are super wide. There are a ton of roots that hang from their canopies down.

Because of these roots, Banyan trees are very dark, especially at night. Their canopies are thick, so light can’t get through them, and the stems obscure everything else.

There’s this legend that when you go into the forest at night and you see all of these Banyan trees, you’re not supposed to shine light up into them, or like, if you have a flash, you’re not supposed to shine it into the top of the trees, and you can’t touch the hanging roots either. If you do, these ghost things, these Bantus, jump out of the trees and will “get” you.

Context: This informant is a nineteen year old college student, attending school in the US, but originally from Singapore. This legend was told to me by the informant in a college dorm room.

Background: The informant heard this belief from some of his friends, who also claimed to have seen the eyes of Hantus in the canopies of the Banyan trees. The informant doesn’t believe in this superstition, but he did mention that several people had gone missing among the Banyan trees around Singapore. To him, it’s simply a way to scare people and keep them from flashing lights around at the trees in the dark.

Analysis: I personally am not sure there are any supernatural forces at work. Like my informant said, this instead sounds like a common superstition, a classic superstition to make the native Banyan trees more mysterious, and also to dissuade people from harming them, in fear of such Hantus. What caught my attention was that this legend seems to be centered very specifically around Singapore, where Banyan trees are especially numerous, but it still heavily draws on elements of Malaysian superstition – Hantus. In this way, the use of both is a great symbolic representation of the shared cultural heritage between Singapore and Malaysia.

Contagious
Folk Beliefs
Legends
Magic
Narrative
Rituals, festivals, holidays

Magical Properties of a Giant Confederate Flag

“So, my uncle moved to Tennessee, and he lives down the road from this guy who has a giant confederate flag in front of his house. It covers his whole front porch. And they believe that it—like, if you pray to it—it will bring back the confederate soldiers… like Jesus raising the dead. And when you walk past it, I swear you can see a pair of eyes watching you from under it, but this guy doesn’t have a dog or anything.”

This story came from a classmate with whom I exchanged lore. Although it is short, it contains two clear, separate pieces of folklore. The first is an observation of a folk belief and ritual. Although likely embellished slightly by every teller, it essentially describes a kind of worship. The religious analogy “like Jesus raising the dead” draws a clear connection to the religious nature of the flag-worshiping practice, although it would technically be sacrilegious, it being a “false idol” and all.

The second piece of folklore is a contemporary legend. The sightings of the eyes imply a haunted nature of the flag, furthering its folk power. I could not get my informant to say for certain whether she had seen anything herself, but they way she told the story, it certainly seemed like a memorate. She personally experienced some sort of unusual sighting, which was then shaped by her knowledge of the worshippers and other people’s stories of also seeing glowing eyes, into a scary story.

Both pieces of folklore here clearly reflect a my informant’s uncle—and thus her, too, when she visits him—feeling like an outsider in Tennessee. These stories are fantastic exaggerations of the otherness of the locals around whom he now dwells, likely created to cope with his own sense of unwelcomeness.

Contagious
Magic
Protection

Chinese Jade

Interviewer: Do you have any cultural beliefs or superstitions?

 

Informant: Well in Chinese culture, jade is in a lot of the jewelry that we wear.  It is supposed to be worn for good luck and protection.  But the most common forms that jade comes in for a lot of people is in bracelets or necklaces. There are various colors that jade comes in is green, orange red and purple but green seems to be the most popular.  It is also really important that the jade is real and not just a fake or an imitation.  My mom has a jade necklace and a jade bracelet that she never takes off, never.  The jade is supposed to be for protection and also it channels one’s chi or energy.  And typically jade is really vibrant, but my mom’s jewelry becomes really dull when she wears it but my aunt had jewelry that she wears it doesn’t fade or go dull.  So it’s kind of weird because when my mom gets a new bracelet the old one will become vibrant again once she takes it off, so it’s almost like she’s using the magic in it, like she’s draining it.  I don’t know if that’s very common but I have only seen it happen to her.

 

Interviewer: Are there any times when the jade actually protects someone?

 

Informant:  Well I have heard this story that one of my grandmother’s friend was wearing a jade bracelet and she one day took a really bad fall.  And when she looked at her bracelet it had shattered but she walked away with no injuries.  It was also very important for my grandmother that when I went away to school, I had a jade bracelet to protect me.  So even if I don’t wear it I always have it with me somewhere.

 

Interviewer: so do you believe in its powers?

 

Informant: I think that growing up and being told that jade is protection and a source of good luck has made me believe in it.  But I also don’t believe in the tradition of having to wear it for it to protect me.  I don’t wear mine often, but I keep little pieces of jade everywhere.  Like in my car there is a piece hanging from the rear view window and in my wallet there are pieces of it.  But I don’t actually wear it most of the time because my taste in jewelry is just different but that doesn’t mean I don’t believe in its power.  I think it would be very weird for me if my family members stopped wearing their jewelry or took off their jade.  It is also more of a practical choice because I am in a lot of science classes and they are often really careful about what we wear and I don’t want it to get damaged or get chemicals on it.  So I do believe in the tradition and the magic but I don’t practice it in the same ways that my elders do, and I should probably be doing it but I just haven’t recently.

 

Interviewer: Great thanks for sharing!

 

Background:  The informant is a Junior at USC studying human biology.  She is half Chinese and half Italian but spends more time with her Chinese family and has more beliefs and practices based on her Chinese ancestors.  For the informant, this piece became a form of self-reflection about her own beliefs and how she lives them out in her daily life.  It also served as a reminder of where she came from and the people who are supporting her while she is away.

 

Context: This interview was done during a discussion in a dorm room as the informant and interviewer are roommates.  The informant first experienced this belief and practice as a young child and was given her first piece of jade upon birth.  Though the informant is unsure where the belief originated, it is understood throughout most of China as a folk belief and has traveled with people who have immigrated to other parts of the world.

 

Analysis:  This belief is evident throughout a lot of mainstream culture and exemplified in many Chinese practitioners.  It was interesting to understand the meaning behind the practice and the stories that reinforce the belief. I have seen many people wear jade but it was more meaningful to learn about the power and strength of having this cultural symbol always with you.  In a way it made me related to my own pieces of jewelry that I do not take off and what they mean to me.

 

 

 

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