USC Digital Folklore Archives / Contagious

Protective Superstition: String in Mouth

You always hold a string in your mouth when someone is cutting or pinning something on you, and that way they won’t cut you by accident, or stick you with the pin.  I’m not sure how or why, but my grandmother was a seamstress and her mother was a seamstress, and you can bet nobody ever pinned or cut anything on me, when I was trying it on, you know, without a string in my mouth.  My mother and my grandmother, they just wouldn’t do it.  I don’t know why, it’s just how it was.


Informant does indeed come from a family of seamstress.  The interviewer was unable to verify other sources for this superstition, but it is clearly a sort of contagious magic: that if the person holds a string in their mouth, the wholeness of that string will somehow keep them whole.  It probably also serves a more practical purpose–reminding the person to stay still and quiet while the seamstress works on them.

Folk Beliefs

The Wendigo

Background: My informant was a American who has lived across the country and has learned a lot of stories about other people through her travels.She is currently a student at the University of Southern California studying game design.

Main Piece: The Wendigo is a Native American story of a cannibal evil spirit. It is an animal-human hybrid that had white skin pulled hard over its bones so that you can see the skeleton. It’s eyes are pushed all the way back so they looked deep. It’s nails would go through its skin, making it bloody. It would eat people. They would explain it, when they would go crazy in the Native American camps, they would lose their minds and try to eat other people. The Windigo was tied to greed. If you got too greedy, you would become a Windigo.

Performance Context: According to my informant, it’s an old folklore that she knew growing up because she was interested in Native American culture. She might have heard it from one of the Native American camps that she visited while growing up when she was doing her own research.

My Thoughts: I think it is interesting because it talks a lot about how cultures apply value to virtue and “sin” (to use a Christian idea). The idea that greed can cause one to lose one’s one mind and succumb to a disease that robs you of your humanity as a marker that lust for money and things are not only deplorable, but by nature they are unnatural and condemnable. This is an interesting idea and strongly suggests the ideals of the Native American culture, esp. of the tribes where this story is prominent and/or originates.

Folk Beliefs

The Evil Eye- A Hindu Superstition

What is the evil eye?

“So, basically, the evil eye is a Hindu superstition that a person will have bad luck if they are given too much attention, good or bad, by other people. This can be done because of jealousy, but also can occur if someone gives another person too much praise. Pretty much, it is a curse of bad luck that is cause when somebody looks on your too much, whether with bad intentions or good intentions.”

So what traditions are associated with this superstition?

“Usually, mothers will protect their babies by putting black eyeliner on their eyes or a dot of black eyeliner on the side of the neck to ward off the evil eye. There are also charm bracelets, tattoos, or other objects that can be worn by people to prevent the curse. It can affect anyone, but I’m assuming that people usually protect their children because they don’t want them to die. But yeah, this is a very common Indian tradition that I’ve heard a lot, and when I went to India, it was actually a huge deal that basically everyone believes in. I think it’s a pretty interesting part of my heritage, even though I don’t really believe in it.”


Collector’s Comments:

This is a tradition that we have discussed in class, and seems to be shared by many different cultures, not just Indian traditions. There are variations of this story from Turkey, China, Italy, and all over the world, making me wonder if the superstition was developed in one country and spread all around given how many places have a similar tradition. This is an example of contagious magic, as it is passed through contact from one person to another through eye contact.


Carving Initials into Tree Trunks

My informant is a childhood friend, and during a visit home she brought up a grade-school memory of carving initials into tree trunks. I remember doing this with her when we were very young and so I asked her to elaborate on the memory from her point of view.

Me: ” What was it that you carved into the tree trunks and when did you do this?”

KC: “Well, when I was in grade school so like third, fourth or fifth grade I suppose, at recess sometimes the girls, in a group, would get together no more than like three girls I guess, and get either a sharp stick or pen or pencil and pick a tree on the playground. On the tree they would carve their initials and under that, carve a plus sign and under that, they would carve the initials of their crush, so a boy they liked. Sometimes if the girl was really crafty they would carve a heart around those initials. It would supposed to be like, you had a crush on them and you were proving that you liked them or something, or maybe it would make them like you back or maybe like in the future you would date or something. It was all very innocent like super girlie and cute.”

Me: “Who did you learn this from and when?”

KC: “You know, I have absolutely no idea. I just remember doing it, because all the other girls did it and you did it as a group. I don’t remember being taught by like older girls or anything, just doing it and then maybe teaching it to other girls my age and getting a group together. It was kinda like a game I guess, something to do at recess. But, I do remember you could get in trouble for it, like not in trouble for the liking boys thing, but for vandalizing the tree or something like that.”


This is a sort of childhood game or maybe even a version of contagious magic as the little girls wanted their crushes to be reciprocated in the future. This is perhaps an example of gender roles being explored at a young age, as this is young girls in a group exploring naively the future of dating.  Girls are defining themselves as feminine as they perform this ritual of carving initials as they known they are expected to “like” boys in a romantic way some time in the future. They are naive and unaware of what that truly means, but at this age is when they are introduced to the idea of romantic relationships. Thus, this is playing at “liking” boys in the way they encounter in real life. Boys are no longer “icky” at this age and they mix a lot more and as they encounter the world around them and view dating and romantic relationships this is their way of understand it. It may also be a childlike version of contagious magic as usually the girl wants the person whose initials she has just carved to reciprocate the crush.

Folk Beliefs

Black Cat

The interview will be depicted by initials. The Interviewer is QB and the interview is JT.


QB: Any other superstitions your family follows?


JT: Yeah, it is super cheesy but the whole black cat crossing the road is pretty big with us too. One time I remember my mom and I literally went…like…15 minutes out of the way just because of one stupid cat. While I’m at school I don’t follow it, but whenever I am home it certainly happens.


Analysis: Even though the student doesn’t seem to take it seriously, it is interesting to note that the student still participates in the superstition with their family. They do admit to not doing it while out here at school, but the belief is so strong at home they continue the tradition.


Evil Eye (Islam)

Informant GP is my grandfather who has been a Muslim is whole life. My father’s side of the family has been Muslim for many generations. My grandpa is a devout Muslim who follows the Quran and all the practices described within it. Unfortunately my grandpa’s generation is the last generation in my dad’s side of the family to practice Islam. My father and my aunt and uncles do not practice it, so even though I know many of the things they believe and practice, I don’t know the reason behind it.

So my class was talking about this thing called the evil eye that is believed by many religions and cultures, is there something like that for Islam?

GP: “There is actually! I don’t know what it is like in other religions but for Islam, the evil eye is an eye that everyone can get. The evil eye appears when someone gets greedy. What I mean is like… when someone sees something they like but it belongs to someone else, they envy them right? This envy shows in their eye, theres a certain look people give when they are envious of someone else. This jealous way of looking at someone is the evil eye and when you look at someone with that gaze, you are casting the evil eye on them. Once you cast the evil eye on them, it will affect the other person in a bad way, for example they might get bad luck or something.”

Is there any protection against the evil eye then, because I know in class we talked about this 

GP: “Yes there is. When the evil eye is cast upon you and someone notices, they will ask you to take a bath to wash away the evil eye and its bad influence.”

Thoughts: The Islamic version of the evil eye is very similar to the ones that we have discussed in class. They’re all variation of basically the same thing. I think after listening to my grandpa tell me about the evil eye, I believe their version is rooted in teaching people not to feel jealous of others and to be grateful for what you have, because if you do get jealous of other people bad things will happen.

Folk Beliefs

Don’t Watch a Dog When it Poops

The informant was born in Ventura, CA but her father is from Mexico City and her mother is from Guadalajara. She is bilingual in Spanish and English and partakes in many of the Mexican customs. The following is a superstition that is common within her community and family. 

“I’ve definitely heard other people say this too, but I originally heard it from my mom. She says, if you ever dare stare at a dog while it poops you will get a pimple on your eye. So, for example, when I had my dog, my mom would see it pooping and she would see me watching it and my mom would be like DON’T LOOK AT IT! But it’s one of those things where you kinda want to look, since you’re forbidden not to and it’s more exciting. So one day I just decided that I was gonna look, and you know what? I was fine! I didn’t get a pimple on my eye, even those I was nervous I was going to.”

The informant originally heard it from her mom, but says people in her community all believe the same thing. She also said it applies to any dog anywhere. It’s not just your own, and it can be when you’re out in public as well.

I personally had never heard of this ever before, and when she told me about it I was laughing so hard. I think it’s so fascinating how something can be made such a big deal just by believing it. Since I had no idea this was a thing, I obviously never thought twice about seeing a dog poop. But for her, she said it was this big thing when she was younger. She said she was so curious because it seemed like such a bad thing to do that she always tried to sneak a peak when her mom wasn’t looking so she wouldn’t yell at her.

Folk Beliefs

“El Ojo”

LP, the informant, is 19 years old and grew up in Mexico. She now lives with her mother and sister here in LA while her father still lives in Mexico City. She learned the following superstition from her mother who said that when LP was a baby, she suffered from this curse and had to be cured by her grandmother. LP doesn’t quite believe it, but her mother and grandmother truly do.

“Mexicans have this thing where when you’re a baby and for example you’re on a train and other adults look at your baby from far away thinking about how cute they are, if you don’t let that person touch your baby, it translates to the stink eye, or as we know it “el ojo”. So it’s known as they gave me the eye. The baby comes close to dying, becomes really sick, they get a cold and chills, and the only way to get rid of it is to let that person hold your baby. And we also wear a red and black beaded bracelet to protect your kid from the stink eye. I actually still have my bracelet back at home.”

This curse only applies to babies and can happen whenever someone looks at the baby, admiring them but doesn’t ever touch them. It’s as if looking at them and admiring them can invite the Devil to snatch them, because they will become vain and narcissistic, LP tells me. If the person staring doesn’t come into contact with the baby, then it’s believed that the curse of “El Ojo” is upon them.

I think this superstition is common in many cultures but also in various forms. I feel like I’ve heard something similar to this, but not necessarily applying just to babies. I also never really knew why the evil eye was bad, but now I understand it’s religious connotations concerning the Devil and sin. It’s also interesting that her culture has a specific bracelet that an infant wears to defend them from this curse. It’s similar to the evil eye amulet that people wear to protect them from a similar type of curse.

Folk Beliefs
Folk medicine

Remedy for Curse of Mexican Evil Eye

The informant’s family is originally from Mexico. She learned this cure from her grandmother who performed it on her and her siblings. She doesn’t think that it’s really a cure, however her mother and grandmother told her that it helped cure her when she was cursed with the “ojo”, or eveil eye.

“Some of the things they do to get rid of the curse from el ojo I learned from my grandma. She blesses your whole body with an egg. She grabs it from the fridge and rubs it all over your body and cracks the egg open over water. If it floats, then your good and if it sinks, it’s bad…like the egg absorbs all the bad from your body and it sinks, but I can’t remember…it might be the opposite actually.”

This remedy is used when a baby is cursed by “El Ojo”, or the Evil Eye, as it’s known in other cultures. It’s usually performed in the home, as the informant told me. There are also different variations to it concerning what one does with the egg when they crack it. Some say to leave it under the victim’s bed overnight and check it in the morning.

I had previously never heard of this remedy and I’m very curious as to why they use an egg. I don’t know if there’s something symbolic about it or where it came from originally. I did some more research and there are various methods to this. Some say you have to crack the egg in a bowl and leave it under the victim’s bed, and by morning something will happen that let’s you know they have been cured. It’s apparently a well-known remedy among their community, and I’m surprised it’s so well-revered. When I think of a remedy I usually think it’s something that a person needs to ingest in order for them to be cured.

Folk Beliefs


Translates to “sentence”

It is a sentence to ward of evil found in the Quran. By combining certain sentences other, it can accomplish something, like spells. These sentences can be used for good or evil.

My informant is an immigrant from Lebanon. He lived in a small town called Yarun. Hid family was very poor and lived in a rural area. He had many brothers and sisters.

He states that a lady used ayas in order to help his sister get rid of an evil spirit that was born with her. Because the lady used these ayas to help his sister, this is why my informant believes in magic and in bad spirits.

I gathered this piece from my informant in his house while he served me food.

This piece was interesting because I had never heard about how the Quran could be used for magic. It also goes hand-in-hand with the belief that words have powers. This kind of reminded me of how certain religious pieces are used for different purposes.