Informant is a 23 year old woman from Salt Lake City, Utah.
“My family has a tradition that, especially when the men in the family get haircuts, or, I suppose those with shorter hair, there is a space in the back of the neck – at the nape of the neck – with freshly shorn or buzzed hair that you rub it and it not only gives a delightful tickling sensation but its said to give good luck if it is done before the close of the day in which someone got the haircut. But its not only applicable to men. The only rule is that the hair had to be cut the same day.”
She does not remember who initiated this tradition, and says that it has been ‘ever present’ in her life. She supposes that it probably came from her mother initially.
This custom could be seen as a form of Contagious folk magic. The luck of the person with the hair cut travels via the nape of their neck to anyone who rubs it that day.
This folk item could be interpreted that the person whose hair was just cut has been lucky (they have been ‘beautified’), and by rubbing their neck, the family member could hope for future luck, in looks or otherwise, for themselves. A more likely interpretation however is that this folk item is used as an aid to a social interaction that can sometimes become awkward. Whenever someone changes their appearance, especially if it is only a slight change, socially awkward or tricky situations can occur. If the change is slight enough (ex. a man with already short hair gets a trim) there is the chance that people will not notice. Having a situation where someone offers you the nape of their neck to rub lessens the potential for a faux pas by making it clear that they recently got a haircut. It also, significantly, creates a socially acceptable scenario for a the hair-cutee to seek for and receive compliments on their new look without seeming vain, all under the guise that they are innocently offering their family member good luck through post-haircut neck rubbing.
When asked how she feels about this tradition and how she interprets it, she said:
“I think no one is laboring under the delusion that your luck would actually change one way or the other but it brings some sort of celebration of change and marking of moving forward, and your upkeep of your appearance as well as marking a period of time until your next haircut. It’s a good unifier, it’s a good tradition to have.”
The informant is my aunt from my mother’s side of the family. She is a second generation American citizen and is the oldest of six children. After high school, she paid her own way through college and supported herself at the same time. As a result of her hard work, she has worked as an RN for almost 30 years at LA County Hospital.
At work my coworkers are really superstitous. Many of them are Chinese. One day they were talking about the relationship between the proximity of a front door and a stair case and it’s affect on a person’s financial stability. The belief is that if stairs of a two story house lead directly to the front door, then you are always losing money because it is constantly going out the door. The idea is that it is nearly impossible to save money and that it is constantly being spent. It is ideal to have a house where the stairs don’t lead directly to the front door. Ever since hearing this I have come to the conclusion that is the reason that I am always low on money and that my bills are always outrageously high.
This is an interesting belief. Although I would not give it any truth value whatsoever. What I’m curious about is why it is particularly stairs and the front door? What is the symbolism behind the stairs? maybe because they are decending as they approach the front door which can allude to a persons amount of money descending as well. The Chinese are very cautious and conservative when it comes to their money. So to them this is a very serious matter and can really impact someone’s life.
The informant is a good friend of mine who attends California State University, Northridge where she is studying to become an occupational therapist. She is a second generation American citizen who was born and raised in Burbank, California. Her parents came to the United States from Egypt shortly before she was born. She is a Muslim and can read, write, and speak Arabic fluently.
The evil eye is like a jinx caused by jealousy and envy that allows one to hurt or damage others by looking at them. The concept is a mix of culture and religion. When you see something nice and give a compliment, like for example someone has nice hair instead of saying “oh my gosh she has such nice hair ugh…” you’re supposed to say “she has such nice hair, masha’Allah” which is an Arabic word that means like “wow look at what God created!”and it’s supposed to repel the evil eye of the jinx in jealousy.
This is a good moral custom to stress the importance of staying away from jealousy and envy. Although, no one has the magical powers to harm someone simply by looking at them. This belief also has multiplicity and variation as well. It is found in other cultures and religions across the world, each with their own little twist to it. This belief has also helped tourism by the fact that small items are sold in various places which are artistic in nature but also said to have the ability to ward off the evil eye.
Chainmail is a fairly well-known form of folklore, and has been around for a long time. Chain mail letters can be anything from handwritten letters to emails to texts and are typically sent to a group with some sort of either beneficial or warning message attached, as incentive for the person on the receiving end to pass the message along to more people.
An example of such a message is one my roommate shared with me that had passed around our sorority. The message read:
“You have been visited by the ghost of Helen M. Dodge! Pass this on to ten sisters in the next five minutes and she will give you good luck for the rest of the week!”
Chain mails seem to fit into the category of contagious magic and involve belief a great deal. They are contagious in that in order for the receiver to either alleviate any harm that may come, or to ensure any benefit, from having read the letter, he or she must pass it along to X amount of people. The magic of the letter passes along with it and integrates into the daily lives of those who receive it, or it at least claims to do so.
Chain mail letters are really interesting in their relation to belief because I would bet that if you asked a large group of people if they believe in the power of chain mail letters to affect their lives in either positive or negative ways, the majority would say no. However, these letters are constantly passed around. They can be fit into the category of superstitious as well as contagious magic—perhaps it is the fear that chain mail letters may in fact have some power, some magic, that drives people to continue passing them along.
This particular chain mail letter doesn’t run the risk of being harmful to the person receiving it in any way, but perhaps the receiving individual may feel that they are to be at a loss if they don’t pass it along.
Or, perhaps chain mail letters get passed around as a way of continuing community. They are a means of reaching out to 5, 10, 15 friends who you haven’t talked to in a while. Or the particular chain mail letter you have received is funny so you want to share it with three of your friends you think would find it hilarious. Chain mail gets a pretty bad rap, yet its continued existence makes me think there is some part of its communicative, outreaching nature that people like.
For another example of chain mail letters, see Dan Squier. The Truth About Chain Letters, 1990, Premier Publishers.
“So when I was a little girl my grandma, I used to live with my grandma in Hawaii and whenever she told me to get ready for bed, I would get ready for bed and you know how, like, little kids will sometimes, um, like put their clothes on inside out or backwards. Well, my grandma, I would do that occasionally and my grandma ended up convincing me that that . . . like that brought good luck and like if you do that, then it brings good luck. So then I started purposely, purposefully, um, wearing my pajamas backwards and inside out and my mom never understood it, but I always would tell her, obviously, that it brings good luck.”
The informant was a 21-year-old USC student who studies communication and minors in dance and is a part of a prominent sorority on campus. She grew up in a relatively small town in southern California (with short stretches in other areas of the country) and was the captain of a prominent sports organization. She has danced for her entire life and, when she was growing up, would often drive for long stretches of time with her family to dance competitions. This interview took place while the informant, whom I live with, was making lunch and telling me about her grandmother’s superstitions. Of her grandmother, she said, “My grandma’s a very spiritual person. She still believes it, she’ll still tell me.” She went on to say, “It’s like a family joke now. So like if I come down now wearing my pajamas inside out and backwards, my grandma will always be like, ‘Oh! It’s really good luck, right?’ . . . My mom thinks it’s a joke, but my grandma’s like super serious about it, she’s like, ‘It is. It is for good luck.’”
When I asked the informant what she thinks it means, she said, “My grandma’s very spiritual and thinks everything happens for a reason and so, like, the average person puts on their clothes the normal way that it’s supposed to be worn, so if you think you’re putting on your clothes a certain way and it turns out it’s actually backwards or inside out, well then it must mean something else. Then it must mean that there’s good luck coming to you.” When I said I had never heard of this folk belief before, the informant noted, “It’s interesting because I brought [the folk belief] up in my practice, and one of the girls said that she was taught that growing up, if she were to wear her pajamas inside out or backwards that it was gonna bring snow. And so during the winter seasons, she did that as a young girl hoping it would bring snow.”
At the end of the interview, the informant said, “And the thing is, I still do, a little part of me still believes that it’s gonna bring me good luck.”
This folk belief was interesting to me because it’s such a simple action, yet it is thought by some to make something happen, such as bring good luck or make it snow. I think it is partially performed because it is a relatively silly thing to get children to do, and it gives them a sense of control over the world. It could also serve as a way to teach them to embrace the unusual side of their personalities. When they perform this folk belief, they are doing something that goes against social norms. However, they are told this action causes good things to happen, and so the thought process behind it is reinforced.
“After hearing our friends at our Girl Scout Troop talk about the Ouija Board, your Aunt Mary and I decided to ask grandma to get us one at Christmas. Nothing happened the first time we played with it and we thought it was full of shit. It was supposed to float and guide our hands to answer questions that we asked the board. The second time we played it, it seemed to move a bit faster but I always assumed Mary was screwing with it. However, the movement perked out interest and the more time we spent with the game, the more responsive the guide became. Mary and I swore to each other that we hadn’t moved it and it went from answering yes or no questions to spelling out vulgar words and messages. Still gives me goosebumps thinking about it because we were young and didn’t know much of what this stuff meant until we asked grandma what it meant. We got freaked out and never touched it again.”
My mom grew up with two sisters, all of whom are normal and sane people. I remember my mom and aunt talking about their memories with the Ouija Board when I was little and was always freaked out about it but wanted to know more when I was presented with this folklore collection project. I could tell my mom was uneasy talking about it and didn’t want to delve into too many details. She was only around 8 when she played with it after hearing about it from friends at her Girl Scout Troop and its obvious the game scared her greatly. Talking to her further about the game, she admitted that she feels it is somehow possessed and something that could, simply put, connect you with spirits you want nothing to do with.
I’m conflicted when hearing my mom’s story. My education in high school and even more so at USC has taught me to be rather cynical when hearing unexplainable stories or entirely dismiss them, but my mom and aunt have always been believable people. They would not after all these years lie to each other about intentionally guiding the piece toward certain parts of the board which prompts me to believe that something else could have been doing so. Though I don’t consider myself highly spiritual, its a game I have never messed with based off my mom’s experiences and I have no desire to play it in the near future.
Sara is a very gossipy, religious, fun girl. Sophomore at USC, she’s in the Helene’s and a sorority. She’s from Anaheim, California. And she has an incredibly interesting memory and past.
Sara once visited New York with a friend of hers in high school. She had never ben before and was excited to explore the big famed city. When she got their her friend kept messing with her about the fact that their were alligators in the sewer. Every time they walked over a Manhattan grate on the sidewalk, or a manhole cover and the pedestrian’s crosswalk, her friend would tell her to “Watch out girl, jeez.” Sara was believing it too. It wasn’t until they went home to her friends mother when she asked “How come no one’s done anything about all the dumb alligators.” Her friends mother gave her a state and that’s when she knew she was punked. Her friend was then shamed and shunned for the next fifteen minutes.
The story of alligators stalking the sewers of in American cities, not just New York, is an urban mystery. Most people have heard the rumors about alligators in the sewers, in large part, because of Thomas Pynchon’s 1963 novel.
What would happen is, he wrote of the little pet alligators purchased as Florida souvenirs were eventually flushed down toilets. Then they grew and spread throughout all of Manhattan. Moving through the underground system, Pynchon told us, they were big, blind, albino, and fed on rats and sewage. Pynchon envisioned an “Alligator Patrol going into the depths of the sewer system, working in teams of two, with one man holding a flashlight while the other carried a twelve-gauge repeating shotgun.” As no one before him had, Thomas Pynchon wove the rumor of alligators-in-the-sewers through a work of fiction. But is it all fiction?
Anthony is a student at USC and one of my closest friends. He grew up in New York and moved to Los Angeles this year to study at USC. He comes from an Italian background.
Performance: “So I walked home – I had just bought a fresh pair of Jordan’s at the mall with my friends. They were very fresh, like $130. I was in 9th grade at the time so that was a big deal for me… a big investment. So I got them at the mall with my friends and then I took them home to show my Mom. I said Mom, I just got these new Jordan’s, they’re really sick, and she was like “ok let me see them” and then I put them on the table and was like ok check these out and she goes “DON’T PUT, THE SHOES ON THE GODDAM TABLE!” and I was like what why what the hell what the hell is going on mom. And she goes “You can’t put shoes on the table, or you’ll never get married.” And I was like what the fuck are you saying and she was like “you’re never going to get married if you put shoes on the table that’s what my grandmother always told me, so I stand by it.” And there ya go.”
Nice, so do you still not do it?
“No I do it… cuz I don’t want to get married.”
Response: This was a very interesting story because we discussed the taboo of shoes on the table in my Forms of Folklore class, but this variation of it never came up. It was agreed that if you did put shoes on the table it was either bad luck or that you would die sooner, but marriage was never mentioned. I find this variation to be interesting and confirms that boots on the table has true multiplicity and variation.
Performance: “White Lighter. Ok umm… supposedly Tupac, when he died, he had a white lighter in his pocket. So nowadays, whenever people are smoking…smoking a cigarette, smoking weed, whatever you want to be smoking, crack-fuckit- haha, umm.. if you have a white lighter and you’re using that to smoke whatever you’re smoking it’s supposedly like really bad luck. Especially if you’re young and smoking, if you smoke with a white lighter everybody starts freaking out, and it’s supposedly VERY bad luck to be smoking with a white lighter. Ever since Tupac died with a white lighter in his pocket it’s become a big no-no to do that. It’s just bad luck. Nobody buys white lighters.”
Response: I had heard of this superstition but had never heard it’s origin. My other friend Anthony was in the room while Tanner told the story, and he confirmed that he had heard of the superstition but had never heard the Tupac portion. This is interesting as Tupac was a sort of icon for smoking weed and his death has lingering effects on the traditions and superstitions of those who partake in the activity.
Anthony is a student at USC and one of my closest friends. He grew up in New York and moved to Los Angeles this year to study at USC. He comes from an Italian background.
“Left is law is a phrase you say when smoking. If you are sitting in a group of people smoking, hookah or whatever, you have to pass to the left always, counterclockwise, never to the right. Left is law. If you ever try to pass to the right everybody freaks out and reprimands you for it. It’s like a ritual type thing. If you ever pass to the right then it’s all fucked. The whole time is ruined, and it’s all shit. You always pass to the left.”
Response: This is a sort of ritual/magic folklore that revolves around smoking. I’ve never come across the folklore before, but my friend Anthony was adamant about it’s importance and relevance. He was shocked that I had not heard of it before. Perhaps it just exists in order to create a “go to” or “status quo” for a situation that is often variable. There also seems to be an expectation of having a good time tied to following the ritual, and a poor time associated with breaking it.