USC Digital Folklore Archives / Contagious
Contagious
Folk Beliefs
Gestation, birth, and infancy
Magic
Protection

Keyn eyn-hore and Wearing Blue

According to the informant, it is traditional for young newborns to wear clothing and accessories that have the color blue on them for about the first two years of their lives. The idea is that by wearing blue, the weak and helpless infants would be protected from the evil eye, which in Yiddish is known as keyn eyn-hore. This blue protection can come in many forms, including blue clothing and blue jewelry.

The informant, Reyna Babani, is a 71-year-old Mexican Jew who lives in Mexico City. Because she grew up in such a close-knit community, Reyna considers herself an expert on Jewish culture. Although she does not remember who taught this idea to her or when it was learned, she claims that it is a staple of Yiddish culture because everyone she know participated in it. She enjoys this tradition because it helps her feel that the newborn children are safe, especially since they are at such a vulnerable stage in their lives. She also acknowledges that other colors, like red, have been known to work in the past.

What is strange about this tradition is that the color blue has been chosen out of all of the colors that humans can see. Why was blue chosen to protect these children? Why is red not used universally? What other colors are used around the world for a similar purpose? These are questions that would be quite interesting to research.

For more research on the evil eye and Judaism, look here: Brav, Aaron. “The evil eye among the Hebrews.” The Evil Eye: A Casebook 2 (1981): 44-54.

Contagious
Folk Beliefs
Life cycle
Protection

The Leper Tree

PP: There’s the Leper Tree in Malawi, we used to go there when I was younger. Well we went to the park it was in– I have to look it up, what it was called–

TK: Liwonde? I just googled it.

PP: That sounds right. It was this big tree with human skulls, skeletons in a kind of pit at the base of the roots, and we would have to look at them. If I remember right it was because one of the tribes that was living in the area had an outbreak of leprosy and they would put them in the tree, tie them up and make them stay there until they died.

TK: When was this?

PP: Honestly I think it was pretty recent, definitely in the last century. Maybe the 1930s? The worst part was they had a justification for doing it, they didn’t have the medicine or healthcare available to treat the disease and it was very contagious, so it was like this horrible quarantine where they said they were protecting the healthy people. It was for the sake of everyone else. But it was still a terrible thing to do.

THE INFORMANT: The informant is a woman who lives in America now, although she grew up in Africa and Ireland. While growing up in Africa with her family in the 1960s, because her father was a missionary doctor, they were often exposed to subpar living conditions, local legends and true stories like the one about the Leper Tree.

ANALYSIS: The Leper Tree is a very real place, not a legend, but has become part of the folklore of the country due to the gruesome nature of its existence. Visitors to the park who come for the wildlife and beautiful natural settings are often brought to the tree and asked to look down upon the skeletons of those who were trapped in it as recently as the 1950s. It is commemorated by a plaque on the trunk that says simply, “The Grave For People Who Suffered From Leprosy in the Past.” Burial and the proper disposal of bodies has always been a cultural hallmark– many cultures develop incredibly specific rituals around burial rites, which makes things like the Leper Tree stand out and be recalled even now for how barbaric and unrelated to traditional notions of respect for the dead it is.

Contagious
Folk Beliefs
Legends
Magic
Narrative
Signs

Witches in Nicaragua

Original Script: “So…basically…my mom told me that, I don’t know…that maybe back in the 1970s or 80s there was a huge earthquake in Nicaragua that like killed a ton of people because a volcano exploded. And like it had huge sinkholes…like a bunch of sinkholes in the country. So people would fall into the sinkholes and they were never found. So basically, my mom said that a bunch of witches were the cause of the Earthquake because it happened a day or two after Halloween…So my mom and a lot of people in the country think it was because of witches that came around the world and I guess like, Nicaragua is one of the most international spots for witches…like Santeria and Voodoo, and like all the dark magic kind of thing and they came around the world and all the negative energy that came with them from being there caused the earthquake. So they think that is the reason why a lot of people died. I mean witch thought it very common in Nicaragua….Like there is a story about the president’s wife, Rosario Murillo, because they think that she is a witch.

So the president has been the president for maybe like four terms, like he did two terms before, than there were other presidents, then he became the president again. I mean he changed the constitution of Nicaragua was to say that you can have unlimited terms so basically like a dictatorship…like a communist country. They say that the reason how is life is because of his wife. Because his wife has a really strong influence over him, like, she is a super intelligent woman, like she studied in Switzerland at this boarding school…and she speaks like twelve languages. And she knows a lot of people in the world, like diplomats, really powerful people. They think she is a witch, because the way the country is set up. For example, there is a Christmas tree in the middle of the capital that is there all year round and it is always lit up, and its like, its really weird. When I went there I was like what the hell. Why is there a Christmas tree in the middle of summer? And it’s even more insane during Christmas time…like everyone think she is really weird and brainwashes her husband. Like during, presidential meetings that are broadcasted she is always speaking, or speaking over him, or even cutting him off, and it is just weird because even though he is the president. In Latin America, even though woman are equal they still have that role of being submissive, so the fact that she is controlling the president that is kind of a big deal. And everyone think that she is crazy and that she casted a spell on her husband to make him do whatever she wants, so she is really the one controlling the country. And, like whenever something goes wrong she is the one that gives the public speech. I don’t know…she even dresses really weird. She looks like a witch with her dress and long skirts mismatched, and her creepy hands…and her facial structure, hollow bone cheeks, big nose, her eyes even look scary, her evil face! Like she’s a witch! Everyone is afraid of her because they think she is going to cast a spell on them!”

Background Information about the Piece by the informant: Kamilah and her mother have always been spiritual people. The belief in witches, demons, and angels is strong to Kamilah’s mother however, it is even more so in her home country—Nicaragua. While Kamilah did not particularly believe in witches as her roots from Nicaragua do, the case with Rosario Murillo, really made Kamilah a strong believer in them.

Context of the Performance: Talking about the Dictator’s wife and strange occurrences; speeches, Rosario Murillo, makes in accordance to presidency issues.

Thoughts about the piece: Interviewing Kamilah Lopez was one of my favorite interviews thus far. I had never met someone with such an interesting story about witches and them causing natural occurrences, which was very thought provoking to me. This legend is incredibly remarkable especially because it is one of the legends that made Kamilah believe in witches.

To begin with, the witches’ causing an Earthquake was a collisions of two oppositions: witches and a natural disaster (Earthquake), which fits the category of a legend perfectly: it is something that can happen in the real world (Nicaragua). Kamilah had mentioned that Nicaragua was still in an old-world type mind-set. Which is fascinating considering that the people of Nicaragua, including Kamilah’s mother, believe that the witches caused an Earthquake that killed hundreds of people. It is noteworthy, that the people of Nicaragua have an old-mind set, because it was a mind-set that came before “science” was established, thus, a natural disaster, which ended up killing hundreds of people, could be contributed to “witchcraft.” However, I wonder what could be said about the Earthquake if it had not killed as many people, but still followed days after Halloween.

Furthermore, it is also important to note that Voodoo and Santeria—which Kamilah had mentioned that the negative energy from the meeting of witches caused on Halloween the Earthquake—are, indeed, attributed to negative attributes, which these qualities mostly revolve around death. As noted by Kamilah and her mother, Nicaragua is a center ground for such witchcraft practices, thus, the people of Nicaragua attributing the deaths from the earthquake to Voodoo and Santeria is correlated with the background of the two practices and the mind-set of the people makes perfect sense. Additionally, Santeria is associated with paganism, which correlates with the Christmas tree mentioned by Kamilah that Rosario Murillo keeps all year long. Hence, the people of Nicaragua believing that Murillo is a witch, creates an eerie parallel between Murillo and Santeria. For more information on Voodoo and Santeria please see Voodoo and Afro-Caribbean Paganism by Lilith Dorsey.1

Moreover, the people of Nicaragua creating a comparison to the devastating Earthquake and Murillo being a witch is not only eerie but thought provoking. It brings into the common question of the personification of witches being attributed to the masses fearing a person—particularly a woman. Because Murillo has such influence in not only Nicaragua and over her husband, but the world because of her connections, people fear her and her capabilities. Especially because of the established quasi dictatorship in Nicaragua, people start to question what she can really do and the negative affects she can bring—for a prime example the earthquake that killed hundreds of people. Additionally, there is also the stereotype of having physical characteristics that makes one look like a witch. As Kamilah had mentioned: “and her facial structure, hollow bone cheeks, big nose, her eyes even look scary, her evil face! Like she’s a witch,” thus, the stereotypical dress and physical appearance of a witch becomes prominent in the people’s belief of why Murillo is a witch. For more information on Rosario Murillo, please see Dictator’s Handbook by Randall Wood and Carmine DeLuca.2

In conclusion, it is not so hard to see why the people of Nicaragua believe in witchcraft and why Murillo could be a possible witch. Because of the association with Santeria and Voodoo, the negative affects the country has been experiencing can all be contributed to their belief in witchcraft along with the fear of Murillo.

1 Dorsey, Lilith. Voodoo and Afro-Caribbean Paganism. New York: Citadel, 2005. Print.

2 Wood, Randall, and Carmine DeLuca. The Dictator’s Handbook. Place of Publication Not Identified: Gull Pond, 2012. Print.

Contagious
Folk Beliefs
Legends
Magic
Narrative
Protection

The Devil’s Curse in Guam

Original Script: “Okay so this is crazy…but basically my friends dad is in the marines, and he is usually based in Guam or San Diego like at the Marine base. So, she was born in San Diego and lived their the majority of her life, when her dad would be deported she would stay with her grandparents. Anyway, while in Guam, her dad would go to bars with his friends when they had some time off… Well one night they were bored…or something, so they all went to someone’s house and there was a Ouija board and they started playing with it. And they were all drunk too so that made it worse. So, they asked a couple of questions and actually did work, so they got freaked out and wanted to get rid of it and they ended up throwing it away. But the friend had gotten the board from someone that lived there. Like the Island is still an old world nation so they still have a lot of old cultural things and they believe in demons attaching themselves to a living person. A couple days later he found it under his bed and thought, ‘who the hell is playing tricks on me it must of been one of my friends or whatever.’ So he went to throw it in a dumpster far away from where he lived because it still freaked him out a little bit and so nobody could find it and put it under his bead again. However, a couple of days later he found it under his AGAIN, and he was like, “No this is bullshit,” so he burned the Ouija board because he didn’t want to mess with it anymore. A couple days later, he found it under the bed, AGAIN. It literally unburned, like how the hell does that happen? And he got so freaked out he went to priest, the priest had to keep in the church because the Ouija board was possessed and had to close the portal that created the bridge between the spirit world and the living—so spirits and demons couldn’t come into where they were living. The priest had to go to all of the people who participated in the Ouija board and had to bless where they were all living. However, I don’t know if it worked because at her house she was possessed, like I’m not friends with her anymore because she acted that way…like her family is haunted, cursed! I would never mess with a Ouija board, that stuff brings in bad shit.”

Background Information about the Piece by the informant: Kamilah and her mother have always been spiritual people. The belief in witches, demons, and angels is strong to Kamilah’s mother however, it is even more so in her home country—Nicaragua. Kamilah has always believed that spirits and demons haunt Ouija board and had repeated multiple times that she would never participate in the practice of the Ouija board in fear of letting a devil haunt her and her family.

Context of the Performance: Ouija board usage in Guam

Thoughts about the piece: As a firm believer in never using a Ouija board, I have to say this story chilled me to the core. The legend of the demons in Guam is an interesting one. In this account of a Ouija board, the unexplainable—like the board ending up under the father’s bed and the board being mysteriously unburned—becomes prominent. This legend shows the prominent cultural influence of Guam and their old-world mindset. It also shows their belief in the demons and spirits not only attaching themselves to a Ouija board but also these entities attaching themselves to the living.

However, what fascinated me the most was the extent of the curse of the Ouija board. This curse of the girl’s father, travelled over seas to San Diego, where inevitably the whole family ended up being affected. Even though Kamilah was not a first account of the story happening in Guam, she was the first account of how the curse had affected the entire family, to the extend where it terrified her so badly that she had to cut ties with them. I believe this example of the legend of the Ouija board is relative to not only the Guam culture, but also the American culture. Even though, the people of Guam were terrified of the Ouija board, for example the priest having to lock it up in the church so that he could seal it properly, it also shows how an American, Kamilah, even I, were chilled by the story of the board. Perhaps, it is because of the unknown that scares us, but the aftermath experienced by Kamilah was what led her to believe that the family was cursed. Nevertheless, I do wonder who gave the father’s friend the board, for if the people of Guam were so afraid of them, was it considered an act of revenge to give the board to someone else? Nonetheless, this story demonstrates how legends can transcend upon different cultures, affecting them the same way—instilling a feeling so powerful that it influences people—in this case the feeling was fear.

Contagious
Customs
Folk Beliefs
general

Haircut good luck rub

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.

Analysis:

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.”

Contagious
Folk Beliefs
Signs

The Door and The Stairs

Background: 

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. 

Informant: 

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.

Analysis 

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.

 

Contagious
Customs
Folk Beliefs
Magic
Protection
Signs

The Evil Eye

Background:

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.

Informant:

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.

Analysis: 

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.

 

Contagious
Digital
Game
Humor
Magic

Love By Chainmail

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!”

 

Thoughts:

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.

Contagious
Folk Beliefs
general
Magic

Wear Your Pajamas Inside Out and Backwards

“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.

Contagious
Folk Beliefs
Game
general
Magic

Ouija Board

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 hadnt 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 didnt 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.

[geolocation]