USC Digital Folklore Archives / Posts Tagged ‘bad luck’
Folk Beliefs

Don’t Bring Pork on the Pali Highway

“In Hawaii, there’s a big stigma about the Pali Highway. You’re not supposed to carry pork on it from the windward side to the leeward side because it has to do it the belief in the Hawaiian gods The windward side, [my sister] said it was the Kamapua’a, which is the pig god, and then the leeward side is the embodiment of his ex-girlfriend, which is Pele, which is the goddess of fire. If you if you bring poured across the Pali Highway from windward to leeward, you’ll get cursed with bad luck. You’re supposed to bring tea leaves to protect yourself, and that’s why you don’t drive with pork.”

Background Information and Context:

“[I learned about the superstition] through one of my teachers, my Modern History of Hawaii teacher, I believe, because he used to tell different stories and things, so use telling the history of the island and about how we have a really like big mixed culture but also, like, indigenous Hawaiian cultures. So, I would modern Hawaiian culture, at least, is like an amalgamation of a bunch of different things that are mixed into [indigenous Hawaiian culture]. So, different superstitions, too. All of the older aunties and uncles, especially native Hawaiian and aunties and uncles, will be steadfast about superstitions, but I have never met anyone who like really really strict about this one. Still, even if they’re not really really strict about it, like they don’t super believe in it, they won’t do it anyway because it’s just one of those superstition things that you just don’t do.”

Collector’s Notes:

What I find most interesting about this superstition is that, although the informant has never met anyone who truly claimed belief in the superstition, she considers it something you “just don’t do.” This shows the power of cultural expectations and explains why superstitions are so resilient to fading. Moreover, I find the informant’s knowledge of and education about Hawaiian history and culture intriguing because she was neither born in Hawaii nor is she of indigenous Hawaiian descent, showing that the adoption of local traditions does not have to occur from a young age.

Folk Beliefs

House Hunting Superstitions

“There’s two [superstitions] that my parents told me they look for when they’re house shopping. The front and the back doors of a house can’t align or else money will come in through the front door and just leave out the back (she loudly laughs as she finishes her sentence). When I asked my dad about this, he was like, ‘I don’t know why,’ and I asked my mom and she said, ‘whatever comes in through the front door will leave out the back door,’ and I was just like, ‘ok, mom.’ Also, the stairs can’t lead directly out the door because it’ll fall out the door, like your possessions, or your fortune, or your good luck. I think my parents believe in this because, when we were younger and were going house shopping, if the stairs were even remotely near the front door, my mom refused to look at the rest of the house. I guess these just superstitions or old wives’ tales that get passed down from your parents.”

Background Information and Context:

This is a superstition that was relevant to the informant’s parents while shopping for real estate. She believes that the superstition most likely came from Vietnam, from which her parents immigrated.

Collector’s Notes:

Growing up in a Vietnamese family, I, too, was exposed to many strange and illogical superstitions, usually from my grandmother. I am all too familiar with asking for an explanation of why something is good or bad luck and getting a reply that doesn’t clarify much, as my informant recalled in the above example. I also found it interesting how she was so quick to dismiss these superstitions, while I know from previous conversations that she is usually eager to accept certain other luck-related traditions like cleaning the house for the new year. I think a large part of accepting a tradition is feeling a personal connection to it and a positive association.

Folk Beliefs

Haircuts Kill Uncles

The interviewer’s initials are denoted through the initials BD, while the informant’s responses are marked as HZ.

HZ: This involves a Mandarin wordplay, so it might not translate into English, but I think it’s funny. So there’s a saying in China, that in January—like lunar calendar January, the whole month of New Year—you can’t cut your hair.

BD: Why is that?

HZ: Because it will kill your uncle on your mother’s side. Your mother’s brother. Because in Mandarin, we differentiate your mother’s siblings and your father’s siblings.
So your mother’s brother is “舅舅” (pinyin: jiù ji), and your father’s brother is “弟弟” (pinyin: dì di). The saying goes “正 月 剃 头 思 旧” (pinyin: zhēng yuè tìtóu sī jiù) meaning that if you cut your hair in the first month of the year, your uncle is going to die. In the Qin dynasty, when the Qin government took over, they forced all the Hun people to shave their heads, and change their hairstyle. So if you look it up, the first half of the head is shaven, and there is hair only in the back half. But a lot of people who didn’t like the new government and were reminiscent of the old regime, they protested by not cutting their hair. Being nostalgic, the word for that are the last two characters in the saying, “思 旧” (pinyin: sī jiù). But it sounds very much like “死 舅” (pinyin: sǐ jiù), which means “to kill your uncle.” So people just started saying that cutting your hair will kill your uncle. A lot of people still choose to not cut their hair in the New Year’s month.

BD: Does your family believe it?

HZ: It’s obviously silly, and I don’t think it really matters. But everyone keeps saying it, and Chinese people are very superstitious. So if they really don’t need it, they will try not to cut their hair. It’s totally baseless, but people still avoid that. Old barbershops just close their businesses in the lunar new year month.



The article above discusses the same saying, as it is thought about today in modern day China. The informant is quite accurate in that many people today do not believe the idea that an uncle will die, if they cut their hair during the first month of the lunar year. But the article also introduces another saying into the mix—”a time for the dragon to raise its head.” So there’s two contrasting ideas about getting a haircut during the lunar new year month. The photo caption introduces another superstition, that “getting a haircut on the second day of the second Chinese lunar month, which falls on March 6 this year, is likely to bring good luck.”

These varying superstitions around hair cutting and luck (whether it be good or bad) are all related to how words are spoken and thought of in Mandarin, or related to numbers and numerical values. I feel that this marks the significance of attributing specificity in meaning in Chinese culture. My informant, a linguistics major, would definitely agree.

Folk Beliefs

The Baton

Main Piece: The Baton

The following was a story told to me by a friend of mine, AA, in my Anthropology lab, and I am DM. The story was about track runners who swore by a folk belief.

AA: When I was in high school, I ran track. One of the first things I learned running track was to not drop the baton. In a race, if one were drop the baton during practice, it was considered back luck. It was said that if dropped in practice, one would drop it in the actual race. The way to get rid of the bad luck after dropping in practice was to run a mile for every time dropped. So if you dropped it twice, you would need to run two miles.


The participant is eighteen years old in her first year of college at the University of Southern California. She is American. In my Anthropology lab, we were sharing folklore with one another for our final project and AA decided to share with us a belief she has as a track runner.

DM: How do you know this belief?

AA: I ran track in high school.

DM: Why did you believe dropping the baton would give you bad luck?

AA: Because it happened to me (laughs).

DM: Where did you learn this from?

AA: I learned this from my track coach.

DM: What does dropping the baton mean to you?

AA: If someone dropped the baton, we were going to lose our next race. We already knew. It was like it was a for sure thing.

Analysis/ My Thoughts:

A week’s worth of lectures, for my Anthropology class, was all about folk belief or folk superstition. We went around the class and mentioned some people’s superstitions like if you drop salt it’s bad luck or to keep from jinxing yourself you knock on wood. This is a form of folk belief/ superstition because they were convinced that dropping the baton was the only reason to lose the race. This goes to show that superstitions do not have any boundaries because it even goes into sports as well as other things. Some other superstitions in sports are like lucky shoes, lucky socks, or even lucky shorts. This baton dropping is not lucky, but it is a form of superstition.


Folk Beliefs

Paying for Pearls Superstition

Informant: The informant is Janet, a fifty-six-year-old woman from Yonkers, New York. She has lived in the Bronx and Westchester County, New York throughout her entire life. She is of Italian descent, is married, and has two children.

Context of the Performance: We sat next to each other on a couch in the living room of her house in Yonkers, New York over my spring break from college.

Original Script:

Informant: I learned that you cannot give pearls as a gift, not even anything that contains a pearl. Pearls represent tears, meaning sadness, so if you give someone something with pearls, they must give you money in compensation, even if it as little as a penny. Then, it’s like they purchased the pearls from you and did not receive them as a gift. My mother taught me this at home when I was a teenager when she gave me a piece of jewelry with pearls. She asked me for a penny.

Interviewer: Why is this piece of folklore important to you?

Informant: This piece of folklore is important to me because I don’t want tears brought into my life because I associate crying with something bad happening in my life. I also don’t want this to happen to others. I am very superstitious, so I feel better and safer following this tradition, even though none of my friends had heard of this.

Personal Thoughts: I think that this piece is interesting because I had never heard of something like this. Providing compensation for a gift is unusual, and I have never participated in anything like that. I also like this tradition because while it requires the receiver to provide money, it promotes the selflessness of the giver. The receiver must only provide a single penny, and the giver is not only giving a gift but also looking out for the the luck of the receiver.

Folk Beliefs

Good Luck Butterflies

An old woman told my friend that seeing seeing white butterflies is good luck.

Lindsey: I was working on a community service gardening project and this old woman started talking to me. She said that if a black butterfly lands on you, it means you or someone you are close to will die or get very very ill. By the same token, a white butterfly indicates good luck.

Me: Had you ever heard of this before?

Lindsey: No, but I told my mom, and she said that a white butterfly is only good luck if the first butterfly you see in a year is white.

Analysis: In many cultures and religions, butterflies can be a symbol of rebirth. At first, one is young, and then they go into a sort of hibernation, and then they break from a cocoon into a beautiful butterfly. White is an auspicious color as well, in that white often symbolizes purity, goodness, and untarnished youth. To see a white butterfly, an animal which is relatively elusive and fast-moving, is to glimpse at a special gift that feels as though only you were meant to see it.

Folk Beliefs

Three Times Japanese Superstition

Aubrey is a Japanese-American currently attending ELAC. She plans to transfer to UCSD to pursue a bachelor’s in Marine Biology because she intends to protect the marine environment with her university education. She enjoys drawing, watching anime, attending sports games with her dad, and playing with her dogs.

Original Script

If it happens twice, it happens three times. So for instance, if you drop something twice that day, the third time you drop an object it’ll be a much more valuable object such as glass or your phone.

Background Information about the Performance from the Informant

The informant first heard of this superstition from her mother one day when she was in elementary school. She had dropped her phone twice that day before her mother warned her what would happen for the third time. She was so scared of what would happen in the future that she handled her phone like a precious diamond.

Context of the Performance

I interviewed the informant in my house.

Although the Japanese believe the numbers, four and nine, are unlucky, they have superstitions where the penalty for committing a taboo action is three years of bad luck. There is also the superstition that sneezing three times means someone is talking unfavorably about you. This superstition told by the informant also calls upon the number three as a connotation for bad luck.

My Thoughts about the Performance

When I heard about this superstition, I thought the informant’s mother told her daughter about the superstition to scare her into treating her phone with care. In a broader context, this Japanese folk belief may have been created to encourage people to be more cautious about their possessions. It seems that one of the functions of folklore in most, if not all, cultures is to scare people into performing an action.

Folk Beliefs

Black Crow Superstition

LP’s (the informant) family is originally from Mexico. Apparently her entire family believes in the following idea about black crows being a bad omen, but her mother is especially superstitious about it. She’s the only one who actually goes outside to scare them away whenever she sees them. This is a superstition regarding bad luck that can come from crows around your house specifically.

“Whenever you see a black crow coming towards your house it will bring you bad luck. So my mom goes outside and will yell at the crows in Spanish and get them to go away. She scares them off because they will bring bad luck if they stay. If they actually get in your house…well…you’re done for. But if they’re in the street, you have to be respectful because it’s not your property, so you don’t scare them off. According to my mom, she was seeing a lot of crows around my house before the fire (a portion of her house caught fire about two months ago) but she was too lazy to scare all them off. So she was convinced that since she didn’t make them go away, my house was cursed and that’s why it caught fire that one day.”

I have heard about similar superstitions with crows, but more so black cats. I know birds can always represent different types of omens, and ravens are especially symbolic of death and other negative connotations. I think it’s interesting how her mom truly believed that the fire in their house, which was actually due to a power surge, was a result of not scaring away these crows.

Folk Beliefs

The Witches


My informant is 52 years old and has lived in Beverly Farms, Massachusetts for her entire life. Beverly is next to Salem and was part of the original settlement until 1668. She has remained close friends with many of the people she grew up with in town. Many of the children she grew up with still live in town as adults an have also chosen to raise their children there.


“We didn’t really tell this story a lot because…well, it’s sad, I guess…but also because I knew Cory back then and I didn’t want to…I don’t know. You knew Mrs. Smith* (gestures to me), she was like the mother of the whole town, really. She did girl scouts, all of that. We’d always play in their stream. The Smiths were descended from Rebecca Nurse, who was one of the witches who was hanged during the trials and stuff. Anyway, you remember, Mrs. Smith had two different colored eyes: one blue, one brown…it might have been kind of scary if she weren’t so nice, but everyone always said that that was one of the signs that she was a witch…or maybe it wasn’t that she was a witch, but that she was descended from one…I’m not sure, but I can’t really imagine anyone thinking she was an actual witch…anyway she had six children, and her youngest was a daughter named Lucy* who was maybe three or four when all of this happened. Lucy had her mom’s eyes: one blue, one brown. I was in high school, so maybe fifteen? It was the winter, and Mrs. Smith was inside cooking while Lucy was watching TV in the other room. She heard a loud bang and when she ran in and saw that Lucy had pulled the TV onto herself and unfortunately she passed away. The very next day the blizzard of ’78 rolled in…it was…just brutal. The worst storm I’ve ever seen. Rumor was, it happened because Lucy died. Funny thing is, when Mrs. Smith died almost forty years later, a red tide rolled in the next day…couldn’t go in the water for almost two weeks. No fishing, nothing. People…well, I don’t think anyone had too many questions after that. Tell that story to anyone who didn’t grow up in Essex County and they’ll just laugh at you but to people here…I mean, how can you not believe it even just a little?”

*To protect the privacy of the family in the story, my informant chose to change the names during her performance. I respected her choice in this transcription.


This story is interesting because it uses local history and folklore as a scapegoat for natural phenomena. The Smith’s were a direct link to the town’s heritage and their lives became a part of a greater mythology. From the tone of her story, I didn’t get the impression that the Smith’s were personally blamed for either the blizzard or the red tide; rather, the magic itself was to blame. It’s a much more holistic, “natural” magic than the powerful dark magic at the center of Salem Witch legends.

Folk Beliefs

Deadly Chopsticks

KM is a third-generation Japanese-American from Los Angeles, CA. She now lives in Pasadena, CA with her husband and 18-year-old son.

KM gave me some insight on chopstick etiquette that was passed down from her Japanese parents:

“So in Japan, when you’re eating rice with chopsticks, or really anything which chopsticks, you NEVER rest them by sticking them straight up in your food. It looks like the number 4 spelled out, and in Japanese culture 4 is a very unlucky number – it means death. If you go to Japan you’ll never find anything grouped or sold in 4s, it’s just superstition, like how in America people are scared of the number 13. Also, you never point your chopsticks at people, like if you’re talking at the dinner table. It’s rude, and a little threatening.”

My analysis:

Many cultures have different traditions surrounding food and table etiquette, and this folk belief offers insight into utensil practices many American might not be familiar with. While Asian cuisine is not absent here, it’s often transformed over time by the influence of other places, or even other Asian cultures (like common Japanese-Korean fusion). People from all over use chopsticks, but it’s important to be aware of protocol observed by those whose heritage is more authoritative.

Apparently, chopsticks stuck straight-up in rice also imitate incense sticks on the altar at a funeral, another symbol of death or bad luck. Oftentimes people avoid mixing their foodways with death imagery, compounded by the prevalence of rice in Japanese meals.

I also think it’s interesting that the subject is Japanese-American, and three generations removed at that. Seeing which customs are continued when a family emigrates shows both their cultural and individual values, or superstitions that for some reason or another “stick” in places where they’re not observed.