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

Bad Luck

The informant’s family comes from the Bahamas. She was born in the Bahamas and is a talented Bahamian woman. Her mother and she were extremely close and she learned a lot of the folklore that she shared with me from either her mother or from being with her mother. Eventually her family moved to Florida where they learned American cultures and were able to compare and contrast the two. 


“In the Bahamas there is a superstition about ladders. If a person is walking on the sidewalk and there is construction going on or for any other reason there is a ladder blocking the way, it is considered bad luck to walk under the ladder. The person walking should completely veer off their intended track to avoid the ladder and then continue on their intended path once they are clear from the ladder. In my culture a person will never walk under a ladder.”

I asked her were it came from and she said she wasn’t sure she just knew that it is blatantly obvious that people will not walk under a ladder. If the ladder happens to be in their way they will go around because they don’t want the bad luck that comes with it.


Superstitions play an important role in the way that people may act, what they will do, what they will say, what they will wear, or when they will do things. Usually superstitions are practiced because of good luck or bad luck and doing something one way will prevent bad luck from happening, and give you good luck. I have heard the don’t walk under a ladder, or if you see a black cat that is bad luck. To me I don’t buy into superstitions, however some cultures do. If there was even a thought in their heads that walking under a ladder would bring them bad luck why would they walk under anyways? It makes sense that they would avoid the ladder completely. Our society I would say is split between those who are superstitious and those who aren’t. I think because our society is so diverse and full of lots of culture combined that we don’t have just one culture for everyone to believe exactly the same thing and practice the same things.

Folk Beliefs

White Lighter Superstition – Musicians

My informant is a college sophomore, animator, and casual pot smoker. He sees weed as a way of bonding with peers and enhancing creativity, and while he knows quite a bit of stoner folklore by just participating in the culture, he’s not very attached to it and it doesn’t mean much to him outside of a social context.

He learned about the white lighter superstition from a friend in high school, who relayed to him this take on it.

This interview was conducted in the informant’s friend’s bedroom, with another friend of his who had a different version of the superstition.

“So what’s your version of the white lighter bad luck thing?”
“Well you see, since I’m actually pretty sure that all… all, all lighters have a white bottom, um, it’s more of a bad luck thing because peoples… people that, that yeah—“ (Stephen interrupts) “Not all of them do, bro” “Well, BIC lighters… buncha musicians that were like ‘I like white lighters!’ died when they were like 20.” “So that’s why it’s bad luck?” “Yeah, cause you don’t wanna like, die when you’re 20.” “Ok, ok, so two musicians used white lighters and they died at the same age so therefore white lighters are bad.” “Yeah! Yeah.”

This is one of two versions of the white lighter superstition I collected that day, and has more to do with celebrity culture and bad luck concerning the phenomenon of famous musicians dying young. This lends a dark twist to the superstition but distances the consequence a bit from the bearer, as opposed to the other version, which has more to do with the luck component of being caught with marijuana.


White Lighter Superstition – Police

My informant is a college student, artist and avid pot smoker. He knows a lot of “stoner tricks” as he calls them, most of which he learned from friends in high school. These and other aspects of weed culture mean a lot to him because he sees pot as a way of bonding with peers and enhancing creativity. Uniquely, as far as I have heard, he also uses it as a form of self-medication; he has ADHD and takes Ritalin, but says that it makes him feel mentally cloudy and slow, and that weed, for him, clears things up and makes him able to focus more easily. Thus, pot is an integral part of his daily life, both socially and personally.


He learned about the white lighter superstition from his freshman roommate, who was also an avid smoker.


This interview was conducted in the informant’s bedroom, with another friend of his who had a different version of the superstition.


“So the legend of the white lighter… One version I’ve heard is that it’s bad luck because normally the… ok, this is more of an omen… whatever man. So what happens is the uh, ganja smokers will tap the lighter down on the pipe to push down the ash, and that makes it like stay on the bottom of it so you use dark lighters to conceal that but like, a white lighter, sometimes the police will look at the bottom of it, and if they see ash stains then they know that you’re using it for illegal activities. Well, depending on where you are.”


This is one of two versions of the white lighter superstition I collected, and has more to do with the illegality of pot and the luck component to getting caught or not getting caught. He learned about it within the context of smoking in a college dorm, where he was more worried about getting caught with pot because the risk and consequence was higher, and I assume that’s why he remembered this superstition.

Folk Beliefs

Dokgyebi’s Club

홍두깨도깨비(Hong Du Kkye Dogyebi) – Dokgyebi’s Club

The Informant:

Born in Korea before the split, she managed to escape to South Korea during the Korean War with her husband and family. She immigrated to the U.S. and resides in New Jersey with her eldest son and her grandchildren.

 The Story:

도깨비가 자기의 홍두깨를 치고 다니면 돈이 가득하게 찬 우물하고 분수들이 땅에서 나타난데. 도개비는 머리위에 유니콘처럼 뿔이있고 마술사 같아. 사람들에게 “넌 뭘 갖고싶니?” 하면서 돌아다녀. 좋은 사람들한테만 주지 근데. 나쁜 사람이 돈 달라고하면 아니면 소원을 빌면 그 도깨비는 얼굴이 화나게 변신을하고 그 나쁜 사람에게 불행을 빌지. 도깨비는 밤에만 나타나. 어떤 귀신이라고 생각할수도있고, 하지만 무섭지는않아. 착한 귀신이지, 좋은 사람한테는.

 When the dokgyebi hits its club around wells of money springs out. It has a small horn on its head, like a unicorn. It is like a magician and can make things appear or make wishes come true. It walks around and asks people what they want. When a bad person asks a dokgyebi for money or a wish, the dokgyebi face become mad and wishes the bad person illness. When a good person asks a dokgyebi for money or a wish, it is granted. A dokgyebi only appears at night. It is a type of ghost, but it is not scary to nice people.  

The Analysis:

A dokgyebi appears randomly and only at night. It is a mystical figure, almost a cross between a ghost and a fairy. Instead of a wand it carries around a club, which signifies that it is not only nice but also can be bad. However, it is mean to only people with bad hearts or ill intentions. The meaning of the story is that one should be careful of how one lives, no matter the time and space. You never know who is watching you and so you should always try to lead a give life, inside and out.


Folk Beliefs

Mattress Tag

Information about the Informant

My informant grew up in Hacienda Heights where he went to high school, and received his bachelor’s degree from USC. He is a game designer and is currently working for a social mobile gaming company based in Westwood.


“This might be from TV, but, um, if you cut off the tag on your bed, that brings you like seven years bad luck. Have you heard that?”

Collector: “I’ve heard breaking a mirror.”

“Oh yeah, breaking a mirror. [laughs]”

Collector: “I haven’t heard take…”

“Cutting the tag. The mattress–”

Collector: “The price tag?”

“Yeah. Or, or like the…I guess it’s the carer tag. Like how to take care of it.”


I did a bit of research and found no real research conducted on this piece of folklore. There were some poorly worded comments on Yahoo! Answers and various similar sites where individual people indicated that they also thought it was bad luck to cut the tag off a mattress. But mostly what I found were sites that addressed the false belief that cutting the tag off a mattress would result in legal prosecution should the owner be found out. These sites addressed the fact that care tags used to be required on mattresses so that the customer could read the tag and know exactly what materials were used to make and stuff the mattresses. For the store owner to cut the tag off then in order to deceive his customers then was an illegal move. The warning that the government placed on the tag warning store owners not to remove the tag was worded poorly however, and left consumers consumed as to whether or not they could remove the tags after purchase. How this translated from possible legal prosecution though to bad luck, I’m not exactly sure, although it’s undeniable that being arrested could certainly be interpreted as bad luck, and the origins of this “bad luck” lost somewhere along the line for some people.


Childhood Gesture Curse


“Hahah in retrospect it sounds ridiculous — yelling ‘Whammy whammy whammy’ while wiggling our fingers. But man we took it so seriously, you didn’t just do that shit light-heartedly, that was a big deal.”

When the informant was in 2nd grade, there was a gesture children at school could perform to curse another person. It involved placing one hand over the other with palms down, interlocking the fingers, extending the arms to point at the “target”, and saying “Whammy” three times in a row. It would supposedly give that person terrible luck. It was only performed in serious cases of disliking someone, not to be taken lightly. There was no way to break the curse.



This friend of mine said he learned the gesture from his older brother, who claimed it was something passed down for many years. The curse was taken most seriously by his own friend group but not ignored by others. The nature of the “bad luck” or the curse isn’t clear, but the implications were severe. They wouldn’t do it to eachother but to people outside of their friend group. They performed it for only about a year before they stopped doing it. He claims they simply outgrew the concept of it.



“Cursing” or “hexing” other kids on the playground definitely seems like a widespread thing, especially around the age of 2nd graders. In part it seems to be a way to cope non-violently with someone you dislike, but also has a lot of tones of exclusivity associated with it. In this particular case it was performed primarily by one group (my friend and his group) but recognized by people outside of the group. Around that age, a lot more aggression crops up and kids get in fights, form exclusive groups, and deal with new confrontational issues. With schools and parents obviously trying to diminish this resulting in physical altercations or anything beyond children disagreeing with eachother, it seems fitting that kids would find indirectly harmful ways to affect someone, e.g. casting a curse that gives a target bad luck. Then, the things that happen to the person aren’t the fault of the curse-caster, but rather the curse itself.

Folk Beliefs

No Sea Voyage on Tuesdays

Informant Bio: Informant is a friend and fellow business major.  He is a sophomore at the University of Southern California Marshall School of Business.  His family is from Mexico.  He has moved around both Mexico and the U.S., spending significant time in Illinois.  He currently lives in Southern California.


Context: I was interviewing Stan about folk beliefs and traditions that he has been exposed to.  He shared with me the following folk belief common among the people in Mexico.


Item: “El martes no te cases ni te embarcues” – never embark on a voyage on a Tuesday.  If you do, your ship will sink.  Even if you don’t believe it, people still don’t “test” it.”


Informant Analysis: Not sure about why Tuesday is bad, but people in his town heed this rule.


Analysis: Although the specific day of Tuesday might be related to some distant family member or someone in the village experiencing bad sailing luck on a Tuesday, the superstition has stuck around and pervaded in the town of the informant.  Most likely, empirical evidence would show no merit to the claim, but the people in this town must subscribe to the idea that the day of the week inherently has virtues or characteristics that are associated with it.

Folk Beliefs
Folk speech

Japanese Customs of Good Luck, Bad Fortune, and Protection

I collected this from a friend who happened to be studying this for another part of a Japanese cultural festival. He learned them from his parents, who had learned it from their parents as well. To him, they originally sounded very foolish and nonsensical. However, after looking into the context of what they were based on, he said that he understood why the people acted that way. To him, words have a lot of power, especially in the Japanese language. By not being careful with what you say, then it could have truly harmful effects on other people. It is very traditional and a part of his culture, so he was glad to share it. It was collected prior to the cultural festival, but it was at nighttime. The lights were on in the room we were in, but they were dim and the air was stale because the windows were closed.

You are not supposed to clip your toenails at night. By doing so, you will be cursed by spirits so that you will not be with your parents when they die. A variant of this is that you are not supposed to clip your fingernails at night. It will have the same effect of cursing you so that you will not be able to be with your parents in the event that they die. This is because it sounds like “yo o tsumeru,” and that sounds awfully like “to cut short a life.”

You are not supposed to do anything related to the number 4, which sounds like the word for “death.” One application of this is that you are supposed to avoid sleeping in a room that has 4 somewhere in the room number. Another is that when giving gifts, you don’t want it to have 4 parts to it, or else it will bring bad luck.

You are not supposed to sleep facing north. Dead bodies are placed so that their head orients to the north. By sleeping in the same way, it invites you to die because you are now in a similar position to the dead bodies. Malicious spirits might attempt to take advantage of that.

When a funeral car passes by, you must hide your thumb. In Japan, the thumb is called the “Oya yubi,” which means “parent finger.” By not hiding your thumb, it means that your parents will be taken away by a funeral car very soon.

You are not supposed to step on the cloth border of tatami mats, because that will bring misfortune to you.

You do not stick chopsticks upright in a bowl of rice. That is symbolically done when you are offering food to the spirits of your ancestors. In particular, this tends to happen more at funerals. However, by doing that elsewhere, it is disrespectful and you are inviting ghosts into your home, which may have a catastrophic effect on your life.

You are not supposed to give potted plants to ill people at the hospital. That will curse them, because it means that they will be rooted to the hospital, extending their illness. As a result, they can be given cut flowers, but not potted plants.

After attending a funeral, you must be sprinkled with salt so as to purify the spirit of the dead that may have followed you home.

Mirrors must be covered in a home, and must not be placed in front of a window. At night, it is possible that a ghostly woman will come out of the mirror to steal your soul or to eat away at your life. By placing mirrors in front of a window, the good energy that is coming in from the sun will be reflected back out, leaving you with no good energy at all.

You are not supposed to be able to see stairs that go up to the second floor when you look through the front door. It means that good luck will fall down the stairs and will continue to stumble right out the door, leaving you behind with absolutely no good luck

By going to a shrine, it is possible to acquire charms that are blessed in specific ways, such as “getting into a good university” or “always having good friends.” They are blessed by the priests, and usually have a lasting power of 1 year before they must be renewed again.

A branch of a peach tree is known to have purification effects. Keeping one with you is said to help ward away evil spirits so that they cannot get close enough to you to harm you.

There is a game called shiritori which requires two people. The last syllable of the word the first person says has to become the first syllable of the word the second person says. The cycle continues as each person takes the previous last syllable and makes that their first. That is supposed to actually be a charm to keep away evil spirits in the night if you are walking with a friend and there is no one else there.

Sea salt is actually a very strong purifying item. Throwing it at evil spirits will make them flee from you or be exorcised.

Some of these traditions are shared with the other Asian countries, so they felt very familiar and understandable to me. They are also part of my own culture as well, which is why they have significance to me. I understand that people act this way, and I understand why. These superstitions do sound silly at times, but they also have good intent. They are warnings to ensure that a positive future can be acquired. Either that or they are ways of gaining good fortune and keeping away evil spirits.

Folk Beliefs

Biker Lore: Do not Paint Your Motorcycle Green

Informant: “Its bad luck to paint your bike green”


The informant is a female student at USC. She is from Beaumont, California and lives in a family where motorcycles are very common, “everybody in my family, especially my dad and my grandfather, are bikers.” Moreover, the informant said, “I like grew up in a garage pretty much. That’s what my dad does and my dad’s dad. My dad, he’s a welder, and he builds and rides his own bikes and he has a lot, I don’t know how many he has. He does old ones though, like the ones from the 30s and 40s, and then my grandpa was the leader of the Vagos when biker gangs were huge.”

She remembers this belief because she said “I remember when he built his 1936 Knucklehead, which is just like a really rare motorcycle. It was the first uh motorcycle that the Harley Davidson’s built out. It was like the premise of the engine that they use now in V-twins and whatnot. But um he painted it green and he was like I know you are not supposed to do this but I’m going to do it anyways. He like acknowledged that you are not supposed to do that, and if you pay attention most motorcycles aren’t green unless there’s like a yuppie riding it.” The informant is not sure why painting a motorcycle green is bad luck, but “among bikers that is just something you don’t do.”

To answer this question, I conducted research on several sites and people responded that “legend has it that the Harleys used in World War II were painted an olive color. The story goes that the bikes with this color were targets for snipers on the front as they were generally carrying important dissipates for the U.S. and others high command. Since then, it eventually translated into modern folklore and is now bad luck to ride a green painted bike.” There also seems to be a strong superstition in the race car industry that cars painted green are bad luck. Apparently, no one who ever drove a green painted car won until Jim Clark with his British Green race cars.

While looking online, I found that a popular race motorbike called the Kawisaki is painted a bright green. There is a legend circulating that the curse (of painting a motorcycle green) is the very reason that the Kawisaki race bikes were painted green. The engineers wanted to prove that their designs were superior to any possible curse, and they chose lime green, since it was the most green in their opinion.

Clearly, this belief is not central to where the informant lives and many people have heard of this belief to the point that new legends are circulating that a major motorcycle racing company chose to paint their motorcycles green to disprove the curse.

Folk Beliefs

Chinese Eye Twitching Superstition

Interview Extraction:

Informant: “There’s a belief that if your left eye is twitching, then that’s good, like good luck, and if your right eye is twitching, then that’s bad. I think in other cultures, like in India, it depends if you’re a boy or a girl, like for guys, if your left eye twitches, then its good, and if you’re a girl and your right eye twitches, then that’s good, but in China, it’s just the left eye that brings good luck if it twitches, and it doesn’t matter if you’re a girl or boy. I think it’s because the word for ‘money’ is similar to the word for ‘left’ in Chinese, and the word for ‘disaster’ is similar to the word for ‘right.’”

Me: “Do you believe in it?”

Informant: “Me? No, I don’t. It’s just a saying. I mean, when my eye twitches, I think about it, but I don’t worry if the wrong eye twitches.

Me: When did you hear about it?

Informant: “In middle school I think. I just hear it from around I guess, and when I was older I got what it means, but when I was younger I just sort of heard it, you know? I still don’t really believe it though.


There are indeed many different superstitions regarding eye twitching around the world, and they come with different explanations or remedies, depending on what each culture believes. Eye twitching is a natural and common enough phenomenon, and yet it can be unusual enough to merit its own series of legends and superstitions, just as other bodily functions can be used ways to predict fortune or events. The eye itself is, of course, universally an important symbol, so there would presumably be much folklore surrounding every aspect of it, from twitching to shape to color. My informant was correct about Indian culture centering the auspiciousness of eye twitching around gender. In Africa, some people have different predictions of good and bad luck depending on which part of your eye twitches, while in Hawaii, eye twitching can foretell the coming of a stranger.

I found it interesting that in Chinese culture, the good and bad luck are designated based on their proximity to fortunate or unfortunate words, thus emphasizing the importance of language and word significance. This is similar to the number four being a very unlucky number in Chinese culture, again because the word for “four” is homogonous with the word for “death.”

Perhaps because my informant speaks other languages besides Chinese, the value and significance of each word in her native tongue are somewhat decreased. Therefore, although she consciously thinks about the superstition every time her eye twitches, she doesn’t necessarily feel either elated or frightened, depending on her luck. Additionally, my informant doesn’t live inChinaanymore either, so she wouldn’t be surrounded by people who believe the superstition, and this could also lessen her own belief.