USC Digital Folklore Archives / Posts Tagged ‘bad luck’

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!”



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.

Folk Beliefs

Il Malochio

Informant: “So, in Sicily, there’s this thing called the Evil Eye, or in Italian ‘Il Malochio’. Someone could give someone the evil eye just by like looking at you, and it’s almost like they’re sending bad… stuff to you. Like, someone would give you the evil eye, and then bad things would happen to you. It was usually older people, I remember there would be these really old men and women, like old widows wearing black, who would give you the evil eye. And it was like they would just look at you or the stuff you have, and them just looking at you would bring you bad luck. Actually, a part of this is why a lot of Sicilians, especially older Sicilians, wouldn’t talk about what they had. Like, if something good happened to you, you weren’t supposed to talk about it because that would bring the evil eye to you, or at least people who would then give you the evil eye. And there were things you could do to protect yourself from the evil eye. Like there was this hand gesture you could do to ward it off

[informant begins making a hand gesture, extending her pointer finger and pinkie, and curling her middle fingers into the palm of her hand using her thumb. The two extended fingers are pointing down, and she is gently waving her hand. It is very reminiscent of the "rock on" hand gesture, except directed downwards]

and you would make this gesture and that would ward off the evil eye. Otherwise, there were charms you could get, like necklaces or pendants in the shape of a horn called ‘Il Corno’ which could protect you from the evil eye. Otherwise you could get a golden charm in the shape of the warding hand gesture, and that would also protect you.”

Informant is a retired math teacher, and a mother of three. Her parents moved to the United States for the Italian island of Sicily, and she was born in the United States and grew up in Los Angeles. She still keeps in touch with her Sicilian relatives, and will periodically visit them.

Collector Analysis: The Evil Eye is a very widespread and popular folk belief over a variety of different nations and cultures. The idea that someone could give you bad luck just by looking at your or your belongings enviously, or even that you could bring this bad luck upon yourself just by talking about the positive things in your life, is an oddly popular one. It is also interesting that the informant specified that the evil eye tended to be associated with older individuals. It is possible that older Sicilians are more traditional and thus more connected to their superstitious beliefs, and thus are more likely to either be concerned with warding off the evil eye or maliciously give the evil eye to someone.

Two charms capable of warding off ‘Il Malochio’. The charm on the left is called ‘Il Corno’. The hand shaped charm on the right is the same hand gesture that one could use to protect themselves from the Evil Eye. Image courtesy of

Folk Beliefs

It’s Bad Luck to Walk Under a Ladder

Informant: “I’m pretty sure this game from my Grandad [J] from Boise Idaho, and he was kind of a do-it-yourself-er around his house, and we used to go to his house every year over spring break. He had a ladder propped up against the side of his house, and I was over there and I would have been really small at the time, this would have been before I was twelve. And I was running around in the park next door, and playing in their yard and so at one point I ran under the ladder propped up against the side of the house and that ended up being a whole lecture. I remember I felt like I got in a whole lot of trouble, but the gist of it was that it was dangerous to do, and it was bad luck. So it’s bad luck to walk under a ladder, and you never want to walk under a ladder. So, it was less about it’s dangerous, and more about its bad luck so you never want to do that. From that point forward, I never did. I mean, I never did. Even if I would look at a situation where there was a ladder propped up against something and you know that it would be safe to walk under, there’s plenty of space, it’s not gonna be an issue, and there’s no one on the ladder, I would still always kinda go around the ladder.
Anyways, later on in life, I guess I technically violated that because I was putting Christmas lights on the house in Oregon. I was hammering the lighting clips into the roof, and I reach a point where I needed to climb down to the bottom to move the ladder, and I left my hammer hooked on the top of the ladder. I go to the bottom, and I’m moving the ladder, and I think ‘ok, I’m gonna lift it up and move it over here in a way so it’s perched against the wall the whole time. And to do that, and not have it tilt way over, I had to stand under the ladder and use both had to move it. And as soon as I lift it, the hammer falls about fifteen feet and conks me right on the head! And it hurt, like, Heck! I probably have permanent brain damage from that and I had this giant bump on my head, and all because I broke my Grandfather’s rule of never walking underneath a ladder.”

Informant is a middle aged banker who frequently travels internationally on business, and is a father of three. He identifies as ‘American’, although his mother is of Czech heritage. He grew up in Oregon and Washington and currently lives in the Midwestern United States.

Collector Analysis: For this particular superstition, it is very easy to see where it may have originated. Most likely, at some point in the past one of my informant’s ancestors had an experience similar to his own, and that stuck. At some point, the exact reasoning for it probably changed to superstition based on the fact that in many cases superstition can be stronger than a simple warning. Consider that if one tells a small child not to do something because it’s dangerous, they may still do it based on the fact that many small children seem to have an inherent belief in their own invulnerability, and might be convinced that they will be ‘careful enough’ to avoid injury. On the other had, if you tell a small child not to do something because it’s bad luck, well, bad luck is something that a small child knows that he cannot escape by simply ‘being careful’.

Folk Beliefs

“Bread and butter”

“You can’t walk, like if there are two people and there’s an inanimate object in between them, um, you go like this [demonstrates people splitting up to walk around object], you have to say, ‘bread and butter’ . . . My dad’s best friend, there’s a rumor that like he didn’t do it with his twin and when he was younger, when he was a baby his twin died. So they put, there’s like, they say that that was the reason why, they didn’t say, ‘bread and butter.’”


The informant was a 22-year-old USC student who majors in English and minors in genocide studies. Although she grew up in Santa Monica, she comes from a large Jewish family and travels to Israel twice a year to visit her older brother and other extended family there. The interview occurred when we were sitting in the new Annenberg building and started talking about superstition within her family. She said, “There’s a lot of things I have no idea why I do them, but I do them because someone might die if I didn’t do them. Like, that’s how we’re taught . . . It’s kind of a life or death situation.” The informant says she learned this practice from her father, who she thinks learned it from his best friend. She swears it is an Italian superstition, and is commonly practiced in Italy. Her roommate was sitting with us during her interview, and she commented that the informant makes her say this phrase whenever they are walking together and they are briefly separated by an object.


It was fascinating to me that such a seemingly whimsical practice and phrase could be associated with something as serious as the death of a twin. While I have no idea about the reliability or origin of the anecdote, it is suggested that the family knew about this superstition and that it is one that is particularly old and respected. Indeed, it was one of a few superstitions that the informant told me about that, when she was asked what she thought it meant, she would tell me not doing it meant sure “death.” She would then ask me why I would ever think about not doing it.


It is interesting that the informant claims this superstition has Italian origins, as it is based around English words. While they very easily could have been translated from Italian, the phrase “bread and butter” seems like a particularly English one. It is difficult to determine what exactly this superstition means or from where it came. It is easy to see how a simple action such as two people walking around a stationary object would become a source of anxiety for a particularly superstitious person. The phrase “bread and butter” represents two things that are commonly associated with one another. They are also fairly basic items that are considered staples in many western/European diets. It might reflect the trouble seen being caused by separating two things that should inherently be together, although it is difficult to say. This superstition also might have started as a sort of joke and evolved over time into something more serious for those performing it. Whatever the case, the informant certainly takes it seriously now.

Folk Beliefs
Stereotypes/Blason Populaire

Friday The 13th

Treat is a new friend of mine. We shared two classes this semester. He’s a sophomore transferring from Norwich University. He is in the same NROTC unit I’m in here at USC. He’s lived in some very interesting places like Italy and the Netherlands. They move around to such cool places because his father is in the military and that’s where his father got orders to. Treat really likes ghost stories and Mythology. It was not hard interviewing him in the least bit. He had stories I had never heard of or could’ve even imagined.

Treat loves urban legends. I really like movies and documentaries about interesting and maybe even horrifying things. He put two and two together and started to chat about Friday the 13th. A great movie franchise! But where does the suspicion come from? What came first the movie or the bad luck?

Treat talks about an article that looked into what happens concerning accidents on the 13th. The article compared the ratio of traffic volume to the number of automobile accidents on two different dates including Friday the 13th. Over a period of years they mapped “the relation between health, behavior, and superstition surrounding Friday 13th.” Interestingly, they found that while consistently fewer people in the region sampled chose to drive their cars on Friday the 13th, the number of hospital admissions due to accidents was higher than on the other days.

Treat says:

“Friday 13th is unlucky.”

Me: How?

Treat: Because we make it unlucky.

Analysis: Sometimes we fall into our own traps. Things happen because we make them happen. Paraskevidekatriaphobics is the disease of those afflicted with a morbid, irrational fear of Friday the 13th. It’s unwise to take solace in the results of a single scientific study though. Not all culture and society should change their habits because of one sample, especially one as weird as this. Surely these statistics have more to teach us about human physiology than the ill-fatedness of any particular date on the calendar. In the United States today. Some people refuse to go to work on Friday the 13th; some won’t dine in restaurants; many wouldn’t think of setting a wedding on that date. I know I won’t. So, how many Americans at the beginning of the 21st century actually suffer from this condition? You’d be surprised.

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.