Information about the Informant
My informant is an undergraduate student majoring in Philosophy at the University of Southern California. He is half-Columbian and was raised in the Jehovah’s Witnesses Christian denomination. This one of three stories that his mother told him when he was a child.
“And I guess another one was, um, a kind of derived eye-in-the-back-of-your-head type thing. Where she’d [informant's mother] say that, you know, ‘If you do something behind my back you’re not supposed to, I can see it.’ And, um, I’d be like, you know, whatever. You don’t have eyes in the back of your head. But occasionally, she’d turn her head. And she was doing something. And she would turn her head back, and she says, ‘I see you,’ and I was like, ‘Oh my god. How do you…How do you know that?’ And, um, she’d say, ‘I have an eye back here that’s magic, so you can’t see it.” You know. Typical…you know, that’s what little kids say, like, ‘Oh, it’s magic, so you can’t see it.’ But I–we bought it. So, um, any time she was in the room, or even might have been in the area, we behaved because she had an eye on the back of her–a magic eye on the back of her head, so.”
Most of the stories that this informant told me were ones that his mother used to keep him well-behaved as a child. This one she seems to have used to keep her children from misbehaving when they thought her back was turned and she couldn’t see them. Although I doubt that this was hardly the intention of my informant’s mother or of the people who first came up with this story however many decades or centuries ago, the theory behind how this story would work as a way to keep children from misbehaving is one that has been discussed amongst Western philosophers such as Jeremy Bentham. The concept of the Panopticon, which operates by allowing the guards of a prison to have full view of all the prisoners, but the prisoners are unable at any time to see the guards, or even know if there are guards currently at their posts. The theory is that the prisoners, unable to tell when they are being watched, would always behave as if their actions were being monitored and self-govern in this way. This is the essential theory behind the story that my informant told me. The mother having a magical eye on the back of her head that, by virtue of being magic, my informant could not see and so would never know where it was looking or when it was open and watching, forced my informant to govern himself whenever his mother was in the room as he would never know when she could see something bad that he had done. My analysis may sound critical of the mother for using this tactic, but it is a very useful one and one that I would not be surprised to hear is employed in many households of various cultural backgrounds. A parent cannot be constantly watching her child at all times, and this allows her to have the relief of being able to be in the same room, thus available if something important does crop up, but also be able to perform other tasks rather than be required to watch her children at all times to make sure that they do not misbehave.
“What do you call a deer with no eyes?
No eye-deer [spoken like “idea” with a drawling a that ends in an r].”
The informant learned this and other jokes (most of them he claimed to be especially bad, and possibly prized for their cringe-worthiness), during band camp when he was an undergraduate, (he was introduced to many of them in his freshman year. The informant said that telling jokes is part of the ritual of band camp, partly to foster camaraderie and boost morale, and partially to evade boredom on buss trips. He said you had to tell jokes because “you can only drink so much on a bus trip.”
This particular joke holds no specific significance for the informant, but is representative of the types of jokes he remembers.
This joke, and the group of jokes of a similar type that it comes from, seems to have a universal hold on different age groups. It’s extremely similar to the types of jokes that might be told at a camp for youths. Word play is as understandable to adults as it is to children, and the frequency of the retelling of these kinds of jokes suggests that English speakers (and perhaps speakers of other languages as well) find humor in the manipulation of speech, which is such an ordinary part of life. This works with surprise to create humor.
While my informant grew up in Los Angeles, my informant’s family is from Yucatan, Mexico and he frequently goes down to visit his grandparents who live on a ranch. He heard this information when he was a child visiting his grandparents. His uncle taught him this:
“If you see a dog poop, you’ll get an infection, like a pimple, in your eye”
My informant says that it comes a lot from the community in Yucatan. He said he did not know why this particular belief existed, but he did say that his uncle liked to tease him.
This belief is playing with the obscene and gross. One disgusting thing leads to another. Dogs are common in many places in the world, so having a dog poop in front of you is not too unlikely. The idea behind the belief is that disgusting things can rub off or effect you if you witness them.
Informant: “There are more explanations to this superstition than the one I know, but the one I am aware of is that peacock feathers have all these eyes. And that you either don’t want all those eyes staring at you, or you don’t want all those extra eyes taking away your eyes as an actor. But I think there are more versions of that story. There is something that is connected to the past on that one. And that is one that, more than the others that I know of, some of the old actors take that one really seriously. And I’ve always felt that if someone involved in the production does believe in that superstition, honor the superstition and don’t use the peacock feathers in the production. But that is one that they have the right to have that superstition, because you don’t want that competition with all those eyes.”
In my research I was not able to determine the historical reasoning behind why peacock feathers are unlucky in theater. However, the idea that peacock feathers are unlucky is not unique to theater and can be found in British superstition and Greek superstition, which features the idea that the peacock feathers contain the Evil Eye. Perhaps because the theater has such a strong heritage from England and Greece, these superstitions have become integrated into theater superstitions.
My informant draws particular attention to the idea that having extra eyes on the actor is bad luck. In this logic, I don’t understand why having extra eyes on the actor would be a bad thing because you want the attention to be on the actor. But if the extra eyes are symbolic of the Evil Eye, and we are looking at the superstition in that context than the lore makes more sense to me. Having all those Evil Eyes on you is seen as bad luck in English and Greek cultures because they are thought to bring personal injury and misfortune to the person the Eye is on. When an actor is trying to perform, all their focus should be on the performance at hand. They can’t focus properly if they are worried about the ill fortune that the Evil Eye will bring to them.
The final idea is that you don’t want all those eyes to take away the audience’s attention or ‘eyes’ is also a possible theory. In theater the attention should be on the performer, and it is considered bad taste to upstage the actor through the use of a flashy set or costume. This is because it is the costume, lighting, and set designer’s job to make the actor look good, the focus should be on them. As another one of my professors at USC wisely puts it, “if the audience is looking at that little detail on the set, than there isn’t something wrong with the set, there is something wrong with the actor.” Therefore, the use of peacock feathers taking away from the attention of the actor possibly comes from the idea that they are very beautiful objects and thus distracting.
My informant was born in 1949, Connecticut. He works as a costume designer in the entertainment industry occasionally, and serves as the head of the USC costume shop in addition to being a faculty member for the USC School of Dramatic Arts. He has more than 40 years of experience in the theater.