USC Digital Folklore Archives / Posts Tagged ‘folk beliefs’
Customs
Folk Beliefs
Magic
Signs

Russian Superstitions: Black Cats and Broken Mirrors

Interview Extraction:

Informant: “Ah well, one of I think, you know international superstitious things is defiantly with the cats. But if it is here it is just bad luck. But in Russia it actually means bad luck or even maybe very horrible disease.  If the black cat crosses the street you must spit over your right shoulder three times, and then the left. So it kind of cuts the curse. Also, I know that it means a disease or death in like, your closest circle of relatives or friends if you look at the broken mirror.  So actually, even if the mirror just cracked it means that you have to pick it up and through it outside of your house without looking at that.  Because for example, in Germany broken mirror means seven years of bad luck, but in Russia it means that everything is going to extreme. It’s like disease? No! Dead people.”

Interviewer: “Why do you think people in Russia are so superstitious?”

Informant: “Well of course, all those superstitious ideas come from pagan times, you know? And Russia was influenced by so many countries because at one point we had Vikings, we had Mongols ruling the country for almost… 12 and 13th century for more than 100 years. So all those influences I would say, they created… I don’t know. Maybe people were scared? And of course in Russia the weather conditions are pretty tough too. You know, living situations was always tough. So maybe people wanted to feel more protected or find reason of like why something bad happen to them.”

Analysis:

I agree with my informant’s analysis of Russian culture and superstition.  Life in Russia has historically been very difficult, due to both political and environmental reasons.  I believe that it is a basic human desire to try to make sense of your world, especially when things seem to beyond your control.  As my informant mentioned during the interview, people want to feel safe and find the reason behind why good things and bad things happen.  Therefore people turn to superstitious beliefs to set up a system of rules to follow, which gives them the illusion that they have more control over their lives than they actually do.  I do not know why the superstition of black cats and broken mirrors appear in other cultures besides Russia.  The notion that a broken mirror is unlucky sounds logical, because broken objects have lost their use.  There is another related superstition in Russian culture that says giving someone a gift that is broken is unlucky as well.  Superstitions are a major aspect to Russian culture, and these beliefs are still present in the way people live today.

My informant was born in 1977, Moscow, Soviet Union (now Russia).  On completing her undergraduate education in Moscow, she moved to California to earn her graduate degree in theatrical design from Cal State Long Beach.  She now works as a faculty member for the USC School for Dramatic Arts.  She became a US citizen in 2012.

Annotation: The black cat superstition is also mentioned at this website, which also lists other Russian superstitions.
http://www.aerotranslate.com/russian-culture/russian-superstitions-in-everyday-life.html

 

 

Folk Beliefs
Homeopathic
Legends
Magic
Narrative

Ukrainian Legend: “You Steal My Pig, You Choke On It!”

Interview Extraction:

Informant: “My grandma who was living in Ukraine had many domestic animals. And one day one of her neighbors stole one of her pigs.  And she says, ‘Well it’s my pig. Just give it to me back.’ And he said ‘Nope. I went to the market, like farmers market during the weekend and I got it.’ And she said ‘No you didn’t. Because that is how my pig looked like.’ And the dude was refusing to give the pig back and grandma made a kind of, she just said like ‘Well, when you will eat my pig. You will choke on that.’ And that is exactly what happened like several- the dude died. And after that everybody in the village thought that my grandma was a witch, you know? Or that she had extra powers. So everybody was scared to upset grandma. And that’s actually coincidence you know, but it’s kind of… She said it with that intention you know, so like because you stole it and you are not admitting it that, and you are not giving my pig back it means my family will not have enough food for the winter. So it’s kind of you will eat it, but you will choke on it.”

Analysis:

The legend my informant mentioned reflects the strong belief in superstitions and in the supernatural people of Slavic origin have. This strong belief comes from the fact that historically life in the Slavic countries such as the Ukraine has been very difficult, due to political and environmental factors.  There is a basic human desire to try and make life’s events logical, especially when things seem to beyond your control.  As my informant mentioned perviously in the  interview where she talked about Russian superstitions, people want to feel safe and find the reason behind why good things and bad things happen.  Therefore people use superstitious beliefs to set up a system of rules to follow, which gives them the illusion that they have more control over their lives than they actually do.

My informant’s grandmother probably wasn’t cursing the man who stole her pig, she was saying that he will choke on the pig because her family might starve if they don’t have enough food for the winter, therefore the act of causing the pain of others will reflect back on him.  It is possible that when the man was eating the pig, he was thinking about the ‘curse’ that the informant’s grandmother had said and in this kind of homeopathic thinking he actually choked.  This kind of event  seemed to strange to the village people because it was such a coincidence, therefore in trying to make sense of the situation they believed that the most logical response was that my informant’s grandmother was a witch.  Not only did the woman say that he would die with such conviction, but it also came true.  This added to the legend’s believability.  Wither or not my informant’s grandmother was actually a witch depends on what you believe, but the fact that this story has endured with my informant’s family reflects a fascination with the supernatural.

My informant was born in 1977, Moscow, Soviet Union (now Russia).  On completing her undergraduate education in Moscow, she moved to California to earn her graduate degree in theatrical design from Cal State Long Beach.  She now works as a faculty member for the USC School for Dramatic Arts.  She became a US citizen in 2012.

Customs
Folk Beliefs
general
Stereotypes/Blason Populaire

Theater Occupational Stereotype: Crew Versus Cast

Interview Extraction:

Informant: “One actress friend of mine was in a play where she had to kill a canary in the second act. So for the first act they had a live canary in a cage and then at intermission the canary was supposed to be switched for a stuffed canary which was then killed during the course of the action. And one night, I don’t know what she had done to the crew but they were feeling evil and they left the live canary onstage to see what she would do. And of course she couldn’t kill the live canary, that would be mean. So she put it under a bowl in the kitchen portion of the set and left it on the drain board in the kitchen. Uh, which would have worked fine except for the rest of the act this bowl sort of went ‘THUMP! THUMP! THUMP!’ as the canary tried to get out from under the bowl.

There were also the people who, she had a quick change* that involved running out of one side of the stage, dropping her skirt, climbing out a window, running around the back of the theatre and changing various articles of clothing that were placed along the route as she went. And the last step in this quick change was to step into her shoes and pull up the full skirt that was on the ground right inside the door that she then made her next entrance from. And one night they nailed the hem of her skirt to the floor so that she couldn’t get in the door. So she played the whole rest of the scene from the doorway.”

Analysis:

My informant’s story reflects an aspect of theater culture that has been built on stories such as this and stereotypes of cast and crew members.  Cast members are those who are the performers such as actors or actresses and appear on stage.  Crew members are in charge of production side of theater such as scenic design or working as a stage hand.  There is a negative stereotype in theater that perpetuates the idea that cast members are high-maintenance and crew members are mean.  This of course is not true, and every interaction with an actor or crew member will be unique to what kind of person he or she is.  Generally these two sides of theater production work peacefully and collaboratively, as they are united with the common goal to put on a good story for the audience.  However the exchange of stories such as this help build a stereotype in each others’s mind that the other is difficult, or in this case that crew members like to play mean jokes on actresses.  This can lead to dangerous assumptions and conflict if problems in the production occur.

This is because working on a theater production can often be stressful due to time constraints or budget restraints, and people tend to look for someone else to blame the problem on, which is an unfortunate aspect of human behavior. For example when a show is having problems, it is easier to say that it is the fault of a difficult actress or crew member than to get down to the real problem.  And when someone puts the blame on a cast or crew member, the story is generally believed because in theater we have accepted these stereotypes without realizing we are generalizing people.

There are moments when these stereotypes seem to hold true, such as my informant’s story about the crew members.  In addition to that, I once worked on a television program where the musician was upset that the set was gold and not pink.  However, these occurrences are rare. But the stereotype that cast members are high-maintaince and crew members are mean is an aspect of theater culture that affects the way people interact with one another.

My informant was born in 1961, Connecticut.  He has more than 30 years of experience in theater and has worked on over hundreds of productions.  He continues to work on theater productions today, and serves as the associate professor of theater practice and technical direction at the University of Southern California. He lives in Los Angeles, CA.

*Quick change: a term used in theater to describe a point in the play’s production where the actor must quickly change his clothes backstage before emerging back onstage.  Stand hands, also known as the backstage crew, often help the actor put on their costume to insure the speed and effectiveness of the quick change.

Customs
Folk Beliefs
general
Old age
Stereotypes/Blason Populaire

Theater Occupational Stereotype: Old Actress Versus Young Actress

Interview Extraction

Informant: “And then the last story is supposedly from Tallulah Bankhead who was in a play with a fairly snippy young actress who was basically telling her that she was old and irrelevant and that the world belonged to the young. At to which Mrs. Bankhead replied: ‘Honey, I can out act you and not even be on the stage.’ And the next night, in one of the scenes there was a party scene and prior to Mrs. Bankhead’s exit she was blocked* to put down a champagne glass on an end table as she exited. And she put her glass down and she set her glass so that it was like this, slightly more than half off the table and then she made her exit. And over the course of the scene the audience became aware miraculously balancing glass on the edge of the table and everyone was wondering when it would fall, and murmurs and rustlings were going through the audience. And then at the end of the scene when the stage crew struck* the glass they discovered a little piece of toupee tape under one edge of it to keep it from falling over.”

Analysis:

My informant’s story reflects an unfortunate custom that is prevalent in Hollywood, which is that the entertainment industry discriminates against people of an older age.  An aspect of the entertainment industry is escapism, and there is a desire to create a beautiful world in their films in which the audience can escape into and forget the troubles in their lives momentarily.  In the entertainment industry’s desire to do this, there has been too much emphasis put on young beauty and the sensuality that comes with it.  Therefore in this drive to create sensuality in films, older actors often have a harder time getting casted for production roles.  This has created a stereotype that older actors are not as important as their younger colleagues.

My informant heard this story from one of his colleagues at USC.  The popularity of this story suggests that the audience of this tale is revolting against the idea that only young actors are good actors.  This change in values of the entertainment industry can be seen in the currently popularity of actress Betty White who is 90 years old.  People today do not respond as well to the idea of a sensual Hollywood than they had in the past, which is part of a shift in cultural values that rejects the notion that beauty is only skin deep.  Thus the custom of shunning older actors is an idea that is currently changing, which reflects a more accepting Hollywood when it comes to age.

My informant was born in 1961, Connecticut.  He has more than 30 years of experience in theater and has worked on over hundreds of productions.  He continues to work on theater productions today, and serves as the associate professor of theater practice and technical direction at the University of Southern California. He lives in Los Angeles, CA.

*Blocked: The past tense of a term used in theater which means that an action has been planned.  When an actor moves on stage, their actions have been rehearsed prior to the performance and planned or ‘blocked’ in rehearsal.

*Stuck: The past tense of a term used in theater which means that a prop or object is being removed from stage.  At the end of every performance or during intermission, stage hands remove or ‘strike’ props or furniture that has been left on stage in preparation for the next performance.

 

Customs
Folk Beliefs
Legends
Magic
Narrative
Protection

Theater Occupational Superstition: Macbeth (Version II)

Interview Extraction:

Interviewer: (continued from a pervious question) “So it’s considered bad luck to whistle in the theatre, right?”

Informant: “If you are whistling backstage it is considered back luck. I don’t know what you do to cure that, it’s not like ‘The Scottish Play’ where you have to go outside, twirl around three times and spit into the wind or something. I never entirely understood that one…”

Interviewer: “And that ‘cure’ changes every theatre your at, doesn’t it?”

Informant: “It seems to be, the cure for that seems to vary a lot with who ever you talk to. I don’t know where that superstition came from.”

Interviewer: “And is it true that that they think Shakespeare actually took real witchcraft and put it in his play?”

Informant: “Uh, well… I don’t know. However. In the production that Orson Welles did for The Public Theatre, supposedly he hired real voodoo witch doctors to play the witches. Hints, Voodoo Macbeth. And at the beginning of the play, the witch doctors arrived and they requisitioned a goat. Which was provided to them. And they then proceeded to go into the basement of the theatre for three days and at the end of that time they emerged with their drums to use in the production. Presumably they also requisitioned some lumber with which to make the sides of those drums, I don’t know… Anyway. When the production opened one of the New York Times critics was particularly vicious and did not like the play. And the cast and the crew were sort of moping around because they had gotten this really horrid review and the compliment of witch doctors supposedly went to Orson Welles and said ‘this man made you all so sad, is he a bad man?’ And Orson Welles supposedly said yes. And then three days later the critic got sick and died. You may draw your own conclusions from that! But yes, supposedly the theory was that voodoo was done.”

Analysis:

The Macbeth superstition is among the most common superstitions that people working in theater follow.  The legend of Macbeth is that it is bad luck to say ‘Macbeth’ in the theater.  To prevent unlucky things from happening such as the set falling over, people are encouraged to say ‘The Scottish Play’.  If you do make the mistake of saying ‘Macbeth’, you have to cut the curse by performing some kind of protection ritual.  This ritual changes based on who you talk to due to the fact that it is such widespread legend and many people have different ideas about the curse.  The first time I heard about the legend was in Boston, when I broke the rule of not saying ‘Macbeth’ in the theater, and the people I was with made me run around the theater three times to cure the curse.  The next time I heard about ‘The Scottish Play’ legend was in Los Angeles, where the cure for the curse was to spin around three times and spit over your shoulder.  It is hard to say if the cure changes based on your location because people in theater often travel for work, so the ideas on the legend would be mixed.  There are many different origin stories behind the legend of Macbeth, and the story my informant mentions is only one possibility of why people in theater are attracted to this superstition.

The production of Voodoo Macbeth was a real production that occurred in 1936 under the Federal Theater Project, and the New York Times critic that gave the production a bad review really did die three days after he published his review.  Whiter or not the cause of death was related to Voodoo Macbeth remains to be determined.  His cause of death could have been influenced by homeopathic magic, in which his anxiety over the threat of the witchdoctors caused him to die or the cause could have been from contagious magic, in which the witchdoctors actually performed a spell.  This depends on your view of witchcraft.  Or perhaps his death was unrelated to the theater production, and the timing of his passing was just a coincidence.  The fact that this really happened gives the legend more power in the imaginations of those who tell the story.

Real instances such as this are what makes ‘The Scottish Play’ superstition such a popular belief in theater culture.  Another reason why this superstition is so popular along with other theater superstitions is that believing in them is fun.  People are attracted to theater because it is about storytelling.  Therefore when people in theater participate in these kind of customs, they are doing so because it is an extension of working in an occupation that is full of play.

My informant was born in 1961, Connecticut.  He has more than 30 years of experience in theater and has worked on over hundreds of productions.  He continues to work on theater productions today, and serves as the associate professor of theater practice and technical direction at the University of Southern California. He lives in Los Angeles, CA.

Customs
Folk Beliefs
Homeopathic
Magic

Theater Occupational Superstition: Don’t Whistle in the Theater!

Interview Extraction:

Informant: “Ok, so you want to hear the story about why you don’t whistle in the theatre? One reason is that supposedly the first riggers* in the theatre were sailors. And sailors received their orders via whistles, which supposedly carried better than voices in the wind. And so you didn’t want to be backstage randomly whistling ‘Two Gentlemen from Veronia’ and have the scenery come crashing down on your head because you were whistling the cue* for the sailors who were doing the rigging.

The other supposed origin of that superstition is, in the days of gas lit theatre there were a couple of stage hands who’s job it was to wander around and relight any gas jets that had gone out because other whys you would get sort of a large pocket of unburned gas that would eventually get to another gas jet and you would have a big fireball and the theatre would blow up and… that was bad. So they were listening for a particular whistling sound that supposedly this gas jet that wasn’t lit would make and you didn’t want to distract them from their fairly important work.”

Analysis:

This superstition was not one that I was aware of prior to my informant mentioning this belief in one of his class lectures.  The belief is that it is bad luck to whistle in the theater, and doing so will doom the production you are working on.  There are no known ways to cut the curse.  The superstition of whistling in the theater is similar to the superstition that walking under a ladder is bad luck.  Both superstitions serve as a way to teach safety, because if someone were to break those beliefs they would get hurt.  Something could fall off a ladder and hit them on the head or a piece of scenery could fall on top of them.  You are more likely to get told to stop whistling in the theater because you are distracting the production crew than you are to be told to stop whistling because it is bad luck.  Working in theater can be very dangerous if you are not aware of your surroundings because crew members are constantly moving heavy equipment.  Distracting people from their job not only serves as a danger to yourself, but to others as well.  In that sense, whistling in the theater becomes homeopathic magic because it really will bring your production bad luck due to the destruction and distraction it can cause.

However it is unclear which one of the two stories is the true origin of the superstition.  There is a possibility that the true origin of the whistling superstition came from the first story my informant mentioned, because that theory is more well known to people in the theater than the gas-jet theory.

My informant was born in 1961, Connecticut.  He has more than 30 years of experience in theater and has worked on over hundreds of productions.  He continues to work on theater productions today, and serves as the associate professor of theater practice and technical direction at the University of Southern California. He lives in Los Angeles, CA.

*Riggers: is term that describes someone in charge of moving or lifting heavy objects using a pulley system.  The term comes from sailing speech, in which a rigger is someone who uses ropes to hoist the sails on a ship.  This is exactly what a rigger in theater does, but instead of hoisting sails they are hoisting scenic pieces.

*Cue: is a term used in theater that means a signal to do something.  A signal or cue indicates that it is time to move a part of the set or play a certain song for the production.

Customs
Folk Beliefs
Homeopathic
Magic
Rituals, festivals, holidays

Basketball Superstition: Rolaids and Army Socks

Interview Extraction:

Informant: “So growing up I played basketball, and my dad was a basketball coach. And basketball was the most important thing in my life. I played basketball- I was like Jack across the street, I played basketball every day. Every year, every day I would be out shooting hoops and what not. I was pretty good, I was a good shooter. But shooters are very superstitious and there was a certain amount of you get hot, and you don’t get hot, right? Where your shooting is off, so you have good nights and you have bad nights. Well, part of that is psychological.  So my dad, my dad who was the coach, he had a really nervous stomach. And so he would buy not rolls, but boxes of Rolaids. These white tablets, and he kept them in this brown cardboard box with no writing on it. So the players would notice that Coach Paul had these, so he got the idea that he would tell his players that these were shooting pills that would help you shoot the ball better. And so, it became a big joke, but he used to hand them out before the game to everyone and they were the quote “magical” pills. And everyone knew that they probably weren’t, but we all felt like it was good luck to eat one of Coach Paul’s Rolaids before the game to help our shooting. So I became very superstitious, I always had to have a Rolaid before every game. And my socks, my Pete Maravich socks. Pete Maravich was a great basketball player who died very young. His dad was also a basketball coach, and he wore these grey old army socks. And he was a great player, and he wore these baggy old army socks that he was always wiping his hands on. And uh, so I bought some and I had some baggy grey army socks and I used to wear them because Pete wore them.”

Analysis:

As an athlete, there is a tremendous pressure to do well.  While the outcome of the game is largely from the collective or individual effort of the players, there is a psychological necessity to create familiarity and order in your sport so that your mind remains calm and focused during the game.  To create a sense of peace, athletes have come up with many different rituals to perform before the event so that their mind becomes free of anxiety and focused on what they need to do.  This can be a number of things that vary on the sport or individual, such as taking time to stretch by yourself before running a race or picturing yourself doing well during the game.  This kind of homeopathic thinking is also very common in basketball.

The superstitions my informant mentioned are ones that are unique to him, though I have heard of similar rituals in my research such as basketball players having a lucky pair of shoes they always wear for a game.  The Rolaid superstition serves as two functions. One, it is a unique tradition that the Arcata High School basketball team shared during the time my informant played that created a sense of community with the players by having this ritual.  This sense of community is important with playing in a sport that relies on the collective effort of a team.  The second function is that the Rolaids are part of a homeopathic magic that helps the players get into the mind-set that they will succeed.  Having a winning attitude is an integral part of performing well in any sport.

The other superstition involving the Pete Maravich socks is also a form of homeopathic magic.  The informant believed that by wearing the same kind of socks Pete Maravich wore, he would be able to perform as well as Pete Maravich.  Thus creating the same kind of winning attitude that the Rolaid ritual gave to the players.  While my informant no longer plays on a basketball team, he has taken his sock superstition with him into his professional life.  He once mentioned to me that he has a favorite pair of socks he likes to wear for important business presentations.  In this sense he is using the ritual he learned as a basketball player to create a winning attitude in business, which is also integral to successful proposals or negotiations.

My informant was born in 1957 Arcata, California to a high school basketball coach and his wife.  After earning his undergraduate degree in engineering from the University of California, Davis, he moved to southern California to obtain his MBA in business from the University of Southern California.  He now a partner at Ernst & Young. He lives in Manhattan Beach, CA with his wife and has two children.

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