Tag Archives: Superstition

Infant Looking at its Reflection

Main Piece

The following is transcribed from dialogue between myself, GK, and the informant, MB. 

MB: One superstition I know of and believe in is to never show a baby that is younger than 1 year old its reflection in the mirror. If you do, it supposedly brings bad luck to your kid. 

GK: Where did you hear this from?

MB: My mother told me.

Background: The informant is a 26 year old women who is currently raising a baby. She says she was told about this superstition from her mother recently, who followed the superstition as well while raising the informant. This piece of folklore is very important to the informant due to the fact that she is a mother and she will always want what’s best for her kid. 

Context: The informant and I discussed this superstition face to face

My Thoughts: In my opinion, this superstition is not true. I believe kids at that age cry when they see their reflections because they are not smart enough to know what’s going on yet. Plus babies just cry a lot in general. I also think this way because while looking online, I was not able to find anything on this superstition, which makes me wonder where it originally came from. It could be something that is just spread amongst her family. That’s what makes small forms of folklore like this interesting. They are so small, that you just wonder what event must’ve happened to spark it and thus engage its spread. The closest thing I could think of, is the “Bloody Mary” Myth, which originated in England. It makes me wonder if this lore maybe originated as its own version of Bloody Mary. It’s interesting to think of.

Solly, Meilan. “The Myth of ‘Bloody Mary’.” Smithsonian.com, Smithsonian Institution, 12 Mar. 2020, www.smithsonianmag.com/history/myth-bloody-mary-180974221/.

“Good Luck” v “Break a Leg”

Informant: So, actors are very superstitious. We don’t know why we are, but we are. It’s probably because we spend a lot of time backstage in the dark, and there’s a lot of things that could go wrong. There are things flying over our heads, there’s moving parts and moving people and it’s easy enough to forget a line as it is, let alone when something is falling on you. So, usually it’s bad luck to say “Good luck” to an actor before going onstage, so you say “Break a leg.” I think this originally originated for a couple of reasons. I’ve heard that originally you used to stomp instead of clap, so “break a leg” was like the audience appreciating whatever you did. As well as the legs on the side of the stage – to enter you have to physically break through them, so it was like “have a good entrance…”? And I think there was one more, along the lines of – I don’t know. Every actor you’ll talk to will have a different answer of why we have these rules, which is confusing as to why we have them at all then. But it’s something you start to think about as you’re getting ready, because if someone says “good luck,” you know how the show’s gonna go… I don’t know if that’s because we psych ourselves out or whatever.

Background: 
My informant is a 20-year-old college student, majoring in theatre, who recently returned from a study-abroad semester in London, England. She’s been doing theatre for twelve years now in various parts of the country, so she’s heard many versions of theatre legends, tales, superstitions, and other pieces of theatre folklore.

Thoughts:
I personally don’t believe in this particular theatre superstition. I’ve never had an experience where saying “good luck” actually resulted in bad luck onstage. I’ve found that many people seem to forget it happened if it’s said backstage, whereas no one forgets if you say Macbeth, which is one of the other biggest theatre legends. Out of respect for tradition and those who do believe in this superstition, I try to avoid saying it.

Hair in a Bird’s Nest

Main piece:

(The following is transcribed from a conversation between the informant and interviewer.)

Informant: So my – so my grandmother, on my moms side… was a…. Old German lady. She had German – half German, but anyway. She was staunch Catholic but, my mom would tell me this story that, you know, she would never – she yelled at her once because she was cleaning out her brush and she was gonna throw it out like the window of the car. She told – cleaning out – gonna throw her hair out the window, that is, not the brush. And she said you know, you never – never throw your hair away, you gotta burn it, like if you clean out your brush or anything like that, because if you throw it away and a bird gets it, puts it in their nest, build their nest with it you’ll have headaches for the rest of you life.

Interviewer: Do you know why?

Informant: Nope. Just something to do with the birds and bad luck, I guess.

Interviewer: And did your mom enforce this on you, or like, tell it as a joke?

Informant: No, no! My mom told me the same story, so…

Interviewer: Wait so you did have to follow it.

Informant: No, she just-

Interviewer: Oh. So for your grandma it was a belief but for your mom it was just a saying.

Informant: Yeah, yep.

Background: My informant was raised by a very religious but not too strict Catholic family. They were not very wealthy growing up, and he has heard a great deal of sayings like these growing up in a rural area on a farm.

Context: This piece of folklore was collected when I asked the informant to tell me about the stories and sayings they remembered from their mother. The informant is my father, and he is a very outspoken person so the setting was relaxed.

Thoughts: I enjoy collecting pieces of folklore that reveal contradictory aspects of a person. That a staunchly religious person would believe and enforce a superstition – a bit of magic – in this way is funny to me. The concept of this is directly tied to contagious magic, and it even evokes classic cliches of voodoo. It is a good example of the nature of belief being flexible and form fitting.

Five Petal Lilac

Context:

The informant is my father. He is a 55-year old white male and spent the first 26 years of his life in the Soviet Union (Moscow). He, like many others in the USSR was raised as an atheist, and his whole family (including himself) has a background in the sciences; therefore he is a very logical, analytical individual. 

The following conversation took place as a part of a larger conversation about Russian folklore during a road trip from Southern Utah to Las Vegas.

Transcribed and translated from an interview held in Russian

“A silly superstition that was common among students – though it was mostly my family, my mother, that did it often, kind of as a joke but kind of not – was that you take lilac – a flower with four petals and on rare occasion you find one with five petals- and it was considered that if you find a lilac with five petals right before an exam then you’ll perform well.”

Analysis:

This was the only piece of folklore my Dad could think of when asked about folklore surrounding school or university superstitions or legends. While I’m sure there was more that he couldn’t remember, he pointed out that because he was surrounded by young, non-superstitious people studying subjects in the STEM field, it may also just be the case that there was less folklore to spread because of the logical, evidence-based nature of the scientific field.

“Quiet” Superstition in Healthcare

Main Piece:

Here is a transcription of my (CB) interview with my informant (PB).

PB: “I work in the healthcare field, and nobody is allowed anywhere in the hospital to say the word ‘quiet’. Because if you say the word quiet, then all you know what will break loose and your quiet moment will turn into chaos. And its in every hospital everywhere in the country, I don’t know about in the world. And if anyone is heard saying the word quiet, they are admonished by everyone around them. And usually we just say ‘you can’t say the q-word!’ And instead we would just say, you know, ‘it’s very calm’, or ‘I like the way things are going right now’. But if you use the word quiet you have broken the cardinal rule.”

CB: “So, why do you think its important that people believe in this?”

PB: “Um, I think that when you work in field such as the medical field where a lot of times things are just not in your control even though you want them to be, you know, you just want to make people better, and you want to have a workload that is manageable, and some sense that there is something that you are controlling. And so by not using that word, you have the idea that you are not bringing on the chaos.”

CB: “What does the quiet superstition mean to you?”

PB: “Uh, to me it means, it’s sorta a part of a brotherhood or sisterhood from being a part of that community in a hospital. It’s something that you all believe in and you all can joke about but its also something like I don’t want your night to get worse and i don’t want my day to get worse, and so we can all do this one sort of silly thing to try and help each other.”

Background:

My informant has worked as a respiratory therapist for about 8 years. This position requires that she work with every part of the medical personnel and with every department. She has also worked in about 4 hospitals in the Northern California area. Because of this, she has become very integrated into the overarching healthcare culture surrounding her work.

Context:
I interviewed my informant in person. We were in my bedroom on my bed, and the conversation was very comfortable and casual. I had heard many stories from her work beforehand.
Thoughts:
When my informant first told me about the quiet superstition, I was really intrigued because healthcare workers are so heavily associated with clinical scientific thinking. However, there are many holes in science. As we have it now, it cannot predict everything, and it certainly can’t predict what will or won’t be a crazy night. In the face of this uncertainty, healthcare workers have begun to believe in this superstition in order to regain a sense of agency. I think that this bad luck superstition is particularly interesting because there is no way to undo it. Once the bad luck has been brought, the entire hospital will be affected until the next shift. I was also really intrigued about how following the superstition was seen as a sign of respect. My informant seemed to acknowledge that the superstition was likely untrue in the moment, but I wouldn’t be surprised if she became a wholehearted believer once she entered the hospital setting.

For more variations of healthcare superstitions see SSMHealth’s blog post “10 ER superstitions for a full moon Friday the 13th”. https://www.ssmhealth.com/blogs/ssm-health-matters/september-2019/10-er-superstitions-for-a-full-moon-friday-the-13

Healthcare Full Moon Friday

Main Piece:

Here is a transcription of my (CB) interview with my informant (PB).

CB: “So tell me about the full moon friday night”

PB: “Well everyone in the hospital knows that on a full moon friday night, not only is the emergency room going to be crazy busy, but it’s going to be very bizarre, odd, and horrific things that you haven’t seen before. Somebody’s gonna come in with a severed foot, or you know, something really disturbing that you haven’t seen before, that because of the full moon and the full moon being out on a friday night where they are just more risk takers. So yeah, its also in the rest of the hospital. If you’re working in the ICU someone is probably gonna code, or go into cardiac arrest. Someone on the floor is gonna have something bizarre happening. More people are gonna have sort of crazy behaviors, the dememnted people are going to have more severe delusions or hallucinations that haven’t had any other time they’ve been there. It’s just that you believe on a full moon friday night that its just going to be a crazy night.”

CB: “Why do you think people believe that?”

PB: “Um, I think they believe that because one, there is some science behind the full moon having an effect on human behavior, uh, but also because when the night is just going very crazy you have to have an explanation. And we are the type of people, in the healthcare world, where we want to just explain everything. So we’re gonna say well, its a full moon and that’s why this is happening.”

CB: “What does the superstition mean to you?”

PB: “To me, it means that we can explain things we can’t explain, and accept things that are out of our control. You know that the full moon happens once a month, and once a month you’re just gonna have that crazy shift. And it’s a way of giving reason to what can’t have reason.”

Background:

My informant has worked as a respiratory therapist for about 8 years. This position requires that she work with every part of the medical personnel and with every department. She has also worked in about 4 hospitals in the Northern California area. Because of this, she has become very integrated into the overarching healthcare culture surrounding her work. Despite the focus on the scientific, the healthcare field has many superstitions. They often help give the healthcare workers a sense of agency and meaning over the situations they find themselves in.

Context:
I interviewed my informant in person. We were in my bedroom on my bed, and the conversation was very comfortable and casual. I had heard many stories from her work beforehand.

Thoughts:

Within healthcare, the professionals are constantly faced with unpredictable factors. They face all sorts of horrible situations while seeing people in some of the worst circumstances of their lives. These situations make human behaviors even less predictable than they usually are. With the start of every shift, healthcare workers have to accept a lot of uncertainty, and be open to facing difficult and potentially traumatic events. Because of this, a culture of trying to predict the unpredictable has arisen and led to the development of many healthcare superstitions. By labeling and accepting one night out of the month as a horrible, crazy shift healthcare workers are able to regain the ability to prepare for the unpredictable. It also allows for an explanation as to why patients they might normally like are behaving erratically, or out of character. The superstition also bonds the community as a whole. They are able to prepare for their crazy night as though they are going into battle. They might see something disturbing, but they will do it together, and they will come out the otherside having helped people.

For more variations of healthcare superstitions see SSMHealth’s blog post “10 ER superstitions for a full moon Friday the 13th”. https://www.ssmhealth.com/blogs/ssm-health-matters/september-2019/10-er-superstitions-for-a-full-moon-friday-the-13

Theater Ghost Spotlight Ritual

Here is a transcription of my (CB) interview with my informant (AH).

CB: “Can you tell me about that ritual for theater ghosts?”

AH: “Uh so have you ever heard of the ghost light?”

CB: “No”

AH: “So its tradition in theater that when you shut down at the end of the night that you leave a single light, its gotta have leads on it traditionally, and it even goes back to shakespearean times, you know they would leave a candle out or a lantern out so that the ghosts wouldn’t burn down the stage, but then, you know, sometimes the candle would burn down the stage.  But you leave a light out in the middle of the stage, and so the rest of the theater is completely black except for that light in the middle of the stage. And so the tradition is that you leave a spotlight out in the middle of the stage so that ghosts of theater past are able to perform for their audience.” 

CB: “That’s really interesting. Where did you first hear about that?”

AH: “I heard about it in theater at my high school. My theater technician teacher taught us that one”

CB: “And so, why do you think that people share it?”

AH: “It’s a very important tradition. Rumor has it that if you don’t leave a light out, its bad luck and your theater will be doomed to never have a successful show again.”

CB: “What does the ritual mean to you?”

AH: “Um, it’s more just something that I do because it was something that I was taught to do and less because it means anything to me. I think that it’s important to the theater community as a whole to put the ghost light out. It’s a superstition, and it kinda calms a certain type of feeling. And I find, but I’m not this way, but theater people in general tend to be more superstitious than your average individual.” 

Background:

My informant has spent many years actively involved in theater programs, and attended a high school with a very active program. There are tons of stories of theater ghosts, and the tradition can be seen going back to ancient times. With the stories come different rituals to appease the ghosts and protect their theaters. My informant has shared with me varying different stories about theater ghosts which she believed in to different degrees. She expressed that she didn’t completely believe in this ritual, but that she often partook in it out of respect for the community and the sentiments associated with it.

Context:

My informant called me with stories prepared after hearing that I had been interviewing other members of our family for folklore. We had a fun and casual conversation, exchanging versions of stories that we had heard growing up.

Thoughts:

I believe that many people within the theater community are attracted to superstitions because success in the arts can be very unpredictable. By working to appease the ghosts and performing traditional rituals, the theater community is able to reclaim a sense of agency over their success. The ritual also provides a scapegoat in case that a show doesn’t go well. The members would be able to avoid criticism of their personal performance, and instead blame a ghost. Theater is an incredibly old profession, and because of that traditions that have died out elsewhere are still passed down within theater communities. My informant cited the ritual as going back as far as Shakespearan times. I believe the ritual was likely a part of a larger theme of beliefs in ghosts, hauntings, and traditions that can appease them that are no longer popular. 

For another variation of a ghost spotlight see Andy Wright’s article “The Story Behind the Ritual that Still Haunts Broadway” published on Atlas Obsurca. https://www.atlasobscura.com/articles/the-story-behind-the-ritual-that-still-haunts-broadway

Sweeping After A Guest

Main Body:

Informant: My grandmother never allowed us to sweep, like sweep the floor or clean the house in any way, until the person, the visitor, who left the house gets to their destination. So for example if someone is going to a different city and we know they’re going to get there by 2 o’clock, we are not allowed to sweep or clean until 2.

Interviewer: Would you check in with your departed guest to make sure or –

Informant: No, there were no phones back then so you’d just have to guess like “Oh they should be there by now. They must have reached the place. Now we can sweep.” It’s because – the thing is, when you have a dead body in the house, for example, someone died in your family, and when they take the body away for cremation, then you sweep the house after the body. So that’s why a person leaving, and you sweeping right after, that’s, in a way, implying that they’re dying or that they will die. It’s just bad luck that you don’t want to mess around with. 

Interviewer: Wait, so you said that after someone dies, you sweep the house after their body is cremated?

Informant: After their body leaves to be cremated. Think about it as a hygienic thing. There’s a body lying in the house for a certain number of hours and you have to get the body ready. And in the old days you couldn’t really preserve the body as well so they used to cremate pretty quickly so a dead body would be pretty unclean. So to sweep after a guest, you wouldn’t want to imply that they’re, you know, dead.

Background:

The informant is my mother, an Indian woman who was born and raised in northern India (Delhi) and moved to the US over two decades ago. This tradition of folklore is something that practiced back in India but doesn’t really strictly follow as much in America. It’s just something that everyone in her family did so she regards at as one of many rules of life. 

Context:

I am back home due to shelter-in-place. One night when my family was sitting in the study I asked my mom if she had any folklore samples I could add to the archive. This was one of the ones she shared with me.

Analysis:

This makes sense to me because a surprising amount of Indian traditions have to do with the idea of cleanliness and purity. And there are a great deal of Indian superstitions that have to deal with treating people as you would treat a different class of people (whether that’s literal class or living people vs dead people, etc.). So this tradition seems to be a natural amalgamation of the two. Sweeping quickly after a body is done when it’s a dead body in question as the body degrades fairly quickly after death and you want to ensure your house is clean. So sweeping quickly after a guest invites bad luck on them or implies they are unclean, so you only want to do so once they have safely made it back to their home.

Flip over the Slipper

Main Body:

Informant: This is one superstition that I always follow, I’ve followed and lived by this my whole life. And it’s – when you see a slipper, and it’s upside-down, I always have to flip it right side up. Because, in my mind, that’s really bad luck, for it to be flipped over.

Interviewer: Why? Why is that bad luck?

Informant: Because … I heard from my grandmother, and my mother, that somebody will die or some – some bad luck will happen if you keep the slipper upside-down.

Interviewer: And this is just any slipper anywhere?

Informant: Any slipper in your house, in your house. But honestly, now I’m so conditioned that it could be anywhere, any time I see a slipper that’s flipped over I have to put it back right.

Background:

The informant is my mother, an Indian woman who was born and raised in northern India (Delhi) and moved to the US over two decades ago. This sample of folklore is something that her mother and grandmother passed down to her. She doesn’t really know what to make of it, she just accepted it as fact and has been living by it her whole life.

Context:

I am back home due to shelter-in-place. One night when my family was sitting in the study I asked my mom if she had any folklore samples I could add to the archive. This was one of the ones she shared with me.

Analysis:

Growing up in an Indian household (in America), I was never told this specific superstition but I can definitely see its influence in a lot of Indian beliefs. There is a lot of emphasis in Indian (or Hindu, I’m not sure) culture in things being the “right” way and the “right” way being cleaner than the “wrong” way.

For example, if you knock over a book on the bookshelf you have to straighten it up as you don’t want it to get scuffed or dust to collect in the “wrong” areas. If you eat you eat with the right hand as that’s considered the “correct” hand (back in the day the left hand was reserved for wiping oneself after going to the bathroom). With all this in mind I can see this superstition as an extension of those beliefs. If a slipper is flipped over, it’s dirtier side is exposed. We want to put it right side up again to maximize cleanliness.

The Unlucky Number Thirteen

Main Piece

Subject: So Grandma Gordon was a very superstitious woman. She believed in many of the superstitions that have been passed along from the “Old Country” and carried forth through generations.

Interviewer: The Old Country? That would be Russia?

Subject: Yeah Russia. That’s probably ultimately where it came from. People really believed in a lot of things. Like thirteen was a really bad number. And even to this day, I still have that in my head that there is something about thirteen. So Grandma Gordon wouldn’t live in a building that had a thirteenth floor. So the building that they lived in interestingly, in Fort Lauderdale, didn’t have a thirteenth floor. It was almost a thirty story building but it didn’t have a thirteenth floor. And they built the buildings that way because they were trying to sell to people who really believed in these things that wouldn’t live in a building that had that thirteenth floor. So it went twelve… fourteen.

Context: The subject is a white middle-aged male of Ashkenazi and Eastern-European descent. He was born and raised in Tiverton, Rhode Island with his parents and two siblings. He also happens to be my father, and we are currently quarantined together at our home in Charleston, South Carolina. After dinner one night, I was sitting with him in my dimly lit living room, and I asked if he would share with me any folk beliefs he had heard passed through the family.

Interpretation: I am very familiar with superstition that the number thirteen is extremely unlucky, but I had no idea of its ties to “The Old Country.” Upon further research, I found that the number thirteen is considered unlucky across many religions and cultures. The superstition is also tied to the measure of time. Sumerians built the ancient calendar using the number twelve. There are two sets of twelve hours in a day, twelve months in a year. Because twelve was considered the perfect number, thirteen was considered unlucky. Additionally, in Christianity, it is considered unlucky because at the Last Supper, there were thirteen people sitting at the table and one of them, Judas, ended up betraying Jesus. This seemed to be the most common source of thirteen’s unluckiness. I suspect the superstition’s spread in Russia to have originated from a variety of origins. Furthermore, I found that the number thirteen is significant but not considered unlucky in some cultures. In Judaism, thirteen is the year where a young Jewish boy or girl becomes a bar or bat mitzvah. I find it so interesting that despite my being Jewish, my father, and his grandmother, the belief that thirteen is still very unlucky is ingrained in their brains.