Author Archives: Theo Hallal

Superstition: a Black Cat Crosses one’s Path


“When I was younger, especially in my trading days, whenever I saw a black cat cross my path, I could not help but feel uneasy. I think it’s just something that was ingrained in me as a kid, and I didn’t get over it until I retired.”


My informant heard this from his parents as a child growing up in Cleveland, and believed in it until he retired from trading and now interprets it as a trivial superstition. 


My informant’s superstition is an example of sign superstition, as, in the belief, an observed event leads to a certain outcome, in this case a black cat crossing one’s path leads to an uncertain amount of bad luck. My informant did not mention a way of negating the event. 

My informant’s origin in 1950’s Cleveland does not appear to bear specific relevance to the superstition, as it is widely held. However, his belief, and his parents’ choice to pass down the belief, could have been given breath by the western cultural association of the color black with the occult, death, or bad luck. For example, in many cultures, people wear black to mourn the dead. Also, in European tradition, cats have been associated with witchcraft and the devil, or other forms of supernatural evil. In addition, my informant is a lifelong Catholic, which could implicate Christian views of the color black as a symbol of death, sin, and evil. These facts of the black cat, coupled with the symbol of one’s walking path as one’s path in life, could explain the underlying factors that empower the superstition. 

My informant’s post-retirement detachment from the belief could be explained by a reduction in anxiety following a stressful road to a stressful career. Without as much pressure on his shoulders, perhaps he became less prone to attempting to control his surroundings through superstition. 

Vernacular Religion: Correcting Handedness


“Yes, I was corrected from being left-handed to right-handed when I was a child. It was just something that was expected in the Southern Christian tradition back then. I remember my parents telling me that left-handedness was associated with the devil, and that it was important for me to use my right hand for everything. It wasn’t until I grew up a little bit and we moved out of the South that I realized how ridiculous it was, it was really difficult for me to write for a while, but that’s just how it was with my grandma”


My informant, who is white and from Missouri, was corrected from left-handed to right-handed by her Christian grandmother when learning to write as a child around the year 1970 in Missouri. She did not question this process when she was young, but came to view the practice as ridiculous as she aged and distanced herself from the South. 


My informant’s experience with this religion-based superstitious activity, an example of vernacular religion, suggests several possible folkloric influences. My informant was “corrected” by her Southern grandmother, which suggests influence from older ideas related to left-handedness in the area. At the time, especially in the Southern Christian tradition, the left hand was associated with sin and the right with righteousness. In addition, using the left hand was an indication of moral deviance, and as such, left-handed children of Christians were corrected to their right hand in order to negate any association with the Devil that the left hand may bring. In this way, the practice of correcting functioned as conversion superstition, negating a curse that would have been realized without this specific method of intervention. Also, the superstition’s regional and temporal restrictions are clearly displayed by my informant’s ability to distance herself from the tradition with time and distance. 

The Pig Man

Text: “I actually got told this story while I was in the cabin–this was Cabin 2. The story is before it was Cabin 2, the place was a pig pen. Some guy came to the island and he killed one of the pigs, and he like carved out the pig’s head and made a mask-like thing, and like lived on the island and killed people on the low. It sounds pretty fried, but I lived in the cabin probably when I was like 10 years old, and I was told the story in a very scary way and I was sitting in my little bet like ‘dude, fuck, like this is crazy.’ In the moment this stuff is very scary. When you’re at this camp, you don’t really have your phone, so when the counselors tell this stuff that they’ve told a million times, they tell it very well and there’s no other authority to check the story against.”

Context: My informant, NR, told me this story while we sat together and played NHL while listening to house music and eating frozen yogurt. This was a pretty ideal storytelling setting. He first heard this story as a middle-school-aged camper at a sleepaway summer camp in New Hampshire, and was scared by it at the time. He interpreted the legend as the crux of a practical joke that counselors enjoyed playing on campers. 

Analysis: I believe NR’s legend bears elements of practical joking in that it is leveraged by an ingroup, the counselors, to display the ignorance of the outgroup, the campers. The legend’s employment of elements that could potentially exist add credibility to the horror factor and play upon the ignorance of youth to frighten children. NR also emphasized the credibility of the storytellers, emphasizing that he defaulted to believing their account because he lacked a method to investigate other possibilities without his phone. The Pig Man’s employment of the mask also creates a fear factor, as anyone wearing the head of a dead pig would appear frightening, certainly in American culture where people are far removed from the slaughter of animals and death of animals in general. This legend can tell us about summer camp culture, in which authority is valued as well as respect for the surrounding land, which is often unsupervised and can be dangerous for a wandering child. In that spirit, the legend also plays a cautionary role, encouraging campers to stay vigilant in nature–the closer a camper is to being alone in nature, the more the camper will think of the Pig Man and desire a return to safety. I additionally believe that the death aspect of the legend taps into the childhood interest in death as a taboo topic. 

The Outpost

Text: “Alright so basically it was like, so my sleepaway camp was on an island in Lake Winnipesaukee, New Hampshire and it’s like an all-boys camp whatever but basically the camp is all centered around this island and it’s all kinda in this one area and there’s this path you can take through the middle, and at the end of the path is this place called ‘the outpost,’ which is basically a little hut with a bathroom, it’s got a fire pit for camping and stuff–you could spend the night there if you didn’t want to sleep in the cabin, like people did cabin nights there. And so basically only older kids really spent the night at the Outpost, but there were these things called cabin nights where you go with your cabin and basically like post up at like a little beach along the island or play hoops for a while or you could like do random shit honestly-go swimming maybe. You’d camp out with marshmallows and do all that stuff. Basically older kids who could go to the outpost started the story, and essentially it says there’s a murderer in the outpost bathroom. All these kids are out camping, and this kid asks to go to the bathroom and basically gets like stabbed and like blicked. Nobody knows where he is after a while, but the counselor lets another kid use the bathroom–other kid pulls up, gets stabbed, whatever, blicked. At this point the counselor is like ‘yo what the fuck is going on.’ So two kids blicked, blood everywhere. Someone else gets blicked, then they run back to camp super far. One of the guys who works in the office, his dad owned the camp, and he grabbed a gun and killed the guy. It’s really scary when it’s told to you as a kid around a campfire at the outpost.”

Context: My informant, NR, told me this story while we sat together and played NHL (hockey video game) while listening to house music and eating frozen yogurt. This was a pretty ideal storytelling setting. He first heard this story as a middle-school-aged camper at a sleepaway summer camp in New Hampshire, and was scared by it at the time. He emphasized the combination of his youth, the campfire setting, and the storyteller’s authority as elements that enhanced the fear factor of the legend. As explained in the text, the camp was all-boys and the legend revolved around a remote location on the property known as the outpost, at which cabins (groups of campers) would sometimes spend the night outdoors. The legend is traditional at the camp. In hindsight, NR interprets the story as a classic scare-legend, told to encourage adherence to the ‘buddy system’ and to scare younger children. 

Analysis: In my interpretation, the legend of the Outpost offers insights into summer camp and childrens’ culture, particularly through the classic campfire-horror trope. A few dynamics at play make the legend material to the young NR. For one, his youth relative to the storytellers enhances their credibility and thus the plausibility of the legend. In the days of early adolescence, age plays a major role in credibility–this legend is most popular/effective with young children, reflecting this truth. Also, NR’s unfamiliarity with the area adds to the legend’s effect. While he was a regular camper, the Outpost region was still not completely familiar to NR, which can create gaps in understanding that are prone to being filled in with horror legends such as this. In this case, his fear of the unknown, already exacerbated by the campfire setting, became manifested by the legend of a murderer who lived in the Outpost, reflecting a classic youth’s outlook on reality. On the flip side, I view this legend as a practical joke played by counselors on campers and as a cautionary tale leveraged to ensure safety. However, contrasting with many uses of practical jokes, I do not view this necessarily as a rite of passage or an initiation ritual–I believe it is more just a tradition that the camp can collectively identify with. Due to the temporary nature of the camp experience, there is no investment in seeing the children on the other side of understanding the reality of the story. 

Bloody Mary

Text: “I don’t know, I think I was like eight or something and my brothers and sisters are older than me so they would try to scare me and stuff–so my brother was like ‘oh, I dare you to do this,’ and as a kid that’s whatever. And so I went into the bathroom, and usually the whole thing is like ‘oh say Bloody Mary three times and it’ll pop up.’ I did it, nothing happened, and then I wasn’t as scared of it after that. I guess it’s just a legend.”

Context: My informant, KB, relayed this experience to me during allotted class time to share folklore. She explained that she heard the legend from her siblings when she was about eight years old, an era in which she was especially prone to being manipulated by her older siblings. It does not appear that she thought too deeply into the legend of Bloody Mary itself, but was instead more occupied with the pressure of the dare. She harbored more fear for Bloody Mary before her experience in the mirror, and walked away as less of a believer, perhaps initiating her transition from target audience to active bearer. 

Analysis: I interpret this legend of Bloody Mary as a test of courage for youth–until you work up the courage to face Bloody Mary in the mirror and find out that it is not real, you have not come of the age to actively bear the folklore and scare the next generation. Thus I view it as a rite of passage and bit of children’s folklore, passed down by older children to younger children in a practical joke format as a means of initiation (van Gennep). Within this scope, I believe my informant relayed a classic experience of youth in which she bore the burden of being a younger child in an older group and was forced to take a risk in order to obtain something the group desired, in this case knowledge. Ultimately, legends offer insights to how a certain group views the world–I see KB’s experience with this legend as an expression of her childhood, in which legends such as Bloody Mary can easily generate fear and are often forced upon the powerless or youngest in the group to explore. Her experience also connects to a child’s inexperience with the physical world, which could result in false beliefs about the feasibility of something like Bloody Mary being real. Further, paralleling Oring’s take on children’s folklore, the legend and its associated actions reflect the childhood urge to explore the forbidden, occult, or taboo, especially in rebellious sentiment. KB’s experience features this drive as well as the power dynamics of young children.