Author Archives: jswimmer

Hats On Bed

A common superstition passed down from generation to generation in my informant’s family was the danger of leaving a hat on top of a bed. If an individual were to leave a hat on his or her bed and leave the room then great bad luck would occur and the whole household would burst into outrage and anger. This happened to my informant once where he left his baseball cap on his bed after a long day of school. Nearly instantly, his mother was infuriated with him for what seemed to be no reason at all. My friend cleaned his room, took his hat off of his bed, and not even a minute later his mom came into the room with a glass of lemonade and apologized. 

The exact origin of the superstition that it’s bad luck to leave a hat on the bed is difficult to pinpoint, as variations of this belief can be found in multiple cultures with different historical backgrounds. However, one common theory suggests that this superstition is linked to the spread of illness. In the past, hats were commonly worn outdoors and could easily collect germs and dirt. Placing a hat on a bed, where people sleep, could potentially spread disease. This superstition might have practical roots in promoting cleanliness and health. Another perspective relates to the symbolic significance of the bed and the hat in various cultures. Beds are often seen as sacred spaces associated with rest, vulnerability, and intimacy. Hats, on the other hand, are seen as public garments associated with one’s social status and identity outside the home. Placing a hat on the bed could symbolically bring the outside world, with all its troubles and concerns, into a place of rest and sanctuary, thus inviting bad luck or negative energy.

Holding Breath / Closing Eyes When Going Through Tunnel

In the hometown where my informant is from, there are multiple tunnels on different roads which pass through mountain peaks. These roads are those found in the canyons to get from the hometown to the beach. To this day, whenever my informant passes through these tunnels they hold their breath and close their eyes as part of the superstition. Every passenger of the car must close their eyes and hold their breaths in order to receive good luck, where if you open your eyes or release your breath before the tunnel ends, then you will receive bad luck. The driver is the exception where they must only hold their breath, for obvious safety reasons. 

I was able to trace this superstition back to the trucking community. Within the trucking community, tunnels can symbolize the numerous challenges and uncertainties faced on the road. These might include the physical dangers of navigating large vehicles through confined spaces, the monotony of long-distance travel, or the psychological toll of isolation. The practice of holding one’s breath as one drives through a tunnel becomes a ritual of passage, a moment of solidarity with fellow drivers, and a way to assert control over the journey’s unpredictability. This act can also be seen as a form of protective magic or superstition. Taken as a small ritual performed to ensure safe passage through what might be perceived as a vulnerable or liminal space. It ties into broader human traditions of invoking luck or protection when faced with potential danger, especially in situations where one has little control.

Snape Hunting

This folklore comes from my informant’s kindergarten campout. At night while all of the kids are about to go to sleep, they must go run around and try to catch the imaginary “snapes”. These creatures only come out at night and try to trick you and get you in your tents and you must capture them first. You can spot these creatures in the shadow of the night from their distinguished red eye that comes and goes at will. In reality the eye is nothing more than the red pen light of one of the teachers. Nonetheless, the students were none the wiser and continued after imaginary shadows in the dark. 

The tradition of hunting for snapes serves as a communal activity that strengthens bonds amongst the kindergartners. Engaging in a nightly group endeavor creates a sense of unity and camaraderie among the children. The shared goal of capturing these imaginary creatures requires cooperation and communication, essential components in building a strong community spirit. This activity also allows them to engage in a form of play that blurs the lines between reality and imagination, further enhancing the group’s cohesion through shared experiences. The act of searching for snapes, particularly in the context of the nighttime setting, can symbolize the children’s confrontation with and overcoming of fears. Nighttime often represents the unknown, a time when fears and anxieties can be heightened in members of all ages. By actively participating in an imaginative game that takes place in this context, the kindergartners can confront their fears in a controlled and safe environment. The hunt for snapes, with the creatures represented only by fleeting red lights (the teachers’ pen lights), allows children to face the abstract concept of fear through a tangible action. This symbolic conquering of fears can be empowering for children, giving them a sense of bravery and accomplishment.

Punching Roof of Car While Passing Through Yellow Light

This informant recited a tradition which was very popular in my hometown. My hometown had a very dedicated car community where many members of our high school participated in driving cars precariously fast. My informant, a valid member of this community, retold a bit of driving folklore regarding one of the most dangerous obstacles in our hometown, red lights. More specifically, the changing of the yellow light from green then later to red. When driving at high speeds, it can be difficult to determine whether one can make it past the light in time or not. My informant said that sometimes the best thing to do is speed up and pass through the light, however whenever this is done you must punch the roof of the car for goodluck. This is also a way to pay tribute to the greater powers controlling the vehicle and paying homage to them for guiding the vehicle safely through traffic as well as slowing down the light from changing to red. 

Tracing the precise origins of this superstition is challenging, as it likely emerged spontaneously in multiple locations as automobiles became integral to daily life. The ritual reflects a broader human tendency to create and adhere to superstitions surrounding travel and transitions, which are moments of heightened risk and uncertainty. Similar to other travel-related superstitions, the practice likely spread through word-of-mouth and imitation, becoming a part of the collective driving culture. The yellow light in traffic signals serves as a warning, indicating that the red stop signal is imminent and that drivers should prepare to halt. However, in the fast-paced rhythm of modern life, a yellow light often prompts a decision: to speed up in an attempt to cross the intersection before the light turns red or to slow down and stop. The act of punching the roof of the car while driving through a yellow light is a ritualistic gesture that symbolically wards off bad luck or the potential negative consequences of making such split-second decisions. It can be seen as a way to ‘pay homage’ to the gods of luck and safe travel, seeking protection or blessing for the choice to proceed rather than stop.

The License Plate Game

This informant talked about a popular driving game played by many people in their hometown. This game is played by anybody in a moving vehicle and whenever you see a license plate that is not from the state you are currently driving in, then you punch someone in the shoulder. This game is “similar to punchbuggy” but due to the lack of Volkswagen Bugs around these, it is more fun and common to look out for out of state license plates. You also must say the state where that license plate is from while punching the other person. If you cannot read the license plate then you cannot punch anybody until you are sure which state it is. Anybody in the car can play this game and is open to getting punched at any time. 

This game serves as a mechanism for cultural transmission by teaching participants to pay attention to their surroundings and fostering an awareness of the geographic diversity. It is an informal yet effective way of engaging with the concept of statehood and regional identity within a larger national context. The adaptation of the game from specifically recognizing Volkswagen Beetles to identifying out-of-state license plates illustrates how folklore evolves to incorporate broader experiences of travel. At its core, the game is a form of social play that reinforces bonds between participants through shared experience and light-hearted competition. It operates under an implicit set of rules agreed upon by those playing, creating a temporary and dynamic community bound by the rules of the game. This aspect of play is crucial for social bonding, allowing individuals to negotiate relationships and hierarchies within the safety of a game context. The physical act of punching as symbolic, and performed with jest, emphasizes the physicality of these interactions. Overall this makes these interactions more memorable and fosters a sense of friendship.