Tag Archives: burning

White Sage Smudging – Shelby S

• (co-opted) Indigenous American practice

Whenever Shelby moves into a new place, permanently or just for a short period of time, as well as after an occurrence thats makes her feel her space has been “dirtied” with negative events or emotions, she “smudges” by burning white sage with the window(s) and door(s) open to “release” the negativity.

This is a ritual among Indigenous Americans on the West Coast, where Shelby grew up (she is Black), which is performed to remove harmful spirits, forces, and “energy” from a structure, place, or person. As she’s gotten older, learned about the endangerment of white sage due to the spirituality industry’s overharvesting, as well as the general problems with appropriating Native American religious traditions, Shelby put effort into developing a sustainable and thoughtful relationship with white sage smudging and other practices only known to her because of the Indian-mania of American culture during the mid-late 20th century in which she was raised. 

She also burns other leaves and barks, such as cedar, that are used for smudging in places like West Africa. She says various affirmations, sometimes out loud and sometimes in her head, that call in protective spirits and forces while expelling harmful ones. The change in smell alone makes the space/person/object feel anew, and bugs tend to not be fans of aromatic smoke, illuminating potential origins of the belief in the “cleansing” powers of white sage, and smudging in general. 



A: informant

B: Interviewer

A: It’s this festival question mark. Called Qingming. It’s the date where the dead will supposedly return from, supposedly come back to life and yeah, I don’t remember the story associated with it. But I do know that this day every year, most Chinese people visit their deceased people, deceased family or friends’ grave and then bring them food and stuff.

B: Do you remember the date of this festival?

A: If I search I can find it *laughter*

B: Do you know what kinds of food people would bring?

A: People bring all kinds of food. Something special I guess question mark. We have something it’s called hell’s—not hell but like, there isn’t a concept of hell or heaven but there is a place where people go to when they die and Chinese people will believe that is where reincarnation occurs. Um what we do on Qingming is that we burn money to them and we also burn other paper products like we burn a paper car, a paper house. And supposedly anything that’s burned by smoke should be received by them. And so we also it’s not particularly related to Qingming. People do that on Qingming, but it’s not just Qingming, it’s anytime for their dead family friends. It’s called, they do, it’s like some kind of intense. It’s sort of similar to what you would see in a budest temple. I’m not sure if you’ve seen one before. People like to burn three of them for dead people. It’s said that two is for alive and three is for dead and then sometimes people do one. Anyway, it’s singular and people just use the smoke to convey their thoughts, feelings, and emotions to people it’s believed that anything that burns can be transferred.

Context: The informant was born and grew up in China before moving to the United States to attend High School. The informant grew up always away of Qingming, but has not partaken in the tradition as of yet.

Analysis: Qingming is also known as Tomb Sweeping Day. It is celebrated in China and several other countries in South East Asia. It is celebrated around April 5th as the spring time is supposed to be a time for people to enjoy the outside and take care of their deceased loved ones’ graves. Burning paper makes the paper disappear similar to how a deceased person disappears from their body when they die. Furthermore, fire and smoke climb upward away from human existence and therefore mirrors the deceased’s journey. Therefore the offerings are following a similar path to the person they are supposed to reach. The informant is unsure as to the reasoning behind the purpose of burning three incenses as opposed to two.   

Burning Down the House

Main Performance:

There’s a theater in Downtown Chicago called the James M. Nederlander Theater, back then known as the Iroquois Theater, which apparently burnt down once in 1903 with around 2000 people inside where at least 600 patrons ended up dead. The panic caused mass hysteria, the crowds of people tried to force doors that opened inwards, meaning that a wild crowd could not properly open them. Many other doors were locked by foreign locks, exits were not properly labeled, and the upper floor patrons as they were locked in as VIP 2nd floor rooms were locked from the outside as to keep the 2nd floor exclusive and not have anyone sneak in after the shows sold out. While many burned to death, others stuck on the 2nd floor threw their bodies out the windows, barely managing to cushion their falls from the bodies of those who fell before. The back alley served as a temporary morgue, accounts saying that bodies were stacked 6 feet high, and the area trapped the spirits of the dead to wander in and out of the back of the theater. Countless remarks about the inexplicable amount of noises, moving objects, and sightings of ghost inside and outside the theater and around the alley have been reported. The area is known as the Coach Place, Death Alley.


The informant, NC, is a friend from my highschool days who I bonded with over videogames and appreciation for animated shows who I still keep in daily contact with today. NC is particularly religious but loves to partake in the knock on wood superstition.


Because he was living separate from his family, NC did not necessarily have too many folklore or tradition to share and instead asked one of his friends if she had any interesting tidbits to share.

My Thoughts:

Reading up on the story some more revealed to me that there has not been a formal memorial marking the location of the incident, which might be the entire reason that these tortured souls have not been able to move on from their suffering in the first place. Much like how desecrated grave sites are the classic grounds on which angered spirits haunt those who disturbed their rest, this story feels as if these spirits haven’t been at peace at all. More than a ghost story, the entire thing reads like a historical account on how fire safety protocols were implemented because something horrific had to happen at least once for these things to be taken seriously. An infrastructure problem with the theater itself most likely led to many basic amenities and fire safety procedures we take for granted today. It seems strange that this particular location hasn’t been taken by the city’s government to be made into a tourist zone, one of the few examples of how things are left as they are and the story is allowed to speak for itself.

Guy Fawkes’ Day

Informant was a 19 year old female who was born in England and currently lives in Los Angeles. She lives in my hall, and I interviewed her.

Informant: So in 1605, this dude called Guy Fawkes was arrested trying to blow up the house of parliament in London, and it was likeI’m pretty sure the king and all of the important people were there, and he was trying to kill them, but he got caught and that was on the 5th of November. So every year, on the 5th of November, like schools and families and like clubs and stuff in England make a huge bonfire, and then they make like a doll, like a human sized figure of Guy Fawkes, and then they burn him on the bonfire, and there’s like fireworks and like a barbecue and stuff, every year.

Collector: So you celebrate him or him not blowing up the parliament?

Informant: Well, we burn him every year, so we definitely don’t celebrate him. It’s like a celebration of I guess his failure. It’s a very chill day though, we eat burgers and hot dogs and hang around by the bonfire. Like we don’t have a meal with our family. It’s more like the whole community gets together and there’s like fireworks and stuff. There’s a song too.

Collector: A song? What is it?

Informant: It goes like this

Remember, remember the 5th of November

Gunpowder Treason and plot

I see no reason why gunpowder treason

Would ever be forgot

It’s not that big of a deal though, like we don’t sing it around the campfire or anything. It’s just something that people know.

I thought this was particularly interesting because it’s a holiday that revolves around an attempter murder. Albeit the burning of the figure of this murder, but a murder none the less. I think it’s cool how even until today, people remember it, and I think that this might be because the monarchy in England is still in power. I believe that this is not only a fun way for people to celebrate with their family and friends, but also a way to honor their monarchy. It makes me wonder if the holiday began as a way for the monarchy to keep its citizens in line, so that nobody would try to recreate Guy Fawkes’ murder attempts.

The Cat’s Manor at USC

Folk Piece

Informant: So I live in a house on [REDACTED] street at the North University Park District of Los Angeles, California. Actually, the Governor of California used to live there in the early 1900s. But whoever lived there in the 1940s or ‘50s, um, they, there was a whole third story. Like picture the old victorian houses with the spirals and stuff. But there was this third story and it burned down, like, in this crazy fire. And the like room that burned like more than any others was the room where this crazy woman that lived there had all of her cats. And like all of the cats died, so now like in the middle of the night, if you go up, there’s like this stair case that leads to the roof of the house but as you’re going up this staircase you can see the remnants of this old third floor. Um, cause they like didn’t do a really good job of getting rid of that, and when you’re going up that staircase to the roof, you can hear meows in the middle of the night. I have not personally heard them, but I’ve only gone up there once.”


Background information

Informant: “I learned this story when I was a freshman when I joined a group that has lived there the past decade or so. I heard it from a senior who was also a very superstitious guy who said ‘Oh, I like, hear it every night.’  The people who believe it take it very, very seriously. But the people who never experienced it all kind of think of it as a joke.”



Informant: “We tell the story when we let in new members. I don’t know, it’s just a fun thing to add to the aura of it all – they’re like, typically freshman, you know? It’s just fun to make them feel like a part of the group with a little story.”



Ghost animals are not nearly as common as ghost people in folklore, as we’ve talked about in our class with Professor Tok Thompson. Yet, in this story, they are just as eerily scary. That this ghost story includes artifacts that tie the legend into real observable truth, in that the remnants of the burnt third floor are easily accessible, is truly haunting. In the participant telling the story, I could envision walking up the stairs and seeing the charred, blackened floor.

It also seems like there is somewhat of a ritualistic retelling each year for new members of this group. The story helps identify their group because they collectively lease the house year by year, and so in retelling this story and having it be retold primarily by their group, they are owning the house in more than one way. The formal telling of this story to another member is one way to extend that ownership.

Equally as interesting is that this group is a singing group and that the hauntings come in audio form. Oftentimes, ghost stories, legends, and other forms of folklore are described in terms that are familiar to that particular ‘in’ group. In no way am I comparing their singing to the meowing of 40 cats burned alive, but it is interesting that they are auditorily stimulated, rather than visually.