D is a 20 year old college student living in Los Angeles, California who was originally from the Philippines.
This conversation took place in my room as a group of my friends were hanging out and I brought up if they knew any folklore or proverbs that they wanted to share.
D: So like my cousin told me they were like walking on the train tracks and like he said if you step on one of the train tracks one of your loved ones will die or something. So now whenever I go across the train tracks, even in the car, I like put my feet up.
I think this superstition is very interesting because it is from a familial source, therefore seen as reputable, and has affected the informant to the point that he avoids it even in the car. To me, the superstition seems to mirror the one that I learned to not step on a crack in the sidewalk, otherwise, your mom would break her back. It’s possible that this superstition stems from the fact that railroad/trains are a main source of transportation in the Philippines and therefore are bound to have accidents associated with them. It may have also been a superstition told to kids by adults and parents in order to deter them from wandering on train tracks in the hopes that they would not get into an accident.
“When I was younger, Lolo Nani would sit me down almost every day during when I would eat my snacks after school before we did my homework together. He always would remind me to visit and clean his grave once he died. He said that if I didn’t, he would come back to pull my feet while I was sleeping. That sh*t was so scary dude, I would barely be able to sleep at night because, like, all I could think of was what it would feel like, or if he was gonna pull me hard or where he would take me.
It’s a pretty messed up way of getting a kid to regularly clean or visit your grave, but honestly… it makes sense now. Even before he died when we would go to, like, other people’s funerals I would look at stones that had grass growing over them and it just looks lonely. I don’t know, maybe that’s what he wanted me to see then.”
Background: The informant is a 19 year-old college student whose grandfather was his primary caretaker after school before his parents would come home from work. He would feed him after school, teach him his homework lessons, and ensure that he took naps. The grandfather passed away in 2018, but the informant regularly heeds his request to clean and visit his grave often.
Context: This superstition was shared with me over FaceTime.
The mentioned relative in the story often used scare tactics against children in order to keep them in line growing up. He used to tell me that if I kept a towel on my head for too long after a shower, all of my hair would fall out; in reality, he just didn’t want me to catch a cold. Using superstition as discipline happens often in our culture, and preserves family dynamics that the older people in the family see as valuable. The informant’s grandfather also told him as a child that he had eyes in the back of his head that could see whenever he was doing wrong at school, which contributed to his continuing obedience. Such beliefs instilled in children, like cleaning and visiting their graves or adhering to adults’ wishes even when out of sight, preserves the power dynamic between parent and child. The child trusts in the truth of the parent’s words, and cultivates a sense of respect that persists even after death.
RG – This place is called “the bloody pit.” It’s the Hoosac train tunnel in North Adams (Massachusetts), and it’s called that because it took the lives of hundreds of construction workers while being built because it was a nightmare of a tunnel to build. It’s really long, and looking in it’s just black. We went to check it out. It was the same summer we did a bunch of other stuff (like visiting graveyards or other supposedly haunted places at night) because we were really attracted to death for some reason. C was just staring into the tunnel as if he were in a trance. I tried getting his attention, snapping, saying his name, getting in front of him and waving, etc. Suddenly he got really angry, pushed me aside and started walking in. He eventually snapped out of it but it was all really uncharacteristic of him.
The tunnel is still an active freight route. It’s 4.75 miles long, and when you go a decent amount in and turn around, it’s just a pinprick of light. And it’s a mess in there. The walls are pretty decrepit and leaking, and it sounds really ominous and wet in there.
We knew the history of the tunnel. It’s called the bloody pit for a reason. But we went in anyway. And C acted all weird when we were heading in. But we weren’t super freaked out until on our way out we all noticed, quite at the same time, a penny lying heads up on the rail. We hadn’t noticed it going in. And it freaked us out because a penny lying heads up is a symbol of good luck. But right before one of us picked it up we all realized, again at the same time: ehhhh don’t touch that. It’s like if you think about an angler fish, there’s something so tempting and shiny in front of a great dark maw. We didn’t want any type of luck that tunnel had to offer, if that makes sense. We didn’t really think about what-ifs, we just knew not to touch it.
The informant enjoys telling the stories of their various adventures each time we speak. This time was about one summer where the informant went to graveyards, haunted construction sites, and The Bloody Pit. It takes a certain kind of person to knowingly go into a place named so threateningly. The informant has had several encounters with ghosts. They are not the most nor the least superstitious out of the group they went with, but all of them agreed there was something not right with the location, in a way that they could not logically explain away. This story combines ideas of haunting, historical events, and the non-localized folk belief of finding a penny lying heads-up being good luck.
Context: Subject of the interview’s mother passed away recently. Subject grew up in Rhode Island.
“So my mother always kinda had an appreciation for death you know and the next life. She would always try to be somewhat funny but sentimental about it. She always said when she passed away she’d come back as a cardinal and that everytime someone in the family saw a cardinal they’d think of her.”
This is one piece of folklore that I found particularly touching and had me thinking about folklore related to death. Death is a concept that is impossible to truly understand, besides the literal emotional toll it takes on the people still living. It would make sense that, in order to ease that transition, the people who are in mourning to develop signs in remembrance of that person, to see a piece of their soul continue to live on in the world.
DESCRIPTION OF GESTURE: When you see, come across, or pass a cemetery you must immediately touch your hair with your hands.
INFORMANT DESCRIPTION: Female, 54, Finnish
CONTEXT: This gesture was taught to her by her grandmother who was from Finland. She never knew where she learned it from but employed it her whole life. She said it meant you were adverting death. A way to not call death upon yourself, sort of like the evil eye. She said if you would see the dead they would come for you and since your hair was already dead it is a way to come into contact and save yourself.
THOUGHTS: I do think this gesture is very unique and seems to be very specific. I find the part about our hair already being dead fascinating and seems to make a little more sense to me.