Tag Archives: San Francisco

Superstition: Knock on Wood


“Oh yeah, I always knock on wood whenever someone says they’ve never had something bad happen to them. It’s just a little precaution, you know? Like, I don’t want to jinx anything by tempting fate. Plus, it’s a habit that I’ve had for so long that it’s just become second nature at this point.”


My informant, who is white and from San Francisco, picked this superstition up from his parents as a child, and is a reluctant believer in it today. He interprets it as a method of negating the potential bad luck that could come with a jinx. 


My informant’s superstition is an example of conversion superstition, as he takes action to negate a curse. Essentially, the jinx, for example something like “I have never broken a bone” curses an individual to break a bone, but knocking on wood can negate that outcome. The curse aspect of this superstition shares some similarities with the Evil Eye, where direct compliments actually function as curses, similar to how my informant’s statements of positive wellbeing can doom one to negative outcomes. This belief could be a derivative of historical pagan beliefs in the sacredness of trees and forests, where knocking on wood provided a method through which people could communicate with deities. 

My informant’s reluctance in believing this superstition suggests his desire to depart from his commitment to the belief, perhaps a symptom of his maturing process. This in turn suggests that he views this superstition as a child’s belief. However, one might add that this superstition provides a method by which one can keep his or her self-positive thoughts in check and avoid resting on laurels or boasting. 

The House on Florentine Street

Background information: My mom is a second-generation Filipino-American, meaning she was born here in the US. Her parents immigrated from the Philippines when they were both relatively young, and my mom’s family grew up with a lot of relatives in San Francisco, CA. 

Mom: At my lola’s house in the city, on Florentine Street, they always told me that sometimes there would be an old man sitting in this one specific arm chair in their living room.

Me: Who was the old man?

Mom: No one knows who the old man was…but the house was very, very old, maybe he lived there before my lola and our family. He wasn’t ever harmful but they would just see him sitting there all the time. She told me he must have just stayed in the house after he passed, because it was still his. But he was never scary or bad, or anything like that.

Me: Did you ever see the old man yourself?

Mom: I don’t remember ever seeing him. But maybe sometimes I would feel his, like, presence or something similar. But nothing was ever bad about it.

In Filipino culture, many people are very respectful of the supernatural, and of spirits of the past that they may be intruding on. While, of course, the idea of ghosts is often very scary and unnerving in Western culture, my mom’s family and many other Filipinos/Filipino-Americans have more of a neutral view of ghosts from the past co-existing in the same space as living people. This mentality is seen in the way my family still showed respect and gave the old man his own space, while accepting the fact that he would continue to stay in the house.

Hunter’s Point sisters

My cousin Joe, a San Francisco native who is currently directing a feature film that is deeply rooted in the city’s history, told me the following story, which takes place in a San Francisco neighborhood called Hunter’s Point:

“So this happened in Hunter’s Point, the very furthest edge of the city. Before it was a black neighborhood it had been like, Italians and some Chinese like fisheries and there were uh, Italian fishermen out there.
And apparently, right across from uh, where we’re gonna film our movie, there were two victorians and uh, two sisters who lived in each of them. And, they would apparently- the story, it was told to me by one guy who said they had these huge shouting matches that they would come out once a month and they would have these- this huge fight in front of the whole neighborhood and he claimed it was because their periods were timed…and they would have this huge fight and they’d go back into their homes and everything would be fine. But one day they had a fight that was so big, one said ‘I’m gonna burn your house down! I hate you!’ And then she lit her sister’s house on fire, and then her house caught fire ‘cause they were right next to each other and their houses burned to the ground. So it was kind of biblical or something.
But that was told to me because there’s like all these mysterious fires in Hunter’s Point that people have kind of tried to understand why they happen, and the guy that told me this–one of them, two guys told me–one who told me was like a former um, fireman and he said that uh, there were all these mysterious fires in Hunter’s Point and he thinks they’re arson. He thinks they’re uh, landlords trying to burn out their tenants. So anyways that’s somehow linked to this weird story of sisters–Italian sisters. But yeah, I like imagining that ‘cause now it’s a- it’s a burned out lot.”

This story can be classified as a legend, because it may or may not be true, and is supposed to have occurred in a real place. It is also a sort of origin story, because it explains the presence of an otherwise mysterious landmark– in this case a burned out lot–that neighborhood residents are familiar with. Hunter’s Point is, as Joe says, at “the very furthest edge” of San Francisco, and as such is one of the last neighborhoods in the city to begin fall victim to gentrification. The tensions over shifting neighborhood dynamics are such that some residents theorize that corrupt landlords are committing arson to keep up real estate prices, and these tensions may contribute to the popularity of legends describing former neighborhood conflicts.

The Proctor House

Folklore Piece

“There’s this house in my hometown of Castro Valley, California called the Proctor House and it’s near Proctor Elementary School and it’s also near my house. It’s empty now, like no one lives in there, and it’s mostly populated by homeless people or drug addicts. But, basically like teenagers are dared to go in there and there’s this room that you go in and there are all these dolls lined up on the mantle. And the story goes that there was this couple that used to live there together and they um they’re foster parents, like they would bring in kids every so often, and one by one these foster kids would kinda just disappear from the foster system and no one knew why. And it was discovered that this couple had just kinda murdering their foster kids and they murdered like four kids. I heard this story when I was in the 7th grade from my friends when I went in the Proctor house. But I heard it throughout my teenage years. The dolls, like, had the spirits of the kids inside of them, or something.”


Background information

This story would mostly be performed by children around the playground or in social situations near his school and the house. As our informant mentioned, he learned this story first from his friends. He would later also tell me that all the parents knew about this story and wouldn’t let their kids go near the house. He said while this was probably because of the aforementioned homeless and drug addicted populations, many kids like the informant would interpret this as an affirmation of the mystic dangers of this house.


Personal Analysis

The dynamic between the children that recount this story and their parents are what I find to be most intriguing. The children believe the tall tale of the haunted house and the clichéd dolls-as-murdered-children horror story, most likely as its grandiose details are continuously reinforced in those kids’ social circles and media. The parents, however, know the house’s true nature, and that it is potentially very dangerous and filled with drug addicts and squatters. These harsh realities of life might be too much for a kid to hear, and so they simply say “Don’t go into the Proctor House.” Somewhat unintentionally, this furthers the legend of The Proctor House as being haunted. In my research, I couldn’t find any authored material on the Proctor House; this would suggest that this legend is relatively local and new. Perhaps the house became abandoned and overrun when the participant was young, spurring the rumors. When I asked the participant about the story’s origin, he said that he wasn’t sure.

Also interesting is the house’s role as a legend quest. When the kids are old enough to brave a trip into the Proctor House, it’s viewed as somewhat of a rite of passage, affirming their role as a “big kid”, or young adult. Ironically, though, it is their discovery of truth about the house, either firsthand or from their parents, and the loss of the childlike innocence about the house’s true state, that affirms their role as an adult.

May Festival

The source went to a private school in San Francisco, and every year the school has a May Celebration.

“Every year we’d have this huge festival, where each grade would sing a song. And um. Then we’d, the eight graders would do the May Pole, and all of the grades would do turkey in the straw, you know line dancing. And then at the very end, um, all- the whole school would line up, um, and each grade would line up shortest to tallest. And we’d all line up and make this huge line, and um, the tallest 8th grader would hold this, uh, dragon head, and behind it would be this sheet that would cover the entire rest of the school. Cause like each grade had 16 or 18 kids, so you know. It was K through 8. So the entire school would then do the dragon dance. The school was built in like 1918, and it was this woman’s house. But um, the house was in a fire, and so they had to leave the school. And then when the original school reopened, they did a parade, from the, from the temporary school to the renovated old building. And the dragon was like a part of the parade, so they do the dragon dance every year to commemorate it.”


This festival seems to take a lot from many different cultures. It reflects what a multi-cultural city San Francisco is. The fact that they’d have a may-pole, a European tradition in the same festival as a Dragon dance mirrors the East meets West aspects of the city. While the school was neither European or Chinese, they included aspects of both traditions.