“Okay, so the first story I’ve got is something that I encountered working in the theatre in Germany. And I, for some reason, when I don’t think about it, whistle. And I remember being in the theater and without consciously doing it I was whistling going down the halls and one of the managers pulled me aside and really reprimanded me and said that, you know, that that was really a bad thing to do. I wasn’t really sure why and then I went back and I asked someone about it and they said that was a really big superstition, and not to do that at all, and it actually goes back to when the theaters used gaslights for lighting. And if the flame went out, the only way that you’d really know that it was out was a whistling sound. And so, if someone was whistling through the halls it could really kind of cover up or hide the fact that the gas light had gone out.”
My informant grew up in America before departing to Germany for several years to sing in German operas. This happened relatively soon after college, so he was a newcomer to both the professional theatre world and German culture. My informant explains that this is a superstition that apparently extends to American theaters as well. They present it as the product of a practical concern kept up for tradition’s sake.
This is an interesting example because it started out one of two ways. Either this practice was occupational folklore at first passed between workers at a theater or it was a company or institutional policy and wasn’t originally folklore at all. However, as gaslights were faded out of theaters, this practice remained as a matter of tradition. What’s interesting is that this isn’t a superstition- there aren’t stated consequences for whistling in a theater. The reprimanding person doesn’t say that something bad will happen. It’s simply a forbidden practice because it used to be forbidden.
The following collection of this Singapore superstition came about during a routine phone call between me and my grandfather.
following is translated and transcribed from a story told by the interviewee.
“You cannot whistle at night because you will attract spirit into your home. My father used to tell me that a lot. I liked to whistle a lot and he would smack me on the lips. If we invite the spirits into our home bad things happen. Especially on days that he went to buy TOTO, if I whistled he would get extra angry. So you cannot whistle at night.”
TOTO (pronounced as toe-toe) refers to a form of gambling activity provided by the Singapore Lottery Pool. The lottery game is played by purchasing a card and picking six numbers, the closers the numbers match the winning set, the more money one wins.
This is a common superstition amongst the older generation in Singapore. To attract spirits in your home is a very bad thing. Spirits are known to be ghosts with the agenda to haunt people and bring about bad luck. I believe that this superstition comes from Singapore in the early 1900s where the poverty rate was high and security in homes was low. And whistling would attract attention and thus it was advised not to whistle in order to keep a low profile at night. And as time went on, this evolved into not whistling in order to keep spirits away. What I found interesting was that not whistling at night was especially important when my grandfather’s father bought a lottery ticket. Gambling was very common in Singapore, and there weren’t many ways to climb up the economic ladder when my grandfather was younger. And thus, many people would put hopes on gambling and lotteries as a means to earn wealth. It thus makes sense that with that much hope placed on these lottery tickets that a lot of superstition comes about.
BACKGROUND: My informant, OR, was born in the US. Her parents are both immigrants from Grenada. OR often talks about how superstitious her Caribbean family is and this piece is one example out of our long conversation about how her family’s beliefs dominate how they behave.
CONTEXT: This piece is from a conversation with my friend to discuss the role of superstition in Caribbean culture.
OR: This one, I don’t really know if there’s a story to this or something but we aren’t supposed to whistle at night.
OR: Or I guess a ghost will get mad? Or an evil spirit? Like, this one I don’t know all the details but my mom told me not to do this either.
THOUGHTS: This is interesting to me because throughout my collection I spoke to a few other people who brought up the “don’t whistle at night” belief but with different meanings. In OR’s case, whistling at night disturbs restless spirits whereas when I talked to my friend from Ecuador, whistling at night meant signaling for an evil spirit to follow you home. This seems to be the resounding belief in many cultures, that whistling at night attracts evil.
I: You are also not supposed to whistle in a theatre.
M: And then you were saying whistling?
I: Whistling is a no no because um back in the day uh theatres were operated by like sailors and they would whistle to each other to get cues, so if you whistled in a theatre, like the thought was a sailor would hear that and then like drop a sand bag on you. You know?
I: Yeah so that’s like thought to be bad luck
M: And that’s still functions in todays society even though we don’t have the sailors anymore.
I: Yeah, yeah
I:It’s just— don’t whistle in a theatre.
M: cause then you get bad luck, is someone gonna get hurt or just something is going to go wrong?
I: Yeah all of these are just like bad luck for like the show.
Context: This informant has been an active member of the theatre community since she was a child. She has been in numerous productions. She learned this from those around her and then became an active bearer of this folklore by explaining and passing it down to the younger years.
Analysis: After she learned this theatre lore, she then became an active bearer of this folklore by explaining and passing it down to the younger and newer actors. This folklore had a practical usage back in the days when sailors would operate the theaters and communicate through whistle cues. Thus, whistling would interfere and possibly trigger an accident. However, even when sailors exited from theatre operations, the practice of not whistling continued as it was ingrained as part of the culture. While we have moved from modernity to the digital age with amazing technological the folklore persisted because the practicality wasn’t important anymore as it was more about the history of accidents and ‘bad luck’ associated with whistling in the theatre. Now it’s become a part of what we learn from other actors and if you slip up, oftentimes people will correct you, which helps to keep this folklore alive and circulating.
Informant: Throughout my childhood, I’ve been told you’re not supposed to whistle at night. So of course, I didn’t believe them and would whistle at night. One day I was at my grandparents house and my cousin and I were at the window and it was night time. We were bored because there’s not much to do out there. It’s a small community called Stand Off. (Laughs) My cousin and I, we heard someone whistling in the distance. So, they whistled at us (whistling sound), so we whistled right back. Then they did it back again, so we did it back again. Then we started making patterns with our whistling and the other person started making patterns with their whistling. And the person began coming closer and closer and the still kept laughing. And then we got busy, the person was so close, but we got bored and something happened in the kitchen, but we left the window open. As we were in the kitchen, all of a sudden we began hearing banging in the bedroom we were just in. And we went walking towards the bedroom. And the door began swinging BACK and FORTH, BACK and FORTH, BACK and FORTH (emphasis on her voice as she said these words). My cousins began to get freaked out and started screaming. So I grabbed a broom and was like “Wait, stop. NO.” And I went running into the bedroom and the door just stopped. Our window was still wide open, but our cat was standing on the window seal looking down. And that was it. So, to this day, I don’t whistle at night, because I’m told it calls the spirits.
The informant is a Native American woman in her early forties. She is part of the Blackfoot and Lakota Nations and grew up on the Blood Reserve up in Canada. She currently resides in Tennessee with her husband and children.
During the Covid-19 Pandemic I flew back home to Tennessee to stay with my family. The informant is my mother. We were in the kitchen preparing supper when I asked her why she doesn’t whistle at night. She recalled an old incident that had happened.
In many cultures it it thought that whistling or making whistle noises at night will attract bad luck, bad things, or bad spirits. In the UK there is the belief of the “Seven Whistlers” who are seven mysterious spirits or birds who can foretell tragedy or death. Some believe that if you whistle indoors it will bring poverty or bad luck. In any case, I have been warned many times of the danger of whistling at night. It is something I heard quite often growing up. It is interesting how this plays into the larger idea of being spirited away or being kidnapped by the little people; that whistling is a way of communicating with the supernatural.