Superstitions We Just Can’t Shake

When you believe in things
That you don’t understand,
Then you suffer,
Superstition ain’t the way

—Stevie Wonder, “Superstition”

Hey, it’s Friday the 13th, which, according to Western superstition, is unlucky. Whenever the thirteenth day of the month falls on a Friday, many of us have fun with the spooky elements of the superstition and with Friday the 13th horror films. Some have pointed out that tonight will be even spookier given that a full moon graces the sky (for the first time in thirteen years, no less!). Superstitions about the moon abound—from werewolves to general lunacy—and even though its been disproven many times that people become deranged under a full moon, cops and ER staff still swear they see more action on these nights.

In a nod to today’s date, we asked staff at the American Humanist Association if there are any superstitions they hold onto or just can’t completely shake. What are yours?

Isabelle Oldfield, Paralegal

I still have a tough time with my irrational inability to dismiss the theory of good and bad karma. On a recent vacation stop in Fresno, California, my partner took a parking spot ahead of someone outside the crowded Dog House Grill. The other driver was clearly queuing for it. I was mortified and terrified of seeing them in the restaurant, and I insisted that bad karma would catch up to us if we didn’t park elsewhere. My partner finally yielded, and we found another spot and went inside. After we’d ordered our food, we struggled to find seating in the packed restaurant. We finally found a table and a few minutes into eating saw another couple searching for a seat. I went up to them and offered to share our table, since we had enough seating for four. Even though they didn’t take up my offer, I felt better about having reset my karma for the day.

Nicole Carr, Director of Development

My mother was fairly superstitious when I was growing up. One habit I picked up from her that I can’t seem to shake is to say “knock on wood” whenever I speak out loud about a wish or talk about something I hope will happen. For example, “We’re going to have beautiful weather for the picnic, knock on wood.” The superstition is that, by expressing the desire out loud, you’re tempting fate. Knocking on wood is supposed to ward off the bad luck. The speaker is supposed to physically knock on something wooden–a piece of furniture, a tree—as they say the words. My mother’s twist? She rapped on her own head instead of searching out wood, and I carry on that tradition.

Kristin Wintermute, Director of Education

Despite being a committed humanist, my father was filled with superstitions meant to ward off the evil vibes and welcome good fortune at every turn. Just a few he passed along to me that I can’t seem to shake: knocking on wood, never stepping on a crack, avoiding crossing under a ladder, keeping my bills in my wallet face-up, and never placing a hat on the bed. Surprising to those who knew her, my mother, the most dedicated rational humanist thinker I’ve known, gave me “bad luck always comes in threes.” Never ceased to amaze me when having a bad day, my mom would say things like, “well, look at this way—two down and one more bad thing to go…it can’t get much worse than that.” And you know what? She was often right.

Innanoshe R. Akuson, Social Media and Editorial Assistant

Although I don’t recollect my parents being particularly superstitious, I distinctly remember the one time they sat my siblings and I down in our foyer and, in voices underscored by both impatience and gravity, warned us about accepting treats or presents from strangers as we could turn to tubers of yam. And because Nigeria is as traditional as it is religious, I (reluctantly) hesitate to say I’m absent of such notions. For example, I would never bend over to peer between my legs in a crowded space , because there’s a superstition that one could see ghosts by so doing. Nor do I whistle at night, as they say it invites evil spirits. I also snap my fingers, wind them over my head, and, with great feeling, declare “over my dead body” to ward off bad omens.

Monica L. Miller, Legal Director and Senior Counsel

I still make a wish before I blow out my birthday candles, and I never disclose the wish, lest I “jinx” it. I also occasionally catch myself holding my breath going through the rainbow tunnel (now called the Robin Williams tunnel) separating Marin County and the Golden Gate Bridge. As kids, we were convinced it was necessary to hold your breath and touch the car ceiling until the end of the tunnel to avoid bad luck (or for good luck, I can’t quite remember).

(photo by Shruti via Flickr)

Sam Gerard, Member Services Assistant

This may be closer to a phobia than a superstition, but I think it’s imperative—no matter your age, who you’re with, or how tough you may be—to check the pool for man-eating sharks. Despite their biology not being conducive to a heavily chlorinated, artificial body of water, there are always deep parts of the pool where I think a great white or mako shark could be hiding in wait. Sharks, as we know them, evolved approximately 300 million years ago, which means they have perfected something…

Emily Newman, Education Coordinator

The superstition that makes me most nervous is the thought that breaking a mirror gives you seven years bad luck. Although “bad luck” is vague, I worry it’s so long-term and irreversible that it’s not worth the gamble. I also cringe when a mirror is broken by someone else, even if it’s in a movie. The superstition I like the most is the Jewish tradition of spitting, literally or figuratively, by making a “poy” sound three times to ward off evil. It’s become a family joke to do “poy, poy, poy” to avoid being jinxed by what someone says.

Jennifer Bardi, Deputy Director and Editor in Chief

When you work at a place like the American Humanist Association for as long as I have, you find the superstitions you may have once bought into are simply gone. I remember always being scared to open an umbrella indoors. I just didn’t do it. And then, after a few years of full-time humanism, I realized how silly it was to think it was inviting bad luck, and I started opening and drying my wet umbrella indoors. I don’t walk under ladders only because I might get hurt, but I love it when black cats (any cats!) cross my path, I throw hats on beds with impunity, and I never answer chain letters.

We’re so used to the superstitions we grew up with even if we don’t subscribe to them, but when you hear what other cultures consider bad luck it really hits home how absurd superstitions are. Here’s a highly entertaining list published at Mental Floss last year. Drinking water that reflects moonlight? Cutting fingernails after dark? Lighting a cigarette from a candle if you’re a sailor? Happy Friday the 13th!