CADILLAC — Refusing to heed Stevie Wonder’s advice, a lot of people still believe in things they don’t understand.
Today is Friday the 13th — a day regarded with trepidation by some due to the number, which is associated with bad luck; it’s also the name of a very popular horror movie franchise, adding a touch of the macabre to the number’s foreboding reputation.
David Puglia, a folklore instructor at the Bronx Community College of the City University of New York, told the Cadillac News that to this day, some hotels skip room 13 and some tall buildings skip the 13th floor.
He said the origin of this superstition is an example of metafolklore, which is when the many explanations of a particular superstition overshadow its actual origin, which becomes lost to history.
One interesting theory about the origin of this belief is that 13 is the number of people present at the Last Supper — 12 disciples and Jesus, Puglia said.
This is just one of a number of superstitious beliefs that have woven themselves into the fabric of American culture.
National surveys have found that large percentages of Americans still hold superstitious beliefs, even in the 21st Century.
According to Pew Research Center, though the U.S. is an overwhelmingly Christian country, significant minorities profess belief in a variety of Eastern or New Age beliefs. For instance, 24% of the public overall and 22% of Christians say they believe in reincarnation — that people will be reborn in this world again and again. And similar numbers (25% of the public overall, 23% of Christians) believe in astrology.
Nearly three-in-ten Americans say they have felt in touch with someone who has already died, almost one-in-five say they have seen or been in the presence of ghosts, and 15% have consulted a fortune teller or a psychic.
The proportion of Americans who say they have interacted with a ghost has increased over the years, (9% in 1996 compared to 18% in 2009). The number saying they have felt in touch with someone who has died has also grown considerably, from 18% in 1996 to 29% in 2009.
“Belief in ghosts has soared in recent decades, from one in 10 Americans to one in three,‘ wrote Claude Fischer, professor of sociology at UC Berkeley. “Moreover, young Americans are about twice as likely as old Americans to say they have consulted psychics, believe in ghosts, and believe in haunted houses. (Oh, and political liberals are more likely than conservatives to endorse these beliefs.)‘
In an unscientific Cadillac News online survey, around half of the respondents reported they believed ghosts exist. A similar percentage reported they’ve experienced something in their life they could only describe as supernatural.
Fischer wrote that in a dangerous, unpredictable life, superstitious beliefs help to explain misfortune.
Puglia said most superstitious beliefs are examples of “sympathetic magic‘ — a term coined by British anthropologist James George Frazer.
Sympathetic magic is the use of superstitious rituals as a way to protect oneself from bad luck or to garner good luck, said Puglia.
The following is a list of some of the most widely held superstitious beliefs in America and where they are thought to have originated.
• Throwing salt over left shoulder: Puglia said the origin of throwing salt over the left shoulder may come from the Latin word for left, “sinistra,‘ which contains the root word “sinister.‘ Spilling salt is considered bad luck because of the “salt of the Earth‘ metaphor in the Bible. Spilling salt summons the Devil, who sits on the left shoulder. Throwing salt over the left shoulder is the symbolic act of throwing salt in the Devil’s eyes and warding off evil, said Puglia.
• Rabbit’s foot: Puglia said the rabbit has long been considered a symbol of fertility because of their prolific mating habits. Eventually, the rabbit’s foot symbol was broadened to encompass not only reproductive success but also good luck in general.
• Four-leaf clover: The four-leaf clover is prized as a good-luck charm because of its rarity, said Puglia, who added there are many other superstitions regarding objects which are believed to bring good luck. An example would be a baseball player’s lucky bat. Often, objects become lucky after a favorable event occurred in proximity to the object, such as a home run. “This is the ‘something comes into contact, remains in contact’ concept,‘ said Puglia.
• Walking underneath a ladder: Similar to the number 13, the belief that walking or crawling underneath a ladder will bring bad luck is another example of metafolklore. One of the most interesting explanations, however, has to do with the Holy Trinity. “The ladder, wall and ground represent the Holy Trinity (Father, Son and Holy Spirit). To walk through it disrupts the Trinity,‘ said Puglia.
• Break a mirror, have seven years bad luck: Another common theme in superstition is the “like makes like‘ principle. An example of this is the belief that breaking a mirror brings bad luck because a person’s reflection in the mirror is said to symbolize their soul. “When you break it, it’s like you’re breaking your soul,‘ said Puglia. As far as the seven years bad luck, Puglia said the number seven, like 13, is an extremely prevalent number among superstitions and folklore. Similar numbers include three and 10.
• Don’t cross a black cat’s path: Black cats were strongly associated with witchcraft during the 1600s. During that time, rumors of witchcraft and black magic caused extreme panic in the colonies, and it was widely believed a witch could transform herself into a black cat, said Puglia. The superstition to avoid a black cat’s path is still powerful in America today.
• Knock on wood: Before modern religions, many cultures worshiped elements of nature, including the sun and trees. The phrase “knock on wood,‘ might have come as a way to summon protection against the forces of death and evil. Puglia said the phrase might also have survived to this day because it can be associated with the wood of the Holy Cross.