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Superstitious L.A. : Nobody really believes a rabbit's foot brings good luck. Do they?

April 17, 1988|PAUL CIOTTI | Paul Ciottti is a Times staff writer.

WE MODERN-DAY Angelenos think of ourselves as a calm, cool, rational crew. But when it comes to an everyday belief in superstition, it turns out we're not all that different from our ancestors of the Middle Ages. We may not still believe that toads cause warts or that when teen-age girls lose their virginity, tiny clefts in the ends of their noses disappear, but plenty of other illogical notions remain.

Last month, for example, members of the psychology department at Pierce College in Woodland Hills flew into an uproar when the administration assigned the number 1300 to their building; they were afraid that superstitious students would refuse to take psychology courses there.

Nor are we suffering from any shortage of new superstitions. Immigrants are pouring into Los Angeles, throwing their beliefs into the cultural stew. And what with microwave radiation, AIDS and complex new technologies, we have many new things to be superstitious about. The only difference is, we don't so much call them superstitions anymore as valid psychological insights or hard-won strategies for coping with urban life.

If you eat the end of the watermelon, your father will die. --ARMENIAN IMMIGRANT

FROM TURKEY

Don't ask your dog a question. If he answers , you will die.

--IRISH IMMIGRANT

If you take a picture with three people in it, the person in the middle will die.

--KOREAN-AMERICAN WOMAN

FROM MONTEREY PARK

IT'S A WARM morning in the overstuffed UCLA folklore archives, and Frances Cattermole-Tally, a busy but friendly folklorist and executive editor of the soon-to-be-published "Encyclopedia of American Popular Beliefs and Superstitions," is showing off the long rows of file cabinets bursting with more than a million index cards, each of which contains a different scrap of folklore or superstition. The archives were established in the 1940s by Prof. Wayland D. Hand, who hired students and research assistants to gather information from written and oral material; other universities, many outside California, also contributed over the years. The largest categories deal with such eternal concerns as love, death, health, luck and money. "I had someone tell me," Cattermole-Tally says, "that if you buy purple towels, your marriage will break up."

Surely, we ask, the woman didn't believe that?

Perhaps not, says Cattermole-Tally, but "she didn't buy purple towels."

The folklorist says she doesn't know whether modern-day Angelenos are more or less superstitious than our pre-industrial ancestors. "It would be hard to prove one way or another. But considering people and the way they operate, I would say there is not much difference." She cites an example from the files, a woman who made her kids watch television from behind bales of peat moss so they wouldn't absorb any radiation.

If the woman was that worried about it, we ask, why didn't she just get rid of the TV?

"Most people don't think very logically," says Cattermole-Tally. "All you have to do is read the political pages to find that out." Most people, in fact, don't even consider themselves superstitious. "You want to know my definition of superstition?" asks Cattermole-Tally. "I have beliefs. You have superstitions." Superstition is a reflection of the way we think under stress, she explains. It's a "belief with no reality." It's not a rational process.

One way old superstitions survive through the ages is by adapting to the times. Many people, she points out, still believe that the groom shouldn't see the bride before the ceremony on their wedding day.

Why is that?

"Virgins are very powerful. You never look a goddess in the face. Actaeon looked at Diana in her bath and was torn apart by dogs. It is dangerous to look at genitalia. In medieval Europe, it was thought that a woman could stop a storm by raising her skirts."

She tells another story about a student who thought that if a man looked at you a certain way you could get pregnant.

What way was that?

The student didn't know. "She said, 'My mother never told me,' " Cattermole-Tally says.

Over the next hour, Cattermole-Tally gives dozens of other examples of modern superstitions, including the belief that red cars get more traffic tickets and the supposed tendency of airplane crashes and entertainers' deaths to occur in threes. "And in World War II there were men carrying the pubic hair of their girlfriends to keep (their women) faithful."

Why are so many people willing to believe undocumentable things?

"I hate to say, 'That's the way people think,' " she says, "but they do. People don't care what the facts are. They cling to fantastic notions. They don't want to hear what really happens." The truth is, she says, "they don't want to know."

Whenever using chopsticks, never point the index finger out. The parent who is pointed at may die.

--CHINESE-AMERICAN

WOMAN FROM LOS ANGELES

It's bad luck to wash your husband's morning coffee cup until he comes home again at night.

--SILVER LAKE HOUSEWIFE

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