Superstition Ain’t Bad Till it Fools You

by Rachel Gertz

We don’t have a four or a thirteen in our building. Elevator buttons, I mean. The elevator panel doesn’t have them. And before you yawn and say, “yeah, so what?” think about this for just a second…

Beginning with the enlightenment of the 17th century, many cultures outwardly denounced superstition as a waste of time or heretical display. In fact, rituals like voodoo or ‘perverse excess of religion’ (Catechism of the Catholic Church, paragraph 211) were banished and practicers punished by law.

Yet somehow, with all our practical wisdom and intelligent evolution, building contractors have determined that it makes good sense to remove the buttons depicting squirrelly numbers like 4 and 13 from the elevators of our apartment buildings because of an irrational fear of certain digits.* Even though the fourth floor and thirteenth floors still exist—count them—we call them five and fourteen.

We attempt to normalize our irrational thoughts by covering them up with misinformation. Or else misinformation leads to our acceptance of irrational thoughts. Interesting relationship, no?

Rationalization and Fear

“When you cater to people’s fears or superstitions, they’re no longer irrational. They’ve been normalized. A ‘harmless’ part of your culture that everyone supports by structuring your community around them. Knock on wood.”

Except the problem is, if they’re so harmless, why would a psychologist at the Stress Management Center and Phobia Institute in Asheville, North Carolina calculate that we lose $800-$900 million dollars every Friday the 13th because people are scared to leave their homes and live, work, or shop? Not so harmless, then? Or does it depend on the severity of the belief?

The TSA falsely makes us believe that if we take off our shoes and belts and stand in an X-ray machine, they’re providing us with complete flight safety. Security theatre instituted to normalize an irrational fear of terrorists. Misinformation under the guise of protection. And yet, folks, the whole process gets people freaked right out and willing to give up further privacies in the name of freedom. Our fears feed misinformation. Misinformation feeds our fears.

FYI: This is also how rumours get started.

Rationalizing The Hunt

In Salem in the 1600s, women were put to death because of a town’s superstitions. The accusers’ erratic seizing and incoherent speech were believed to be caused by evil witches. Eventually people found out that these accusers were making it up. Life in Puritan New England was rather dull, to be sure, but because the town normalized superstitions about witchcraft without questioning, innocent people paid the price. Hundreds more died during the witch hunts of Europe on these same grounds.

Here’s a terrifying story: In Tanzania, a peaceful tourist town, albino children are being hunted for their arms, legs, and hair because of a recently developed superstition that albinos are ghosts or immortal beings, and that using potions made of their body parts will lead to wealth and good luck. An arm or leg goes for up to $2000 on the black market. Neighbours and family members are killing children in their beds for this money.

A Tanzanian boy with Albinism. Photo Credit: IFRC
A Tanzanian boy with Albinism who lives in fear of dismemberment. Photo Credit: IFRC

Here, fear of death or poverty has fuelled the superstition. About 60 children have been murdered and sold to witch doctors already. And it’s only been going on since 2007 with no end in sight. This misinformation about albinos has resulted in children fearing for and losing their lives.

Although the government is doing whatever it can to stop these killings, to an extent, the fact that they even happen means people’s fears have been normalized. All people talk about is finding the killers. No one questions where these irrational beliefs originated or how to stop them. When you combine the actual monetary reward of collecting albino limbs with the misinformation being spread by witch doctors, we know the killings won’t stop unless people in the village and around the world are educated about the harm of these beliefs.

We’re not just talking about a little salt over the shoulder here. It’s a powerful reminder that when misinformation is normalized in our culture, there may be a human price tag attached.

Get On The Elevator

I know I’m making a love of lucky charms sound terrible. The reality is, if you want to turn the light switch on and off six times before you go out tonight, nobody’s going to lose any hair. In fact, some rituals have been linked to a positive placebo effect.

But when society treats our insecurities and irrational behaviours like a healthy part of today’s breakfast, maybe we should start asking who’s been pouring on the milk and why we’re eating cereal in the first place.

What I’m trying to say is, maybe we should stop to question what got us all worked up to begin with, and what’s reinforced these fears to the point where building companies will cater to them by destroying fours and thirteens in elevators all over the globe.

Maybe we all need to get off on floor thirteen and just see what happens.

*Find out more about the history of 4 here and 13 here.

Superstition in Today’s Culture

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