'It's Fine to Enjoy Superstitions' : Friday the 13th: Knock on Wood

Times Staff Writer

Good morning, it's Friday the 13th.

Because you are an educated and sophisticated person, that, of course, means nothing to you. You will take no extraordinary precautions, you will postpone no flights or job interviews, you will go ahead and take the car in for a tune-up.

Because you are not superstitious.

OK, but you're not fooling Dr. Gordon Globus, professor of psychiatry and human behavior at UC Irvine. Admit it: When you walk up to a crowd of 10 people waiting for an elevator, you go ahead and push the elevator button, anyway. And when the elevator comes, deep down inside you know it wouldn't have come without your help.

Do You Hang Garlic on the Door Post?

That may not be in the same league as hanging garlic on the door post, but it is the shape of modern, high-tech superstition, and it comes from the same human trait that deduced that lightning was the dueling of gods.

"There are many superstitions people develop, but nowadays we just don't label them as superstitions," Globus said, adding:

"We're always looking for explanations. It's a fundamental trait of human beings: to explain what happens. And when we're in an ambiguous situation, the belief that the explanation lies in a greater power that stands over us is often called upon."

As it has always been, added Frances Cattermole-Tally, editor of the monumental "Encyclopedia of American Popular Beliefs and Superstitions" now being compiled at the UCLA Center for the Study of Comparative Folklore and Mythology. The first two volumes are expected to be published in 1989, and they will cover only the A and B listings.

It was Europe that taught us to fear Fridays in general, she said. The belief was strong that no task should be started on a Friday unless it could be finished that same day. One did not spin on Fridays. Yet Friday was a good day for healing, since healing was right on the verge of magic anyway, Cattermole-Tally said.

In America, the bad luck of the number 13 and the day Friday were coupled--you could call it a double-whammy--and apprehension about the date has been encountered in every part of the nation, she said. "Fridays and Friday the 13th are together the largest of our files."

It is a myth that these superstitions are more likely to be found at the pool hall than the country club, Cattermole-Tally said. She has personally encountered a highly educated person who scoffed at a man in a restaurant throwing salt over his shoulder after spilling it. The scoffer conceded he occasionally did the same thing, "but never in public."

"It's the same thing as centuries ago: people trying to explain what they don't understand," she said. "A lot of it comes from children. They seem to repeat a history of ideas. They look around and come to conclusions without any help that we would consider old beliefs."

But plenty comes from adults who find themselves in much the same situation as ancient man--surrounded by phenomena they can't understand. The difference is that the puzzlers are machines, not natural events.

Cattermole-Tally said the files of technological superstition are beginning to grow. Among the beliefs:

- If you sniff freshly mimeographed paper, it will make you sterile--but only if you are a male.

- If your electric typewriter stops dead, it may be caused by the proximity of a poltergeist.

- If you wash your car, it will rain tomorrow.

- The funny noise in your car will disappear the moment you point it out to a mechanic.

One entry tells of a woman who stacked bags of peat around her television set to protect her children from radiation-caused sterility.

Sometimes these sorts of things are repeated as jokes, Cattermole-Tally suggested.

"Let's say I tell you about Friday the 13th as a joke, and then that day you're rear-ended, God forbid. People have a tendency to remember bad luck under those circumstances, and it reaffirms expectation. You tell someone, and he says: 'You know, that happened to me once.' "

(And, she conceded, even interjecting a "God forbid" is a form of superstition. "You don't want anyone to think you're wishing bad luck upon them, so you call upon some higher force to prevent it.")

Globus said he finds nothing psychologically alarming about superstitious people. "For one thing, bad luck does occur on Friday the 13th, just as it does on any other day.

"It's no big deal. I think people are playful about it. I think it's a relief, a release from rationality, which becomes a burden.

"I think it's fine to enjoy superstitions, as long as they don't run one's life."

DR, Steve Lopez / Los Angeles Times

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