The Mummy’s Curse

The idea that Egyptian tombs are cursed as a means of protection is largely a 20th century creation.

Egyptians began mummifying their dead around 3500 BCE. In all the years of archaeological explorations of Egyptian tombs very few written or inscribed “curses” have ever been found. Those that have however could be thought of as early security systems – trying to protect the contents of the tomb from grave robbers (both amateur and archaeological). Unfortunately, given centuries of rampant looting of Egyptian graves it’s safe to say the curses didn’t work. Despite so few curses having ever been found our modern pop culture is firmly gripped by the undead idea of cursed tombs with mummified Egyptians exacting their revenge from beyond the grave.

The primary reason we think of cursed Egyptian tombs is the 1922 excavation of the tomb of Tutankhamun. George Herbert, 5th Earl of Carnarvon, had financed the search for King Tut’s tomb which was run by archaeologist Howard Carter. As Tutankhamun’s tomb was discovered, and the magnitude of the discovery was realized, the Egyptian government ensured that all artifacts would stay in Egypt. Without being able to sell any of the treasures (to cover his costs … or to make a profit) Lord Carnavon sold the exclusive rights to the excavation story to the London Times for £5,000 up front as well as 75% of the Times’ profits from sales of the story to other papers. This left every other news outlet high & dry for a story. Enter: the mummy’s curse.

Howard Carter's discovery of King Tut's tomb changed how we think of Egyptian mummies
Howard Carter’s 1922 discovery of Tutankhamun’s tomb changed the world (and how we think of Egyptian mummies).

From Beyond

Without access to the largest archaeological find of the age, all other news organizations were left scrambling for another angle. Less than six months after the discovery, on April 5th 1923 Lord Carnarvon died and the press had their angle. The media began to report on a supposed Egyptian curse that had killed Carnarvon for opening King Tut’s tomb (despite no such curse being written anywhere in the tomb).

Paranormal “experts” crawled out of the woodwork to substantiate the idea of a curse. Archaeologists (especially the ones who were excluded from the tomb) where willing to discuss potential curses, which allowed them to profit from the find. Rumors and claims spread & grew like wildfire. Even Howard Carter let the reports of a curse continue, never publicly denying them, because (like a Scooby-Doo episode) it had the effect of scaring people away from the tomb, allowing him to continue working on the excavation for the next decade in relative peace.

The association of mummies with curses proliferated across pop culture after the discovery of King Tut’s tomb.

I want my mummy

The western fascination with Egypt, and the orientalized ideas that it was an exotic land of magic, has existed since at least the Middle Ages. Using ground up mummies as medicine, or turning them into paint pigment, had long been practiced by Europeans. The 19th century Egyptomania craze popularized Egypt as a setting for fantastical stories of mummies and tombs. The first story featuring a reanimated mummy (a trope most later mummy stories would follow) was 1827’s The Mummy! A Tale of the Twenty-Second Century by Jane Webb. Bram Stoker’s 1903 horror novel The Jewel of Seven Stars also features Egyptian magic and resurrection. However the discover of King Tut’s tomb did more to popularize the idea of a mummy’s curse than anything else.

In 1932, not long after the 1922 discovery of King Tut’s tomb, the film The Mummy was released featuring Boris Karloff as an ancient mummy resurrected. This was the beginning of many, many mummy movies (including 1944’s The Mummy’s Curse and 1957’s Pharaoh’s Curse, both of which have a curse right in the title). Each telling of a mummy story wanted to be better or more fantastical than the previous so the idea of a mummy’s curse grew. Today the idea of resurrected mummies & curses is a standard part of the horror genre.

Added info: As for any idea that Lord Carnarvon’s death might be attributed to some kind of curse, there is no evidence to support this. While a few people associated with the excavation of the tomb of Tutankhamun died not long after its discovery, nobody died at an unusually young age. An epidemiological study of the people who entered the tomb found that these individuals died on average around 70 years old, which was normal for the early 20th century.

Also, Lord Carnarvon’s home was Highclere Castle, which today is the setting of Downton Abbey.

New England Vampires and Tuberculosis

The effects of tuberculosis led some 19th century New Englanders to believe that vampires were preying on the living.

In the late 18th and much of the 19th century there was a vampire panic in New England. People across New England feared that vampire-like creatures, using some kind of sympathetic magic, were slowly killing their friends & family from inside the grave (as opposed to traditional vampires who rise from the grave to attack). People would exhume their family members, look for the one who might be a vampire, and take various precautions to stop them. New Englanders might remove & burn the heart of a suspected vampire, they may turn the skeleton over facedown, decapitate the head, put a brick in their mouth, or use a wooden stake to pin their relative to the ground among other methods.

This panic was more than just a few isolated incidents. Henry David Thoreau mentions attending an exhumation in his journal on September 26, 1859. In February of 1793 over 500 people attended the ceremonial burning of the heart, liver, and lungs of supposed vampire Rachel Harris in Manchester, Vermont. After Nancy Young died in 1827 Rhode Island, her father thought that she might be preying on her still alive little sister Almira. The family exhumed Nancy’s coffin, burned it on a pyre, and stood in the smoke to breath in the vapors thinking it would free/cure them of this affliction – it did not work and Almira and two more of her siblings later died. Digesting the cremated remains of a suspected vampire, or breathing in the smoke of the cremation pyre, were not uncommon last resort treatments after traditional medicine had failed to heal sick relatives.

The 1892 exhuming of suspected vampire Mercy Brown in Exeter, Rhode Island became an international story – Bram Stoker based part of the Lucy character in Dracula on Mercy Brown. With 18 confirmed vampire cases, Rhode Island even become known as the “Vampire Capital of America.” The reason all of this happened was twofold: tuberculosis and decomposition.

The story of Mercy Brown influenced Bram Stoker’s Dracula.

Wasting away

Tuberculosis is an airborne disease that attacks the lungs (among other areas). Active tuberculosis kills about half of those infected and in 2018 it was the ninth leading cause of death worldwide (killing more people than Malaria or HIV/AIDS). In 19th century New England tuberculosis was the leading cause of death, killing an estimated 25% of the population.

Tuberculosis can develop over months or even years, slowly eating away at someone. A person with active TB develops a chronic cough as their lung tissue breaks down, their mucus starts to contain blood, they develop fevers, night sweats, and lose weight. Because of the weight loss the disease has been historically known as “consumption.” As the infected person wastes away they also develop ashen skin, giving them an overall sickly drained appearance.

Vampires, or, a lack of scientific understanding

The effect of tuberculosis (the slow draining of life) combined with some of the infected saying their deceased relatives were visiting them (as Almira Young claimed), was enough for some New Englanders to suspect there were vampires at work. Bodies of suspected vampires were exhumed to looks for signs of vampirism. Some of the corpses seemed have grown longer finger nails and longer hair, some were bloated, some had blood in their organs, while others seemed to have not decayed at all. These were surefire signs of a vampire … or were just normal parts of body decomposition.

As bodies decay they become dehydrated causing the skin to recede and shrink. This gives the illusion of longer fingernails & hair as the base of the nails and hair that was once under the skin is now exposed. The bodies that seemed to have not decayed at all were the ones of people who died in the cold winters of New England (as was Mercy Brown’s case who had died in January) where the cold slows the decomposition process. These unremarkable signs of decomposition were mistaken as proof of life after death to the untrained eyes of 19th century New England.

The dawn of a new era

The Mercy Brown story brought unwanted attention to New England. It was embarrassing that, while the light bulb was being invented and Henry Ford was building his first car, people were worried about folklorish undead monsters. The vampire panic rose and fell with the tuberculosis endemic of New England. Over time with advancements in science, and the dissemination of knowledge, belief in vampires faded away.

Added info: porphyria is another disease whose symptoms can be similar to vampire activity. It’s a liver disease that, for some, can cause sensitivity to sunlight (leading some to only come out at night) as well as sensitivity to garlic.

“Ask a Mortician” goes through the history of the New England vampire panic and the realities of tuberculosis in 19th century New England.

A crash course on tuberculosis.

Friday the 13th

The superstition that’s the combination of two separate superstitions (and a lot of magical thinking).

Superstitions are ideas that unrelated things are connected in some supernatural way. They’re frequently practices that are thought to bring about good or bad luck. Knocking on wood, walking under ladders, black cats, four leaf clovers, etc. are all classic western superstitions. Astrology and other fortune telling methods have a similar kind of magical thinking. The superstition of Friday the 13th is a combination of two separate superstitions: Fridays + the number 13.

From the Norse gods, to the Last Supper, thirteen people at a table has made 13 an unlucky number.

The unlucky number

One of the earliest examples of 13 being an unlucky number comes from Norse mythology. Loki was the uninvited 13th god to attend a feast following the recent slaying of the god Baldr (who died because Loki had tricked the blind god Höðr into inadvertently killing him). Another unlucky dinner with 13 members was the Last Supper where Judas betrayed Jesus. This spurred a related number 13 superstition that dinners with 13 members are unlucky. The first person to rise from the table will be in store for ill fortune (akin to how Judas was the first to rise from the Last Supper and was met with ill fortune). However various workarounds include dividing the guests across two tables or just having everyone rise at the same time (which seem like pretty simple hacks).

Another reason 13 is considered unlucky is that it throws off the satisfying “completeness” of 12. There are 12 months in the year, 12 signs of the western zodiac, there were 12 gods of Olympus, the 12 labors of Hercules, the aforementioned 12 Nordic gods in attendance at the the meal following Baldr’s death, 12 tribes of Israel, the 12 apostles, etc.

Over time western culture’s fear of 13 has spread to a wide variety of outlets. Over 80% of tall buildings skip counting the 13th floor and instead call it the 14th floor. Hotels sometimes skip having 13th rooms, the 13th card in the major arcana of the tarot deck is the card for death, the 13th loaf of bread in a baker’s dozen was sometimes said to be for the Devil, cruise ships tend to skip having a 13th floor, in Florence some houses which should have an address of 13 are given 12 1/2, etc.

The superstition that Friday is unlucky is largely because of the Good Friday crucifixion of Jesus as well as other Bible stories.

It’s Friday I’m in … trouble

The fear of Friday has mostly Judeo-Christian origins. Jesus was said to have been crucified on a Friday (or perhaps it was a Wednesday). The start of the Great Flood and the confusion at the Tower of Babel were both said to have taken place on a Friday. Eve supposedly tempted Adam with the forbidden fruit, and the resulting expulsion from the Garden of Eden, took place on a Friday. Further Cain killed Abel on a Friday. Unfortunately the Bible is silent on what calendar system was in use in the Garden of Eden or how they had Fridays at all.

Eating meat on a Friday is considered unlucky because it’s reminiscent of death and the crucifixion (but eating fish is apparently exempt from this bad luck somehow). Cutting your nails on a Friday is also considered unlucky for similar severing of the body related reasons. Over time Fridays became an inauspicious day to begin or finish things. Starting a voyage, starting a new job, finishing the production of an article of clothing, moving house, getting married, giving birth, etc. on a Friday have all been considered unlucky.

That said if you die on a Good Friday there’s a superstition that you go right to Heaven.

The 1868 Friday the 13th death of Rossini is one of the first instances of Friday the 13th being unlucky but the superstition became popular during the 20th century.

Two great tastes that taste great together

Bringing these two superstitions together seemed inevitable, the super-superstition of bad luck on Friday the 13th, but it’s relatively new. Friday the 13th is first mentioned as unlucky in the 19th century with the most famous example being the Friday the 13th, November 1868 death of Italian composer Gioachino Rossini.

Friday the 13th didn’t become more widely unlucky in pop culture until the 20th century. Most people credit the 1907 Thomas Lawson novel Friday, the Thirteenth, about a stockbroker who chooses that date to manipulate (and crash) the stock market, as the popularization of the Friday the 13th superstition.

But like all superstitions, an unlucky day & date combination is inconsistent and culturally specific. While English speaking countries think of Friday the 13th as unlucky, in Spain and Greece it’s Tuesday the 13th that’s supposed to be unlucky, but in Italy it’s Friday the 17th.

It’s all in your mind

Ultimately the idea that Fridays, or the number 13, or the combination of Friday the 13th, are in any way unlucky, is nonsense. If they were real they’d be universally held beliefs (not to mention some objective proof). Instead these three superstitions are mostly just inconsistent western ideas – people in the rest of the world are going about their lives unaware of the danger they’re supposedly in (and somehow surviving).

There is no evidence that Friday the 13th brings about an increase in unfortunate incidents or accidents. A 2011 study in the The American Journal of Emergency Medicine reviewed hospital emergency admission rates and found no significant difference between Friday the 13th to other days. In fact a 2008 Dutch study demonstrated the opposite may be true, that people are more cautious on Friday the 13th and as a result there are fewer road accidents.

The Friday the 13th movie franchise capitalizes on the superstition. Interestingly in Spanish speaking countries the movies are sometimes called Martes 13 (Tuesday the 13th) in keeping with the Spanish superstition around Tuesday the 13th, instead of Friday the 13th. Finally, the most important metal band of all time Black Sabbath released their eponymous debut album on Friday the 13th, February 1970.

Black Sabbath, the most important metal band of all time, released their debut album on Friday the 13th, February 1970.

There are highs & (many) lows to the Friday the 13th movie franchise, but the disco theme song for Part 3 is something else.

Astrology

Astrology, the idea that the stars are influencing your life, is completely fake.

Humans have been following the movements of the sun, the moon, the planets, and the stars for thousands of years. Using this celestial information to understand the seasons and the passage of time is logical. Using this information to predict the future or explain human personalities, is not logical (but understandable). People want to understand why things happen, the world can be scary, and finding some system in the stars is an attractive idea. A relatable narrative is more appealing than unpredictable chaos so it’s understandable that people would look to astrology (like how people fall for conspiracy theories).

While there are different kinds of astrology, the shared basics is that they use complex series of real astronomical calculations combined with made-up traits assigned to different constellations/alignments/times to “gain insights” into the workings of the world. The Western astrological system is rooted in Hellenistic astrology from the Mediterranean around 200-100 BCE (which itself is based in the much older Babylonian astrology). It’s from Hellenistic astrology that we get the Zodiac, horoscopes, star signs, and the kind of astrology we typically encounter in blogs and newspapers.

Despite millennia of study & measurements, nobody is any closer to explaining why astrology is supposedly real.

Bunk

That said, astrology is completely fake. It’s pseudoscience, superstition, hooey. To start, there’s no reason a distant configuration of stars which looks vaguely like a crab or a bull would have any relationship with the events on Earth. But even if there was some kind of relationship there would need to be a force connecting us to these heavenly bodies, affecting us here on Earth. Science hasn’t found or been able to measure any kind of force at work. Neither gravity nor electromagnetism work like this. Maybe there is some unknown other force, that remains strong yet undetectable, interacting with us from distant stars trillions of miles away which has yet to be discovered.

Another problem is that astrological assessments/predictions should be at least consistent if not accurate. In 1985 scientist Shawn Carlson conducted a double-blind experiment with astrologers to match personality test results to natal charts (essentially their zodiac symbols). If personality types are immutably governed by the stars, matching a zodiac sign to a participant’s corresponding personality type should be easy. It was apparently not easy, as astrologers performed about the same as pure chance. Worse, the astrologer participants performed poorly in even finding their own personality profiles.

Maybe astrology succeeds despite the human failings of astrologers. Time twins, people born at the same time on the same day sometimes even in the same hospital, should have similar personalities. Unfortunately there is no correlation at all. Even without astrologers being involved astrology is inconsistent.

Part of the blame for astrology lies with its adherents who believe astrology is real. Paranormal skeptic James Randi conducted an exercise where he gave detailed horoscopes to a class full of students. Most of the students said the horoscope they received was quite accurate. The trick was that Randi gave the same horoscope to everyone in the class. What the students in Randi’s experiment fell for was the Barnum effect.

Barnum Effect

The Barnum effect (aka the Forer effect) is found in fortune telling and astrology where an assessment/reading seems to be about you but in reality can apply to almost anyone. These are statements that have been carefully worded to be specific and yet universal. For example, one might say that …

“You have a tendency to be critical of yourself. You have a great need for other people to like and admire you. You pride yourself as an independent thinker and do not accept others’ statements without satisfactory proof. At times you are extroverted, affable, sociable, while at other times you are introverted, wary, reserved.”

In fact these statements are part of what psychologist Bertram Forer gave to his test subjects as part of his 1948 study. When assessing the accuracy of these statements, participants in Forer’s experiment gave an average rating of 4.3 out of 5 (5 being the most accurate). It turns out every student was given the exact same statements. Horoscopes and other astrological readings frequently use the Barnum effect to seem specific to you but in reality can apply to almost anyone.

Confirmation Bias

Another way astrology can seem real is through confirmation bias. Believers remember the predictions that came true more than the ones that didn’t. When someone has an emotional desire for a certain outcome they can respond more favorably towards the evidence that supports their beliefs and dismiss or undervalue contradictory evidence. Selectively remembering the horoscopes that came true can make astrology seem real, even thought it’s not.

Other contributing factors are that people who believe in astrology tend to be of lower intelligence, and more narcissistic, than non-believers. A potential “self-centered worldview” (along with a shaky understanding of science) could be influencing factors leading people to believe in astrology.

Ultimately astrology is inconsistent, inaccurate, and unable to explain why any of it is supposedly happening. From Cicero to modern scientists we have compelling arguments and mountains of scientific evidence showing again and again that astrology isn’t real. As professor Ivan Kelly of the University of Saskatchewan wrote, “Astrology is part of our past and has undeniable historical value, but astrologers have given no plausible reason why it should have a role in our future.”

Added bonus: one famous believer in astrology was President Ronald Reagan. Astrologer Joan Quigley (the Rasputin of the Reagan White House) regularly consulted her star charts to advise the president on a host of matters. She advised the president on when to deliver speeches, when to have presidential debates, when he should schedule his cancer surgery, and even when to land Air Force One. It was generous of the Christian Moral Majority to overlook Reagan’s pagan beliefs.

Zombies: Sadder Than You Think

The concept of Haitian zombies was used as a threat to keep slaves working.

Before Haiti was an independent country it was the French colony of Saint-Domingue where they produced sugar, coffee, cotton, and other goods. The French brought more than a million West African people to the colony as slaves, more than any other colony in the Caribbean. Slavery in Saint-Domingue was particularly brutal – most people were poorly fed, they worked 12 hour days, pregnant slaves frequently didn’t live long enough to have babies, torture was common. Life expectancy was about 3-6 years with about half of the enslaved people of Saint-Domingue dying within the first few years of arriving.

The brutal conditions of Saint-Domingue left the enslaved people hoping that, in death, their souls would return home to West Africa.

Haitian Vodou & Zombies

The Code Noir was a 1685 decree that outlined how slavery was to be conducted in the French empire. Among other things it stated that slaves were prohibited from practicing African religions and instead were forcibly baptized into Catholicism. What resulted was Haitian Vodou, a religious blend of West African beliefs (practiced in secret) given a veneer of Catholicism.

Part of this belief system was the idea that, upon dying, you would return to lan guinée (ie. Guinea, or West Africa). Their idea of heaven was to escape the slavery of Saint-Domingue and to simply go home. Feeling the allure of going home some people decided to escape slavery on their own terms. As such suicide was very common Saint-Domingue.

Initially suicide was seen as a viable way of getting to lan guinée but at some point there was a change. At some point (oral tradition is murky on when/how) suicide was prohibited and the punishment for committing suicide was that you’d be a slave forever – you’d become a zombie. The zombies of Haitian Vodou are not the Western pop culture shambling brain-eating zombies. The Haitian zombie was someone whose soul had been captured, denied entry to lan guinée, and was turned into an undead field hand with no chance of escape. Plantation slave-drivers used this to their advantage threatening slaves that if they killed themselves they would be turned into zombies to work forever under the control of a bokor/sorcerer. Unlike today what was feared was the threat of becoming a zombie, not the actual zombies themselves.

1929’s White Zombie was the first zombie movie. It used some Haitian Vodou beliefs but took significant artistic license.

White Zombie

Over time the zombie concept evolved and changed. The sensationalistic 1929 William Seabrook travel book The Magic Island introduced voodoo and zombies to mainstream Western culture. This inspired the 1932 film White Zombie, which was the first zombie movie. White Zombie stars Bela Lugosi as the villainous Murder Legendre (a bit on the nose) who’s a bokor enslaving people as zombies to be his henchmen and to work in his sugarcane mill. White Zombie used Haitian Vodou ideas but with a lot of artistic license. Later zombie stories dropped the Saint-Domingue threat of eternal slavery, then they dropped the bokor master commanding the zombies. Aside from being mindless undead creatures, the zombies of today have little resemblance to their sadder more terrifying origins.

Added info: following the Haitian revolution of 1791–1804, the 1883 Haitian Criminal Code outlaws the practice of turning someone into a zombie.

The Necronomicon

The most famous magical book of occult knowledge that sounds real, but isn’t.

Possibly the most famous book that doesn’t exist, the Necronomicon is a fictional book of dark magic invented by weird fiction / horror author H.P. Lovecraft. First mentioned in 1924’s The Hound, the Necronomicon is part of Lovecraft’s Cthulhu Mythos, a dark collection of cosmic horror, ghouls, inter dimensional monsters, and unspeakable evil all set in an uncaring indifferent universe. The best interpretation of the name “necronomicon” is “book considering (or classifying) the dead”. Supposedly written in 738 CE by Abdul Alhazred (who was later eaten alive by an invisible monster in broad daylight), the Necronomicon is a dark book of forbidden knowledge and most Lovecraft characters who read it come to horrible ends.

Lovecraft felt to produce terror a story had to be “… devised with the care and verisimilitude of an actual hoax.” As such the Necronomicon is very much treated as if it were a real book. Lovecraft enjoyed making his fictional world seem believable. For example, in a list of real books he would throw in a few real-sounding fake ones (such as the Necronomicon) – blurring the line between reality and fiction. Similarly he wrote that there were copies of the Necronomicon held by 5 world institutions: the British Museum, Harvard, Bibliothèque nationale de France, University of Buenos Aires, as well as Miskatonic University … which is a fictional school set in the equally fictional city of Arkham, Massachusetts. Again, including a fictional creation in a list of real places making something fake seem real.

H.P. Lovecraft’s Necronomicon can be found in a host of movies, books, comics, and more.

Crawling Chaos

Part of the appeal of the Necronomicon (beyond the spooky name) is that, like all good suspenseful horror, Lovecraft gives the reader just enough details to understand the idea of the Necronomicon but the exact contents (or even a good physical description of the book) are left open to your imagination. This vagueness also kept the door open for future expansion of ideas. Soon other authors began to include the Necronomicon in their work, and so it spread.

Today the Necronomicon has gone beyond the works of Lovecraft & his friends and has appeared in countless other projects. It’s in books, movies, cartoons, comics, video games, music, etc, each with their own take on exactly what the Necronomicon is, but it’s always a book of dark magic. It’s in the The Evil Dead series, it’s in an episode of The Real Ghostbusters, Mr. Burns mentions it at a meeting of republicans in The Simpsons, it’s the name of a German thrash metal band, it’s the name of H.R. Giger’s first collection of artwork, Michael Crichton and Stephen King have both referenced it, etc. The book of the dead lives on, spreading its tentacles across dark fiction. Cthulhu fhtagn.

Added info: The fictional Arkham Asylum in the DC Universe, where many of Batman’s foes are frequently locked away, was named after the fictional Lovecraft town of Arkham, Massachusetts.

Mr. Burns has Bob Dole read from the Necronomicon.

In a cleverly titled episode The Collect Call of Cathulhu, the Ghostbusters discuss that the Necronomicon will be on display at the New York City Public Library.

Vampires & Arithmomania

According to folklore, vampires have an obsessive compulsion to count.

The idea of an undead creature murdering and/or consuming the living is found in a host of cultures around the world. Some of these monsters are cleverly cunning while others are mindless killing machines, but the general vampiric themes are shared. Our modern idea of vampires is largely based on the 1897 Bram Stoker novel Dracula, which in turn took ideas from Romanian folklore.

The Final Countdown

One curious component of vampiric folklore in Slavic down through Greek cultures is the vampire’s obsessive compulsive need to count things. Vampires were said to have arithmomania and needed to count things and actions. People took advantage of this by scattering seeds, salt, grains of rice, or whatever else they had in tiny sizes & large numbers, on the floor of their houses. An intruding vampire would then have to count each seed/grain giving the homeowner time to escape or, if it took the vampire long enough, the sun would rise and vanquish the undead intruder. Similarly it was believed that vampires would count all of the holes in a fishing net leading some individuals to hang nets by the entrances of their homes. It was also tradition to spread seeds/grain in a cemetery on the grave of a possible vampire so, upon rising from the grave, they would be kept busy through the night counting and staying away from the living.

Strangely this obsession with counting wasn’t always limited to vampires. In parts of Italy it was believe that witches had a similar affliction. On the Eve of St. John’s Day you could defend yourself from a witch by giving her a red carnation because she would have to count the petals giving you time to escape. In America some believed witches had to count the holes in sieves, leading some to hang them by their doors.

I Love to Count

Ultimately this compulsion to count things is the joke behind Count von Count on Sesame Street. He’s a vampire who loves to count and teaches children numbers. Like the Slavic vampires of folklore he is driven to count anything he sees. It’s a joke hidden in plain site.

In the X-Files episode “Bad Blood” a drugged Mulder defends himself against a vampire by throwing a bag of sunflower seeds on the floor.

Abracadabra

The magic word with a magical/medical past.

The exact origin of abracadabra is unknown but what is known is, before its modern usage by stage magicians, it was used as a real magical incantation. The earliest documented instance is the 2nd century medical text Liber Medicinalis by Serenus Sammonicus. As physician to the the Roman emperor Caracalla, Sammonicus prescribed wearing an amulet with the word abracadabra written on it to cure malaria.

A 13th century version of the 2nd century medical text Liber Medicinalis by Serenus Sammonicus showing abracadabra written in triangular form.

Abracadabra’s use in healing magic may have to do with its possible etymologies. One possibility is that it comes from the Hebrew “ebrah k’dabri” or “I will create as I speak”. Or it may have come from “Abraxas” the mystical word/god from the Gnostic belief system. One language it’s not from is Aramaic (which the internet likes to say it is). Often quoted as coming from “Abra Kadabra” meaning “May the thing be destroyed”, this false Aramaic etymology became a popular internet “factoid” because J.K. Rowling used it as the basis for her “Avada Kedavra” spell in the Harry Potter series (a spell that does not cure malaria … or anything else).

Abracadabra became a popular protective magical word to cure a variety of ills. One application was to write abracadabra out 11 times but each time removing the new last letter, forming a triangle pointing down. This could be written on parchment and worn around the neck, or carved into a pendant of some kind, but the idea was the same – you used the word to summon protective spirits. As you worked your way down, abracadabra would disappear and hopefully so would your illness.

In a metal pendant or written on parchment, abracadabra in triangular form was said to have protective / healing powers.

From Real Magic to Stage “Magic”

Over the millennia, as our scientific knowledge grew, we learned more about medicine and our belief in magic diminished. In general we no longer rely on magic to cure/protect us from the unknown. Our scientific understanding of the world leaves little room for magic; in a similar way to how we no longer have sea monsters on our maps. Magic went from being a highly-regarded area of study, to fun entertaining tricks illusions with rabbits in hats, decks of cards, sleight of hand, magic wands, etc. Similarly, abracadabra went from being a real magic word to being a performative word for stage magicians.

Added info: In A Journal of the Plague Year, Daniel Defoe mentions that some citizens of London, so desperate for relief from the plague in 1665, took to writing abracadabra in the triangle design on the doors of their homes. The Victorians took to the triangular abracadabra pendant as Western esotericism became popular. Today you can still find abracadabra pendants, should you want a little extra magical protection from the viruses of today.

Conspiracy Theories

Belief in conspiracy theories comes from a desire to make sense of complex or troubling events. They try to reduce the anxiety and confusion generated by things that are hard to understand and/or don’t fit with one’s world view.

The Jews of Medieval Europe were often believed to have committed a variety of nefarious plots. From being responsible for the death of Jesus, to poisoning water wells during the Black Death, to a sinister association with money (which serves as a foundation for later conspiracy theories), the Jews have been victims of conspiracy theories for thousands of years. Scapegoating marginalized peoples is common in conspiratorial thinking. Solving why conspiracy theories are so attractive to so many people is complicated.

Out of Control

Conspiracy theories are a way of making sense of events that are hard to understand. Humans dislike uncertainty, so having an explanation (however flawed) is more attractive than doubt. Uncertainty generates anxiety and stressful times only serve to increase the number of people turning to conspiracy theories as a way to alleviate their anxiety.

For example, there are numerous conspiracy theories surrounding coronavirus – it was engineered by the Chinese government, or it was engineered by Bill Gates, or it’s being spread by 5G cell phone towers. The 1889 global influenza pandemic (the “Russian flu”) was blamed on electric lights, telegraph poles, and even just electricity in general. What’s old is new again. People are afraid of a deadly virus that isn’t fully understood and so they blame a new technology that they also don’t fully understand.

Fighting the 1889 influenza pandemic, or fighting the 2020 coronavirus pandemic, for years medical professionals have also had to fight conspiracy theories.

The world is largely out of our control and major world events can remind us of how little control we have. Conspiracy theories give a feeling of control to people who feel anxious about a situation they can’t control. Many events are the complex result of a confluence of factors, and sometimes things just happen at random. Neither of these make people feel good. Complexity is not the soundbite people want. Instead it is much more attractive to believe in a simplistic fictional narrative where there are clearly defined good guys and bad guys and you can blame the bad guys for what’s happening. People like easy to understand stories rather than complicated chaos. In having a target to blame, a conspiracy theory believer can take action and have some degree of control rather than being powerless to a complicated abstract concept.

Humans are also pattern recognition machines. Unfortunately we also imagine patterns where there are none. Gamblers and sports fans see streaks and patterns where mathematically there is nothing more than normal chance. People who see non-existent patterns in normal life are more likely to believe in conspiracy theories. In conspiracy theories people construct connections and see patterns where there are none in an attempt to create a story that feels better than uncertainty.

Humans are pattern recognizing machines, but sometimes we find patterns that don’t exist.

All Kinds

While people who believe in conspiracy theories come from all economic levels, genders, political affiliations, and racial backgrounds, there are a few patterns that exist. For one, people who believe in one conspiracy theory are statistically more likely to believe in additional unrelated theories. Also, belief in conspiracy theories is fueled by the anxiety of not understanding why things happen, and the people who are most likely to not understand things are the less educated.

While conspiracy theories range from the small to large, major world events are more likely to be the focus of conspiracy theories because the effects of such events are so impactful. People want big meaningful events to have equally big and meaningful explanations. This is proportionality bias. The JFK assassination is the focus of numerous conspiracy theories, but the attempted assassination of Ronald Reagan is not. Even though both events are similar in nature, for most people nothing really resulted in the failed assassination of Reagan and so a simple explanation was sufficient. For the JFK assassination however, the idea that one deranged person could cause so much chaos wasn’t a big enough answer for such a big event.

On the Inside

Ultimately believing in conspiracy theories is about belief – it is not about facts. People who believe in conspiracy theories have an insular and circular logic that shields them from the real world. Facts that contradict a conspiracy theory are met with suspicion and are thought of as part of the conspiracy. People like information that feels right, not necessarily is right. Further, the absence of proof to support a conspiracy theory can be seen as proof of the conspiracy theory. It’s an echo chamber shielded from reality.

In 2016 Dr. David Grimes created a formula for how long a conspiracy could realistically stay a secret before being exposed to the public. The more people involved, and the more time that passes, the more likely that someone will say something. For example, the moon landing involved around 411,000 NASA employees. As of today it is extremely unlikely that the moon landing was a hoax because it would have meant that almost half a million people were sworn to secrecy and not a single one of them ever let anything slip for decades. Grimes’s formula demonstrates just how unlikely it is for most conspiracy theories to be true. Information wants to be free. But belief in conspiracy theories continues.

The QAnon conspiracy theory started around 2017. It has since grown into a wide-reaching network of beliefs including a pedophile ring run by celebrities & liberals who are controlling the media, secret deep-state government operations, aliens, human sacrifice, and (wouldn’t you know it) the only person who can stop it all is Donald Trump.

Unraveling

Conspiracy theories are contradictorily both known and unknown. The believer has secret knowledge but also lacks any real evidence. That a conspiracy could have been partially leaked but no real evidence is revealed is very unlikely. But believers are not deterred because conspiracy theories aren’t about facts.

In an age of unprecedented access to information some people have sought emotional refuge in baseless fictional narratives. Conspiracy theories are a symptom, but not the cause, of ignorance. It is easier to prevent a conspiracy theory from taking hold than to change someone’s mind once they believe. It is much harder to unlearn something than learn something new. One way to prevent the adoption of conspiracy theories is an idea called “Pre-bunking” or more formally as attitudinal inoculation. In Pre-bunking people learn some of the techniques used to manipulate them into believing things that aren’t true, arming them to be ready when they encounter misinformation. For those who already believe, psychologists say it is better to treat the root cause of a believer’s ignorance than to try and dissuade them from a particular conspiracy theory.

So whether it’s the suspicion of witches, the Knights Templar, the Freemasons, the Communist red scare, the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, the Illuminati, crop circles, water fluoridation, Area 51, the Royal Family assassinated Princess Diana, 9/11 was an inside job, chemtrails, Obama wasn’t born in America, QAnon, flat earth theory, the deep state, anti-vaxxers, or that coronavirus is being spread by cell phone towers … knowledge from reliable sources and improving critical thinking skills are the best ways to reduce belief in conspiracy theories.

That Mitchell and Webb Look satirize conspiratorial thinking.

Jack-o’-Lanterns

The Jack-o’-Lantern is an iconic part of modern Halloween but its origins are in much older traditions.

Humans have been hollowing out vegetables to use as lanterns for at least 10,000 years. The Māori of New Zealand use the word “‘ue” for both “gourd” as well as “lampshade.” While the jack-o’-lantern is Irish in origin, the pumpkin is a New World vegetable. So before 1492 the Irish used other vegetables to create makeshift lanterns, and one Irishman in particular used a turnip.

Jack of the lantern

Stingy Jack, Drunk Jack, Jack of the Lantern – his name varies about as much as his story does. The common thread among the variations of this folk tale is that Jack was a jerk. A bad drunk, or a liar, or both, Jack generally made trouble for the people of old Ireland. Eventually the devil came for Jack but, clever as Jack was, he talked the devil into going for a drink before taking him to Hell. Jack convinced the devil to turn into a silver coin that he could use to pay for the drinks (again, Stingy Jack). Once in coin form Jack put the devil in his pocket beside a crucifix, torturing the devil. He released the devil on the condition that the devil go away for some period of time – some versions say 1 year, others say 10. Eventually the devil came back for Jack but, incredibly, was tricked again. This time Jack asked for one final taste of this life and tricked the devil into climbing up an apple tree to fetch an apple. Once in the tree Jack either carved a cross in the trunk, or he placed a cross at the foot of the tree, but either way he trapped the devil up in the tree. This time the devil agreed to go away forever and to never take Jack’s soul.

Eventually Jack died and was obviously refused entry into Heaven, but as per their agreement the devil refused him entry to Hell. So Jack was forced to forever wander between worlds. To light his way in this shadow world of existence, the devil gave Jack a burning coal which he placed inside a turnip as a lantern. This was the first jack-o’-lantern.

Samhain lanterns

The Halloween we know has its roots in the ancient Irish pagan festival of Samhain. A Gaelic harvest festival marking the end of the pagan year and the start of the new year, Samhain is the beginning of the dark half of the year. Festivities begin at sunset on October 31st and go through the night to November 1st. This one evening is believed to be especially supernatural where the boundary between this world and the spirit world is blurred. The ghosts of the deceased as well as the supernatural fairy folk (the aos sí) are said to temporarily cross over into our world. To appease these spirits, and for protection from any tricks they may play, the ancient Irish would light bonfires, prepare special meals, and perform sacred rituals. Making lanterns from hollowed out vegetables was also believed to help ward off evil spirits.

Eventually the Samhain lanterns and Jack’s lantern came together. Jack-o’-lanterns supersized to pumpkins as early as 1834 as Irish immigrants brought the custom to America. Today most pumpkins grown in the United States and the United Kingdom are grown solely for decoration. Despite being high in fiber as well as vitamin A, most pumpkins are never eaten. Billions of pounds of pumpkins are thrown in the trash each year after serving as seasonal decorations.

So after your jack-o’-lantern wards off the evil aos sí during Samhain, find a second use for that pumpkin as food.