I’ve commented before that mountain people hang onto old traditions, many deeply rooted in European (especially Scots-Irish), African and even Native American ancestry. With the Halloween season approaching I thought it a good time to cover some paranormal-ish superstitions that I learned through my family or heard locally. I’m betting you’ve heard at least one or two yourself.
Death comes in three’s: This superstition suggests that if someone dies, that two other people associated with the deceased will also die soon. I’ve heard this one all my life, and the only historic reference to explain it is an old belief called “Rule of Three,” that states that bad events (or good events) come in multiples of three.
Blue porch ceilings: This is an old belief that painting porch ceilings blue would ward off evil spirits. My wife’s grandma (Momsie) insisted on this her entire life. The traditional color is a shade of light blue that was appropriately referred to as “haint blue.”
Staying up at a wake: This is the tradition of holding vigil over a dead body prior to burial, normally the night before. The term originated from the Old English word “wacan,” meaning “to be awake and keep watch.” This is an old Celtic tradition and precedes Christianity coming to Scotland and Ireland. Wakes were held to ward off evil spirits from disturbing the body. With the introduction of Christianity, prayer and meditation was sometimes added to the vigil.
Covering mirrors after a death: This was done as soon as someone died, and all of the mirrors in the house were covered with bed sheets until after the burial. One old belief was that if the soul of the recently departed saw their reflection in a mirror, they would become trapped and not able to leave and begin their afterlife, so this might cause them to stay and haunt the house. Another reference noted that evil spirits congregate where someone died, and that you might catch a glimpse of them in a mirror.
Stopping clocks at the time of death: This one had several possible origins. One belief goes that when a person dies, they begin a new period of existence without time. If time is allowed to continue in the house, as in a running clock, the spirit might remain in the house. Another belief was that if clocks weren’t stopped, bad luck would remain in the home.
A bird flying into a window foretells death: My wife’s Grandma Madon believed that the death of one of her sons was foretold by a bird flying into a closed window and killing itself. There are several versions of this superstition, including a bird actually getting into the house, or a bird landing on a window sill and rapping on the glass with its beak. The only reference I could find on this one is that long ago birds in general were considered mystical because they could fly and stuff, and so their appearance in an unusual manner was a red flag.
Trees flowering out of season is an ill omen: I got spooked by this one by my great aunt Jenny Arnold when I was like 10 years old. My mom and I walked with her down to her old home place one day in September, and there was a dogwood tree in the yard that had two blooms on it, way off of its normal April bloom time. Seeing those flowers creeped her out, and she was adamant that something bad was going to happen, suggesting that someone was going to die. Her extreme agitation scared me as well, because….well….there were only three of us there and so the odds weren’t good for any of us.
Steve Roark is the area forester in Tazewell, Tennessee for the Tennessee Department of Agriculture, Forestry Division.