Friday, October 19, 2012

Rational Irrationals

It’s amusing that the definition of superstition is predicated on ‘irrational belief’. Who decides what’s rational? After all, one man’s superstition is another man’s religion. We have a world history full of one nation calling another’s religion superstition. That’s just never worked out well for anyone. Who gets to draw those distinctions?

The interesting thing is that a number of things we now consider superstition once had a basis in complete rationality. You know the thing about not whistling in the theater? For years and years, predating walkie talkies and headphones, set, curtain, and lighting cues were called on a boatswain’s whistle from backstage. Anyone whistling an innocent tune in the theater would utterly mess up an army of stage hands, who then might come hunting the whistler. Army of hacked off stage hands equals ‘unlucky’ in my definition. The spurious example? Not saying the name of "The Scottish Play" while in a production, ANY production. Yep. Saying "MacBeth" by name is supposed to utterly doom your show. If ever you're in a play, I don't recommend running up on stage and shouting MacBeth while the rest of the cast and crew are there.
Am I superstitious? I have a degree in acting, and I live on a boat. Absolutely, I harbor a few superstitions. I suspect more of us do than don’t, if only because Western culture is so steeped in the stuff. How many elevators have you been in that have a stop for the 13th floor? Do you wish people good luck? Tell them you’re crossing your fingers for them? While I haven’t yet purposefully set out to write a superstitious character, I suspect every single one has a quirk or three just because mainstreamed superstition is the ocean I swim in.

I’m with the majority of the Word Whores. Superstitions are gold waiting to be mined for a plot. As a character device, they’re a multipurpose tool. Is a heroine throwing salt over her shoulder because that’s what grandma did and this is a touching connection with said long dead granny? Or does the heroine really believe she’s blinding the devil to her misdeeds with that salt? What if she really is blinding the devildb? There’s so much room to play with superstition in story and you can delve into all kinds of nuance about people gaming superstition to their advantage. After all, with superstition such a big part of the human condition, this stuff has hooks deep in our subconscious minds. You know marketing leverages that. What if a serial killer in a story did, too?

Are superstitions like the old Voodoo trope? It only works if you’ve invested belief in it? And then it’s a clear case of expectation front loading your perception? You expect Friday the 13th to suck, so it does. Conversely, if you’re into Wicca, Friday the 13th is supposedly a lucky day. Do you suddenly stop having bad Friday the 13ths because you convert? What happens in a story if a non-superstitious person, or someone from outside of a culture, follows a local superstition just to be culturally sensitive – except it works? Or appears to work?

Oh yes. This stuff is pure story gold.

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