One of the earliest memories I have of Hallowe’en is watching Disney’s “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.” I was thrilled by the almost relaxing chaos of a world turned topsy-turvy by spooks and ghosts. Perhaps life was out of our hands, perhaps we had to be careful where we stepped. That was fascinating to me as a five year old. I remembered Ichabod Crane avoiding ladders and black cats, and taking care to toss spilled salt over his shoulder. I diligently copied his example (to my mother’s chagrin), before it was explained to me that superstitions are silly and those who follow them are fools.
But sometimes – as I learned watching Ichabod’s careful traipsing around evil omens – it feels good to be a fool. What follows are thirteen of the weirdest and most devoutly believed Victorian superstitions. Here at Oldstyle Tales, we have an appreciation for the nightside of Victoriana (The Best Victorian Ghost Stories was my first book), and if you share that feeling, you’ll enjoy this sample of 19th century anxiety. Maybe read them and laugh, or maybe – even if it’s just for today – let yourself be a fool. Throw that spilled salt over your shoulder and grin.
13. OMENS OF DEATH
There are so many! The Victorians were famously death-obsessed, and – living as they did in a world where death was never far away – they developed an intricate code for detecting the Grim Reaper’s presence. Some included seeing an owl during daylight, noticing a sparrow land on a piano, seeing a single snowdrop in a garden, or seeing your face in a dream. With death always around the corner, Victorians found comfort in detecting ways to predict his arrival – even if it meant thinking that your death was eminent just because you had cheese before bed.
12. BEWARE OF THREES
“Celebrities die in threes.” This superstition is still believed today, but in Victoriana, you didn’t have to be famous to suffer it. After two deaths in a family, a third was anticipated. Another variation (developed in World War One) held that if three people lit their cigarettes off of one match, the third was a goner (this was more due to snipers than spirits).
11. CEMETERY PROTOCOL
Before electric street lamps, cemeteries (still no cheery places) were even more chilling at night, and walking past them was no treat. Andrew Carnegie famously remembered holding his breath as he walked past a graveyard in his youth, and his approach was not original: one superstition held that by doing this, you prevent possession. Another said that if you managed to hold your breath the entire way, you would never be buried alive.
I always was fascinated by stories of clocks stopped by moments of tragedy: wristwatches, pocket watches, or wall clocks frozen in time by explosions, train derailments, or shipwrecks. The Victorians made sure that if nature didn’t stop the clock after a death, someone living did: it was considered unlucky not to stop all the clocks in a house at the moment of a death – failing to do so invited more bad fortune, and disrespected the lost life.
As mentioned previously, dreams – that glimpse into the uncanny – were considered a portal to the supernatural. Dreaming of yourself was never good, but there was much more that could leave a Victorian waking up in a cold sweat: dreaming about a birth was ironically a sure sign of coming death. Other ominous nocturnal guests include black cats sitting on a bed, bees swarming in a rotten tree, owls perched on a rooftop, dogs scratching on the floor, a shark following a ship, a white horse, white rabbit, or a cow giving birth to twins.
8. EVIL FLYERS
Birds are usually considered signs of good fortune: cardinals, albatrosses, doves. But some put the fear of God into Victorians. Little sparrows were believed to carry the souls of the dead to heaven, and killing one was considered a quick way to get your own personal haunting. Owls, of course, have long been feared for their intelligent, grumpy eyes, twisting heads, and plaintive hoot. To see one looking in your window was a sure sign of impending death. Crows and bats are also ill omened: to see six crows was a fatal omen, and bats were considered messengers of the devil (hence “like a bat out of hell”), bringing no good luck to those who encountered them.
Mirrors were tremendously expensive until the industrial revolution, and their ability to portray an absolute reproduction of reality was understandably mesmerizing. Throw in the way that right-to-left is shifted to left-to-right, and it makes sense that it was considered a mystical apparatus. Mirrors seemed to capture the soul, and to break one (especially one that has just been holding your image) was thought to invite a karmic reply to the non-mirror-world.