Characterisation – Fears and Superstitions

by Chris McMahon

Fleshing out characters can be a lot of fun. One popular choice, particularly with horror/suspense writers, is to give the character a particular fear that plays into the story. For example they might have a fear of flying and the big confrontation with the glowing aliens from Mars has to happen on the outside of a racing spacecraft over Manhattan. Or they are afraid of the dark, but to confront the villain they have to go down THOSE stairs into the pitch black basement. This often works well, but can also seem a little contrived if the latter scenes are not woven together convincingly.

But there are plenty of other options. One that is a bit of fun is to incorporate a superstition. This got me thinking about superstitions in general and I thought it might be fun for people to post their own superstitions or those of friends and relatives. Having something from real life like that adds a real element to fiction.

In terms of my family, the one I remember most distinctly is one of my grandmother’s. She used to cover all the mirrors in the house during a thunderstorm. She also used to live in fear of birds flying into windows – it would mean that someone in the family was going to die.

The one I experienced at first-hand was the Irish Catholic practice of dosing children liberally with Holy Water as they lay in bed ready for sleep. You cannot put a price on chasing away the nasty Devil. I kind of liked it actually. Dad used to get his holy water from the St Benedict’s font, and kept it in a little glass bottle. He would pour a bit of Holy Water into his hand and cast away. He had a good technique by the time I came along at number eleven.

There is the old salt over the left shoulder ritual to hit the Devil in the eye if you spill the salt, but that’s never been too convincing for me. What’s the Devil care about sodium chloride anyway?

For myself – I have one that I have never been able to shake that was passed onto me by my mother. If your ears are ringing, it means someone is talking about you. If it’s your left ear it’s something bad – if it’s your right ear it’s something good. You might say I live in fear of left-sided ear infections. This is totally crazy, and yet I can’t shake it. It has a spooky king of logic. If my tinnitus worsens I could be in for permanent paranoia.

What superstitions do you have? Or interesting rituals – the more bizarre the better!


  1. I remember a saying we used as a kid, “Step on a crack & break your mother’s back.” Such a horrible little rhyme and yet there were times I would go out of my way NOT to step on a sidewalk crack. Then, there were times as a teen when I would be mad at Mom and deliberately step on all the cracks I could find. In retrospect, I wonder if that is the reason she had chronic back problems. Until now, I hadn’t really thought about it. Sorry Mom!

    1. Nice one. Oh boy! That really takes me back, and the pavements around our suburb were really cracked I can tell you. As a kid – on some level – you are really scared it’s true. I remember that feeling – and stepping over the cracks just in case.

      See how the occult can be used for good or evil? Take that Mom! Just kidding. I like the way you expressed your anger – and I’m sure your mother’s back pain is due to other causes:)

      Chris McMahon

  2. Never comment on how well a flight is going! “Gee, it’s smooth up here today” guarantees that you are going to encounter enough clear-air turbulence to ruin your lunch memories. “Weather looks good at [destination]” ensures that the weather will become 1)rough, 2)low or 3) stormy or 4) all of the above. And I had a co-pilot who always rubbed a St. Christopher on the glare-shield (airplane-talk for the dashboard) just before we took off.

    One of my fiction characters gets very anxious if he is in a small, windowless space. This is a real problem for someone who travels in deep space and then later has to venture into caves and old mines. He also panics at the sight of snakes, despite being partly reptilian himself, because when he was very small someone told him that snakes can steal your heart, robbing you of love and other emotions.

    1. Great stuff. I know exactly what you mean – when something is really going perfectly I really hesitate the say anything – like that is going to tell the hovering Gremlins exactly where to strike. These things are so common to human experience. I think that’s why they resonate so well with the reader when you create characters with these little quirks.

      I’d let that co-pilot rub away with the old St Chistopher medal. For one – it might be true (ha ha), secondly I’m not going to mess with the mental process of anyone in charge of an aircraft!

      That guy sounds like a great character. I could not help but think he must have faked/falsified his psych eval before taking space training? It would make it even more interesting if he had to hide it.

      Chris McMahon

  3. Never use the name of the play Macbeth in a theatre (“the Scottish play”).

    Always leave a standing light on stage for the ghosts of actors.

    Never say “what else could happen?” because you’ll find out.

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