When superstition pervades logic and reason

By Ashley Wood

Whether it’s wearing that lucky shirt when gambling or taking a few steps to avoid walking under a ladder, some people convince themselves certain actions will influence some aspect of their lives. Yet in the age of science, people with academic backgrounds based on logic and reason still have superstitious tendencies.

When driving, Ronald Heck believed that if he caught all the green lights, it was a good omen.

“When I was getting my master’s degree, I used to drive to campus (from Los Angeles to Santa Barbara), so my superstition was that if all the lights were green, it was a good omen,” said Dr. Ronald Heck, a professor and the department chair of Educational Administration at the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa. He has published extensive articles and books in organizational theory, leadership, policy and quantitative methods. Despite his education credentials, the fact that Heck saw good and bad omens when he was a grad student and followed local Hawai‘i superstitions when he moved here is a telling sign of how a little superstition plays a role in peoples’ lives.

“I like to whistle, but everyone around is like, ‘don’t whistle at night’,” Heck said. “So I try not to, and I’m conscious of it.”

There are many stories in Hawaiian folklore that tells of how doing so will lead to bad luck; one being that it mimics the sound of Night marchers, the ghosts of ancient Hawaiian warriors. Many of Hawai‘i’s folklore and mythology have been made popular by Glen Grant, the author of the Obake Files and Chicken Skin series, who ironically was a professor of history, American studies and political science at UH Mānoa.

In Hawai‘i, it is customary to bless new locations, whether they are new homes or businesses. It is supposed to bring peace and harmony to the places. Bonnie Tam-Hoy, a real estate agent at Coldwell Banker Pacific Properties, has shown homes where Hawaiian blessings were performed.

“I don’t think it’s (a blessing) superstitious, but it brings people a peace of mind because they have respect for the culture, and it wouldn’t hurt to do it anyway,” Tam-Hoy said. “Also as a realtor, I have to disclose what happened in homes before to the new home buyers, like crimes and hauntings, which sometimes affects their decision to buy or not.”

Although Tam-Hoy deals with people who hold certain beliefs, she herself doesn’t consider herself superstitious. However, Tam-Hoy always wears a gold anklet, which she refers to as her lucky charm. “It makes me feel safe and protected. I got it as a gift from my grandma before she passed, so it’s like I have a piece of her with me.” Tam-Hoy said.

Superstitions at work

Other work-related superstitions are common in other professions like sports and acting. Sports entertainment is widely known for having players who engage in routines that will safeguard their team’s success. From Michael Jordan wearing his blue North Carolina shorts under his Chicago Bulls uniform to Tiger Woods donning a red shirt during final rounds, these are just some examples of athletes who attribute their actions with good luck. Furthermore,  many people are familiar with referencing Shakespeare’s Macbeth by “the Scottish play” because it is believed to bring bad luck by mentioning it by the name itself. Even wishing good luck to an actor by saying “break a leg” is said to have the opposite effect. However, in the medical field where experience is based on knowledge and reason, some health professionals do things that are superstitious in nature.

When a patient expires, the medical staff at Kaiser Medical Center at Moanalua opens a window to let the patient's spirit out.

“When a person dies, we usually open a window,” Registered Nurse Sandra Yamamoto said. “It’s supposed to let out the person’s spirit, but then again others see it as airing out the room.” Yamamoto works in the critical care unit at Kaiser Permanente Moanalua Medical Center. Contrary to the specialized fields that Yamamoto and her colleagues work in, there are other beliefs that they hold true when it comes to performing duties in the hospital.

“For some reason, when there’s a full moon, it’s always busy on the unit,” Yamamoto said. “There’s an increase in admissions, and (emergency) codes are going off.”

Kaiser's CCU nurses Tom Tenorio, front, Steve Clement, left, and Brian Hartmus wear black scrubs regardless of the belief that it causes the unit to be busy.

Yamamoto also shared that the floor gets busy if there are two people wearing black scrubs. “We (my co-workers and I) joke and blame the two wearing black, but I guess that’s our way of injecting humor into the stressful part of our jobs,” Yamamoto said.

In a recent poll about superstitious beliefs, Npolls found that 59 percent of the people surveyed did not believe in superstitions, 24 percent believed in some, and 17 percent of people truly believe in superstitions. Of the 41 percent who said they did believe in superstitions; 51 percent reported that their beliefs were based on habits or customs of their society, while the other half reported reasons of control, worry, veracity of superstitions, and other reasons that attributed to their beliefs.

Regardless of those who rely on logical methods to prove the cause and effect of events, some of them still hold beliefs that make sense to them which may be viewed as odd by others.

In the 21st century, there are professionals who hold superstitious beliefs, but it may be because it links them to their older family generations, their heritage, it’s their ability to cope with the state of their lives, or they recognize patterns when doing certain things.

“Despite the knowledge you accumulate throughout your life, I think everyone has some form of superstition; it just depends on your perspective.” Yamamoto said. “It’s human nature to question why certain things happen (or don’t happen) and when you can’t explain; you make things up and come up with your own answer.”

Only in Hawai‘i

Hawai‘i’s multiculturalism provides links to old beliefs in modern times, where local practices live on due to people’s cultural roots.

Here are some local beliefs that are inherent in Hawai‘i’s culture.

Night marchers

  • Night marchers (huaka‘i po) are ghosts of ancient Hawaiian warriors. While the characteristics of night marchers in ancient Hawaiian belief vary depending on the sources describing these spirit processions which march on specific nights of the month, all sources agree on one major point: don’t get in their path and don’t look at them.
  • According to legend, if someone comes across a procession of the night marchers, it is important that that person crouch low to the ground, resting on their stomachs and to avoid making eye contact. Doing so is said to prevent harm to that person. While some night marchers may prod and poke a person lying on the ground to instigate them to look up, night marchers are known to stick to their destination and not deviate in their aim to haunt humans.

Lava rocks

  • People who have taken lava rocks from Hawai‘i have returned them because they fear it is the source of their bad luck.
  • Legend has it that Pele, the goddess of fire and volcanoes, afflicts those who take lava rocks or sand because she sees them as her children. The only way to counteract one’s bad luck is to return pieces from whence they came. Hawai‘i Volcanoes National Park continue to receive returned items and notes from tourists asking for forgiveness.

Ti leaves

  • Ti leaves were used by kahuna (priests) in their ancient religious ceremonial rituals as protection to ward off evil spirits, to heal and to bring good luck.
  • Till this day there are people who plant ti leaves around their homes for good luck. Ti leaves have also been made popular at football games with people waving them like pom-poms to keep bad spirits away from their favorite team.

Pali Highway

  • Local folklore states that if pork is carried over the Pali Highway, one’s vehicle will stop at a certain point and will only re-start when the pork is removed.
  • According to legend, Pele had a relationship with the demi-god Kamapua‘a (a half-man, half-pig). Once it ended, the two agreed not to visit each other, so taking pork over the Pali means taking a form of Kamapua‘a from his domain (the wet side of the island) into Pele’s domain (the dry side of the island).

Burial tradition

  • Some cultures place a deceased person’s favorite food and drink on the gravesite as an anniversary gift. This is done to keep ancestors happy in the spirit world. It is also thought to bring the blessings of elders who have passed away, ensuring property for the gift giver.


  • Do not bring bananas on a boat, especially when fishing: even some Hawai‘i  commercial fishing charters enforce this rule. There are various stories as to why, but there’s one that has substantial evidence.
  • According to fishing charter Ku‘uloa Kai, “back in the days of the sailing ships, sailors ate fruit to prevent an onset of scurvy. Bananas would ripen and spoil faster than most fruit. The bug larvae in the skin would hatch and infest not just the other fruit but the entire ship itself. It was deemed unfit for sailing ships. Any mention of bananas was seen as a bad omen and would spell misfortune for the voyage.”

Bed placement

  • It’s considered bad luck to have one’s bed in line with a door, with one’s feet pointing towards it. This can be traced to rules of feng shui, where it says that doing so, will deplete a person’s energy. Doors are considered energy connectors between different areas; in order for areas to connect, there’s a force that pulls them together.
  • It’s also known as the death position, because the deceased are carried out feet first. There are other stories where sleeping in that position would cause one to be dragged out the door by spirits.

House cleaning

  • In the Chinese tradition, sweeping during New Year’s Day should be avoided because it is believed that all the good luck will be swept away.
  • In Hawai‘i many locals have adopted this tradition and have applied it to the Western calendar. Some even apply it to New Year’s Eve because it’s a day when parties take place to celebrate the upcoming year. What’s more, Hawai‘i’s way of ringing in the New Year by popping fireworks has roots in Chinese traditions. In Hawai‘i lighting fireworks on New Year’s Eve was a bigger deal than doing so on Independence Day. There has since been a ban on fireworks, so ringing in the new year will be much quieter.

Gift giving

  • When giving a purse or wallet, it’s supposed to be good luck to put in some money; if not it will stay empty. It is believed to mean that the recipient will never have money.  The amount of money doesn’t matter, a penny will suffice.
Photos by Ashley Wood