Your electric fan is trying to kill you, and other cultural superstitions

In Korea, it is generally believed that leaving a fan on in an enclosed room can be fatal. Ken Jennings looks at cultural superstitions and wrote a Slate article focusing on the scourge of Korean fan death.

My mother told me that handling cellophane tape makes you sterile. Though that may have just been her way of getting me to stop playing with cellophane tape.

What strange cultural superstitions exist in your part of the world? (Of course, this is a bit of an unfair question, because if you genuinely believe it, then you won't recognize it as a strange cultural superstition!)

Clarification: Please reply in the spirit of the article. Keep it fun.

Comments (72)
  1. Sunil Joshi says:

    My mother always said if you spill salt you would have to pick it up with your eyelashes in the afterlife.

    Since salt was expensive, this kind of makes a twisted sense.

  2. Joshua Ganes says:

    My sister worked with an organization in Afghanistan for a year. She told me that they believe you cannot eat watermelon and drink tea in the same sitting or the watermelon will turn to stone in your stomach.

  3. Adam says:

    Well, technically, playing with cellophane could make you sterile; though you'd have to be playing with it in rather odd places:…/scotch-tape-emits-x-rays-film-at-11

  4. Entegy says:

    I don't know if this is local, but there's two really stupid ones that people just freak out at: putting a hat on a bed and holding an umbrella up in a house.

  5. Thai says:

    My mum says that drinking too much Coke gives you blood noses.

  6. IMil says:

    In Russia, many people believe that mixing "raw" (tap/spring/well) water and boiled water will give you diarrhea.

    Now, I agree that this may be the case if the unboiled water has germs in it. But the superstition is that raw+boiled mixture is more dangerous than raw water on its own.

    Draughts are as dangerous as in Germany and Austria. Children should wear much warmer clothes than adults – and never, ever go for a walk without a hat! or else flu/pneumonia are imminent. Except in summer, maybe.

  7. Christian says:

    My grandmother believes that eating egg shell (e.g. when a piece falls into cake dough) causes appendicitis. Is this a German phenomena?

    Might be even true if that piece really makes it to the appendix.

  8. Jim says:

    As a Chinese, I was told that I should not leave my chop stick erected inside my rice bowl during the dinner. My grandma would be offended greatly if I did that. Bad luck she said…

    [That's because the chopsticks would resemble incense sticks burning at a funeral. -Raymond]
  9. Martin McNulty says:

    My mother was brought up with the suspicion that you mustn't put new shoes on the table.  I have no idea where this comes from.

  10. Joel says:

    My mother-in-law told my wife that eating while standing would make you sick.  My wife believed that to be true until she was in her early twenties.

  11. mikeash says:

    I'm mildly surprised that nobody has mentioned the great granddaddy of them all: you can catch a cold from being cold.

    Amazingly persistent, and hugely widespread belief.

  12. Joshua says:

    But being cold and wet can suppress the immune system. True you can't catch a cold from being cold, but it makes it more likely you catch one on exposure.

  13. Paperino says:

    In Italy people believe that if you take a bath (in your house or at the beach, whatever) you will die of "stomach congestion". So it's imperative for Italian parents to keep their kids from bathing for a period that goes from an hour to four after a meal; some parents even consider a small snack to be harmful. Showers are not considered dangerous. The surprising part is that even doctors, with degrees in medicine, believe in this. It's not really superstition but extremely close to it.

  14. harmony7 says:

    My mother you should not sleep with unbundled rope, cords, cables, etc near your pillow when you sleep, or snakes will emerge while you sleep, wrap around your neck, and strangle you.

    I guess they said things like this because there is actually a slight chance that you will move around during your sleep and really strangle yourself with the loose rope.

  15. Paperino says:

    Eggshell causing appendix was popular in Italy as well when I was a kid (30+ yrs ago)

  16. Jim says:

    In most east Asian countries, they have this widely spread believes that women should be very careful in the first month after they gave birth of new born babies. They cannot drink cold water, take cold bath, stand on a windy place and eat soup without salt, etc.. In different region, believes are vary but there are a lots of them..

  17. alegr1 says:

    I'm mildly surprised that nobody has mentioned the great granddaddy of them all: you can catch a cold from being cold.

    An opportunistic flare-up of a latent infection because of cold (temperature) exposure totally happens. Such as catching pneumonia or tooth abscess. A personally got a tooth abscess after sitting a whole day in classes with no heating during the winter (no, soviet ROTC would not cancel them).

  18. Random832 says:

    @Jim "stand on a windy place and eat soup without salt"

    That's an oddly specific thing to have a belief about.

  19. Roger says:

    If you are pulling a face and the wind direction changes, then your face will stay with that expression.

  20. Martin Ibert says:

    I don't know where it comes from but I heard that you cannot leave a newborn baby and a cat together in a room with no adults present, or the child will die. I have also heard that this is because cats breath more slowly that humans, and with only the cat present for reference, the baby will slow its breathing rhythm to match the cat's, not noticing that that is too slow. (Humans have a tendency to synchronize breathing.) Not sure if that's superstition or not.

  21. Leonardo Brondani Schenkel says:

    In the south of Brazil (I'm not sure if this applies to the rest of the country) people say that if you drink milk while you eat mango you'll die. They usually say it in a tongue-in-cheek way, but on the other hand I never saw anybody daring to test the theory. :-)

    We also have the Italian superstition mentioned above about the "stomach congestion", but that also includes showers.

    People think that if your ears get warm and/or red, it's because somebody somewhere is talking about you.

  22. Rick C says:

    Martin Ibert, the cat thing is supposedly because the cat will sit over the baby and "steal his breath."

  23. Alan says:

    It took a while, because of course I'm the worst one to judge my own beliefs.

    but I finally thought of one: You shouldn't eat the core of an apple because the seeds are full of cynanide and will kill you.   I used to believe this and my wife still insists its true.  I became suspicious when a friend made a habit of eating the entire apple, including the seeds.  He somehow avoided death.  He said his family always did that.  His parents were French immigrants, I don't know if eating the core is French, or just something his family did.  Snopes gives a good summary of the situation, there are cyanide compounds, but your body can easily handle that small dosage.…/apples.asp

    The article you linked revealed a second to me.  I had believed that poinsettias were incredibly toxic to humans, but now I know I'd need to eat a monstrous poinsettia salad to be endangered in the slightest.  So I corrected an erroneous idea I had, so today counts as productive!

  24. j b says:

    My pregnant sister shocked her parents-in-law by revealing the name they had chosen for the coming baby boy. Where her husband grew up, it was commonly "known" that if the name is set before birth, the baby will be stillborn. I have later learned that this was a quite common belief in rural areas in Norway at least into the 1980s.

  25. Sven says:

    I doubt this proves much, but I had appendicitis when I was 6, and there was indeed a bit of eggshell in the appendix.

  26. j b says:

    A friend of mine made it his hobby to maintain a list of the kinds of food you most definitely should stay away from if you have been suffering from kindney stone, or it will come back. It started out when he gathered lists of "forbidden" food from three different doctors; the lists didn't have one single entry in common. Asking other people who had been suffering from kindney stone what they had been told not to eat gave him new entries to his list, and more entries, and more…

    If you have problems fighting obesity, make sure to have an attack of kidney stone. After that, there is nothing whatsoever that you can eat without risking a new attack. Pure water is probably safe, but not much else.

  27. Nick B says:

    My grandmother believed that if you had the hiccups it meant someone was thinking of you.

  28. Cesar says:

    the baby will slow its breathing rhythm to match the cat's, not noticing that that is too slow. (Humans have a tendency to synchronize breathing.) Not sure if that's superstition or not.

    From what I understand of human anatomy, it would not matter; the body's built-in CO2 level detectors would notice the build-up and speed up the breathing to compensate.

  29. Tim! says:

    @Martin Ebert: In my observation of cats, I find that they breathe faster than I do.  Indeed a quick search shows that normal rhythm for a cat is 20-30 bpm and for a human 12-20.

  30. alegr1 says:


    Young children (and animals) breath faster than adult. Although it's a nit-picking.

  31. Brad says:

    I'm guessing the reality is that the cat would sit on and suffocate the baby, or else the baby could otherwise perish from SIDS and pre-science folks came up with some vaguely plausible theory about breathing patterns. Still probably not a good idea to leave a baby unattended with a cat.

  32. skuggi says:

    @Martin Ibert, In my experience cats breathe a lot faster than humans.

  33. Henning Makholm says:

    @jb: The trouble is that there are a lot of different substances that can build kidney stones over time if your urine are oversaturated with them. And the various kinds are indistinguishable on X-rays or other in vivo diagnostic methods. If you have a stone but then pass it without preserving it for analysis, there's no telling what you'll have to cut down on. The best general prophylactic advice appears to be to drink plenty of water, to keep concentrations of anything from running too high.

  34. Joshua says:

    From what I understand of human anatomy, it would not matter; the body's built-in CO2 level detectors would notice the build-up and speed up the breathing to compensate.

    Lot's of things don't work correctly in babies. This is not turned on until some time after birth (that it cannot be on before birth is obvious). The breathing startup sequence is weird.

  35. A sort of meta-superstition – I've heard (and I'm not sure whether or not it's true) that in some parts of India, I believe (I might be misremembering this), many computer-illiterate people believe that right-clicking on the Windows desktop and clicking refresh will "refresh the RAM" and make the computer run faster.

    Actually, I just googled it, and I believe this is where I originally heard it:

  36. Tim says:

    If you pick your nose, your head will cave in.

  37. j b says:


    Some such rumours are perfectly true. For a long time I was working on a timehaaring-system that gave priority to interactive terminals over, say, a compilation job. (In those days, compilation of even a moderately sized program could take minutes.) A process with no interactivity would rapidly loose its high "interactive" prioriy, even if keeping the CPU continuously busy with a compilation. Any user interaction would immediately raise the priority to "interactive" level again.

    In a few releases of the OS, it didn't matter whether the "user interaction" was requested by the program at all. Pressing a key on the keyboard was processed as a user interaction, raising the priority of the process who could have read the input if it cared to, but it didn't.

    So if you wante to get ahead in the job queeue, ahead of the other lengthy compilation jobs, the trick was to hit the space button regularly. You wouldn't have to do it more than, say, once per second to have your compilation go ahead of all of the others in the queue.

    In my student days, this "myth" went from an unconfirmed rumour, to systematic testing (by yours truly, among others) to prove that it was indeed a fact, and finally having it confirmed by the designers of the OS.

    This isn't exactly "refreshing the RAM", but it is clicking buttons to make the computer run faster (for that user, and slower for the others!)

  38. Michael G says:

    In my profession, if you say "this project seems to be ahead of schedule" out loud it will soon be two weeks behind schedule.  This one happens to be true.

  39. Sniffnoy says:

    Huh, the Italian superstition mentioned above about not bathing after eating is very similar to a superstition which is common in America (or at least in suburban New Jersey, where I grew up).…/hourwait.asp It's nearly the same thing, just more extreme (I'm pretty sure I've met people who took it in the "don't go in the water" sense rather than in the "don't swim" sense). But somehow, unlike with the Italian version, I've never seen anyone apply it outside of swimming areas (e.g. I haven't seen it applied to bathtubs).

  40. Leonardo says:

    Some of the superstitions I grew up with included:

    • Going outside in the night with a lit candle would attract bad spirits and death

    • Opening an umbrella indoors was considered bad luck

    • If you stayed up after midnight, witches would come and take you away (I believe this was made up on the spot to make us go to bed)

    • Walking backwards could bring disgrace upon you

    • My personal favourite: If you turn around counter-clockwise (to your left) you might see the devil (that guy made an awful number of cameos in local myths)

  41. Growing up in Australia, we were told by parents, teachers, and adults in general, never to swim for an hour after eating lunch. They never said what exactly would happen if you did; but the tone and expression always implied it would be instant death. Even half a Vegemite sandwich could kill you in the surf. Maybe the same advice exists in other countries too; but I'm sure Australia took it to an extreme degree.

  42. IMil says:

    Russian people hold two beliefs about diet:

    1. You should eat hot food, including soup, at least once a day. Eating just cold food will cause ulcer, or at least constipation.
    2. Drinking at the same time as eating is harmful: gastric acid gets diluted, leading to indigestion. It's better to drink tea only after meal.

    Somehow, hot soup (traditionally eaten before other courses) manages to avoid diluting precious bodily fluids.

  43. GWO says:

    If you swallow chewing gum, it will wrap itself around your guts and kill you.  

    This was an extremely well known fact in England about 1980.

  44. IMil says:

    Oh, and drinking vodka may prevent flu (either by killing germs, or by pure magic). Not sure whether this is an honest belief, or just an excuse to have a drink.

    There are also several medical procedures that are common in Russia, but largely unknown (or disproved) in most Western countries. For example, using interferon intranasally to prevent flu (contrary to the vodka example above, this is recommended by doctors). Antibiotics should be accompanied or followed by probiotics. There are also some popular OTC drugs, not known anywhere else in the world (Arbidol being the most well-known example).

  45. asdbsd says:

    In Russia, you don't shake hands over a doorstep or your relations with them will worsen. Broken glass means there'll be a quarrel. You spit three times over your right (or left) shoulder if a black cat has crossed your path to prevent bad luck.

    Monitors (even LCD ones) emit bad radiation which can be offset by putting cacti around. Cellphones emit bad radiation too and eventually give you cancer. Masturbation is bad for your eyes, and also hair will grow on your hands.

  46. Ryan says:

    I remember being told not to go swimming for at least an hour after eating otherwise you'll cramp up and drown.  Also drinking coffee will stunt your growth and eating burnt toast will put hair on your chest.

  47. ender says:

    My grandmother believed that if you had the hiccups it meant someone was thinking of you.

    My grandmother said the same (though I'm not sure if she actually believed it).

  48. GWO says:

    Oh, and the crust of bread would make your hair curly.

  49. alegr1 says:

    Antibiotics should be accompanied or followed by probiotics.

    Ever had disbacteriosis after taking antibiotics? Or Clostridium Diff. after taking antibiotics? Or, worse, fungal infection in the guts? That's what "probiotics" (normal gut bacterii) are preventing. THis is not "russian myth", this is accepted knowledge.

    Re: arbidol, get away with the thought that everything in "Western" (American) medicine is the cutting edge, and everywhere else is bass ackward. America may have better equipment. Not better practices. The doctors are still the same arrogant know-it-alls. It's as difficult to find a doctor who really knows and cares, as in Russia. Maybe not as likely to find a hack, though.

  50. jeb says:

    My father in law swore that WD-40 relieved arthritis pain because it lubricated the joints. Explaining to him that the substance couldn't permeate the skin, and you wouldn't want it to anyway (petroleum distillates under the skin would be bad) proved pointless.

    When I was in my teens, one of my friends was convinced that he could touch his eyeball by sticking his finger up his nose. Apparently, his dad told him, "you keep picking your nose and you're gonna snag an eyeball."

  51. BZ says:

    Oh, and never mix western and eastern medicine, like Tylenol and Aspirin (Aspirin was "Eastern" because it was available in Russia)

  52. David Walker says:

    Although many myths are almost equally weird when you look at them objectively, I remember being amazed at the one about running a fan in a closed room.  What in the world would lead someone to think that could be harmful?

  53. AsmGuru62 says:

    Another one told by my mom (I am from Russia):

    "Do not whistle in the house or we'll lose money (be poor)."

  54. alegr1 says:


    Tylenol (acetaminofen) has been known as paracetamol in Russia. But it's not a good idea to mix different NSAIDs anyway.

  55. David says:

    If you unknot your belly-button, your bottom will fall off.

  56. Nicholas says:

    Somehow, hot soup (traditionally eaten before other courses) manages to avoid diluting precious bodily fluids.

    In that context (Russian superstitions), this sentence made me laugh out loud.  (…/Dr._Strangelove)  Well done :)

  57. Audun says:

    Growing up in Norther Norway, where the Aurora (…/Aurora_(astronomy) ) is common during winter, the generation me were told not to wave at the sky during the Aurora, or evil spirits would descend and abduct you.

  58. BZ says:

    Wait, drinking while eating is *not* harmful? Although, I've been told drinking after eating is just as harmful and you should only ever drink *before* eating or wait 2 hours after.

    My grandfather firmly believes the no soup causes ulcers one, though everyone else in the family thinks he's nuts.

    Might as well add another one (also Russian). If someone says something and someone else in the room coughs, that means it's true.

  59. Joe says:
    1. Salt causes high blood pressure (associative not causal)

    2. You can't swim for at least 30 minutes after eating

    3. when I was growing up the wrestling coach wouldn't let us drink any water while we ran because it would "cause cramps" (dehydration anybody??)

    4. Fat is bad for you

    5. if you read in low-light you'll go blind

  60. Audun says:

    Oh, and could it be that the Koreans were talking about their electric worshiping/admirer devices, and not electrical hot/cold air devices?  I sure can imagine those causing harm if left unsupervised.

    Sorry, couldn't resist.

  61. Lev says:

    @Martin McNulty, "Shoes upon the table" have been immortalized in the musical "blood brothers". But even if they don't bring bad luck, they make your table dirty, and if you happen to put the fork where the shoes stood and then eat with it, you might get bad luck… Unless you've never worn those shoes.

  62. Steve says:

    My mother said that if you swallowed chewing gum it would stick you bum together. That may have been more humour than belief in hindsight.

  63. Daniel Schealler says:

    My grandmother and grandfather swear that eating oranges and drinking milk in near succession will make you ill, because the acid in the oranges will curdle the milk in your stomach.

    When my inquiring 6-year-old mind – a mind that rather liked both milk and oranges – asked why stomach acid didn't do the same thing as the acid in the oranges, there was a definite moment of confusion. :P

  64. Medinoc says:

    @Daniel Schealler: As a kid I was told I should always drink orange juice BEFORE milk and never AFTER (during breakfast), for this very reason.

  65. Tudor says:

    A similar urban (and rural) legend is the one concerning 'draft' in Romania:…/draft-romanias-silent-killer :)

  66. A says:

    Tylenol (acetaminofen) has been known as paracetamol in Russia. But it's not a good idea to mix different NSAIDs anyway.

    Paracetamol is not an NSAID

  67. John says:

    In the UK it is commonly believed that eating carrots help you see in the dark

  68. ender says:

    @John: the common (mistaken) belief is that carrots help with eyesight in general.

  69. Casey says:

    My wife is Korean and she started telling me the other day that she had a stomachache and it must be because she kicked off the covers and her stomach got cold.  Best not to make any wisecracks in these cases…

  70. Davo says:

    @ Andrew McLaren1

    I've had Vegemite, I believe if you have half a Vegemite sandwich it could kill you whether you go swimming or not :P I kid I kid, I know it's an acquired taste…thank god I wasn't there long enough to acquire ;)

  71. Brian Marshall says:

    There was a superstition in the early days of the internet that if you wrote too many Usenet posts, you'd loose ther arbilraty twoo schpel arnd write compleet sentn

  72. Brian McDaniel says:


    I'd heard that one about putting chopsticks in rice too. But since I've moved to Hong Kong, I've asked several friends and business associates in China (North and South) and Korea, and all seem somewhat puzzled about why I would think that upright chopsticks look like funerary incense. I suspect this might be based on a few very old anecdotes. On the other hand, it is true that I've never seen anyone stick their chopsticks in a bowl of rice…

Comments are closed.