If politics has taught us anything over the past half-decade, it’s that lots of people prioritise feelings over facts. But this isn’t some strange new perversion in the way humans approach the world – many of us have been idiots for centuries.
Take superstitions. Whether it’s avoiding black cats or insisting on eye contact over a toast, for generations these beliefs have controlled the way people interact with objects and each other – and I get it: I’m extremely superstitious myself. However, what if knocking on wood doesn’t actually stop bad things from happening to you? What if smashing a mirror doesn’t lead to seven years of bad luck? What if, really, it’s all bullshit?
Today, I’m tossing aside the rules I’ve lived my life by and facing rationality. I’m going to break as many of the world’s strangest superstitions and hope it doesn’t ruin my life forever. To find out if doing so has any short-term effects, I’ll also be testing my luck with a series of tasks that put either my health or life at risk.
Off we go!
1) IF YOU BREAK A MIRROR YOU’LL HAVE SEVEN YEARS OF BAD LUCK
After catapulting the frame into the ground, glass lies splintered across the floor. This doesn’t feel right.
I can blame the Romans for my unease – they’re responsible for the belief that breaking a mirror leads to seven years of bad luck. Reflective surfaces, they thought, contain the soul – so smashing one will fracture your very being, before a seven-year period of renewal.
Despite worrying that I might have to spend the next seven years doing daily breathing exercises and paying for gong baths, I can’t stop here. To accrue as much bad luck as possible, I must move quickly. And I have just the outfit for it.
2) IN ITALY, IF YOU WEAR A WEDDING DRESS AND ARE NOT ENGAGED, YOU’LL HAVE SEVEN YEARS OF BAD SEX
If I’ve already got all that bad luck locked in, I might as well sling a dress on, attack my day with the flair of Princess Di in 1981 and double down on the next seven years of my life being absolutely shit.
3) DO NOT WALK UNDERNEATH A LADDER
For the past 5,000 years, people have avoided walking under ladders. According to the ancient Egyptians, a leaning ladder forms a triangle, representing the trinity of the Gods. To walk underneath them desecrates the triangle, and nobody wants to desecrate a triangle!
4) IN BRITAIN, WALKING OVER THREE DRAINS BRINGS, YOU GUESSED IT, BAD LUCK
Clattering over every drain in sight, I arrive at the Thames. None of this feels good. But this isn’t about feelings, is it? It’s about science.
In the spirit of science, now’s the time for my first controlled test: a half-drunk darts player, Jonny, attempting to hit a dartboard balanced on top of my head. The methodology is simple: if I get darted in the face, the superstitions hold water; if I don’t, they’re bogus.
With his lit cigarette and pint of Fosters, Jonny gears up to launch. I take a deep breath and he lets fly with a rally of darts.
Two darts thump into the board. 61! I let out a huge sigh of relief. Jonny flicks his wrist and launches the third. It deflects, dropping to the floor, just missing my feet. Close, but no cigar.
Buoyed by the fact I am now apparently invincible to bad luck, I move on to the next superstition.
5) IF YOU RENAME A BOAT, YOU’LL MEET A WATERY GRAVE
Despite Long John Silver warning, “What a ship was christened, so let her stay,” in Treasure Island, I have big ideas for this speed boat. Who cares about the gods of the sea supposedly punishing those drunk enough on hubris to rename a vessel? It’s worth it if the name is really, really cool.
Say hello to HMS 666!
6) AVOID THE NUMBER 666
Sure, both Iron Maiden and the Book of Revelation warned us that 666 was the number of the beast, and if you’re of a godly mindset that number might scare you.
Me? I’m just activating beast mode, baby!
7) FLOWERS ON BOATS ARE BAD OMENS. DON’T BRING THEM ON A SHIP OR YOU’LL DIE!
So say centuries of boat-faring people – because flowers are associated with graves and death. To them, I say: you are wrong! Hopefully!
8) DO NOT BRING A BANANA ON ANY BOAT OR YOU’LL GO MISSING AT SEA!
Since the 1700s, sailors have warned against having bananas on boats because so many ships transporting them between the Caribbean and Spain went missing. But unless there’s a Bermuda Triangle between Tower Bridge and Westminster Bridge, I imagine I’ll be OK.
Disembarking the HMS 666, I stumble onto land and find an old friend welcoming me home from my voyage.
9) BLACK CATS ARE BAD, BAD LUCK
Whether you’re a 16th Century Italian (hi, mum!) who believes a black cat snoozing on your bed means you’re going to die, or just somebody who’s seen an episode of Goosebumps, you’ll know black cats are not good news.
But this one just sits on my stomach and stares at me with its witchy dead eyes, purring.
After poking Poseidon and fraternising with felines, I’m fully loaded with bad luck. It’s time to once again put my fortunes to the test, by crossing a road while blindfolded.
I make baby steps as horns sound and an electric scooter whizzes past. My head pulses and I feel the scarf tied around my face dampening at the temples. I hear a cavalcade of engines approaching in the distance and try to speed up, tripping on my dress. All of a sudden, I fold like a deck chair.
My toes clip the pavement and I collapse. Victory!
But I have one final appointment to go. Arriving in Canary Wharf, the empty streets and pristine monuments to money now feel like eerie catacombs. Walking into an unlit hotel, I awaken the lift.
And take it up to the 13th floor.
Some people despise the number 13, and do everything they can to avoid it. They’ll move weddings, flights and work, with each Friday the 13th reportedly costing the US economy around $800 million because of a reluctance to travel or conduct business.
In fact, if I were in New York and not London, there probably wouldn’t even be a 13th floor: in 2015, a study found that only 9 percent of the city’s buildings had a 13th floor call button in their elevators.
10) DO NOT OPEN AN UMBRELLA INDOORS
On the 13th floor, I open an umbrella. This one makes me physically uncomfortable.
11) IN RUSSIA, IF YOU WHISTLE INDOORS IT WILL SUMMON THE DEVIL
I’m not in Russia, obviously, but I whistle the whole way to my room, where I look out of the window at the full moon. All of a sudden, there’s a rap at the door. A mute woman arrives, takes out a pair of scissors and snips away at my fringe.
12) IN GREECE, IF YOU CUT A BOY’S HAIR ON A FULL MOON, HE’LL GO BALD LATER IN LIFE
If I must suffer for this cause, so be it.
Once she’s done, I hear a toilet flush. From beyond the door he emerges.
Jonny, more drunk than before, solemnly hands me a gift.
13) IN CHINA, IF YOU GIFT SOMEBODY A CLOCK OR A WATCH, IT SYMBOLISES THEM RUNNING OUT OF TIME, I.E. DYING
This journey was bound to end this way.
I place an apple atop my head. Jonny takes a deep breath. Smashed mirrors, banana boats and black cats flash before my eyes; cursed energy channels through Jonny’s fingers as he prepares to let his dart fly.
Time to die.
I can’t believe it. I’ve survived the whole thing! Better yet, I think I’m actually luckier than I was when I started the day. How else would I have come out unscathed?
To test that theory, I have just the place.
I know this is stupid – there’s a global pandemic on and I haven’t made any money for three months. But this is the way this day must end: by putting a month’s rent on black.
“Good luck, sir!” says the croupier after I drop £500.
I turn to him, cockily: “Luck doesn’t exist.”
The ball is tossed in.
“Red 23! Unlucky, sir.”