Superstition runs in the blood. Even now I fear showering during a thunderstorm—a lingering trace of growing up in the shadow of my father’s anxiety. When my sister and I were children he didn’t allow us to bathe if it was raining, regardless of the actual presence of lightning, warning that the stray electricity would climb the metal faucet and fry us in the tub.
These things passed down to us stick, shape reality until pointed out by an impartial party as error or familial quirk—like “uncle” pronounced “onkle” and “neither” pronounced “nee-ther” the way I do; the way my mother does.
I’m fairly certain no one has been struck by lightning in the shower in the last fifty years, since water pipes have been grounded against shock—or so it has been explained to me—but the worry sticks. A myth conjured out of fear is stubborn that way, stained bright red until the fear dies, or a new myth is created to take its place.
* * *
My mother has always been cautious, too, but as I’ve witnessed it, her fear is rooted in motherhood; a fear of loss, occasionally irrational, but almost always directed at the safety of her children.
One night I left a friend’s apartment around 8 PM to find my phone flooded with text messages and tearful voicemails from her, saying that something felt wrong, that she’d had an intuitive feeling and was worried something bad had happened to me. My mother often reminds me we have a kind of telepathic connection, things like calling the other right as the other is thinking of calling. For whatever reason, that time her “feeling” was off completely. I arrived home safely, a little annoyed.
My father carried blind anxiety, wild and directionless. He shook with it. His hands carried tremors that sometimes grew so strong as to render them temporarily useless—from fear and from the alcoholism, though I’m not sure which came first. From him I inherited a healthy fear of heights and a predisposition to wasting a bottle of Jack Daniels over a weekend.
My fear manifests on airplanes: what else but ultimate helplessness is allowing yourself to be suspended inside a metal vessel above the clouds, and what worse way to die than a freefall so sharp and endless? Still, I fly fairly often, and when general statistics fail to comfort, I remind myself of this: my father, over the course of his life, travelled by plane over 3,000 times, and he died on solid ground.
* * *
There’s superstition, and then there’s precognition. Superstitions are eclectic sets of beliefs that influence behavior, usually in order to avoid something unfortunate: Step on a crack, break your mother’s back. A broken mirror brings seven years of bad luck. Pick up a penny only if it’s face-up.
Precognition is the first cousin of superstition, the estranged spouse of religion, and one step beyond déjà vu: a glimpse of the future. A friend in college, an adamant atheist, once told me with certainty that if a person dreams about their teeth falling out, it means someone close to them will die. It happened to him, he said—he woke up the next morning and his aunt had been hit by a car. Studies of both superstition and precognition have been branded pseudoscience, but they permeate our cultural consciousness, forming a small place in the lives of even the most scientifically-minded.
Both involve a conscious or unconscious belief in mystical forces. Both rely on the premise that there are no such things as random events. There are no accidents; the universe is watching, noticing.
* * *
I almost died before I was born. The doctors told my mother that I didn’t have a heartbeat, said they lost it, as if it had gotten stuck in someone’s jeans pocket and had gone through the wash. Now they would have to remove my body from hers, they said. There was nothing else they could do, and all the tests confirmed their stance.
But my mother argued with them. She refused their carefully practiced words and pseudo-sympathetic expressions; she told them they must have gotten something wrong, to double-check the tests. Somehow, she felt that the tiny light inside of her womb was still glowing, breathing, beating.
So it goes, on one of the hottest days in mid-August, in a west-American desert city, I was born. It was Friday the 13th, a notably unlucky day, though there’s no single agreed-upon origin for the cross-cultural fear the date inspires. It’s been said that it was the day the Knights Templar were arrested and executed in the fourteenth century, or that it marks the last day of King Herold II’s reign over England. It’s been traced to the Christian belief that Judas was the thirteenth person at the Last Supper, but Hindus branded gatherings of thirteen people unlucky before Christ’s time. Norse Vikings attributed thirteen to a myth about the arrival of Loki, the god of mischief, and for Egyptians the number signified death and bittersweet passage to the afterlife. Regardless, Friday the 13th signifies one common thing for those who maintain it has power: disruption.
Upon my maternal grandfather’s first time seeing me, he declared that our Irish blood was strong within my tiny veins, and that my favorite color would undoubtedly be green. He had been born on a Friday the 13th as well, in the springtime some seventy years before. When my mother told the story, she whispered it like a prayer. As we celebrated each year at ice-skating rinks, zoos, and amusement parks, her blue eyes followed me.
My favorite color has always been green. I like to think it was my own preference that determined this, and not just a product of being told about my grandfather’s prophecy. But then again, it’s hard to know if we create myths to make sense of ourselves, or if our myths create us. We are all a product of something.
* * *
An article in Psychology Today reports that about 50% of the general population claims to have had a precognitive dream. In 1998, Dr. M.S. Stowell interviewed 51 people who claimed to have precognitive dreams, 37 of which came true throughout the course of the study. One report was from a woman who dreamt of a plane crashing on a highway as she was driving under the overpass. Weeks later, a plane crashed on that same highway.
* * *
It’s family legend that our Irish ancestors, the O’Learys, were responsible for starting the Great Chicago Fire. I’ve told this story at so many parties and on first days of class when reaching for a “fun fact” to share about myself. Whether there’s truth to it is debatable—factually, our family descends from Irish O’Learys, and it has been written that the O’Leary family cow knocked over Catherine O’Leary’s lantern one fall night in 1871 and began the blaze. Even this was cast with doubt after the fortieth anniversary of the event, when a former Chicago Republican newspaper reporter claimed he and two colleagues had completely fabricated the story. Others have speculated drunkards in the barn; spontaneous combustion; meteor strikes. Still, the original story feels true, has always felt true: my lineage carries with it a history of small and large arsons.
* * *
I was fourteen, a single weekend separating me from my freshman year of high school, when I first encountered the number. It came in the form of a movie at a sleepover, five or six girls huddled in blankets around the television on my friend’s living room floor.
The Number 23 starred Jim Carey in a dramatic role, as a man who picks up a random book in a bookstore, written under the pen name “Topsy Kretts,” and realizes that it seems to be about him, all the events in his life connected by the number 23. He becomes obsessed with the number 23, sees it everywhere, holes up in a hotel room and goes insane. It failed miserably at the box office, and it deserved to. It was a ridiculous movie. I was fourteen.
That night after the movie, we all lay in our sleeping bags in the darkness and giggled as we watched the red glow of the digital clock, added up the numbers, waiting for 23 to appear. Wanting to feel that current of electricity at the back of our necks when it showed up.
It began to show up everywhere for me, and looking for it became a kind of obsessive compulsion. When I entered a room, I would count the objects on the wall to see if they added to some multiple of the number. I would count the tiles on the floor of my classrooms. I would count the letters in my name, in my friends’, and add/subtract/divide the numbers in their birthdates. I looked at the clock and always seemed to catch it right at 2:30, or 3:20, or 1:23. Always right on time.
* * *
Superstition runs in the blood. The Irish are known for being a superstitious people, and their folk tales say that character traits run in families, that “goodness” and “badness” are inherent in DNA, inescapable. To the ancient Celts, poetry was understood as pulse, the fe’ith na fili’ochta (“vein of poetry”) residing only in poets’ bodies, snaking up the back of the head. And some believed that poetry, a hereditary gift, would flee the bloodline for seven generations if it appeared in a daughter rather than a son.
* * *
Apophenia, a term coined by German psychiatrist Klaus Conrad, refers to the human tendency to interpret random occurrences as meaningful patterns. This is where belief in superstition comes from: say you opened an umbrella inside twice, and on both of those days, you slipped and fell in the rain. Say you picked up a penny off the sidewalk, and in the next moment, got a phone call that you had been accepted to medical school.
Because only so many numbers exist, repetitions are inevitable. People remember seeing the number they give meaning to, and forget seeing other numbers.
So much can be attributed to coincidence: if 3 billion people fly every year, and 500 million of those have a dream about a plane crashing, it is likely that over the course of the year, at least one of those people will end up on a plane that crashes (according to The Guardian, there are around 80 plane accidents per year, while 3.4 million flights land safely). Those who dreamed about plane crashes and landed safely will likely never think of it again; for those who crashed, the fact of their incidental dream will always linger.
* * *
The 23 enigma theorizes that all events are connected to and by the number 23, including life itself: the ovule and sperm contributed from each parent at conception consist of 23 chromosomes each.
As I write this, the city bus next to the coffee shop I’m sitting in services route 23.
The 23rd letter of the alphabet, W, has 2 points facing down and 3 facing upwards.
William Shakespeare was born on April 23, 1564, and died April 23, 1616. His first folio of work appeared in the year 1623. When he was 46 (23 doubled) the first King James Bible was published. In Psalm 46, the 46th word from the beginning of the poem is “shake” and the 46th word back from the end is “spear.”
* * *
In an interview with TIME Magazine, former Harvard professor Diane Hennacy Powell said: “One of the things we know is that [precognition] runs in families. If you talk to psychics, they’ll tell you there’s a family history of it. Though we haven’t found it, there’s likely a gene for it…Of course, that’s not true of all dreams. Some dreams actually are tapping into some other time and place, and there’s real information in them. Others are just imagination.”
* * *
When my parents were first married, my mother had a troubling dream:
She was in the front seat of a car driven by a faceless driver. The car pulled down a long dirt road and drove up to a farm. When they stopped, my mother got out, and the driver opened the back passenger-side door to help an old woman out of the car. The woman wore a burly fur coat, her salt-and-pepper hair pinned up beside her ears. As the faceless drivers, now multiplied into many, carried the woman across the farm to bury her, my mother screamed and beat them, trying to rescue the woman from burial, as she was still very much alive.
She woke the next morning and told my father her dream, and he immediately called his sister, my aunt; apparently, the old woman in the dream was an exact description of his grandmother, who died before my parents met, who refused to sit anywhere in a car but the back passenger-side seat, and whose greatest fear was being buried alive.
* * *
The Titanic sank the morning of April 15th, 1912. (4 + 1 + 5 + 1 + 9 + 1 + 2 = 23)
The first telegraph message sent was a Bible verse from Numbers 23:23: What hath God wrought?
The number 23 represents the goddess Eris, Greek goddess of discord and chaos—her name only one letter off from mine.
My initials, ES, if flipped backwards, or written down and held in front of a mirror, resemble a 2 and 3.
My father was murdered on August 23, 2009.
* * *
It’s called confirmation bias: when we start looking for something we tend to find it. I don’t remember the times the number 23 wasn’t in sight, even after counting all the objects in the room, or adding and dividing the numbers that make up the time and date three different ways. I don’t remember the dreams that never came true, dreams about tornados and teeth falling out that never resulted in real-life chaos. But I remember the ones that did, and they take root, shaping the story like embankments constructed to keep rivers from running wild—from washing whole towns, whole lives away.
* * *
On a cold October morning in 1966, a landslide tore through the small village of Aberfan, Wales. Within minutes, a schoolhouse was buried in a flurry of black sludge, the avalanche of rock and soil crushing and killing 116 children and 28 adults.
In the aftermath of the disaster, psychiatrist John Barker received almost a hundred letters from people claiming they had precognitive dreams predicting the tragic landslide. A man from north England saw the word ABERFAN spelled out over and over behind his eyes; a woman in Brighton dreamt of a child walking towards her with a black mass looming behind him; another woman’s dream featured coal hurtling down a mountain towards a schoolhouse, and a little boy being pulled from the wreckage—a boy she would later recognize on television as a local station aired coverage of the rescue efforts. But the most famous and troubling premonition of the Aberfan disaster came in a letter written by the parents of a ten-year-old girl.
The letter claimed their daughter, Eryl Mai, woke one morning, came downstairs and said, “Mummy, I’m not afraid to die.”
When her mother asked why she was being so morbid, the girl relayed a dream she had the night before: her schoolhouse had been flattened by “something black.” She told her mom she was not afraid to die because she would be with her friends, Peter and June.
The next day, Eryl Mai went to school, where she was killed in the landslide. The girl was buried along with the other victims in a communal grave, laid between her schoolmates, Peter and June.
* * *
My youngest sister, Trinity, was so named because she is the third child of both my mother and my stepfather (and though they deny it, her name could be inspired by the heroine of The Matrix trilogy, which they watched nightly during my mom’s pregnancy). Her birth acted as a hinge between two families; with two half-siblings on each side, and her own name meaning “three” between them, my sister’s life has an ironic symmetry with the number 23. Though my stepbrother and stepsister were raised by their grandparents, our full family consists of 5 siblings—2 in one home, 3 in another. It’s a reach, I know. We find these things because we are looking for them. And still a reach, maybe, when my mother pointed out that Trinity will graduate from high school in the year 2023.
* * *
What I’m getting at is this: the summer she turned four, Trinity had a dream she doesn’t remember now. If events had unfolded differently—if no one had been in the room when she woke from her nap, if he had died the following year instead of just a handful of weeks later, had died in some other way—if we were a skeptical people instead of a family willfully embedded in a paradigm of superstition—I wouldn’t be telling this story.
My mom was using the computer at the desk next to the bed, and I was on the couch feet away, on the other side of an open door. Trinity stirred and sat up in bed, and began talking about the dream she had.
“Wait, slow down. What happened?” my mom said.
“Mr. Steve sat down in the middle of the circle,” she said, matter-of-factly, “and then, behind him, a little bitty—” her fingers made tiny pinches of the air to demonstrate, “and BOOM! Now he’s dead.”
“That’s creepy,” my mom said. “It was just a bad dream, though.”
“No, for real!” she insisted “BOOM! Mr. Steve’s dead.”
“Look, I’ll call him, you can talk to him yourself and he’ll tell you he’s fine,” she began to dial the phone.
“I don’t want to talk to a ghost!” she squealed. Everything seems silly when a toddler says it with conviction.
He answered the phone, and my mom told him the story. He laughed over the speaker.
“Tell Trin I’m just fine,” he said.
“See?” my mom said.
Trinity didn’t seem sure. A few minutes passed and she lost interest. She left the bed for the kitchen, to climb the counter and reach for the bucket of candy on top of the refrigerator.
And no one thought of it again, until weeks later, when my dad sat down on a couch in the center of a room circularly-arranged. And boom.
* * *
The next day, we drove, because my father had died. There would be a funeral, and we would attend it. Somewhere in the twelve hours from Texas to Alabama, my sister Stephanie asleep in the back, I told my mom, “See, I told you, there is something to this 23 thing.”
She knew about my casual obsession, sparked a couple of years before by that shitty Jim Carey movie. She laughed and shrugged it off, “Yeah, whatever.”
At that exact moment, an eighteen wheeler merged in front of us. Painted on the back of the trailer: a huge, red, number 23.
* * *
Remember: I’m not telling you the truth. I’m telling you what I saw.
* * *
Humans take coincidences and make stories of them, shape them, create myths that inform how we understand our place in this vast and unsettling world. Even on the days I am most rational, there is a space in the back of my mind where I cradle these supernatural explanations, tentatively trust them even as I label them nonsense.
A 1978 Gallup poll found that 37% of Americans believed in precognition. In 2007, a similar poll found that women were more prone to superstitious beliefs than men. A 2013 study discovered that people who felt in less control of their lives were far more likely to believe in precognition and superstition, possibly as a psychological coping mechanism. Even without my father’s death, and my mother’s superstitious sensibilities, I fall into all of these categories. I am American, a woman, and very, very afraid.