How long can you hold your breath a minute to it's never as long as you think and within minutes your lungs are burning, begging for air. There's only so long a human being can live without oxygen fitting then that today's superstition involves both death and breath. We're told from an early age that it's unlucky to breathe while driving by a cemetery, that if we do, our breaths might wake the souls of the slumbering dead and make them angry. If breathing is intrinsically tied to life, then what does it say?
That our very breath offends the dead? Are those who have passed on jealous of those who still live? Or have they been lying in wait, biding their time for just such a gesture?
The most disturbing part of this superstition might be what happens once you continue on your way, leaving the graveyard in your rearview mirror, should you breathe when you pass the cemetery, you might inhale a wandering spirit and take the ghost home with you. Hi, everyone, I'm Alastair Murden, and this is Superstitions, a Spotify original from podcasts. Why do we balk when stepping underneath a ladder? Why does a broken mirror send shivers down our spines? Why do hotel floors skip the number 13?
Belief in the supernatural does not belong to religion alone. Our world is a strange place full of unsettling patterns and idiosyncrasies we struggle to understand. It is here at the intersection of chaos and fate that we find superstitions. We'll tell stories illustrating the horror, the weirdness and the truth behind these beliefs. We'll explore how they began and what their continued existence says about the fragile human mind. Today, we'll be exploring a belief many children are brought up with one that is almost the childish game, if not for its macabre setting.
Hold your breath when passing a cemetery or else you can find episodes of superstitions and all other originals from podcast for free on Spotify.
Coming up, we'll begin our breathless tale. Today's superstition is not one that's easy to find in a library or a historical text, it's one of those practices that appears in oblique references here and there, sometimes in fiction, sometimes in reality. It's passed from person to person, like a challenge or a game, something to occupy the wayward minds of children on a car ride.
So where did this particular practice come from?
Is it a game that developed from periods of mass death, like ring around the rosy, or is there more to this superstition? While in America, the first graveyards were family plants or local churchyard grounds, by the 1836, large cemeteries began to be built in the outskirts of cities, far enough away that we didn't have to think about them if we didn't want to. But as cities grew, the urban sprawl enveloped graveyards. Suddenly, we couldn't ignore them anymore.
Today, encountering these deathly landmarks are unexpected parts of city life.
We passed them on the way to work on the way to school. Your daily commute might even involve passing the spot where your body will be put to rest forever.
Isn't that an existentially terrifying thought?
Many philosophers have considered the graveyard as a symbol of our mortality. Martin Heidegger, the German existentialist, famously encouraged spending more time in graveyards as a way of being aware of and present in your life, though in that case, the man was also a supporter of the Nazi Party.
So his theories on what constitutes a well lived life should be taken with a massive grain of salt, perhaps holding our breaths as we pass a graveyard as a way of showing reverence to the dead while taking stock of our own mortality. It reminds us to enjoy the time we have because eventually we'll be back and breathing won't be an option.
If we don't believe in this superstition, then we're likely to continue about our day ignoring the countless plots of land where the deceased lie beneath our feet.
Today's story is about a family that lived so close to a graveyard it became all too easy to forget their deceased neighbors until one of those neighbors followed them home.
Marion didn't want to read the email, the subject line, and first few words told her everything she needed to know, even though she had seen countless others like it. Each new one was like a fresh wound reopening. She clicked, Mrs. Woo, thank you for your time and patience in applying with us. Unfortunately, the high volume of applicants means we have to reject very many promising candidates and we have chosen not to move forward on your application. Your resume will be kept on file should similar opportunities and sent it to the recycle bin without finishing.
It was all their standard corporate speak, empty reassurances that she just wasn't the lucky one. This time she put her head in her hands back to square one. It was her eyes wandered to the window above her desk. She couldn't see the graveyard in the gloom, but its presence was palpable in the inky blackness. In early October, it made her shudder, despite its familiarity and unearthly shriek came from under the door of her office. Marion stifled a sigh with her husband out working late, it was her job to watch their son, Tommy.
She let him invite a friend over so that she could get some work done. But one thing led to another and they wound up watching scary movies. Somehow, the choice of genre made the tedium of working her main job and applying for better ones, all the worse, the sounds of murder and mayhem kept blasting from the other room. She got up and went straight to the source of the sound. As expected, the two boys were sitting on the couch, eyes glued to the television.
A blood soaked exorcism played out across the screen. She directed her attention to Tommy's friend, Zap. When are your parents coming to pick you up?
Tommy replied for his friend, not taking his eyes off the screen actually can stay the night. Mom Marion kept her voice stern as she replied. As long as Zepps parents are all right with that. But it's a school night, so that means once this movie's over, I want you to in bed, OK?
The boys nodded their agreement and Marion receded into her office, knowing she'd have to come back and repeat herself at least two more times. She leaned against the door, her husband, Anthony, wouldn't have been so lenient about the kids staying up so late on a school night, but he couldn't do anything about it because he was off working his full job at the Labyrinth of Lamentations, a local pop up haunted house near the edge of town. Marion always found Anthony's passions for the fall holidays charming.
It was something he passed on to his son, and she wouldn't dream of discouraging it. But once a year, his passion for horror meant forsaking his family to live a strange nightlife of jumping out at people for minimum wage. That part Marion found less charming. For the second time that night, she stared out her window in exhaustion, and this time it felt like the darkness stared back. Marion was shocked the next morning to find both boys had woken up bright and early while Anthony slept soundly in her bedroom, she bundled Tommy and Zeb into the family Volvo and pulled out of the driveway.
For the first few moments, the children chatted freely in the backseat, exchanging their favorite moments from last night's movie. But less than a minute into the drive, they fell silent, eerily silent. Marian's eyes darted up to the rearview mirror. Both boys had their mouths shut and their cheeks puffed out, they stared at each other as if daring the other to breathe. First, Arian's eyes went back to the road.
A moment later, she heard two gasps from the backseat and the noise resumed as she unloaded the children by the school. She stopped. Tommy, why were you in, Zepp, holding your breaths on the road? Oh, it's just a game, Tommy replied. Zepps says that if you breathe while driving by a cemetery, you could inhale a ghost. He heard some kid back east it and started crawling on the ceiling like that scene. An Exorcist three.
Marion took a breath in to comfort her son, but stopped when she realized he didn't look scared. He looked exhilarated. She adjusted her tactics. Well, just because lots of kids say it doesn't make it true. We've lived by Narborough Cemetery a long time and no one's ever been possessed. Tommy shrugged. Maybe the ghosts are just patient. Marion thought about this comment as she drove back home, her child had never paid much attention to the graveyard before.
In fact, Anthony thought it was healthy, just like allowing their son to watch horror movies from an early age, fear is like an immune system. Anthony Rezende You have to build it up when young, otherwise you'll grow up to be a cowardly adult.
Plus, he'd always say you never feel more alive than when you were afraid. But now Marion was worried that their son's exposure to the genre was making him too credulous. She had been at work for a little over an hour when Anthony awoke, he appeared in her office door with a groan. Tommy Shaw was up late last night, unplanned Thursday sleepover. Hard to say no. How was the scary? A grin spread over his face in moments like these, Marion could see an echo of Anthony's darkness, the side of him that loved scaring people.
The look gave her a little thrill because she found it both a little scary and more than a little sexy. They awarded me Scare of the night, Marion. There was this large family coming around the corner with their mother leading the way. There must have been like seven or eight of them. When I jumped out at her, she stumbled backward and they all went down like bowling pins. It was fantastic. He leaned over her shoulder. What are you translating today?
Marion sighed. Some old Chinese writing about debunked medical practices. This one is about the miasma theory of disease. Noting her husband's blank look, she elaborated. It's the theory that diseases were caused by bad air. Before we knew that germs were a thing, Marion shrugged apologetically. Her work stories always seemed far less fun than Anthony's, since she was stuck at home watching their son and applying for other jobs. If only people knew she had more employable skills than just her first language.
In less than six hours, Anthony was off to the haunt and Marion was off to school. She found Tommy sitting on a low brick wall by the parking lot, legs dangling off the pavement. He waved a zap, disappeared into another car, then hopped up and joined his mother.
This time, Marion kept her eyes peeled for Norburg Cemetery. As expected, when the hill of Tombstone's rose beside the road, Marijan heard a sharp intake of breath in the seat beside her. But halfway past the graveyard, they stopped short, a tangle of steaming metal greeted them along with the smell of burnt rubber. The road was barred with flashing lights and sirens. While she had been picking up her son from school, an unfortunate soul had ignored a red light.
They had come to a grisly ends not 100 yards from where they would later be buried. Marion's car slowed to a crawl. Don't look up ahead, Tommy, she warned. Tommy could watch all sorts of grisly movies, but this was a site she wanted to shield her son from.
In her worry, she didn't notice that Tomi's attention was still on the graveyard. And his face was turning blue. Up next, don't breathe. Hi, listeners, I'm thrilled to tell you about a new Spotify original from podcast that I think you'll really enjoy. It's called Our Love Story.
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Now back to the story. Marion's car inched its way past the accident outside their house in a weird way, she found it reassuring that her son was focusing on trying to hold his breath until they were past the cemetery following a game his friend Zeb taught him. It meant he wasn't paying attention to the carnage on the road. All her focus was on slipping by the wrecked vehicles and broken glass. Ten minutes later, she guided them into the driveway with a sigh of relief.
That was tense, wasn't it, Tommy? She looked into the back seat. Her son was unconscious, sound asleep in his seat. My fault for letting Zepp stay over last night, Marion thought to herself he's finally crashed. She unbuckled Tommy's seatbelt and hoisted him into her arms, being careful not to wake him. Later that evening, Marion was reviewing a fresh batch of job applications when she heard Tommy knocking at her office door, when she turned, she saw he was already dressed in his favorite glow in the dark pajamas.
What's happened? She asked. There was something strange about the way the kids swayed back and forth like he wasn't used to standing at his full height. I will tell you, he began, seemingly struggling to find the right words. Retire to my chambers. Without saying anything else, he turned and left, Marion didn't know what to make of this. Her son often liked to try out new turns of phrase he learned on her, but something about the way he said that sounded downright archaic.
Marion worked late into the night and before she went to bed herself, she checked on Tommy's room. He wasn't there, she checked the living room and the den where he might have put on an old Stephen King movie when he couldn't sleep. He wasn't there either. Marion didn't have long to wonder where he had gone, the door to their house stood ajar, a path of size seven footprints led away from their house and out into the cemetery.
Even with a scarf and sweater pulled tightly around her neck and shoulders, Marion still felt the bite of the autumn breeze.
She had never known Tommy to sleepwalk, but she had never known Tommy to talk like his grandmother either. She spotted Tommy by his glow in the dark pajamas. The prince was supposed to look like planets, but in reality, it just wound up like a boy shaped cluster of murky green blobs.
He was standing over a grave, still swaying unsteadily back and forth. His shoulders rose and fell, rose and fell. After a few breaths, he moved to the next grave and began inhaling again. Marion called to her son, Tommy. Come back here. The boy did not respond in two strides. Marion was behind him and she put her hand on his shoulder. The boy whirled around and shoved. His mother was surprising strength. Marion toppled and her head struck one of the nearby tombstones.
The world exploded around her and the stars above went supernova. As she hovered in semi consciousness, she heard a strange, eerie voice, whispering by her ears, both her son and not her son.
Why he came to town became far. Your son is the key. The maze is the door. Marion regained her consciousness shortly after her head pounded and a trickle of something warm and wet ran down her temple, but there was no time to worry about her injuries. She checked her watch one a.m..
Her son's parting words rang in her mind, the maze is the door. She didn't know what that meant exactly, but there was only one place that was open at one a.m. and something told her Tommy would be there, the labyrinth of lamentations where her husband worked. Marion had not been to the maze yet that year, she was waiting for Halloween weekend, but she generally knew what to expect from Anthony stories. It was a fake hedge maze, plastic bushes arranged in rows and filled with strobe lights and cobwebs.
You never knew what was going to jump out at you. A maniac wielding hedge clippers, a living statue, the swamp thing. It was a fairly incoherent pastiche, but always a fun time.
And children were not allowed to go in alone. Marion anticipated difficulty getting in, but she shouldn't have the outside of the maze was in chaos when she arrived. The ushers were working hard to restrain a man dressed as a Wendigo whose neck was circled with bruise marks.
She overheard some of their conversation and gathered what had happened. The man had tried to cut his own throat with a prop knife. As Marion slipped by, she heard him mutter. It's inside me, it's inside me, the boy with the galaxy's gave it to me. Where's the boy? A chill crept up Marian's spine, the windigo man had seen Tommy. He was here, perhaps he had even witnessed the suicide attempt. He would be traumatized, frightened.
Marion had to find him. She stepped into the maze. The maze was deathly quiet when she entered the strobe lights still ran, but the ambient music appeared to have been shut off.
She called out for her son, but was answered only by a faint mechanical cackling. So maybe not all the sound systems had been switched off. A wicked howl sounded behind her. A bloodstained rabbit costume stepped out into the path. Fake buckteeth sneered at her in a vicious grin. Excuse me, sir, Marion said, reminding herself that this was just an actor doing a job. I lost my son in here. Could you please tell me if you seen him?
He's about 10 wearing spaceship pajamas. But the Bunnymen did not break character, his stride was stiff and strange, and he wobbled with each step and when he spoke, she could almost hear the dust on his bones by rest is over at last. It is time for our glorious repassed I require me to the bunny man lunged Marian Dodge to the side, throwing herself into the hedge wall, then took off past the scare actor.
She didn't know what was going on, but something felt wrong. The bunny man wasn't just trying to scare her. His movements were downright strange, just as Tomi's had been.
She had to find her son. The Bunnymen was slow, like someone still learning to walk in his own body as she rounded each new corner. She saw the men and women who had been poised to scare her. Only now they were all reacting to the same strange condition. Some were in the fetal position shaking in pain. Others were having furious conversations with themselves. Marian hurried past them all, careful not to draw their attention. Soon her legs ached and the cold night air burned her lungs.
She had to get her bearings, but the adrenaline made it difficult to think straight. Then she remembered something Anthony had said how the environment of the maze was designed to induce panic. So when she rounded the next corner, she stepped over the slumped over scared actor and in to the backstage area. In between the hedges were a series of rickety plywood hallways, places for the actors to go between their posts without getting noticed. Marion stepped as quietly as she could across the wood, occasionally looking through the peepholes to see if she could find her son.
She had just stood on her tiptoes to peer into another part of the maze when she felt her hand on her shoulder. She turned to see a leering carnival mask and screened Marion, it's me, said the figure in a familiar voice. He removed his mask and Marion gasped in relief. It was Anthony. What are you doing here? He asked, eyes wide and wild with fear. I wish you'd let me know you were stopping by. Things are not good here right now.
I don't know how to explain it to the guests. And scarers are all acting like they're on some kind of hallucinogenic drug. It's like. Like there's something in the air, said Marion, finishing his thought. We'll leave as soon as I find Tommy. Anthony looked horrified.
Tommy's here now, Marion nodded. Yes, and I think I think he brought it here. Anthony from the cemetery.
Before her husband could respond, Marion heard the murmur of low voices. She rounded a corner and finally saw him. Tommy stood at the very center of the maze, surrounded by a peculiar cadre of costumed performers, clowns, swamp monsters, zombies. He spoke to them, but Marian did not hear what he said. She raced forward, pushing through the crowd of possessed guests and actors. She could hear Anthony close on her heels, shouting for people to get out of the way.
Then they were both kneeling in front of Tommy. Marion threw her arms around her son, sobbing with relief. Finally, she pulled back and looked into her son's eyes. The eyes of a stranger stared back. What's wrong, Tommy, came Anthony's voice beside her. Tommy simply opened his mouth and lets out a low rasping breath. Marion felt something seize on her shuddering breaths. It felt like she had just swallowed something incredibly cold, she heard a distant voice echo in her mind, like that of an old woman.
Oh, it said. It's good to breathe fresh air again. A moment later, Marion was shot in a dark room in her own mind. Slowly, the bodies that were once known as Anthony and Marion stood, each taking a hand of the body once known as Tommy. Together, the trio exited the maze following the throng of possessed actors streaming out into the streets.
They turned and march toward the town on a mission to find more vessels for the spirits Tommy carried. It would be a Halloween to remember. Today's story is based on a mixture of two ideas, the idea that accidental possession via inhalation is something that could happen and the idea that we are vulnerable because of the air we breathe. The antiquated theory that Marion mentioned, the Mya's Mattick theory of disease was a real belief that gained prominence in the Middle Ages. It was used as a catch all explanation for epidemics that bad air or night air rose from human bodies, so the mere presence of the dead or ill was enough to infect you.
This theory was so widespread by the mid 19th century that sometimes it even extended into dieting advice. A particularly absurd example comes from an 1844 claim written by Professor H. Buth from inhaling the odor of beef. The butcher's wife obtains her obesity. Is the miasma theory why we think it's possible to inhale ghosts when we pass a cemetery, the connection between breath disease and wayward spirits is a common one. This may also be why it is considered polite to cover your mouth when you yawn or to bless someone when they sneeze.
These tendencies stretch so far back in human history that it's nearly impossible to find a proper origin for them.
However, a clue to the beginnings of this particular belief may be found in language itself.
When we look at the etymology of certain words, we find that spirits and air are linked. For example, the word spirit comes from the Latin spiritus, meaning a breathing ghost derives from the old English guste, which means breath as well as spirit. In classical Chinese CZI, the word for life force flowing throughout the body and mind is also the same word for air or breath. Other languages have similar pairings. It is a viscerally compelling notion. After all, consider that the last sound a person makes is an acceleration of breath, and if breath is part of our very spirit, then it suggests a deep connection to the rest of the world's creatures, both present and past.
The very air you breathe has no doubt passed through the lungs of countless other people who have long since departed. Who's to say that some of these breaths don't hover above their former hosts waiting to hitch a ride? Thanks again for listening to Superstitions, we will be back Wednesday with a new episode, you can find more episodes of superstitions and all other originals from podcast for free on Spotify until next time. Be wary of the things you cannot explain.
Superstitions is a Spotify original from past. It is executive produced by Max Cuddler Sound Design by Kenny Hobbs with production assistance by Ron Shapiro, Carly Madden and Erin Lawson. This episode of Superstitions was written by Robert Teamster with Writing Assistants by Andrew Kelaher.
I'm Alistair Murden. Listeners, don't forget to check out our love story, the newest Spotify original from podcast every Tuesday discovered the many pathways to love as told by the actual couples who found them.
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