By Paul Stacey
Every line of Shakespeare’s Macbeth is embedded in the multiple languages — sound, light, design, and dance — of Sleep No More. Punchdrunk has woven Shakespeare’s language into the fabric of the entire building, saturating each room with superstitions. The following superstitions have inspired scenes in Sleep No More.
Anything that touches on the precarious health and welfare of babies is a focus for superstitions. The rocking of an empty cradle is considered extremely bad luck. It has also been thought that newborns should be wrapped in old clothes. Wrapping a baby in an old shirt belonging to its father would ensure the baby grew up strong.
Mirrors are known to protect the soul and should therefore be guarded lest the soul be lost. Mirrors should be removed from a sickroom, as the soul is more vulnerable during these times, and covered after a death, to stop the souls of the living from being carried off by a ghost:
The custom of covering, not looking-glasses only, but various articles in the apartment
where the corpse is laid was a well-known custom in Scotland. Different individuals have different whims; for example, I have heard of persons…turn[ing] the face of a portrait of the deceased… Glasgow Notes and Queries, 1888
If one looks into a mirror at night they will see the devil.
A bowl of water with a knife inside it, placed by a doorway, is believed to keep out witches. Seeing its own reflection in the water and believing its soul to be pierced by the knife, the witch will flee.
Peacock feathers have long been regarded as unlucky. Many people refuse to have them in their house or handle anything made with them. They are particularly bad luck when used in theater productions.
Peacock screaming is also considered an ill omen:
A Devonshire friend tells me of peacock screaming being considered to forebode death (just the same as a dog howling), and a notable instance of the fact actually happened a few months ago in this house. Folk Lore Journal, 1883
It was once believed that witches had the power to attract any person whose hair had fallen into their hands. Hair was also used in spells; it could be mixed with the wax for an image which, melted slowly before a fire, would cause the person
represented to waste away.
The heart of a bewitched animal, if pierced with pins, was believed to cause a witch excruciating pain. In cases of bewitched humans a similar effect was achieved by placing items in a bottle which was then buried or put in a heap, depending on whether fast or slow torture was desired. Contents of bottles varied but tended to include nails or thorns, plus pieces of the victim’s hair, fingernails, or urine.
Knocking is considered an omen of death. When someone is on their death bed, three knocks on the door signifies that they have three days until they die.
A bird appearing at a window was widely interpreted as an ill omen; if there was a sick person in the household it was taken as evidence that they would die.
In Scotland it was believed that the swallow had the blood of the Devil in its veins. The bird carried two precious stones within its body: a red one to cure insanity and a black one thought to bring good luck.
The nine of diamonds has become known as the ‘Curse of Scotland’:
It was thought that before the Battle of Culloden in 1746 Charles Edward Stuart was playing cards with the Laird of Macintosh at his Inverness house. The Nine of Diamonds was dropped from the table and lost. Some time later when the Duke of Cumberland stayed at the house the card was found and the Duke used it to
authorise a death warrant. Chambers: Scottish Superstitions, 1990
A dish of salt was placed on the breast of a corpse as soon as possible after the death and it remained there until the body had been placed in the coffin. In some cases the salt was mixed with earth on a wooden platter and then placed on the corpse. The earth was an emblem of the corruptible body, the salt an emblem of the immortal soul.
Paul Stacey is a second-year dramaturgy student in the A.R.T./MXAT Institute for Advanced Theater Training at Harvard University.