John Doyle

Superstitious Minds: Why you just can’t persuade people to abandon bizarre beliefs

The Globe and Mail

I imagine that in Ottawa there will be ghouls going about the streets tonight dressed as Mike Duffy. Particularly popular in areas where members of Our Glorious Leader’s party reside, one imagines. And it’s not too hard to contrive the ensemble – a variation on the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle outfit, and with a knife stuck in its back. Also a stash of printed e-mails protruding from a side pocket. Oh, the fun to be had tonight in the dressing-up game.

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People use Halloween costumes to take the measure of the popular culture. That’s fair enough. I was interested to read that Paris Hilton (who remains one of my loyal followers on Twitter, bless her) is going about dressed as Miley Cyrus. Nice, but it would take Roland Barthes to deconstruct that one.

According to a Canadian Press story, a big theme for Halloween dress-up this year is TV characters. Apparently the streets and nightclubs of this great country will teem with characters from Game of Thrones, Duck Dynasty and Breaking Bad. Of course, not everyone has seen these shows. So, some tips.

A Duck Dynasty outfit involves camouflage pants and a beard. A Game of Thrones costume is mainly for the ladies – long blonde wig with a side braid and a bustier top made out of burlap. That’s the famous Daenerys. It is, as these things are classified these days, only a “slightly slutty” costume. And if a young man approaches you tonight, dressed in a yellow hazmat suit and yells, “Yo, bitches!” that’s Jesse from Breaking Bad.

What unfolds tonight is explained somewhat in Superstitious Minds (CBC, 9 p.m. on Doc Zone) a new documentary that is, obviously, about superstition. Halloween is explained as, “A spooky game of disguise rooted in an ancient superstition – that for one day, the dead walk among the living.”

Indeed. The program presents some interesting facts and issues. Well, they’re not all deeply interesting. Personally, I don’t care if Taylor Swift believes 13 is a very lucky number.

However, the heft of the doc is an assertion that superstitions should not be dismissed as ignorant or silly beliefs: “New studies are starting to shed light on why we are superstitious: because it works. Psychologists argue that superstition is good – it helps us deal with life, and scientists say it’s hard-wired into our brains.”

It is asserted that today people are getting more superstitious, and that those under the age of 30 are the most superstitious of all. Kids today.

There are lengthy explanations of the locker-room superstitions of athletes and fishermen. Guy Carbonneau, formerly of the Montreal Canadiens, gives us the gist and we’re told how Patrick Roy was obsessively superstitious when he was a player. Fishermen in Newfoundland have a long list of superstitious beliefs and it is asserted that the more dangerous the occupation, the more intense the belief in luck, bad luck and signals about impending doom.

A lot of time is spent on feng shui, the Chinese system of harmonizing existence with the surrounding environment. Here it’s described by one expert as “a spiritual discipline”, not as a superstition. A case is made for the pragmatism of using this system. But it’s a tad outrageous to suggest that the profits of the Whole Foods chain are high because they use feng shui in their store designs.

A good deal of what’s presented in Superstitious Minds (directed by Adrian Wills and produced by Kenneth Hirsch) is a crock. It’s just that you can’t persuade people to abandon bizarre beliefs. Like those held by members of the Senate.

Also airing tonight

The Hound of the Baskervilles (Vision, 9 p.m.) is not the scariest thing airing tonight. (That might be the At Issue panel on The National if they’re jawing on about the senate scandal.) But it’s a chance to savour Matt Frewer as Sherlock Holmes and Kenneth Welsh as Watson. This is part of a series of Canadian-made Sherlock Holmes dramas made for TV a decade or so ago. Frewer is a strange, smart aleck Holmes. It’s not to everyone’s taste but it’s an interesting take on the role.