Circus & Sideshow Superstitions

I am curios to know if there are any superstitions about sideshows and circuses. If there are can you tell me what some of them are and the reason's for them? - Various

There are many superstitions surrounding the sideshow and circus industry. Here is a list of some of the most common one's. You will find that many of the superstitions surrounding the circus industry were based on more reality than superstition.

  • Whistling under the big top or in the dressing room is unlucky.

    • Whistling is an old theater bugaboo. It comes from the fact that many of the early (and still used today) technical aspects of rigging a theater were adapted from sailing ships. Many of the stage hands were old sea hands. Before there were headsets and clear com systems for communication, whistling was used to cue the lowering and raising of flats and other scenery. If someone was whistling backstage, it could be mistaken for a cue and that could result is embarrassing, if not injurious, consequences. - Todd Robbins


    • In the circus end of the business whistling in the dressing room was considered bad luck because you may not be able to hear your music cues. - Showbrat


  • If a bird gets trapped under the canvas someone will die.

    • The bird in a tent is adapted from the bird in a house, and that goes back to the ancient Greeks. It was believed that a birdís entry into a home meant immanent death because birds are actually departed souls that have come back to guide those soon to die. - Todd Robbins


  • Never count the audience.

    • This is also a theater superstition. If the counter finds the audience number to be low it can demoralize the cast and bring on a string of bad performances. If the number is high it can cause nerves with the same result. In the full superstition, the audience should never be seen by a performer until he or she takes the stage. - Pele


  • Never sleep inside the Big Top.

    • This has two basis. The first was based on the tent set up itself, where for whatever reason if the big top fell in, it was best to not be under the riggings. In one such case documented, at least 4 crew were killed. The second is an even more horrifying rationale. Townies, who were notorious for wanting to gape at the freaks and oddities, but not wanting their presence, would get drunk and find sport in tormenting the circus. Animal handlers slept armed and in shifts. They were encouraged to sleep with more than one person per wagon, tent, etc. The idea was that drunk townies would go to the big top first, knowing where it was, and then try to figure things out from there. Not sleeping in the big top was more an act of safety than superstition In addition, the more obscure the "freak", the more they were encouraged to have a "bunk mate", most especially the women. - Pele


  • Never look back during the circus parade.

    • Never Look Back, not only in the circus parade but on the road from one place to the other as well: In it's heyday, it is no secret that many who were involved in circus'/carnival's were not necessarily within the realm of the law or social morality. The idea is that if you look back you bring the bad fortune of the past with you. - Pele


  • Peacock feathers are bad luck.

    • This is actually a very old Romany superstition. Peacocks were used as a symbol in many of the Middle Eastern patterns, crests and as a symbol of power, virility and wealth. As these lords waged war moving more westerly, towards what is now central Europe, the Romany (Gypsies) persecuted more and more. The peacock feather came to be associated with "evil" and thus became kin to the "evil eye", which was the harbinger of bad luck. As Romany lifestyle became more Nomadic and somewhat entertainment based, these superstitions followed right until this day. - Pele


  • In pictures or statues, elephants must always have their trunks up.

    • The superstition of the elephants being photographed with their trunks up, has a few different meanings. The first deals with having good luck. If the photo or statue has the trunk up it means the good luck won't run out. - Rustie


    • The direction of the trunk is also used for symbolism. If the trunk is up it symbolizes Joy & Excitement, while a downward trunk symbolizes Mourning. In the Showman's Rest section of Illinois' Woodlawn Cemetery statues of elephants with a foot raised with a ball underneath and their trunks pointed downwards surround the area. This section of the cemetery contains the remains of many of the 86 passengers who were reportedly killed in the great circus train wreck of 1918 - Derek Rose, Rustie


  • Boots, shoes and slippers should never be seen in a trunk tray or on a dressing table.

    • In a circus tent show it is pretty much unavoidable to step in mud, or animal droppings while walking around. If you placed your shoes or boots on your dressing table where you apply your makeup you would end up with the mud and droppings all over yourself when you applied your makeup. - Showbrat


  • Never move a wardrobe trunk once it has been put into place; moving it means that the performer will be leaving the show.

    • The circus industry has a whole different spin on this superstition. In the old days some performers would use camel back trunks. These trunks did not stack well and the first chance the roughies got they would leave your trunk behind. - Showbrat


  • Hair from the tail of an elephant is good luck.

    • It seems that elephant hair will grow wildly but doesn't grow fast or fall off. Due to the sensitive

    • nature of elephant skin (they can feel a fly land on them) the coating of coarse elephant hair is a form of protection from irritants. It is so coarse that it can not be cut with scissors or shaved with a razor. The Ringling Bros. "Bull Men" (elephant caretakers) used blow torches to "shave" the animal, which left only short bits of stubble on the animal for protection and no pieces intact off the animal (this did not harm the elephant). The idea that an elephant hair in one piece off its body being such a rare item (or if you plucked it off the elephant, it was a sheer miracle that you survived!) led to the belief that it would bring the bearer good luck.

  • Never sit on the circus ring facing out.


  • Never eat peanuts in the dressing room.


  • Always enter the ring with your right foot first.


  • Never step in a circus tent with an open umbrella, this brings bad luck.

  • Never pick money up in a circus tent which someone has lost. This brings bad business.


  • Never leave your circus contract, our count your money on your bed.


  • This means that you have a bad year financially.
    -Iola from Holland

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